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on June 20, 2004
When I was in my early teens, back in the days of disco, fat ties, oil crises, and gaudy leisure suits (aka, the 1970s), I remember looking through my parents' book collection for the book with the most pages. At the time, I thought that the length of a book somehow corresponded to its difficulty level, and that if I could read a 1,000+ page book, then I must be REALLY smart and also grown up! Anyway, one of the first books I decided to read, based on these sophisticated criteria, was "The Source," by James Michener. Surprisingly, I found out that the book was actually easy to read, fascinating, and highly entertaining, and I whizzed right through it (boy, did I think I was smart afte that)! I remember being completely engrossed as the centuries flew past, as conquering armies marched, as cities rose and fell, as blood flowed through the streets of Jerusalem, and as the Jews wandered through the Middle East and Europe. I also remember thinking that the Middle East had an incredible history that I needed to learn a lot more about.
Well, almost 30 years later, with a Masters Degree in Middle East Studies, with a couple of trips to the region under my belt, and with a job dealing with the Middle East, I can blame it all, at least in part, on reading "The Source" at age 12 or 13. Seriously, though, I do believe that the seed of my life-long fascination with history, international relations, politics, and the Middle East was planted when I read "The Source" as a young teenager. Actually, come to think of it, another Michener book -- Centennial -- got me fascinated in the history of the West and the American Indian, while several others made me want to learn more about South Africa, Hawaii, the South Pacific, the Chesapeake region, and even outer space. So, definitely read James Michener, but be warned: you could become addicted to a lifetime of learning, travel, and adventure.
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on August 8, 2003
If we take the Source as a history of the Jews, which I think is what the author intended (as opposed to the history of "Makor" in the Holy Land), then I have to say that this is an excellent book. Michener writes with passion about the sufferings and resilience of the Jewish people, and his narrative explaining the origins and development of rabbinical Judaism is enlightening. The rich diversity and beauty of Ashkenazi and Sephardi culture come to life in Michener's book. One cannot help but feel a sense of empathy for the Jewish people as they struggle through exile, inquisition, pogroms, and exploitative officials.
Michener also does a good job of desribing the various inhabitants of Galilee through the ages, and through the clan of Ur, one gets a sense of how the Palestinian people came to be -- Canaanites and Philistines who were first Hellenized, then Romanized, and finally Arabized.
This book does so many things well that it is easy to overlook some serious flaws. Michener almost romanticizes Jewish history and suffering, and while his chapter "Rebbe Itzik and the Sabra" offers a compelling contrast between secular and religious Jews, it gives a woefully lopsided view of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The book seems to argue that the Jews "deserve" the land more because of their suffering and because "they can manage it better." It fails to establish the connection of the Arabs with the land -- as though the Palestinian Arabs "deserve" to be exiled -- even though the character Jemail Tabari supposedly is a descendant of people who lived there 12,000 years ago. Indeed, an examination of the chapter "Twilight of an Empire" reveals unforgivably stereotyped Arabs -- flat, colorless, without culture, dirty, corrupt, and often cruel. While Michener mentions Arab massacres of Jews, he neglects to mention the Deir Yassin Massacre or Hagganah massacres of Arabs in 1948.
Read this book if you want to learn more about Jewish history and religion (on these merits, I would rate it 9/10). On the other hand, I would rate the book's historical accuracy about 7/10.
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on November 20, 2012
This book is a historical fiction that describes the generations of a fictional town of Makor in Galilee. The author journeys through the various epochs of history in a interesting and sometimes political fashion, and in doing this he opinionates about the various religions that have settled in the area.

The author uses his perspective on the evolution of religion that was popular around the publishing date. Namely that religion evolved out of the need of prehistoric humans to reconcile personals needs to environmental challenges.

The purpose of this review is not to quibble over fact or fiction but the author seems to de-construct some history in favour of his evolution of religion agenda. For example the gradual migration of the Jews into Galilee and the gradual assimilation of the population into the new religion of Israel is portrayed as de facto history in this work of fiction. As such the master of inter-generational historical fiction seems not to use history as a touch point for his fiction but used the fiction to de-construct the history.

