FLORIDA NOVELIST FASHIONS MIDEAST THRILLER
[first published in the October 2008 issue of the Federation Star, the newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida]
by Philip K. Jason
In The Tenth Cow, Aram Schefrin has built an intriguing, suspenseful, and highly original novel around the Old Testament requirement of sacrificing an unblemished red heifer as part of a purification process. Biblical and Mishnaic references stipulate that Temple priests purify the Temple itself by sprinkling the blood of the animal. Then the burned heifer’s ashes are mixed with water and used to purify those who have come into contact with corpses. The suggestion in the novel is that this ash solution would also be used to purify those assigned to build the Third Temple and to perform the Temple rituals. The rarity of such an animal, coupled with the necessity of the strictly defined slaughtering and purification ritual, suggests ongoing suspense regarding the maintenance of the temple as the center of worship and as the continuing locus of the living covenant between God and the Jews. In effect, there can be no Temple without ritual purity, and there can be no such purity without the discovery and sacrifice of a red heifer. Tradition holds that only nine such animals were found and sacrificed between the days of Moses and the destruction of the Second Temple. The tenth red cow has been sought for centuries as one prerequisite for the rebuilding of the temple and the ushering in of the Messianic Age.
Both Orthodox Judaism and Fundamentalist Christianity (though not for identical reasons) await the reestablishment of the Temple in Jerusalem. The faith traditions contain internal conflicts about whether or not human initiative and action should promote this end. Many believe that God alone means to bring about the restoration of the Temple and the Messianic Age when He sees fit.
Out of such materials, Schefrin has built a time bomb of suspense. The site for the Temple is perhaps the hottest potato in the Middle East, a spot claimed by the major faith traditions of the region. A plan to build the Third Temple at the Temple Mount is promoted by a Christian televangelist and abetted by certain sects in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Such a plan is likely to engulf the region in a Holy War among Muslims, Christians and Jews, a war that could truly bring about the End of Days. The discovery of a genetically engineered red heifer on a Florida farm signals that such a plot is underway.
Schefrin’s narrator, a Palm Beach journalist, is set onto the story by Arthur (“don’t call me Artie”) Kagan, a retired lawyer with some social standing in the Palm Beach community, especially among the polo set headquartered in Wellington. Arthur has been drawn into the flow of events as the unwitting accomplice of his older brother, Teddy, who had long been an unofficial undercover agent for Jewish and Zionist causes. Teddy’s home contains a computerized command center for the gathering and dissemination of information crucial to Jewish interests. It is Teddy who discovers the existence of the red heifer and recognizes the threat to world stability that it represents. Until he is murdered and Arthur takes on greater responsibility in the cause of thwarting the Fundamentalist initiative, Teddy rallies forces, including secular and moderate Jewish activists and those Orthodox Jews to whom the religious underpinnings of the plan is anathema, to undermine the effort.
The adventure is populated by a wide range of memorable characters, most notably the formerly estranged but slowly reunited Kagan brothers, but also including Shaya, a troubled Israeli beauty who captivates Arthur; Shaya’s father, a wise elder from the town of Tsfat who is steeped in Kabbalah; Shaya’s daughter, Chickie; and Arthur’s son, David (the latter too predictably become a loving pair). There is also a secretive university professor; several independent actors with connections to the Israel Defense Forces; the Reverend Moony Brice; and an MIT geneticist.
“The Tenth Cow” pulses and plays with the realities of contemporary politics while it explicates arcane aspects of traditional theology and legend. There is a world of learning in this book, as well as a high-speed adventure. The narrative draws and redraws a vivid map of Israel, Jerusalem in particular, in following the path of its characters. Schefrin is masterful in making contemporary Israel come alive, along with its tortured past and threatened future.
As well, the reader spends time in New York City and in a wide range of Palm Beach County settings. We follow Florida’s mysterious Route 80 west from its urban anchor near Palm Beach International Airport through the northern border of Wellington (where Schefrin lives) and out through the sugar cane fields into unknown territory. We stop along Worth Avenue in Boca for upscale shopping. We enjoy some off-track polo.
Essentially, The Tenth Cow is a provocative “what if” story, a rich stew of fascinating ingredients that shocks readers with the knowledge that its premise is not as far-fetched as one might at first believe. Kudos to Aram Schefrin for cooking it up.
Authorhouse. $17.99 trade paperback. 400 pp.
Note: See my review of Schefrin’s earlier novel with bio: https://philjason.wordpress.com/2007/11/14/book-beat-57-aram-schefrin/