Featured Faculty: Leslie Epstein

Leslie Epstein

Leslie Epstein


A Prologue

Three thousand years ago the Queen of Sheba, having heard of the wisdom of Solomon, traveled to Jerusalem in a caravan laden with spices and gold and gemstones, in order to test that king with hard questions. He answered them all and dazzled her as well with his wealth, his servants, and his demeanor before the Lord. One day the queen came across a room in the palace that was floored in glass; thinking that she was about to step into a pool of water, she raised her skirts. The commentators maintain that Solomon tricked Sheba and brought her to his couch, but it would be surprising if this queen, the setter of riddles, did not know the difference between the surface of a mirror and that of a lake. In any case, once back in her homeland, she gave birth to a son. This was Menelik I, “son of the wise man,” who, once he had come of age, set out to visit the father he had never known. The moment the king saw him he recognized, as in a mirror again, not only himself but—such was the boy’s lithesomeness and graciousness of form—his own father, David. As the young man prepared for his return journey, Solomon caused the first-born sons of the priests and the elders to travel with him; some say that he was also accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant, which he had stolen from the Temple upon his departure. Thus did the glory of Zion pass from Jerusalem to Axum, and from the children of Israel to what the Ethiopian people to this day consider the embodiment of the kingdom of God: their nation and themselves.

A thousand years later another foreigner arrived at the gates of Jerusalem. This was Titus Flavius, son of Vespasian, who had come to finish his father’s task of putting down the revolt of the Jews against the rule of Rome. At his command were four legions, equipped with engines for throwing darts, stones, and javelins, together with catapults, siege towers, and battering rams. Over time this force made its way through wall after wall of the outlying quarters, though the desperate Jews made new walls of their corpses to fill the breach. At last the tower of Antonia fell and the battle for the Temple itself began. The defenders were weakened less by the Romans than by treachery, dissent, and a famine so great they were forced to gnaw the leather from their shields. Still the two armies fought not only by day but in a darkness so thick it was impossible to tell one’s friend from the enemy at one’s hand. Titus, seeing the futility of further attack, and recognizing that his rams, after six days of ceaseless assault against the Temple, could make no impression upon the vastness of its stones, ordered its gates set on fire. The blaze soon spread to the cloisters of the inner court and all their furnishings. Yet the battle, raging more fiercely than the flames, might have gone on without end had not a legionnaire, seized by what the historian Josephus called “a certain divine fury,” thrown a burning brand through an open window of the holy house. Thus on the tenth day of the month of Ab, the same fatal day on which the king of the Babylonians had previously destroyed it, did the chief wonder of the world, God’s dwelling, burn to the ground.

The slaughter that followed was so terrible and the conflagration within the city so great, that, as Josephus tells us, the flames that consumed the houses were quenched by their inhabitants’ blood. In that chronicler’s reckoning, eleven hundred thousand perished in the course of the war and ninety-seven thousand were taken captive; but of these last the aged and the ill were slain, those under seventeen sold into slavery, and still others sent off to work the Egyptian mines. The unluckiest, perhaps, became gifts to the provinces, where they were destroyed by wild beasts in the spectacles. The tallest, however, and the handsomest in body, were reserved for the procession of victory, which was to take place when the conqueror returned to Rome.

Had there ever been a triumph like it in the history of the Empire? In all of the city not a person remained at home, lest he miss a moment of the pageant. Vespasian and Titus, father and son, each crowned with laurel, sat on ivory thrones. All the wonders, the varied riches of the vanquished land, uprooted trees and strange species of animals, paraded before them. At the center were the treasures of the razed Temple: the golden table of the showbread and the silver trumpets of the jubilee; the gem-studded crowns and rare purple hangings; the Ark, with the scrolls of the Law; and towering over the heads of those who bore it, the great lamp with its septuple branches that, as Josephus reminds us, “represent the dignity of the number seven among the Jews.” Next in the procession, and most acclaimed by the multitude, were the pageant carts. Some of these were as high as three or four stories and each depicted a scene from the recent war: the scaling of walls and their demolishment by machines; the stoning of the populace; the countryside laid waste; the slaughter and the supplication of the enemy; and finally, a miracle of ingenuity and workmanship, the Temple in actual flames, together with the burning houses that fell upon all that dwelled within them. In that fashion those who had remained at home and only wished they had taken part in the battle were made to feel they had actually been present, just as men and women of the modern world are transported to distant conflicts by devices the ancients could never have imagined.

