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New ‘Leaf’: After 60 years, a famed author’s next book
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New ‘Leaf’: After 60 years, a famed author’s next book

New Jersey publisher unveils manuscript by best-selling rabbi

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Author Milton Steinberg with his wife, Edith in 1948 or 1949.
Author Milton Steinberg with his wife, Edith in 1948 or 1949.

What if Milton Steinberg, author of As a Driven Leaf, actually wrote a second historical novel, a companion to his original blockbuster? What if it sat in an archive for half a century following his death? And what if a prominent historian made an offhand comment about the unfinished manuscript to a local publisher?

A tale that is itself worthy of a novel is exactly what happened to David Behrman, third-generation owner of Behrman House Publishers in Springfield. In March, Behrman House will publish The Prophet’s Wife, an unfinished manuscript by Steinberg based on accounts of the biblical prophet Hosea and his wife Gomer.

It’s an exciting find for Behrman House, which acquired As a Driven Leaf in 1941 or ’42 — it was first published by Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1939 — and reissued it in 1996. Steinberg’s novel about the talmudic figure Elisha ben Abuya and his loss of faith is a popular Jewish classic, a fixture on high school reading lists, and a perennial pick by Jewish book clubs.

Behrman House’s version, with a foreword by Chaim Potok, has sold over 100,000 copies since 1980 (the earliest records available).

The journey into print of The Prophet’s Wife began in 1999, when historian Jonathan Sarna mentioned to David Behrman that the American Jewish Historical Society was holding a manuscript by Steinberg.

Intrigued, Behrman contacted the society. While he and his colleagues waited for the manuscript to be photocopied, he told NJJN, “I was thinking how unusual it is that the manuscript would have sat for so long in an archive. And we didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know how unfinished it was. We didn’t know the state of the manuscript. We didn’t know if it would be legible. We were curious, and we hoped.

They got lucky — for the most part. Typewritten, the manuscript was already well developed and covered over 300 pages. But it came to an abrupt stop, and there were no notes on the likely ending or further character development.

One decade later, the unfinished work will appear with a foreword by Columbia University journalism professor Ari Goldman and two concluding essays by author Rabbi Harold Kushner and critic and novelist Norma Rosen.

Rampant godlessness

The book weaves together the lives of Hosea, his brother Iddo, and Hosea’s wife Gomer in a tale of love and betrayal. Hosea rescues the honest, if overly bold, Gomer from what is certain to be a debased life, only to find her one day sleeping with his idolatrous brother. There are a potentially illegitimate child, divorce, prostitution, and more adultery.

Steinberg offers a kind of prequel to Hosea’s career as a prophet. He parallels Israel’s faithlessness to God with Gomer’s infidelity. He depicts the period, the eighth century BCE, as one of rampant godlessness. As Hosea leaves his father’s home, he encounters what will become themes in the biblical book of Hosea: corruption among the high priests of Israel, apathy among the laity, and reverence for God only among a few righteous men, including the prophet Amos.

Steinberg takes some literary license. The Hosea of the Prophets, for example, probably never met Amos, and in the Bible, Gomer is a prostitute when Hosea marries her, not the virtuous, if somewhat wild, woman depicted in the novel. Such departures from the biblical record, said Behrman, make for a more intriguing work.

The book ends as Hosea barely escapes an arrow shot by his brother Iddo while they fight for the kingdom on opposite sides of a battle, and a friend describes seeing the angel of death.

Steinberg died the day after he wrote those final words in 1950, a point not missed by Goldman in his foreword. Steinberg was just 46 years old, rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, and in the midst of writing a series of theological essays. He was survived by his wife Edith and two sons, Jonathan and David.

In addition to As a Driven Leaf, Steinberg’s publications include Basic Judaism, The Making of the Modern Jew, A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem, and his collection of essays, Anatomy of Faith, edited by Arthur A. Cohen. In 2002, the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., named As a Driven Leaf to its list of “The 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature.

Publishing The Prophet’s Wife without an ending was a difficult decision, said Behrman. Chaim Potok refused an invitation to finish the manuscript, and Goldman made an unsuccessful attempt to complete it.

“At the end,” said Behrman, “because there were no notes from Milton Steinberg and no indication regarding how he would have developed the characters or ended the book, we decided it was ultimately a more satisfying intellectual experience to talk about the ending and what it means than to provide an ending.”

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