"WHO GOT their flu shot?"
"I got mine Saturday."
"Good for you!"
"After your flu shot you get to have graham crackers and milk!"
I am sitting in an audience of 400-plus mostly older Jewish people in the sanctuary of Temple De Hirsch Sinai on Capitol Hill, listening to the conversation of some senior citizens behind me and waiting for the appearance at the podium of the evening's speaker: Bruce Feiler, whose book about the first Hebrew patriarch, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, was prominently featured in a Time cover story and ever since has hovered among the nation's 10 best-selling books.
I'm here because I, too, am the author of a biography of Abraham, though Feiler beat me to it. I started researching more than three years ago, and my book will be published in April by Doubleday. He started his two weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, he tells me, and published a year later with William Morrow.
It was last April, at Passover, that I first learned Feiler was working on an Abraham book. At our Seder table, a guest piped up. "I just heard the most interesting speaker at the U-Dub, a young man named Bruce Feiler. He's coming out with an Abraham book. Like you, right? He's very charming, very cute!
"Oh, did I say something wrong?"
My face had turned matzah-colored. Yes, I'd heard of Feiler. His previous book, Walking the Bible, retracing the steps of the Israelites from Genesis to Deuteronomy, sold a quarter-million copies. The attendant publicity promised to lift the new book to similar heights, overshadowing mine.
Not that our books are similar. I've got a thousand footnotes; Feiler, none. I argue that there are grounds for thinking Abraham was a historical person, as Jewish oral tradition portrays him. Feiler emphasizes his importance for reconciling Jews, Muslims, and Christians—the idea of the patriarch more than the man himself, who, Feiler says, may have been either "an actual figure or a composite." In journalism, when a reporter creates a "composite" figure based on various people, it's recognized for what it is: fiction.
Feiler is bright and well spoken, charming and cute—boyish, the type of clean-cut, respectful young man (actually we're the same age, 37) that grandparents kvell over. His audience seems happy not to have to choose between a real and a fictional Abraham.
Prior to the speech, there's supposed to be a 15-minute "press conference," but I'm the only press to show up. Feiler's handler holds up five fingers to me and whispers emphatically, "Five minutes."
Would it matter, I ask the author, if you decided that Abraham never lived, but was definitely only a composite?
He shakes his head dismissively: unimportant. "No, the truth in the story is not affected by this question of historicity." Then he's swept off by the handler, and I don't get a chance to tell him that no question is more important.
Feiler writes that the patriarch can be a vehicle for uniting half the world's religious believers, if only we agree to make up a new ecumenical Abraham, drawing on the "perpetual stream of Abrahamic ideals [that] has existed just under the surface of the world for as long as humans have told themselves stories. And every generation—at moments of joy and crisis—tapped into the same source. Each generation chose an Abraham for itself." The Abraham for our time, he tells the crowd at the temple, "should surf the Internet. He should fall asleep at lectures. He should need to lose 10 pounds. Our Abraham should be like us.
"Abraham. I choose him."
It's an appealing thought. If Abraham is fiction, then we can mold him however we like. Why anyone should take a made-up figure seriously is another question.
Alas, such a nice Abraham is particularly hard to sustain if you've read the Koran. I mean every sura, not just the isolated, unthreatening passages about Ibrahim. The Muslim holy book boils with anger at Jews and Christians. God is quoted as saying, "Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends to one another." "The unbelievers among the People of the Book and the pagans shall burn forever in the fire of Hell. They are the vilest of all creatures." And so on and on. This is the context for any Abraham that believers in the Koran might choose.
Still, the bubbies and zaydies and others at Temple De Hirsch Sinai loved Bruce Feiler. The appeal of following sentiment over intellect—cherishing Abraham as the "seed of hope," while declining to make the hard choices and recognize the distressing reality—is universal, found among the young and the old.
His book is comfort food for the soul, to be served with graham crackers and milk. My book, I hope, will be more like black coffee, waking readers to truths that Feiler lets them sleep through.
David Klinghoffer is the author of a spiritual memoir, The Lord Will Gather Me In: My Journey to Jewish Orthodoxy. His forthcoming book is The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism. Jewish Book Month will host a discussion about Feiler's Walking the Bible, 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19 at the Seattle Public Library Columbia Branch, 4721 Rainier Ave. S. 206-386-1909.