“It is this act of empathy that shines through Lemberger’s fictional stories. Whether she is writing about Deborah’s willingness to wage war, or Yael’s futile attempts to turn swords into ploughshares, Lemberger’s characters are highly conscious and their emotions deeply felt. The stories are, in their own way, a respectful and learned commentary on the Bible, an alternative dialogue that reminds us that it is the stories that we tell that are civilization’s true heritage.”
Tom Teicholz, Summer Books: “After Abel and Other Stories by Michal Lemberger”
Calling the biblically themed stories in the new collection by Michal Lemberger midrashim is like calling champagne a carbonated beverage. The nine stories in After Abel (Prospect Park Books, $16) pulse with the rhythms of ancient life, infusing into these tales a kind of immediacy so bracing as at times to be shocking. How Lemberger, an academic who teaches the Bible as Literature course at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, does this, is its own kind of miracle. In disarmingly simple yet powerful prose, she limns the lives of these Bible women, and we come to understand them — even love them — in new ways.
Yona Zeldis MacDonough, Lilith Magazine
In After Abel and Other Stories, author and scholar Michal Lemberger recreates the lives of nine Biblical women. In telling their tales, she enriches the voices of well known women like Miriam, and brings out from silence those less honored. Most impressive about Lemberger’s stories is her ability to place the women in their time. She does not aggrandize them or turn them into heroines. Rather, she tries to portray their lives in such a way as to give them the opportunity to explain why they took the actions that they are noted for in the Bible… The compactness of each story makes each strong enough to stand on its own. Lemberger’s apparent decision to approach each woman as an individual prevents the collection from becoming a simplistic caricature of the life of biblical women… After Abel and Other Stories will appeal to readers with even the most basic introduction to the Biblical canon, but especially to those whose imaginations are piqued by the mystery of an untold story.
Largely quiet in the Bible, Eve here gains a voice, putting into words the turbid emotions she experiences upon leaving the Garden of Eden as an exile. Updating the midrash tradition for twenty-first-century readers, Lemberger brings Eve—and eight other biblical women—back to life in stories endowing scriptural narratives with new imaginative resonance. Readers share, for instance, Eve’s searing grief at having lost a son—two sons—through fratricide. Readers experience with Miriam the anxiety of watching an infant brother drift toward strangers on the banks of the Nile. In several tales, Lemberger transports readers into the lives of women barely glimpsed in scripture—Penina, wife of Elkanah, for example, and Achsah, daughter of Caleb. In the final chapter, however, Lemberger identifies Ruth as the one book of scripture too perfect to amplify with even a single embellishing word. Some devout readers will detect in Lemberger’s tales a creative vision owing less to religious faith than to modern feminism. But this provocative reimagining of biblical history will attract many.
Biblical stories and their female characters get an entirely new, often surprising perspective in Lemberger’s fiction debut. In each of nine independent narratives, Lemberger, a professor who teaches the Bible as literature at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, creates a complete world based loosely on the biblical accounts of the origins and history of the Jewish people. Unlike the original text, which typically gives a sentence or two to the female characters, she creates a full-fledged picture of those lives and shares the characters’ thoughts and actions. Included in the volume are stories about Eve; Zeresh, Haman’s wife; Yael, the Kenite woman who beheaded the Caananite general Sisera; and Hannah, barren but beloved, and Penina, fertile but hated, both of them wives to Elkanah. The stories are fresh and engaging, but Lemberger’s literary license may offend some more biblically conservative readers, such as when she portrays Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and mother of Ishmael, as a dimwit, and Lot’s wife as an accidental destroyer. Still, her knowledge of the Bible is evident and her creativity shines through as she weaves nine thoughtful and layered accounts of distant, complicated times.
