Congratulations to author Elyse Hoffman on the release of her absolutely stunning novel, The Book of Uriel!
“The Book of Uriel is a heartbreaking blend of historical fiction and Jewish folklore that will enthrall fans of The Book Thief and The World That We Knew.”
Today I have an incredible guest post by the author to share with you, and a wonderful giveaway!
The Book of Uriel
Expected Publication Date: January 26, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Jewish Fiction/ Jewish Folklore/ Holocaust Fiction
Publisher: Project 613 Publishing
In the fires of World War II, a child must save his people from darkness…
Ten-year-old Uriel has always been an outcast. Born mute in a Jewish village known for its choir, he escapes into old stories of his people, stories of angels and monsters. But when the fires of the Holocaust consume his village, he learns that the stories he writes in his golden notebook are terrifyingly real.
In the aftermath of the attack, Uriel is taken in by Uwe, a kind-hearted linguist forced to work for the commander of the local Nazi Police, the affably brutal Major Brandt. Uwe wants to keep Uriel safe, but Uriel can’t stay hidden. The angels of his tales have come to him with a dire message: Michael, guardian angel of the Jewish people, is missing. Without their angel, the Jewish people are doomed, and Michael’s angelic brethren cannot search for him in the lands corrupted by Nazi evil.
With the lives of millions at stake, Uriel must find Michael and free him from the clutches of the Angel of Death…even if that means putting Uwe in mortal danger.
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Demons Without the Devil: How To Write Demons and Angels From A Jewish Perspective
To say that Judaism has contradictory opinions regarding demons and angels would be an understatement. From a Christian point of view, telling a story involving angels and demons is made at least somewhat easier by the presence of Lucifer, the fallen angel, an opponent of God. But in Judaism, Satan never fell. The figure of Ha-Satan (literally Hebrew for “the Adversary”) which in Christian tradition became synonymous with evil is, in Jewish myth, little more than a heavenly lawyer who is, at his worst, a pessimist. HaSatan works in the Heavenly Court, and he does not cause sin, not directly at least: in Jewish thought, HaSatan is the equivalent of Mr. Slugworth from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: an employee of the big guy who tempts people to sin in order to test them, but is not actually devilish in nature.
So if you, like me, happen to be a Jew wanting to tell a story about angels and demons, you now face a problem: in Judaism, the devil does not exist. So how are you going to write a demon/angel story without the devil as an antagonist?
Fortunately, while demons are never actually mentioned in the Torah, there is a relatively rich Jewish tradition of demonology. Within the Talmud—the over 1000-page book of Jewish oral law—we are even told that while there is no devil, there is a king of the demons, a creature known as Asmodeus (sometimes also called Ashmedai). Asmodeus, despite his title of Demon King, is not quite a ‘devil’ figure. His first and arguably most villainous appearance in Jewish lore is in the Book of Tobit, where he kills the seven husbands of a woman named Sarah out of jealousy, but was eventually defeated by her eighth husband, Tobias. However, later tales from the Talmud portray the so-called demon king as, at most, obnoxious and even occasionally helpful—-teaching King Solomon humility in the old story of The Beggar King and setting a drunk man on the correct path in the Talmud. Asmodeus, then, is less of a Satan-like figure and is, in fact, surprisingly humanized throughout Jewish lore.
More devilish is his partner—Lilith. Lilith is said to be the first wife of Adam, created like him from the dust of the earth and cast out of Eden after she and her husband had an argument in which she refused to submit to him (the exact nature of this argument varies from tale to tale and often ventures into NSFW territory.) she fled from the Garden of Eden (or was banished depending on the version.). Lilith is regarded in Jewish lore as the mother of all demons, a woman who slaughters human babies and seduces weak men away from their paternal and marital duties, and alternatively the wife of either Asmodeus or, alternatively, the Angel of Death.
Lilith, having a more fleshed out backstory and being more vicious than Asmodeus, appears in more works than the King of Demons—especially in darker stories, often involving adultery, witchcraft, and a child-murder. Lilith has the potential of being problematic if she is not handled with care; her backstory is laden with misogynistic overtones and undertones, as she is cast from Eden for refusing to ‘submit’ to her husband, turning her into a monster who ‘entraps’ weak but good-hearted men and who kills the descendants of her ex-husband out of pure spite. If reworked, however, Lilith can not only act as a frightening demonic figure but one with a tragic, sympathetic backstory that many feminists have latched onto. It is notable, however, that despite being regarded as a demon queen, the mother of demons, and despite being more wicked than her husband Asmodeus, Lilith is not herself a demon—she is a human woman, the first human woman in fact, and while that fact perhaps doesn’t say great things about Jewish lore’s opinions on women, it does demonstrate that throughout Jewish lore, humans are often portrayed as more evil than any demon.
The final creature in Jewish folklore that comes close to the Christian concept of the “Devil” is not a demon, but an angel, specifically the Archangel of Death, Samael. While some Jewish sources and scholars describe Ha-Satan and Samael as being the same person, many others separate the two. As with most Jewish lore, Samael’s characterization and backstory vary from tale to tale. Some stories describe him as the father of Cain, some post-Christian myths adopt a Luciferian take and say that he was the serpent who tempted Eve to eat of the Forbidden Fruit, and some take that a step further and describe him as a fallen angel who married Lilith.
