An Unexpected Afterlife, by Dan Sofer. Privately published. 284 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.
Dan Sofer’s book is an unexpected mind-opener. It asks a fundamental question about the possibility of life after death. The perspective is Jewish, and the subsequent questions are manifold. If one’s afterlife identity mirrors that of one’s original span of years, and if the new being (or reactivated being) returns to the world he or she left, how will those who knew this person react?
Suppose this happens to you. Will those who believe that you had died now think you had deceived them for some nefarious reason? Or will they suspect that your reappearance is a fraud? What is your place in this world – or the next?
Sofer makes the theoreticals concrete. Moshe Karlin, a man who ran a successful business dispatching taxies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, awakens one morning on the stony grounds of the Mount of Olives Cemetery. He is not only without clothes, but he is also without a navel; thus, he is no longer “born of woman.” He quickly finds out that two years have passed since his demise and that his wife is soon to marry his former best friend, a man who has poisoned the vulnerable woman against him. Though only recently undead, Moshe is determined to win her back.
Trying to reestablish his former life, Moshe discovers that his positive view of himself was not shared by others. He was not a great husband or father. Has he been given a second chance?
Sofer soon populates the novel with a series of similar resurrections, individuals who accompany Moshe on this eerie journey toward reaffirmation and vision. Is this collection of returnees the early sign of ancient prophesies being realized?
Moshe and his growing entourage are protected and counseled by a kind, though perplexed, neighborhood rabbi. Soon, an important council of rabbis is convened to pass judgment on these strange happenings. Readers will be surprised by the council’s conclusion.
Rabbi Yosef is a finely drawn character whose dedication to helping this oddball collection threatens his status and the well-being of his own family. These returnees are, paradoxically, familiar strangers. To Rabbi Yosef, they are still God’s creatures and deserving of compassion and justice. Let the renowned rabbis argue over whether these theological misfits are angelic or demonic, Rabbi Yosef will feed them, clothe them, shelter them, and in all the ways that he can – comfort them.
Then there is Eli Katz. Yes, a present-day Elijah the Prophet. Or a time-traveling Elijah. Or a man whose recent injuries and near-death experiences have triggered a hallucinated identity. His mission is to prepare the world for the Resurrection. Dan Sofer employs this madcap character to pay homage to and yet question the efficacy of prophetic tradition. This strand of the novel is a magnificent tour de force.
How does Sofer give a sense of reality to his fantasy materials? Well, for one thing he gets into his characters’ heads so fully that we believe in their observations and see and feel the way they do. Moreover, he sets them into the very real neighborhoods of present-day Jerusalem with a degree of detail that has authenticity. By firmly rooting us in that reality, Sofer opens the door that allows us to walk into and accept the “what if” world of his imagination.
Another “unexpected” characteristic of this book is that Sofer has a light-hearted touch, a leavening that keeps hardships and serious theological concerns from pushing readers into depression. The book also offers more than a little teaching, a surprising amount of wit, and a good-sized cast of strong supporting characters. This highly original novel is likely to be controversial in the best of ways: provoking thought and discussion.
About Daniel Sofer
Dan was born under the sunny blue skies of South Africa in 1976. A traditional Jewish upbringing and warm community moved Dan to study and volunteer in Israel as an adult. In 2001, Dan made Jerusalem his home, and the city’s sights, sounds, legends, and spirit of adventure fill his stories. When not writing tales of romantic misadventure, he creates software for large corporations. “Dan Sofer” is a pen name of Daniel J. Miller.
Dan writes tales of romantic misadventure, many of which take place in Jerusalem. His earlier novel, A Love and Beyond, won the 2016 Best Books Award for Religious Fiction. An Unexpected Afterlife is presented as Book I of The Dry Bones Society series. The next book in the series, An Accidental Messiah, is coming later this year.
Dan Sofer’s books are readily available in print and ebook editions via the major internet bookstores. Or find him at http://dansofer.com
This review appears in the May 2017 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Collier and Lee Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee)