Hunt for the truth

Melanie Phillips’s latest novel showcases a British Jew on a physical and spiritual journey.

AN ANCIENT manuscript sends Russell Woolfe on a surprising journey (photo credit: TATYANA MAKEYEVA/ REUTERS)
AN ANCIENT manuscript sends Russell Woolfe on a surprising journey
Is it possible to change your entire life? The Legacy, British journalist and Jerusalem Post columnist Melanie Phillips’s latest novel, answers that question with a resounding affirmative.
The captivating and well-crafted story of a middle-aged British television producer’s reconciliation with his past and with his Jewish identity, The Legacy is a thoroughly enjoyable novel from a talented writer.
The Legacy, though, is not only a good summer read. The book also presents a moral argument about what kind of change is possible and good – for Phillips’s character and for us.
The novel’s protagonist, Russell Woolfe, is divorced, estranged from his family, with his career stalled. The book opens on the day of his father’s funeral. Swooning on the train platform edge, Russell only barely escapes falling to his own death on the tracks of the London Underground – a fitting symbol of how close he is to disaster.
Russell’s transformation begins in his childhood synagogue on the following Shabbat. Having attended the Orthodox service out of a sense of obligation, at the kiddush Russell happens to meet an old man who offers to show him an “ancient” and valuable Hebrew book kept hidden in his family for generations.
When Russell turns up at the designated address, the man, an immigrant from Eastern Europe named Joe Kutchinsky, shows Russell his treasure: a medieval Jewish manuscript written in French but using Hebrew characters. He tasks Russell, who happened to study French at Oxford, with translating the book. Under Kutchinsky’s watchful and suspicious eye, Russell painstakingly reveals the story of Eliachim of York, a British Jew like himself who lived a thousand years earlier.
At first, Russell is interested in the manuscript only as a juicy documentary tidbit to pitch to the BBC. But as Eliachim’s chronicle – an account of personal tragedy and communal disaster in 12th-century England – reveals itself, he becomes enthralled in the manuscript’s world and that of its owners. His search for the truth behind the manuscript’s history leads him to the United States and to Jerusalem, but his devotion to the book’s Jewish story also reverberates throughout his life. He reconciles with his sister and with his father’s memory, truly becomes a parent to his teenage daughter, and finds new love.
Even though the self-consciously “medieval” passages Phillips includes from the fictitious manuscript are the weakest part of the novel, the ability of a new project to prompt new questions and new perspectives certainly rings true. At book’s end, a calm and clear-eyed Russell has left his former frazzled and fretful self behind.
BUT WHAT, exactly, is that change? For a book so clearly about Judaism and Jewish history, particularly in Britain, and so filled with strong emotions, the Jewish identity that Russell finally embraces seems surprisingly mild. Despite his Orthodox background and a newfound appreciation for religion, Russell does not himself become an observant Jew. Despite a sojourn in Israel, he does not make aliyah. He remains in London with Damia, his new half-Hindu, half-Muslim Pakistani immigrant girlfriend – not exactly the standard model of Jewish continuity or identity.
The best way to put it, perhaps, is that Russell’s old political and cultural assumptions are turned on their heads. At the beginning, the reader finds him a staunch progressive, a supporter of immigration and open borders, social justice, and the downtrodden everywhere. At the book’s end, Russell comes to believe that those whom he had thought victims, like Muslim immigrants in the UK or Palestinians, are actually oppressors.
In a telling scene, Russell and his girlfriend brave a phalanx of violent pro-Palestinian protesters to attend a concert by an Israeli classical quartet. At the concert’s end, the mostly non-Jewish audience rises to its feet as the group plays “Hatikvah.” This is British decency, Damia explains proudly to Russell, and that kind of decency – a metonymy for the entire edifice of Western civilization at its best – is really the issue at stake.
Jewishness is an important component of Russell’s new worldview, though only so far, it seems, as it is part of a larger edifice of Judeo-Christian civilization, in opposition to an aggressive Muslim world. Phillips shapes all her characters with an impressive complexity; even a Polish war criminal has a backstory. But, strikingly, Muslims and their allies are unfailingly shallow and borne to intolerance and violence.
But decency, thoughtfulness, self-reflection and self-discovery are not the sole property of the West. The Legacy itself could be retold, almost note for note, as an equally compelling and equally true Muslim story of rediscovery and redemption; this universality is part of the book’s great appeal. It is a pity that it seems that Phillips herself does not think so.