Eter­nal Life: A Novel

By – June 20, 2017

Immor­tal­i­ty has always fired the human imag­i­na­tion. Homer’s Odysseus spurned eter­nal life so that he could go home to his wife. The Chris­t­ian para­ble of the Wan­der­ing Jew sees immor­tal­i­ty as a curse: a Jew who mocks Jesus is pun­ished by being unable to die until the Sec­ond Com­ing. Today, high-tech lead­ers in Sil­i­con Val­ley are pour­ing bil­lions of dol­lars into anti-aging research, hop­ing to defeat death.

Eter­nal Life, a nov­el both adven­tur­ous and wise, imag­ines two immor­tals as old as the Wan­der­ing Jew who dwell among us today. Their lives retrace the jour­neys of the Jew­ish peo­ple, from Jerusalem to Anti­och to Pumbe­di­ta, in Alexan­dria and Alep­po, through Spain and Poland, to Amer­i­ca and Israel. Yet this is no alle­go­ry — it’s a love sto­ry, or many love sto­ries, with the same con­flicts and joys and heart­breaks that are part of any life.

The novel’s immor­tals, Rachel and Elazar, nev­er had the illu­sion that it would be a bless­ing to live for­ev­er. They made a bar­gain for rea­sons great and small and faced the con­se­quences. Elazar suf­fers from mem­o­ries of his fam­i­ly over dozens of gen­er­a­tions: I saw every child grow up. And I watched every sin­gle one of them die.” It’s almost more than he can bear. Rachel, on the oth­er hand, still lives for her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, as painful as that can some­times be. Yet she is haunt­ed by the cycles of his­to­ry. When a few peo­ple con­gre­gate threat­en­ing­ly in front of a Jew­ish shop, it reminds her of the many cat­a­stroph­ic mas­sacres that began just that way.

Dara Horn cap­tures the sights, smells, and sounds of Jerusalem under Roman occu­pa­tion as vivid­ly as she por­trays Man­hat­tan in our present moment of blockchain spec­u­la­tion and genet­ic research. She is also intel­lec­tu­al­ly provoca­tive, mus­ing about expla­na­tions of the sotah rit­u­al for accused adul­ter­ers, the word­ing of the Kol Nidre prayer, and the name of the High Priest’s orac­u­lar breast­plate. Strik­ing­ly, Horn has a priest sug­gest that the pow­er of the Tem­ple is to make peo­ple die with­out dying. With­out the Tem­ple we would have to wait until death to be judged or for­giv­en by God.” That’s a dev­as­tat­ing thought: immor­tals with no access to Tem­ple rit­u­als are con­demned to live with­out ever being forgiven.

Eter­nal Life is enlivened by wit­ty, mor­dant depic­tions of every­day life. One scene mem­o­rably describes a cour­t­house wait­ing room as a sin­gles bar: Every­one is sit­ting for­ev­er, just look­ing at each oth­er. It’s like an exis­ten­tial­ist play.” The nov­el­’s per­son­al­i­ties are also delight­ful­ly, thor­ough­ly believ­able — even the ones who make only brief appear­ances like the man with over­due papers and unful­filled oblig­a­tions swirling around him like a vis­i­ble man­i­fes­ta­tion of his har­ried soul,” or the char­ac­ter who reports My doc­tor told me to buy a juicer and it changed my life.”

There are a cou­ple of jar­ring notes — when, for exam­ple, Sec­ond Tem­ple Jews dis­cuss empow­er­ment or ques­tion author­i­ty as if they were emis­saries from twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. Else­where in the nov­el, a scribe remarks that the Tem­ple has prac­ti­cal­ly become the country’s cen­tral bank,” though there were no cen­tral banks in the world until a few hun­dred years ago. But those laps­es are few. Dara Horn brings immense imag­i­na­tion to her grip­ping sto­ry — an ambi­tious, sat­is­fy­ing, and mov­ing med­i­ta­tion on what we ulti­mate­ly live for.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of W.W. Nor­ton & Co. 

1. Rachel lives through many expe­ri­ences and cir­cum­stances through­out the mil­len­nia. What are the para­me­ters of her life? What rules does she use to gov­ern her eter­nal existence?

2. Elazar and Rachel con­front one anoth­er about the sep­a­rate lives they lead. When Rachel makes a com­ment about the wives Elazar has had, he defends him­self, say­ing, Don’t talk that way. It was real for them” (p. 12). Do you think Rachel and Elazar’s eter­nal lives make liv­ing some­how less real,” or more sep­a­rat­ed from reality?

3. Is Rachel what you expect from some­one who has lived for more than two thou­sand years? Why or why not?

4. What prob­lems does the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry pose for Rachel? How is her predica­ment dif­fer­ent from past centuries?

5. Chap­ter 2 opens with a rumi­na­tion on Rachel’s regret (p. 6). What are her regrets in life? Does Elazar have the same regrets as Rachel?

6. The tem­ple exerts a strong influ­ence on Rachel as a young woman. How do reli­gion and notions of faith change through­out her life?

7. Zakkai ques­tions a trans­la­tion of the Torah, believ­ing that the word urim” means cursed,” not light” (p. 52). What is the sig­nif­i­cance of this trans­la­tion, and how does it tie in with Rachel’s predicament?

8. Eter­nal Life moves back and forth through time from mod­ern day to Rachel’s life grow­ing up in Jerusalem dur­ing the Roman occu­pa­tion. In between, her life takes many forms and iter­a­tions. Do you think she changes fun­da­men­tal­ly from who she was as a girl? In what ways? In what ways does she stay the same?

9. When the high priest Hana­nia tells Rachel she can save Yochanan if she makes the eter­nal vow, he rec­om­mends that she avoid doing so. You are young.… You will have more chil­dren,” he says (p.70). Do you find the adage time heals all wounds” to be applic­a­ble to Rachel’s life? How or how not?

10. Eter­nal Life has cer­tain par­al­lels with the leg­end of Faust, who makes a bar­gain with the Devil’s accom­plice Mephistophe­les. In exchange for knowl­edge and mag­ic pow­er, Faust promis­es his eter­nal soul to the Dev­il. In what ways do Rachel and Elazar’s lives par­al­lel the leg­end of Faust? How does their sto­ry cast it in a dif­fer­ent light, or sub­vert it?

11. Rachel con­fronts Yochanan about allow­ing the tem­ple to burn, and he explains that he made a choice to save the Torah schol­ars instead (pp. 205 – 6). What are the impli­ca­tions of his choice? What does it say about the things that remain eternal?

12. Elazar is hes­i­tant when Rachel tells him Han­nah might be able to put an end to Rachel’s eter­nal life. High priests used to have this pow­er,” Rachel tells him, Did it ever occur to you that Han­nah and peo­ple like her are the new high priests?” (pp. 214 – 15) What does Rachel mean by this? What does it imply about the mod­ern roles of sci­ence and reli­gion? Do you agree with Rachel’s perspective?

13. What does the arti­cle on Hannah’s career imply about her under­stand­ing of mor­tal­i­ty? Do you agree with her sentiments?

14. By the novel’s end, Rachel has start­ed yet anoth­er new fam­i­ly. What do you imag­ine for Rachel’s future?