In the latter pages the place of modern Israel is debated amongst the characters. At the time of publishing modern Israel was still defining itself in the world and Michener covers all the issues, even the controversial ones in an engaging fashion. I found this book hard to read at times due the sometimes ugly depiction of various negative moments of history. But I did find myself engaged by the heroes of modern day Israel just because they were underdogs in that drama of independence of Israel.
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on February 20, 2004
The Source is essentially the story of Jewish history from about 10,000 BCE.
Michener is well known for making "place" the focal point of his stories, and in this book the "place" is an archeological dig in the Middle East near the Sea of Galilee. The earliest section of the book introduces the dig and the principle characters (the archaeologists) who begin excavating the tell (the mound that is the dig site) and unearthing artifacts. Each chapter then recounts the story behind each artifact they find and how it got there. The order is chronological, beginning about 12,000 years ago and ending in the mid-twentieth century.
It is essentially a very entertaining history lesson disguised as a historical novel. It is easily digestible, or "history light", but a great introduction for those not wanting to read what some refer to as the "dry history" of traditional history texts.
The archaeologists make brief appearances throughout the various stories and do a lot of philosophizing about the relations between the Jews, Christians, and Moslems and the various moral dilemmas each group has faced at various times throughout history. I found it interesting, though some may find it a bit forced.
Overall, if you do like historical fiction, this is one of the best!
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on June 2, 2003
The Source is a sweep back through time to the Jewish people of the Middle East. The story takes us back to the days when the gods were little statues, monoliths on a mountain, and child-eating fires. It moves forward through time to the mid-sixties. The author uses the tool of mini-stories, one per chapter, to show the evolution of one era to the next.
Individually, the chapters (stories) are well-written and emotionally compelling. Some will break your heart. Some will make you cheer. Overall, the book does an excellent job of showing how the Jewish people feel about themselves, their homeland, each other, and their religion. They are not over-simplified but shown in the full complexity of their feelings and experience. This is what the book does really well.
The only complaint that I have is that some parts of the book are historically questionable. Many will feel that the story shows a bias against certain religious/ethnic factions. The author also occasionally gets a little lax about using modern verbage in inappropriate settings. For example, I can't imagine someone in the pre-Christian era using the word 'cronies'.
Overall, though, the book is good and worth reading for a picture of the Jewish feelings that may have been manifest in different periods. It is also excellent as pure fiction. I enjoyed it a lot.
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on February 1, 2003
This is a long book; but it's basically a long book of short stories tied together by framing short story and by a family line beginning when the first caveman dared to set foot outside the cave.
The stories basically involve "salt of the earth" Jews on the periphery of all the great Biblical and historical events. The idea was probably to give some insight into how and why the Jews have survived as long as they have as a cultural identity. But unless "because they're stubborn" is insight, I can't say it did much there.
The use of God, as a character, is an interesting one. It was a bit jarring at first, but after a while, you begin to realize that you only ever hear "Him" through another character, and that character is always alone.
The highlight of this book is the very human stories, particularly those in the ancient times. The story of the Hoopoe, the clever-but-homely architect who connects the town to its water source, is one of the best I've ever read.
When the Jews encounter the Greeks and the Romans and the early Christians, their interactions are also quite interesting. Particularly in the sense that it's easier to relate, in many ways, to the lifestyles and attitudes of these other groups, than it is to the "stiff-necked" Jews who seem reactionary to the point of mania. (But then, this is why they survived.)
Michener seems very at home in the older days, perhaps because he had freedom to write without having to worry too much about political concerns. More modern stuff is almost glossed over. At the same time, it's in the post-Luther era where the book really began to drag for me.
It's worth finishing, but it is stronger in the early parts.
