I really enjoyed writing this book, soon after I settled in Oxford in 1995 – the first edition was published in 1996. This was after I had spent a decade or so, based in Birmingham, working internationally in interfaith relations, and had picked up a lot of experience in explaining Judaism to people of other faiths, so it was a great opportunity to be able to commit some of my not-always-establishment reflections to paper.
The little book came in for much praise, which was gratifying, but there were some foreseeable criticisms. I had designed Chapter 3 – How Did Judaism Develop? – around the lives of 10 Jews selected from personalities of the last 2,000 years. How do you choose them? Some, like Rashi, the great commentator on Bible and Talmud, were obvious. I wanted to include some women, but medieval Jews didn’t have much to say about their women, so in the end I included only two. Some people criticized me for not including enough women (they didn’t say who else I might have selected); others criticized me for including such an obscure character as Kahina Dahiya, a Jewish Berber princess who c. 700 CE held up the Arab advance across North Africa for a while, almost changing the course of European and world history. Another colourful character I managed to squeeze in was the mystic Abraham Abulafia who in 1280 set out to convert Pope Nicholas III (accused by Dante of simony) to Judaism, but Nicholas died in the night of an apopletic fit while Abulafia was still on the way. And I provocatively omitted the celebrated Maimonides from my list, in favour of Saadia whom I consider a greater philosopher, but was persuaded to add him to the reissued first edition (2000), bringing the total cast to 11.
The book has been translated into several languages, including Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Rumanian and two kinds of Spanish, one for each side of the Atlantic (but not into Hebrew). Translation has its own pitfalls. I had mentioned the sister of Dona Graçia. The worried Japanese translator emailed me: Older sister or younger sister? I had no idea, and had to do some research to find out; in Japan, of course, older and younger sisters are not just different words, but different relationships.
Revising for the second (2014) edition was fun too. The new edition updates a lot of things, like the table of Jewish populations worldwide. It also addresses a slightly different readership, which now includes a significant number of Muslims, who like Jews not only take an uncompromising view of the Unity of God, but understand the role of law (halakha in Hebrew; sharia in Arabic) in religion. And with the passage of 20 years I have grown older and see some things in a different light!