And the conquered Jews? They came last, after the wooden ships, the armies of centuries and centurians, and the waving images of the gods. Among the captives was Simion of Gioras, leader of the revolt, with the rope that would slay him already around his neck. With every step he was so harassed and tormented that he must have blessed the God of his people when in a sudden hush his suffering was brought to an end. Only then, according to custom, were the crowds free to take up the feasting of that festival day, while the Jews were led off, many of them to complete the work on the famed Colosseum and to begin construction of the great arch that would celebrate the victory of Titus, as well as their own ever-to-be lamented defeat.

Nothing endures, said Heraclitus, but change; and by way of example he remarked that no person can step into the same river twice. Nonetheless, men continue to build their memorials not from sand but from stone; and it is true that on occasion some monument will seem to stand against the flood, like a boulder against the river’s rush. Yet that same Arch of Titus, thrust upward like a great pair of shoulders from the throbbing currents of modern Rome, will in time turn to dust. Even the Jews who built it, whose stubbornness in persisting has made them both hated and holy, in the way that some aged rock will become sacred in an aboriginal’s eyes—even they must perish, as the Chaldeans perished, and the Canaanites.

Still, what the Greek philosopher neglected to mention was that, since time is infinite and the atoms of water finite, sooner or later the bather must find himself in the precise mixture of elements in which he had previously splashed. Josephus himself seemed to sense this, for when writing of that terrible tenth day of Ab he spoke of an Age of Revolution, as if history were a wheel, endlessly repeating itself, even as it pulverized those caught beneath it. And not just Josephus. Who among us has not felt that he was once before submerged in the same tide of experience that surrounds him now? When was it? In childhood? In an altogether different life? Or did that clank of metal nozzle on metal fender, the swift swoop and dip and swoop of the telegraph line outside the train’s gray window, the bark-bark-bark of an unseen Alsatian, occur not just to you but to others of the race whose senses—the ears, the eyes—you have for an instant been allowed to share?

In the summer of 1936, after two more turns of the millennial wheel, another triumph made its way along the avenues of Rome. The marching prisoners, barefoot and black-skinned, thought themselves children of the land of Israel. Among them, caged, was the last royal descendant of the union of Solomon and Sheba: the Emperor Haile Selassi I, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah, Light of the World, Root of David, Elect of God. For all the honorifics he stood with his uniform in tatters. At each lurch of his movable cage, his body swayed but, though his hands were tied before him and a rope hung round his neck, never toppled. Indeed, his small, narrow head, with its tufted beard, its tangled hair, remained motionless atop the board of his shoulders. What struck the milling masses—struck them so forcibly that they either fell silent or murmured, occhi di Deo, occhi di marmo—were his eyes, a strip of black iris, a strip of ivory, and the way they stared as fixedly as those in a stone statue of Jupiter to where the great arch rose like a guillotine at the end of the Via Sacra. If those onyx eyes, wide and unblinking, possessed the power of the telescope lens they so much resembled, or could see on the wavelength of X-rays, the deposed king might have taken comfort from the image carved on one of the monument’s inner walls; just as the new conqueror of Ethiopia, upright on the reviewing stand, his thumbs hooked in his leather belt and with no cap upon the bony pate of his shaven head, might have felt some unease at what had been carved on the other. For the artifacts of the vanquished people, carried along in a procession that mirrored the one now passing before him, are all intact: the table of the showbread; the long-stemmed trumpets; and, taller than the Roman soldiers who hold it aloft, the menora, three new moons recumbent within three moons, symbolizing the city of Jerusalem, the light of learning, and the seven days of all creation. Opposite, however, the goddess Nike reaches forward to crown the victorious Titus; alas, time has eaten away his head, so that the only laurel we see this day is the shadow of stubble that circles Benito Mussolini’s bullet-shaped skull.

LESLIE EPSTEIN has been the director of Boston University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program for more than 25 years. He is the author of nine books, including Steinway Quintet Plus Four, King of the Jews, which has become a classic of Holocaust literature, Pinto and Sons, Pandaemonium, and most recently, San Remo Drive: A Novel from Memory. A Rhodes and Fulbright scholar, his awards include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and a Guggenheim fellowship.

(c) copyright 2005, Leslie Epstein; author retains all rights.