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on January 9, 2003
I am not sure James Michener is still in style (he was sure hot in the Sixties, but tastes do change.) However, his blockbuster novels all attempt to condense wide expanses of history by telling stories from the viewpoint of fictionalized individuals.
In "The Source", Michener cleverly uses the archaeological levels of a tel (mound) being excavated, each level becoming a chapter moving up from the bottom level which is earliest history, to most recent. As the contemporary archaeologists unearth foundations and shards, the story of people whose dust forms the tel is told.
This makes what could be dry history vital and in some of the stories, gut-wrenching. As always, Michener goes for great drama, sex, blood, guts and heroism are all drawn with the exquisite skill of a born storyteller. In particular, the story of Urbaal and his fatal attraction to a temple prostitute, and the story of the Jews of Safed, who escaped the Inquisition, are unforgettable.
I rate this as great as "Hawaii" among Michener's novels. It's a good novel to read in light of the current conflicts in the Middle East, though, as a novel, the history is of course not always consistent with current scholarly though, so read it for the superb storytelling.
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on November 25, 2002
The Source is definitely a highly entertaining and extremely interesting work, and I seldom lost interest, and yet there are several aspects of the book that I found frustrating and disappointing, and are simply historically incorrect.
I did not enjoy Chapter 6, 'The voice of Gomer', simply because the interaction between G-D and the Prophetess Gomer was for me disturbing.
I think Michener forgot here that he was writing a novel and not rewriting The Bible.
The dialogue treats G-D almost as a character in the novel, which for me is unacceptable.
Surely we should have been allowed to judge the actions of Gomer towards her son's wife on our own religious and Biblical understanding, rather than Michener presenting this as the result of a direct commandment from G-D, on a par with Biblical events.
I found the whole chapter tacky and irreverent.
Then he often deals stereotypically with the Jewish people and several Jewish characters.
In the final chapter, for example, he makes me wonder if he actually has a good attitude towards his subjects.
He dwells almost entirely on negative perceptions of Judaism, representing a highly prejudiced view of religious Jews.
He seems to have believed that ALL religious Jews in Israel, are archaic and intolerant fanatics who throw rocks at cars on Saturdays, whereas he is only drawing on a very small fraction of observant Jews in that country.
He in fact has a stereotypic view of modern Israel, and all sectors of it's society, and although he tries to present a benevolent view (I don't believe he is driven by malice), his understanding comes off as somewhat limited.
The secular Jews of the Kibbutzim too are represented in a highly stereotypical fashion and he also wrongly presents Israel as having only ultra-secular and ultra-orthodox currents, with no in-between.
It also seems from his equally stereotypical picture of an American Protestant minister visiting Israel, that he does not have a positive attitude towards Christianity either.
Also there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the Arabs living in Israel, those who are today referred to wrongly as 'Palestinians', are descendants of the Canaanites., and in fact all historical facts point to these people as being Arabs originating from Arabia.
So I don't know what he means by referring to the Arab archaeologist, Jemail Tabari, as a 'scion of Ur', and a 'descendant of Jabaal the Hoopoe'.
He never refers to these Arabs as 'Palestinian', simply because when this book was written in 1965, the label ' Palestinian' had not been invented to refer to these people.
Nobody used this term in 1965. It only became fashionable later!
Nevertheless there is much in this incredibly long book, that does depict the experiences and spirit of the Land of Israel, and the Jewish people, who originated in this remarkable land.
He introduces throughout the story, various beautiful and strong-spirited Hebrew women, who have kept the flame burning, such as the enchanting Kerith, wife of Jabaal the builder, in 'Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird', the lovely and gentle Elisheba in 'The Saintly Men of Safed' and the tough and idealistic Sabra,, Illana Hacohen in 'Rebbe Itzic the Sabra'.
He does illustrate the depth of the attachment of the Jewish people to their homeland, which was never broken, as well as the cycle of persecution, and the attempts by so many different groups throughout history to annihilate the Jews.
