Midway through rabbinical school, Burton Visotzky fell in love with midrash — rabbinic narrative and interpretation of the Bible. Maybe it is not a surprise that an English major from the University of Illinois would be drawn to rabbinic literature, but the resonance was more than just academic.
“It was like one of those Jungian moments,” says Rabbi Visotzky, professor of midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. “It sang to my soul. These were stories that not only were very quirky and Kafkaesque, they were my memories and spoke to my collective unconscious.”
When he decided to write fiction, these same stories came to play a central role.
Set in the 11th century in Tunisia and Egypt, Burton Visotzky’s novel, “A Delightful Compendium of Consolation: A Fabulous Tale of Romance, Adventure & Faith in the Medieval Mediterranean” (Ben Yehuda Press), interweaves midrash, tales of “The 1001 Arabian Nights” and extant religious and business texts found in the geniza, or storeroom, of a Cairo synagogue.
As a professor, Rabbi Visotzky has written scholarly academic texts, of course. But it is his popular Judaica publications that prefigure his foray into fiction, reflecting the very quirkiness he admires in the midrash of the rabbis — “the joy in the text, the simultaneous incredible regard for scripture and at the same time the chutzpah the rabbis had playing with the literature.”
With eight books under his belt, he was ready to stretch himself a little. Having done the ninth century with his “Midrash on Proverbs,” he wanted to study the 10th or 11th.
Both the period and his own interests came together for him in the person of Rabbenu Nissim, a great Jewish legal authority in North Africa who also composed what Rabbi Visotzky calls “a marvelously quirky collection of ‘aggadot (tales),” from which his novel takes its title.
Between 1999 and 2001, Rabbi Visotzky immersed himself in the daily lives of 11th-century rabbinic and Karaite Jewish communities, with the help of S.D. Goitein’s six- volume opus on the Cairo Geniza documents, “A Mediterranean Society,” and work on the period by Princeton University professor of Near Eastern Studies Mark Cohen.