In this debut collection, nine stories shed light on Old Testament women famous, infamous and obscure. “God said one thing. The snake said another. Which is how I learned that someone had to be lying,” Eve remarks in the title story. Where the Bible’s women are concerned, Lemberger, a respected scholar in the field, is as skeptical as Eve. After her husband (in “Lot’s Wife”) threatens to throw his daughters to a mob of rapists, Lot’s wife rescues the girls, torches Sodom and escapes—no divine wrath or pillar of salt in sight. The familiar story of Sarah and Hagar (“The Watery Season”) highlights the downside of selling young women as handmaidens to produce children for men whose wives are barren. In Lemberger’s take on Exodus (“Drawn from the Water”), colicky, wailing Moses can’t be hidden, like other male newborns, from the Egyptian slave masters, so his sister Miriam, a wisecracking adolescent, is charged with setting him afloat in the Nile. The reader’s sympathy will be drawn not to established biblical heroes but to misunderstood or otherwise marginalized minor players. Vashti, the deposed queen of Persia, and her sister Zeresh, the narrator, are the focus of “Zeresh, His Wife,” not Esther, who takes Vashti’s place, nor her uncle Mordechai, who brings down Zeresh’s hapless husband, Haman. When Yael, in “City of Refuge,” kills enemy general Sisera, she is glorified by warrior queen Deborah; but Yael is revealed as a true pacifist. In “Shiloh,” fecund Penina, another woman sold as a “breeder” and traditionally seen as resentful, nobly forgoes an opportunity to displace her rival wife, Hannah. The most villainous character here is King David: Not only does he overthrow his mentor, King Saul, but he abandons his first wife, Saul’s daughter Michel, for years, forcibly reclaiming her out of spite (“Saul’s Daughter”). While avoiding outright irreverence or anachronism, Lemberger’s diction gives cogent voice to all her underestimated or overlooked narrators. Original and thought-provoking.
“…the book is riveting and well-written. It’s a collection of riffs on the Bible that will be enjoyable for those who know their Bible, who are sympathetic to women’s perspectives, and who are willing to look beyond the desacralizing liberties taken by the author in order to savour the unusual experience of seeing ancient women at the centre of the action.”
-Martin Lockshin, The Canadian Jewish News
“Each of the nine stories in this book presents a tale of a biblical woman. Some you’ve likely heard of, like Miriam, who sets the basket holding her baby brother afloat in Nile, follows its course and approaches the woman who retrieves it: Pharaoh’s daughter. Others focus on characters who are less well known, such as Zeresh, Haman’s not-so-nice spouse, who suffers consequences, just as her husband does when his evil plot goes awry.”
Erica Dreifus, JTA
“The rich tradition of reimagining the stories in the Bible started with the Midrash and has continued without pause for two millennia. A whole literature has emerged of efforts by contemporary writers to reclaim characters relegated mostly to sermons, if not forgotten entirely. The latest example is Michal Lemberger’s “After Abel and Other Stories” (Prospect Park Books), an artful and elegant collection of short stories that feature women who are often depicted only obliquely in the Bible itself.
Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal
“After Abel and Other Stories is a collection by Michal Lemberger, whose writing regularly appears in Slate, Salon, and Tablet. The nine stories are built around biblical women, leading to comparisons with Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. The collection is being praised for both for its creativity and its grounding, not surprising from an author who teaches Hebrew Bible as Literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. A variety of early readers are saying it will be a great choice for book groups.”
“…Lemberger, whose novel about pivotal biblical women, “After Abel and Other Stories,” will be published next year, said that Barnard’s professors inspired her to continue writing, though she was not actively attempting to publish her writing during her college years … A poet since her preteen years, Lemberger cited the various writing classes she took that allowed her to broaden her horizons and combine her interests in religion and English….”
Columbia Daily Spectator
Q: How did you get the idea for this book, and what do your stories highlight about the role of women in the Bible?
A: The first question is a lot easier to answer! I’ve been studying the Bible from a scholarly perspective for a long time, as part of my dissertation, and then teaching the Bible as literature. Most recently, I taught for four years at the American Jewish University in a master’s of education program. That allowed me to get into the text more deeply than I had before.
The way the book started was with Lot’s wife. I had wanted to include her in my dissertation…but she just didn’t fit….I guess she was always in the back of my mind. I had spent these years immersed in biblical scholarship, and it came to me quite suddenly that everyone had focused their attention in [what I saw as] the wrong way.
What was your favorite part of writing After Abel? The greatest challenge?
I loved writing this book. After a lifetime of calling myself a writer, I finally felt like I had found my subject matter. I loved that I could put all my knowledge about the original material to use in an imaginative way and to sprinkle in little references to the language of the Bible in my own work. Writing “Saul’s Daughter” presented the greatest technical challenge. It took a long time for me to figure out the voice (in this case, voices) in which to tell it. But “Shiloh” was emotionally wrenching to write. That character lives in such a dark place, and I had to go there with her.