All of this, is being repeated in the latest struggle today, of the Jewish people to hold onto their rightful homeland and survive, against an evil people, supported by a world in which it is fashionable to hate Israel.
A world, which, is once more, creating a great injustice against the Jewish people.
The young Hellenist Jew, Menelaus, in 'The Gymnasium' who is so determined to cut of all connections with his Judaism, reminds me of the leftwing Jewish intellectuals who find it fashionable to side with the enemies of Israel, by embracing pro-Palestinian left-fascism.
In 'King of the Jews' we learn about King Herod, and observe the portrait of a tyrant and about the cruel persecution of his people, and in 'Yigal and his Three Generals' we see just how fierce is the will of the Jewish people to rule their own land.
The discussion between Count Volkmar and a Jewish Rabbi in 'The Fires of Ma Couer' illustrate how wherever Jews are, they always remember that their only true homeland is Israel, and 'The Saintly Men of Safed' explores the flowering of the spiritual life of Judaism in the town of Safed in northern Israel in the 16th Century, as well as how Safed was a town where Jews came from around Europe, to escape persecution.
Therefore we read in this chapter about the humiliation suffered by Jews in Spain, Germany and Italy during this time.
In 'Twilight of an Empire' we see even in the 19th century how the Arabs conspired with a powerful Empire to deprive the Jews of land in their own homeland, and how a young Jewish traveller from Russia comes across Jews whose ancestors always stayed in Israel throughout the Diaspora.
There was always a significant continuous presence in that country.
And then there is 'Rabbi Itzic and the Sabra' which draws on the sacrifices and ideals of the young Jews who fought and died to reestablish the State of Israel.
Michener therefore provides much insight but as I have showed in the first half of this review there where some things he got wrong.
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on November 7, 2002
The Source is more about a town and the surrounding Galilee in Israel than anything else. The novel starts out with a group of archaeologists just beginning a dig in a hill where the town of Makor used to be. While the story of the archaeologists is very important, most of the story is made up of short stories about the town of Makor and the Galilee. The stories are mostly about one character, and what happens to him or her during some turbulent times in history. From the Agricultural Revolution in 10,000 B.C. to the Israeli War of Independence, each short story occurs in an important time. There are also several links to each story from another, meaning this is novel is not just a collection of short stories.
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction. James Michener combines historical fact and storytelling to make an enjoyable experience that really makes you understand what life was like for our ancestors. After the introduction of the Archaeologists, you will be in a different time and a different place, and the only thing that can lead you around are the words on the pages.
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on April 26, 2002
Level 15 - The Bee Eater (9834-9831 BCE): Cave
Ur is a cave-man and bee-eater who begins the evolutionary journey from hunter to farmer.
Level 14 - Of Death and Life (2202-2201 BCE): Canaanite (Pre-Abram)
Urbaal is a rich farmer obsessed with the temple prostitute Libamah. This episode also features Urbaal's wife Timnah, and his fellow farmer Amalek.
Level 13 - An Old Man & His God (1419 BCE): Patirarchal (a few generations after Abram)
Zadok is a patriarch and worshipper of El-Shaddai (and is commanded by El-Shaddai to go west out of the desert into the promised land of Canaan) who clashes with Uriel, a governor and worshipper of Baal.
Level 12 - Psalm of the Hoopoe Bird (966-963 BCE): Davidic (End of King David's reign)
Jabaal (nicknamed Hoopoe) is the engineer and rebuilder of Makor's wall, and is a Canaanite married to Kerith the daughter of a Hebrew priest. This episode also features Mehab the Moabite slave, and Gershom the psalm singer who seeks refuge at the altar as a murderer.
Level 11 - The Voice of Gomer (606-605 BCE): Babylonian (Beginning of Babylonian era, Egyptians defeated by Babylonians at Carchemish)
Gomer is a prophetess who prophesies the exile to Babylon by Yahweh due to Baal worship.
