Because cultures delineate time according to different systems, it is arbitrary and irrational to ascribe essential qualities to a specific decade or century. Under the Mayan calendar, which plots duration in units of fifty-two years, neither “The Gay Nineties” nor “The Roaring Twenties” would have meaning, or existence. Nevertheless, during the final years of what the Gregorian calendar denominates the twentieth century, excitement about the advent of a new millennium pervaded popular culture, even if that new millennium would not begin until January 1, 2001, rather than, as widely assumed, January 1, 2000. Added to apocalyptic awe over the approach of a date written with three zeroes was anxiety over what was called the Y2K (year 2000) phenomenon—the fear that because computers were not programmed to differentiate between the years 1900 and 2000, the result would be technological paralysis.
In Israel, which employs the lunar Hebrew calendar as well as the solar Gregorian one, transition from the year 5759 to 5760 lacks apocalyptic implications. However, Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua plots his novel according to the Julian calendar—a cruder version of the Gregorian—and sets it one thousand years earlier: in the year 999 of the common era, which was also 4759 in the Jewish calendar and which Muslims counted as 389 since Muhammad’s Hegira (migration from Mecca to Medina in Arabia). Recent historians have observed that agitation over the millennium was not nearly as clamorous in 999, when calendars were not uniform, precise, or ubiquitous, as in 1999. Yet the medieval Europe that Yehoshua evokes is rife with rumors of apocalypse, of the imminent Second Coming, and of dire consequences for Jews and others who do not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.
Yehoshua’s second historical fiction, after Mr. Mani (1993; Mar Mani, 1989), A Journey to the End of the Millennium tells the story of the expedition by a prosperous Jewish merchant, Ben Attar, from his home in Tangier to Paris in order to persuade his nephew, Raphael Abulafia, to resume their business partnership. A map inside the book’s front and back covers defines the geography of the medieval world through which Yehoshua’s protagonist travels. For several years, Ben Attar, Abulafia, and an Arab named Abu Lutfi have been partners in a flourishing enterprise. After Abu Lutfi acquires fabrics, spices, hides, pottery, and other goods from throughout his native North Africa, he and Ben Attar transport them to Spain, where Abulafia takes charge of them. Based in Paris, Abulafia wanders about Europe peddling this exotic merchandise that puts many Christians in mind of the land from which their Savior came. Each summer, the three men meet outside Barcelona to apportion their profits.
Abulafia had been leading a solitary, itinerant existence since the death of his beloved wife who, distraught over the birth of their deformed daughter, threw herself into the sea. Abandoning their home in Tangier, Abulafia roamed throughout Spain and France until he met Mistress Esther-Minna, a childless widow from Worms. She makes it a condition of their marriage that Abulafia dissolve the partnership with his uncle that caused him to spend so much time on the road. Yet Esther-Minna is even more disturbed by the fact that, after buying Abulafia’s house in Tangier, Ben Attar has installed a second wife in it. Though polygamy was not an uncommon practice among the Jews of North Africa, Esther-Minna, a Rhineland Jew, considers it an abomination. In fact, around 950 c.e., the European Jewish sage Gershom of Mayence had promulgated a ban on polygamy that would have reinforced her horror of the custom. Early in her second marriage, Esther-Minna insists that her new husband repudiate both the institution of double matrimony and the revered uncle who embraces it—and his two wives.
A Journey to the End of the Millennium focuses on forty-year-old Ben Attar’s formidable voyage from Tangier up along the Atlantic coasts of Spain, Portugal, and France and down the Seine into Paris, then a burgeoning village. His purpose is to vindicate his way of life by overcoming Esther-Minna’s antagonism. Determined to demonstrate that two wives are better than one, Ben Attar is confident that he can persuade his nephew’s intrusive European wife that he is guilty of nothing that should prevent...
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