Estranged brothers track secret society in 'The 36'

Weaving a complex fictional story around historical and Talmudic material.

 THE CAVE of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which plays a role in the novel, photographed by a drone.  (photo credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS)
THE CAVE of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which plays a role in the novel, photographed by a drone.
(photo credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/REUTERS)

For Israeli tour guide-educator Josh Even-chen, leisure tourism is a vehicle for Israel, Zionist and Jewish education. The 36, his self-published novel, uses the written word as a vehicle toward the same goal.

“It’s a fictional story within the framework of a nonfiction book,” is the way he explained his first novel at book-launch events last fall.

Reminiscent of Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) “holy grail” thrillers, The 36 follows the quests, conflicts and clue-chasing of protagonists Yitzchak and Adir Goren – identical twins in looks but not in worldview – as they race against the clock to solve a mystery steeped in Jewish history, archaeology, geography, beliefs, culture and texts.

The first few chapters introduce plot strands from three Common Era time periods: the years 70-73, when Jerusalem falls to the Romans and the last rebels make a final stand at Masada; 1854, when the Christian physician James Turner Barclay discovers Zedekiah’s Cave in Jerusalem with the help of his pet dog, Jericho; and 2010, when Adir, an Israel Antiquities Authority law enforcement agent, and Yitzchak, his estranged ultra-Orthodox brother, reluctantly reunite in a desperate and dangerous attempt to locate their missing father.

Adir and Yitzchak pool their vast – and vastly different – knowledge sets as they scour four of Israel’s holiest cities and sites following a trail of riddles devised by a mysterious secret society, The 36.

 The menorah from the Second Temple is depicted being carried by Romans on the Arch of Titus. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO) The menorah from the Second Temple is depicted being carried by Romans on the Arch of Titus. (credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM/GPO)

In time, the plot strands begin coming together as the twins realize their quest to find a missing person is intricately tied to finding the missing Temple treasures.

The 36 isn’t an Indiana Jones-type adventure, because the protagonists are Jerusalem-bred scholars on a personal mission rather than foreign treasure hunters seeking academic or personal glory. Neither is it a highly polished work of literature. Quite simply, it is an exciting, entertaining and – by design – educational story into which Even-chen successfully poured 20 years of experience in education-oriented tour guiding. And I couldn’t put it down.

The plot’s engine is fueled by facts, legends and collective wisdom of Jewish and Israeli history. Outside of a fictional context, these could come across as dry. Folded into a fast-paced narrative, they pop.

As someone with a keen interest in our land’s history and geography, I was familiar with much of the material presented, but I still found plenty of new fascinating facts to learn, such as the Jerusalem Talmud was composed in Tiberias, not Jerusalem.

Nor had I known of the true story of Israel Security Agency Jerusalem district director Yehudah Arbel, who in 1968 was assigned by Moshe Dayan to explore the Cave of the Patriarchs. As Even-chen’s character, Adir, explains it, “Arbel discovered that the best way down was via a floor aperture in Isaac’s Hall. Unfortunately, this circular opening had such a narrow diameter – only 28 cm. – it only allowed passage for a person of minimal mass and girth. Unable to meet the physical requirements himself, Arbel recruited his twelve-year-old daughter. She navigated the opening and camera in hand, documented the area until halted by a blocked passageway.”

In addition to these and other historical tidbits, I was intrigued by Even-chen’s firsthand account of how the drama at Masada may have unfolded, how the Romans’ goals in Jerusalem may not have matched the way the events played out and where the long-lost Temple vessels may be hidden.

Weaving a complex fictional story around a vast amount of historical and even Talmudic material, Even-chen doesn’t forget to make that story fun to read. The 36 is full of hair-raising escapades, unexpected twists and an unconventional way to experience Israel from your armchair. 

The 36: A Modern Quest in the Ancient Holy LandBy Josh Even-chen516 pages; $17.95