Eva Etzioni-Halevy, professor emeritus of Political Sociology at Bar-Ilan University, began a new career and now, as an acclaimed author of historical fiction inspired by biblical women, takes her readers back in time.
By: Atara Beck, Senior Writer, United with Israel
Professor emeritus of Political Sociology at Bar-Ilan University and author of 14 books of sociology and numerous articles in professional journals in English and Hebrew, Eva Etzioni-Halevy began a new career after retiring from her academic position. Inspired by a profound interest in biblical personalities, particularly women, she pursued in-depth study of the ancient texts, including rabbinic literature and interpretations, and began writing historical fiction based on these characters. The result is an ongoing series of favorably reviewed novels.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Etzioni-Halevy is a child Holocaust survivor. She escaped with her parents in 1939 and spent World War II in Italy before moving to what was then Palestine under the British Mandate in 1945. She lives in Tel Aviv with her husband and has three grown children.
Her elegantly-written novels, while faithful to Scripture, are nevertheless works of fiction with intriguing plots, romance and drama. Indeed, they are hard to put down.
Following is a United with Israel exclusive interview with Etzioni-Halevy.
What inspired you to write historical fiction based on biblical characters?
It so happened that some years ago, rather late in life, I started to read the Bible on my own and I was entranced by it. What fascinated me was that it is full of the most dramatic and the most traumatic stories about people who lived thousands of years ago, and yet are so similar to us in their passions and anxieties, in their hopes and desires.
I began to identify particularly with the women in the Bible, whose lives I could visualize as if they were my own.
But are biblical women really so similar to us? Once I was asked: Why should we, women of the 21st century, be interested in biblical women, who are so different from us? They were consumed mainly with getting married and bearing sons, while we have so many more options and ambitions in our lives.
However, this challenging question is based on a misconception. Contrary to their image, biblical women were not concerned solely with marriage and bearing sons. The dramas and traumas in their lives had to do also with love, jealousy, rejection and the loss of loved ones. They craved for a whole variety of things, including success and power, and had a great many issues on their agendas. In this sense they are particularly close to us today, an era in which we celebrate diversity, with each woman realizing herself in her own way.
The dramatic and traumatic aspects of the biblical women’s lives, and the great variety of their concerns, led me to identify with them and to feel close to them, as if I were part of them and they were part of me.
So I began writing about them in a manner that was intended to do justice to all those aspects in their lives: stories of love, betrayal and redemption with twisting plots, enjoyable reads that yet are meticulously faithful to the Bible.
I tried to hand them a loudspeaker, so that the voices of their sorrows and joys could be heard loud and clear across the generations.
Another feature of biblical women that inspired me to write about them was their strength. Although they lived in a male-dominated society in which they were downtrodden, most of them were strong women. They did not merely sit around, meekly accepting fate. Instead, they took destiny into their own hands and shaped it to do their bidding.
Hence listening to their voices is not only intriguing, but may also have an empowering effect on us. What we can learn from them is that women are strong and capable and that no matter what the obstacles, we women can draw on our feminine strength in order to achieve what we aspire to achieve, without giving up our femininity.
All this is eminently evident in my newly published novel (in Hebrew), Shifhati Beheikecha (My Maid in your Arms), and its heroine, Hagar. Based on the story in the book of Genesis, its riveting plot illuminates the twists and traumas that destroyed her life. It also shows how, with the aid of the Almighty and her own strength, she nonetheless prevailed and rebuilt her life.
Once someone asked if I would have wanted to travel back in time so as actually to meet my heroines and heroes. The question startled me. For while writing my novels, bit by bit, and quite irrationally, I had begun to feel as if the thousands of years that had elapsed since then evaporated, and that I was there when it actually happened. So time-travel was really unnecessary: I was there already.
Has your study of biblical text and character analysis affected your feelings about living in the Land of Israel?
Reading the biblical text and writing novels based on it has also been part of my Jewish journey and my journey, or rather return journey, to Israel.
As a child I was religious, growing up at a religious boarding school in what was then Palestine. But as I grew up, I distanced myself from religion and Judaism, and then also from Israel. I lived for eight years in the United States, and later for 13 years in Australia.
Over the years I felt more and more of a need to reconnect with my Jewishness. I began a long process of “return,” which for me was an intertwined triple return: to religion, to the Bible and to Israel, the Land of the Bible.
Has it changed the way you look at sites when you travel in the country?
Most definitely. Frequently, when I travel around the country, I visualize biblical scenes and biblical figures, including my heroines and heroes walking by, going about their daily lives.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Let me start by telling you who are not my favorites: those Israeli authors who have built their careers and gained their international renown by maligning Israel.
My favorite authors are historical novelists Philippa Gregory, a British historical novelist, and Michelle Moran, who writes novels about ancient Egypt. I like them because both combine a good story with good history.
Has your understanding of political sociology helped you to understand the biblical texts and imagine the lives of your characters?
It certainly has. It has helped me to understand in greater depth the power struggles and political structure of ancient Israel as alluded to in the Bible and to depict them (unobtrusively) in my novels.
Are you still involved at all in your former work as a sociologist?
Not much, as I devote practically all my time to writing biblical novels. But recently I have written a sociological article on the relations between religious and secular Jews in Israel.
Most of Etzioni-Halevy’s historical novels are in Hebrew. Those written in English are: The Song of Hannah, The Garden of Ruth and The Triumph of Deborah.