The Book of the Unknown

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  • Edition: Original
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-02-10
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
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Marvelous and mystical stories of the thirty-six anonymous saints whose decency sustains the worldreimagined from Jewish folklore. A liar, a cheat, a degenerate, and a whore. These are the last people one might expect to be virtuous. But a legendary Kabbalist has discovered the truth: they are just some of the thirty-six hidden ones, the righteous individuals who ultimately make the world a better place. In these captivating stories, we meet twelve of the secret benefactors, including a timekeeper's son who shows a sleepless village the beauty of dreams; a gambler who teaches a king ruled by the tyranny of the past to roll the dice; a thief who realizes that his job is to keep his fellow townsfolk honest; and a golema woman made of mudwho teaches kings and peasants the real nature of humanity. With boundless imagination and a delightful sense of humor, acclaimed writer and artist Jonathon Keats has turned the traditional folktale on its head, creating heroes from the unlikeliest of characters, and enchanting readers with these stunningly original fables. From the Trade Paperback edition.

Author Biography

Jonathon Keats is the author of The Pathology of Lies and has written for Wired, The Washington Post, and San Francisco magazine, among other publications. Keats has been awarded fellowships by Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and the Ucross Foundation, and has chaired the National Book Critics Circle fiction award committee. He lives in San Francisco.


alef the idiot

Everybody knew that Alef was a fool. By trade he was a fisher­man, but folks had seen a lowly carp outsmart him. Even the fish that Alef landed seldom made it past his fellow sailors, who took turns at snookering him, to decide who among them was smartest. One might lead him to believe that the rock cod in his bucket would dry to stone, and generously offer to trade it for a worm with which to try his luck again. Another might persuade him that his flounder was no odd fish, but rather the castaway face of a diver gone too long underwater, and gra­ciously volunteer to return it to its rightful owner. To all these propositions, Alef eagerly agreed, blessed to have friends who accepted his dim wit, and looked after him.

Alef’s wife, on the other hand, was less forgiving of his shortcomings. Chaya was the daughter of a rabbi celebrated as a sage in the town where she was raised, and, while she had her mother’s dark hair and stormy eyes, she’d inherited her father’s luminous mind.

Since no one else in the rabbi’s village had been bright enough to comprehend him, least of all his wife and sons, the rabbi had taken little Chaya into his library and taught her the sacred tongue, to have someone with whom to study all that was holy. She’d mastered Hebrew with alacrity, and had learned to argue fine points of doctrine by the time she was ten. A year later, she’d trounced her father in a dispute over laws governing seminal discharge when the Sabbath sundown was occluded by a solar eclipse, from which she’d deduced that she was wiser than anyone, and, therefore, no longer had to obey her mother.

That had resulted in arguments of an altogether different order, fought in shrieks and fits and, more than once, with a hurled pot of boiling water. Scarcely his daughter’s height, and half the weight of his wife, the rabbi had studiously avoided these disputes, and even Chaya’s brothers, muscular thugs sev­eral years older than she, had learned to slip out the door whenever the stormy eyes of mother and child met.

Many times while his wife was away at market, the rabbi had tried to persuade Chaya to show compassion for her, or at least to respect her, as required by law. But Chaya had con­tested his interpretations, and even the ancient commentaries on which he based them, with such furious logic that the rabbi had been forced each time to concede defeat. Finally he’d gone to his wife, the rebbetzin, to explain how Chaya was different from other girls, and why obedience shouldn’t be expected of her. His wife hadn’t needed any fancy wordplay to reply. She’d simply accused the rabbi of loving his daughter in lieu of her.

This, too, he’d been unable to deny: Chaya’s body was as lithe as a serpent’s, and his weakness for dark hair and stormy eyes had already, of course, been established. He’d nodded and dumbly looked on while his wife had sent for the matchmaker, to get rid of the little nuisance.

In that village, the marriage broker was famous for cou­pling children the day they were born. Her trick was to know folks’ fortunes, and to reckon love economically, according to the supply and demand of dowry. But the rabbi had forbidden her from prematurely pairing his little Chaya: He couldn’t tol­erate predestination from an omniscient god, let alone a know-it- all yenta. So the old woman, sturdy like a pruned tree, had come to the rebbetzin without a suitable man.

– There must be someone.

– The locals are all taken.

– Chaya is the daughter of a rabbi.

– She comes with no dowry.

– My husband is not a rich man. But our Chaya is a pretty girl, after all.

– A pretty shrew, if you’ll pardon my saying so.

– Then yo

Excerpted from The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six by Jonathon Keats
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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