@The Source Israel spoke with author Yael Lotan, about her book, Avishag,
a fictional story about the world of King David. Lotan takes the biblical
character of Avishag the Shunamite, King David’s bed-warmer when he was nearing
the end of his life, and creates a strong friendship between the two.
As the relationship between King David and Avishag grows more complex,
Lotan tells the story of King David’s kingdom through his conversations with
Avishag. Avishag, is “used as a sounding board”, says Lotan. “I meant
the main character to be King David, not Avishag. It is the Arabian nights
“I was literally intrigued,” by the biblical story, says Lotan.
“It was a sort of coup d’etat.” The biblical story, found in I Kings I:1-4,
tells us that when King David was very old he was unable to get warm at night,
despite being covered with blankets. A search was made throughout the land
for a young virgin to warm him in his bed. Avishag the Shunamite was
brought to the king and became a companion to him, and ministered to him,
the king “knew her not”.
The description of David’s City and the surrounding areas enables the reader
to be transported to the region in the time of King David’s reign.
The novel is Lotan’s fictionalized version of King David’s kingdom and
its intrigues. She uses Avishag the Shunamite to tell the story because Lotan
imagines that Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) might have been written by a
woman. “I had read Shir HaShirim; if you read it in Hebrew, you can’t
help being struck by the concept that it was written by a woman; it could
be attributed to Avishag,” says Lotan.
Born into an old Israeli family, Lotan lived in Jerusalem under the British
Mandate. As a teen she moved to Great Britain, and then on to Jamaica and
eventually, the United States.
The mother of two children, one white and one of color, Lotan
witnessed racism first hand. Her older white son from a first marriage was
treated differently in the New York City school system than Lotan’s daughter,
father is an African-American. Seeing this, the family decided to return
to Israel in the 1970s where they felt all family members would get equal
treatment. Although she has mixed feelings about Israel, Lotan feels most
secure living in Tel Aviv, together with her extended family.
Whereas Lotan writes her novels in English, she writes book reviews for
the Hebrew daily newspapers, Yediot Ahronot and Ha’aretz, in Hebrew, and
translation at university. “Hebrew is wonderful for poetry, Biblical
Hebrew is archaic. English lends itself to many genres, which is good for
fiction. I wrote Avishag in a combination of King James English and modern
English giving the reader a sense that they are getting something old.”
The idea for the book evolved over a period of 15 years and the writing
is evocative of the land, its terrain, and the way of life that might have
been in the time of King David. The language has a musical cadence that
alludes to times past, and allows the reader to travel through time and
space, creating a literary work that could have taken place three millennia
“David is a remarkable character. He is terribly real and complex,” says
Lotan. “This is not a modern parable. We don’t have to expect characters
from 3000 years ago to be like us.”
The novel, Avishag, belongs to to a growing genre
of Modern Midrash.
Interview by M. Kaplan-Green