A nice Jewish boy from Savannah, Ga., author Bruce Feiler says he found the inspiration for his latest book in the Sistine Chapel.
Four years ago he and his wife and twin 8-year-old daughters were in Rome on a business trip. Feiler took his daughters one day to the Vatican, to teach them some art and culture. In the Sistine Chapel he instructed them to “look up,” at Michelangelo’s famed painting of the biblical creation scene on the ceiling.
They saw God reaching out to Adam. “Why is there only a man?” one daughter asked. “Where am I in that picture?”
Her sister, looking at the female image behind God whom people rarely notice, asked, “Who’s that woman under God’s arm? Is that Eve?”
For Feiler, a prolific author and New York Times Style columnist, his daughters’ questions were an answer to a question that had been on his mind for a while — what would the subject of his next book be? He wanted to do something about relationships, some new angle on a topic he’d written about before; but didn’t have a clear idea.
The twins clarified it — he would write about the world’s first couple.
In his just released “The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us” (Penguin Press), Feiler, a Brooklyn Heights resident, describes how he traveled around the world to research his iconoclastic theme: that the Torah’s depiction of ancient Adam and Eve is, in its essence, romantic, with contemporary relevance to people searching to strengthen their own love lives and relationships.
The book combines two frequent themes of his past writing: the world of the Bible and the men and women who populated it, and how people get along today.
“It’s about religion. It’s about family,” Feiler, 52, says, sitting in his living room that is decorated with artifacts from Israel, Iraq, France, Germany and other lands where his work has brought him over the last few decades.
Adam and Eve, a love story?
“Absolutely,” he says.
“Why does the [creation] story begin with two people?” he asks rhetorically.
“At every stage of Western civilization for the last 3,000 years, one story has stood at the center of every conversation about men and women,” Feiler writes in his introduction. “One story has served as the battleground for human relationships and sexual identity. One story has been both the ultimate source of division and a potential source of harmony in the history of the family. For some that story is a fantasy; for others it is a fact. But for everyone, it has enduring impact on how we live today.
“Adam and Eve are the first love story,” he writes in the last chapter. “It’s not [exclusively] a story of sins. Adam and Eve are the first love story in the sense of the first to exemplify the conscious decision to elevate human-human love to the plane of god-god love or god-human love.”
They were, Feiler points out, the first arranged marriage, the first matched-up couple, matched up by Someone with impeccable credentials. “For most human history,” until the advent of romantic-find-your-own-mate love, marriage was an “arrangement.”
In 296 pages, Feiler documents how Adam and Eve, who often serve as role models and sermon topics far less than such biblical figures as Moses or David or the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, are a paradigm of jealousy and betrayal and forgiveness and reconciliation and other ongoing behavior patterns among men and women.
Some aspect of Adam and Eve is omnipresent, he says. “I now see their story everywhere.
“They have been at the heart of the conversation [about relationships] for 3,000 years,” he says. Their examples, not their names, Feiler says; when people talk about getting along, they’re talking about how Adam and Eve did it, but the couple’s names are rarely on people’s lips. “To ignore them is to put blinders on. They seem to most people to be a children’s fable.”
Feiler’s book brings references to John Milton and Ernest Hemingway, Pope Francis and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of England, St. Augustine and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and bombshell Mae West, Frankenstein’s Mary Shelley and rabbinic commentaries, the Talmud and the New Testament, the Columbine shooting massacre and an Israeli archaeologist and an Iraqi town.
The book, he says, “is not an encyclopedia,” but its scope is encyclopedic.
Feiler estimates that he traveled at least 12,000 miles to venues he considered connected to the creation story.
An obvious question: how does Feiler define “love?”
“Love,” he answers, “is a story we can tell with another person.”
Hence, the Torah tells the Adam and Eve story from the perspective of both.
“She gave him an apple. That’s the first love moment.”
While working on the book, Feiler consulted with many biblical experts. Many “disagreed with me” about his theory of Adam and Eve as the prototype loving couple. “It doesn’t bother me.” His book presents enough evidence to make his case.
Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, director of the 92nd Street Y’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Life, who formerly served as senior spiritual leader at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, says Feiler’s writing about the Genesis figures who are the genesis of human relationships preforms a valuable theological service. “The first two chapters of Genesis are among the most un-understood and unfathomable chapters in the Torah. Anything that can fill in the lacuna would be value added.”
Feiler’s previous books on biblical themes “have been extraordinary,” Rabbi Rubinstein says. “They do add significantly to knowledge.”
Another obvious question: Does Feiler believe that Adam and Eve were a flesh-and-blood man and woman? Did they really exist.
He answers in the words of Avraham Biran, the late Israeli archaeologist: “I don’t know if they existed then, but they exist now.” That is, their lessons exist.
“We don’t have to believe in Greek myths, Feiler writes, “to believe they teach us something vital.
“No matter if you’re a believer, a nonbeliever, a seeker, a mediator, an I-go-to-services-two-times-a-year-otherwise-leave-me-aloner, every part of your interaction with the opposite (or even the same) sex is shaped to an astonishing degree by a three-thousand-year-old story that has fewer than two thousand words,” he writes. “If you’re in a relationship with another person, you’re in a relationship with Adam and Eve. They’re part of who we are.”
“I’m not a scholar,” Feiler says. Just a thorough researcher. “I grew up Jewish in the South. I’m a Jew married to a Jew. I’m raising Jewish children. I’m an active member of the Brooklyn Heights synagogue.”
Feiler calls the book a product of his cumulative personal and professional experiences in the last few decades — raising a family, overcoming cancer, writing about the Bible and family life. “I could not have written this book ten years ago.”
His daughters, looking up at the Sistine Chapel, inadvertently spurred the book, he says. “It began with a question.”
Bruce Feiler will speak Tuesday, March 21, 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble, 150 E. 86th St., Manhattan. Free. Barnesandnoble/com. He’ll also appear May 2 at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., Manhattan, in conversation with Rabbi Peter Rubinstein about “The First Love Story.” For information: (212) 415-5500.