Imagine it’s the year 70 and you’re trapped in Jerusalem’s Temple compound as the Romans besiege the city. Is it better to surrender and live your lives as slaves, or fight to the death because you believe that is what God commanded you to do?
This is the dilemma facing the protagonists of The Rebel’s Niece by Shimon Avish (MarbleStone Press, August 2023), the second of the author’s novels about significant events in ancient Jewish history.
This fictional account of the traumatic years of the Roman conquest puts you straight into the action from the very first page. Sarah, a mother of two and niece of the messianic rebel leader Yochanan, flees her Galilean village along with her husband, Jacob, ahead of the Roman invasion. She begins to question Yochanan’s leadership when he sends many of the villagers to certain death and forges ahead to Jerusalem, supposedly following God’s instructions.
The family sets up their tent in the Temple, knowing that the Romans are getting closer every day. But along with preparations for the ultimate battle, Yochanan clashes with the other resistance leaders. Why were the Jews fighting each other instead of saving themselves to fight the Romans? Sarah wonders. The novel offers no clear-cut answer.
The Rebel’s Niece devotes much attention to the daily lives of its protagonists. Sarah and the other women are more concerned with sleeping arrangements, babysitting, and meal times than with the looming destruction.
Still, the battles described in the book are bloody and assumedly historically accurate, based on the author’s exhaustive research. The construction of the siege engines, the pounding of the battering rams, and the breaching of the city’s walls are very clearly and colorfully depicted.
What is most surprising to learn is that the Romans were not invincible. The Jews were equal in battle, if not in numbers. Perhaps if there hadn’t been so much infighting and baseless hatred, Jerusalem would not have been conquered and the Second Temple would not have been destroyed. When the city fell, the Jews lost their holiest site but many would survive to fight another day. The author’s previous novel was aptly titled Masada: Thou Shalt Not Kill.
Overall, The Rebel’s Niece is a compelling, thrilling account of one of the most significant events in ancient Jewish history. The author promises three more novels in the series and readers can look forward to realistic accounts of those events as well.
Shimon Avish, a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces and a founder of a kibbutz in southern Israel, writes about significant events in ancient Jewish history. His work draws on his adventures in soldiering, farming, product design, cabinet making, political science, international business consulting, and living in the U.S., Canada, and Israel. He completed his doctoral degree in political science at Columbia University and was a Fulbright-Hays Fellow.