Level 10 - In the Gymnasium (167 BCE): Hellenistic (Judah the Maccabee under Greek Seleucid ruler Antioches Epiphanes)
Jehubabel is a proverb quoting traditional Jew who refuses to compromise the ritual of circumcision and is forced to stand up against Governor Tarphon (the local representative of the Seleucid ruler Antioches Epiphanes), and so embodies the spirit of Judah the Maccabee.
Level 9 - The King of the Jews (4 BCE): Herodian (Birth of Jesus Christ under Herod)
Timon Myrmex is a friend of vicious king Herod, who testifies that in the conflict between Jews and Rome, Herod's terrible cruelty doesn't silence the cry of Jewish faith "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one."
Level 8 - Yigal & His Three Generals (40-67 CE): Vespasian (Jews under Josephus, in time of emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, and especially the destruction of Jerusalem by Vespasian)
Yigal is a simple farmer who incites Jews to die rather than worship the emperor as god.
Level 7 - The Law (326-351 CE): Byzantine (Judaism is forming the Talmud, and Christianity is resolving conflicts over the person and natures of Christ at the Council of Nicea)
Rabbi Asher and other scholars in Tiberias are producing the Gemera, in the line of Rabbi Akiba who produced the Mishna, these two works later becoming the Talmud, a codification of centuries of oral law. This law excludes Menahem, bastard son of Yahanan the stone-cutter, from the congregation, but Menahem finds that he is welcomed in the Christian congregation, later becoming St. Mark of Antioch. A basilica commissioned by the Christian emperor Constantine's mother Queen Helena is being built under the Byzantine Father Eusebius.
Level 6 - A Day in the Life of a Desert Rider (635 CE): Muslim (The spread of Islam, shortly after Muhammed's death)
Abd Umar is a slave of the Prophet Muhammed (descendant of Ishmael) and conquers Makor with the new religion of Islam. This episode also features Shimrith, a Jew raped by her brother-in-law Aaron, and unprotected when Jewish laws are mishandled by an ineffectual rabbi.
Level 5 - Volkmar (1096-1105 CE): Crusader (The first crusades)
German Count Volkmar and his brother-in-law Gunter are persuaded by Peter the Hermit to join the crusaders. After devastating losses on the way to Jerusalem, they settle in Makor where they are aided by the local Shaliq ibn Twefik (Luke) and build a Crusader's fortress.
Level 4 - The Fires of Ma Coeur (1289-1291 CE): Marmeluke (The last crusade)
Count Volkmar VIII has lived in truce with Muslim empire, now in the hands of Marmalukes who occasionally allow the Christians to go on pilgrimages to holy places. But the last crusade ends this peaceful truce, and the Crusader fortress of Ma Coeur is beseiged and falls forever.
Level 3 - The Saintly Men of Safed (1521-1541 CE): Kabbalistic (Christians [eg Spanish Inquisition] are persecuting Jews, and in Safed the Kabbala makes its place alongside the Torah and Talmud in Judaism)
Rabbi Zaki from Italy, Rabbi Eliezer from Germany and Rabbi Abulafia from Spain all flee persecution and oppression of the Jews by Christians by going back to Israel, to Safed, where they are instrumental in the next stage of development of Judaism.
Level 2 - Twilight of an Empire (1855-1880 CE): Turkish (As the power of the Turkish Ottoman empire fades, Jews begin resettling in Israel)
The Russian Jew Shmuel Hacohen pays extensive bribes to the Arab Governor Faraj Tabari to purchase land near Tiberias for repatriated Jews to begin working the land.
Level 1 - Rebbe Itzik and the Sabra (1948 CE): Independence (The establishment of the state of Israel after World War II)
Eliav and Vered represent a new brand of Jew, trained in warfare, who are outnumbered but defend Safat in a remarkable victory over the Arabs after the British withdraw. Traditional Judaism is represented by Rebbe Itzik.
Level 0 - The Tell (1964 CE): Kibbutz (Modern Israel)
Vered marries neither Eliav nor Cullinane, but Zodman and moves to America.
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