As we approach the Passover season, one of the traditional Four
Questions at the Seder is, “Why is this night different from
all other nights?” This sentiment by Dara Horn kicks off her
new novel of intrigue set during the Civil War.
Jacob Rappaport, the ostensible hero of the story, faces a
number of issues. The son of an upper-middle class Jewish family
serving in the Union army, he is called upon to become a spy. He
dons the role of a deserter, ingratiating himself to relatives
living in the South. There is no small amount of irony in
Horn’s setting, as Rappaport and his Confederate relatives
gather at the holiday table: “Jacob wondered if there could
be anything stranger than sitting down to a Passover Seder, the
feast of freedom, with every part of the meal served by
Rappaport’s mission demands he carry out a particularly
heinous deed, which he reluctantly fulfills, thereby proving his
loyalty to his superiors. The question that had long plagued Jewish
Americans --- does their greater allegiance lie to their religion
or to their country? --- is constantly replayed. One can picture
the scene with the young man sitting before them, as they pepper
away their comments and queries in rapid fire, with no thought of
the impossibility of what they require.
Unfortunately, his success convinces them to use him in other,
similarly uncomfortable situations, including wooing and wedding
into a family with strong Confederate ties. Although Rappaport
battles his conscience, his orders win out, with tragic
consequences for himself and others.
There’s a standard song for the Passover service:
“Dayenu,” loosely translated as “It would have
been enough.” If God had delivered the Israelites from out of
Egypt, it would have been enough. If He had only given them the
Sabbath, that would have been enough. The same could be said for
the tasks given to Rappaport. If he had only carried out the first
assignment, that should have been enough, but his
superiors keep sending him back for more, leading the reader to
wonder: were there no other Jewish soldiers available, or was he
just unlucky enough to have this confluence of circumstances, of
having the right (or wrong) connections that made him the only man
for the job? Poor guy; the author is asking her audience to suspend
disbelief to that extent.
Horn deserves a good deal of credit for her attention to detail.
Her “Author’s Note” puts into perspective the
Jewish situation during the Civil War era, constantly looked on as
“the other.” In fact, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant imposed the
infamous General Order Number 11, which banished the Jews of
Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, a decree soon overturned by
Abraham Lincoln. She incorporates other real-life figures, most
notably Judah Benjamin, who held several high-ranking positions in
the Confederacy, as well as Edwin Booth and John Surratt.
For those not familiar with the era, Horn does admirable due
diligence in drawing the fine line between fact and fiction.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonKaplanNJ@comcast.net) on December 22, 2010