Book review: Diane Weber Bederman, The Serpent and the Red Thread, The Definitive Biography of Evil (Canada, Mantua Books, 2019, 98pp.) Jacques Chitayat

Jacques Chitayat

Of all the books dealing with the history of antisemitism, none examine the world’s oldest hatred in quite the same way as Diane Weber Bederman’s The Serpent and the Red Thread, just published by Mantua Books. This is evidenced by journalists’, professors’ and authors’ prefatory remarks, even before the reader has opened its covers: they agree that it cannot be placed in one single category. Indeed, it is neither a historically-researched study, nor solely a Biblically-styled fictional tale. Rather, as the author herself explains, it is “a documentary, about the oldest, most irrational evil: Jew-hatred; told through the voices of Biblical and historical figures”. Of all the words used to describe Bederman’s book, “poetic, mystical and prophetic”, “chilling”, and “passionate” come up just as often as “biography” and “[short] history”.

The narration follows a serpent – the one who tempts Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit – and a red thread dangling from its mouth which, as Bederman writes, “invisibly connects evil from one generation to the next”. As pages go by, this red thread finds new homes ripe with hate to wrap itself around, starting with Amalek, an ancient tribe and recurrent enemy of the Israelites, then extending itself to Haman, prophet Muhammad, the Spanish Inquisitors, and so on: “The serpent, red thread clenched, moved on, in the time of the universe, between the beginning of time and the end of time it was merely a moment and found a home in Spain, as the Muslim domain fell, and the Catholic world rose. The Inquisition: convert, die, or be expelled”. 

Bederman does an impressive job of showing how German culture prior to World War Two was, as she puts it, ripe for takeover by hate. As the reader will see, the red thread of evil had very comfortably wrapped itself around the German psyche in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Not only does she explain the Germans’ need for a scapegoat to channel their anger after their World War One defeat, she also delves into many nineteenth-century theorists of “racial science”, such as Guido von List, Arthur de Gobineau, and Richard Wagner’s writings. By doing so, Bederman manages to paint a much more detailed portrait of the cultural and intellectual context that made this antisemitic hatred possible. These authors, she writes, heavily influenced the Germans’ and “hitler’s” dreams of a mythical Volk and their hatred of Jews. The author makes sure to write “hitler” in lower-case because, in her own words, “no respect must ever be accorded to him”. Moreover, the author’s fascinating style manages to convey this subtle information while maintaining the book’s seamless narrative flow.

Diane Bederman has said that she wrote this book almost automatically, the words flowing onto paper. Her love for the Jewish people, its history and contributions, along with her own fears, fueled the passion that so evidently emanates from her words. The author gave the Biblical characters voice to the questions Jews have always asked, about God, their identity, and the never-ending hatred they have endured. Her studies of the Talmud, Jewish history, and rabbinical interpretations, as well as her own questions as a mother and grandmother, all contribute to the characters’ dialogues and personalities.

In the chapters dealing with the Holocaust, Bederman uses some of the experiences that figure in Elie Wiesel’s books. Another character, Sophia, serves to tell the truth about the “Holocaust by bullets” which, according to Bederman, many people are still unaware of. This refers to the first stages of the Holocaust, before the use of concentration and extermination camps, where countless Jews were systematically killed one by one by Nazi firing squads in Eastern Europe. Bederman’s choice to have the witnesses to these events narrating their experiences as they live them, just like the biblical characters’ dialogues, makes the horrors feel more personal to the reader.

In the course of the author’s original way of storytelling, the writing slithers between her passionate mythological, poetic and expository style and historical research. As mentioned, this story of hate is told through the voices of biblical characters:

“Sarah’s heart was broken when she heard what had taken place on Mount Moriah. She ached for her son. The fear she must have felt. How helpless she must have been (…) Yet, here she was walking paths paved with the bloated, putrefying bodies of her people; witnessing the death of her children, seeing them rising in the smoke from a great furnace. Sarah thought of all of them as her children. Was not the promise made first to her husband Abraham that he would be exceedingly fruitful and that this covenant would be passed to his children and his children’s children for all eternity?”

The book ends with a cautionary chapter on the state of current antisemitism in its modern form, Bederman’s conclusion illustrating once more her innovative narrative method: “Social media (…) has aided the Jew-hating frenzy sharing information around the world in a nano-second. Now we know how much worse it would have been in the Nazi era. Has the old not become new again? (…) It is not beyond belief, post Holocaust, that pundits, professors, politicians and people of the cloth once again choose silence? (…) The Eternal will be at war against Amalek throughout the ages for these cowardly attacks on His people.”

It might seem surprising that “the definitive biography of evil” comes in a short and poetically-written book, but Bederman’s work will find a permanent place in many libraries. In fact, the Yad Vashem Library in Israel has just included it in their collection, and with good reason. With her truly unique style and storytelling method, Diane Bederman has managed to retrace the entire history of antisemitism from ancient times, through medieval Europe and the twentieth century, to the Muslim Brotherhood and modern anti-Zionism. The Serpent and the Red Thread takes a risky path in approaching a forbidding subject in so original a way, but it definitely succeeds. Those who are not well-versed in Biblical tales will enjoy this moving book just as much as experienced scholars of religion and Holocaust history: all will gain new insights into historical, as well as Biblical, knowledge and interpretation.

Jacques Chitayat, a graduate student in political science, is a Baruch Cohen

Research Intern at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.