Generally, however, these are from more Christianized stories and myths, and most folklore merely regards him as a dark angel—still within the Heavenly Court, but not a figure to be trifled with. Several stories even state that Samael, in addition to or even prior to being the Angel of Death, was the Guardian Angel of Esau, the brother of Jacob and traditionally considered the father of the enemies of the Jewish people. This generally puts him into conflict with the Archangel Michael, who in Jewish tradition is the guardian angel of Israel, and many times the two angels will come to blows over their respective nations. In this way, Samael represents not only death, but the specter of anti-Semitism who fights with Michael over the fate of the Jewish people—a tradition I utilized in my upcoming novel, The Book of Uriel.
Samael is certainly a backstory grab-bag of an archangel, and he offers a wide array of potential for any author seeking to write angel/demon stories from a Jewish perspective. If one feels better keeping with a more Luciferian fallen angel perspective, Samael offers the opportunity to write that without mischaracterizing poor Asmodeus. On the other hand, any one of his backstories—father of Cain, Guardian Angel of Esau, loyal servant of God with a nasty job—can potentially offer a sympathetic, interesting, even tragic villain. While most Jewish folklore does not make him a devil, Samael, even when he remains loyal to God, is significantly more dangerous than even the King of Demons.
If all of this seems confusing, you’re not alone! The diversity of the Jewish experience means that these folkloric figures range in character from friendly anti-hero to terrifying villain, from tragic fallen figure to ruthless monster. Their backstories are never consistent, their relationships to one another and other figures good and evil shift depending on the source.
There is no uniform mythology, which can be imposing to a writer. But all these contradictions and shifting backstories can be a blessing: it offers freedom to write what you want without stepping on any toes. Since these demons and angels are never or only briefly mentioned in the Bible, an author can pick whatever backstory suits them, whichever characterization will make their story better, and run with it while being fully backed up by existing lore. If you want a lot of freedom in what you write and how you write it while still having a lot of lore to fall back on, Jewish mythology is a great place to look! And if you want to add a lot of humanity and feature a lot of sympathetic villains in your angel/demon story, Jewish lore has a ton of lore bricks to build with.
If you’re interested in writing angel/demon stories from a Jewish perspective, the best thing to do is read some myths and get inspired! There’s a lot out there! I recommend anything by Howard Schwartz, especially his book Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism to get started! Lilith’s Cave also provides a lot of demonic Jewish lore to look at! The online Jewish Encyclopedia is a bit confusingly written, but pretty comprehensive. Gertrude Landa’s Book of Jewish Fairytales and Legends is free on kindle. Louis Ginsberg’s Complete Legends of the Jews is quite comprehensive and also free on kindle! Those are some bulk resources, but there are a lot of stories out there, and stories from a European Jewish perspective vary a lot from Mizrahi or Sephardic stories. Give them a read, pick whatever speaks to you, and go tell a great story!
Uriel wished he could scream.
Normally, he could. A scream was one of the few noises that ever emerged from the boy’s lips. No words ever escaped, but he could summon a scream.
Yet his lungs couldn’t gather enough air to produce a cry. They struggled to supply enough oxygen to keep the child awake. Smoke invaded his throat and clawed at his lungs. Although screams pierced the air from every angle, he couldn’t add his own to the din.
He still felt the pressure of mother’s fingers locked around his hand, even though she was gone. Uriel’s golden eyes darted to and fro, searching for her face. His fingers twitched as her warmth faded. He strained his ears, trying to hear her call to him, but her voice did not rise above the ruckus.
Mama! Uriel thought, his tears allying with the smoke and assaulting his eyes. He wanted to cry out for her. Perhaps if she heard him, she would find him, and they could get to safety. But his voice had never worked before, and though he opened his mouth to call out, all he could do was pant and cough.
Gunshots rang out. The fleeing villagers clung to their families and their few precious possessions, shoving one another out of the way as they tried to escape the flames enveloping the little town and the murderous mob cutting down the Jews. Young and old, women and men, little children and babies were thrown to the ground, beaten with clubs, shot, stabbed, and slaughtered. Their blood mingled with the warm ash coating the cobblestones.
Uriel stood in the midst of the mayhem, still as a statue, alone. His right hand yearned for his mother, while his left clutched the one possession he had snatched before fleeing his house. His little golden notebook. Small enough to fit in his pocket and filled with stories he couldn’t leave to burn.
Although the villagers would normally never leave a small child alone in the street, concern for their own lives and the lives of their families caused them to stampede. Uriel was pushed against a brick wall, and his golden notebook flew from his hand. He gasped, inhaling an army of ash. The boy desperately tried to crawl to his notebook. Boots and shoes stomped on the cherished book, but Uriel reached it. He grabbed the notebook and held it to his chest, shielding it with his body.
The child was trampled and kicked. His lungs began losing to the smoke and ash entering through his nostrils and silent lips. He felt as though his insides were on fire, as though every bone in his body was about to shatter. When darkness finally took him, all he felt was gratitude.
Available on Amazon!
About the Author
Elyse Hoffman can write a lot of things, but finds her own story dull and difficult. She has been interested in the Holocaust and Nazi Germany since she was thirteen. Her somewhat morbid fascination is purely intellectual and emotional. She advises you to be careful when signing contracts. You never know where or when you may end up.
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