Who Is Like Your People?
Meyer’s novel is based on the life of a Norman who converted to Judaism in 1102 and took the name of Ovadya. Intelligent, educated, musically talented, and idealistic, Ovadya makes for an interesting character. Drawn to spiritual studies, he first tries the life of a monk, but rebels when told not to question but to accept the teachings of the medieval Catholic church on faith. When he leaves the monastery to take the unimaginable step of becoming Jewish, he is reluctantly accepted as a convert by the rabbi in Bari and sent to Baghdad, where he must learn Arabic and Hebrew as well as studying the Torah.
The historical Ovadya left an autobiography which Meyer used to write her story, as well as for researching the time period and the places Ovadya lived or travelled through. Her descriptions of the Jewish communities and way of life in the early 12th century are vivid and interesting. Using a foreign point-of-view character allows the author to describe these places and this culture in a way that would not be possible if her main character had grown up there. Although I did not warm to Ovadya initially, I did become quite interested in his story as the book progressed and his character developed, and I was fascinated to learn of Jewish life in the early 12th century.
This book is written primarily for Jewish readers. There is a six-page glossary of terms at the back, but with sentences like “All across Adina Jews were doing chesed and giving vast amounts of tzedakah,” the non-Jewish reader is left either constantly referring to the glossary or skipping over the unknown words, half-guessing their meaning through context. Meyer’s focus on using accurate Arabic and Hebrew words does not extend to century-specific English words, unfortunately. There are quite a number of anachronistic terms and phrases, such as “I guess so,” “wife and kids,” and even “infrastructure,” which are very jarring in the historical context.