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Iscariot

A Novel of Judas
By Tosca Lee

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Iscariot

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I was six years old the day we fled Jerusalem, and Caesar Augustus was emperor.

I had known nothing but Jerusalem all my life. It was the home of the Temple and navel of the world. Even infected with Roman soldiers and Herod’s stadium, God’s house was in Jerusalem, and no good man of Israel ever wanted to leave it.

And so I was stunned the day my father, a devout man, announced that we were leaving.

Especially now. Just that morning Father had come bursting into the house with the news that Herod, our king, was dead. I had thought it the happiest day of my life, if only because I had never seen Father so jubilant. He sang that day, one of the hymns of David, as my mother clapped her hands and my older brother Joshua and I went shouting and dancing into the street. We weren’t the only ones. Soon all Jerusalem would erupt with joy.

We were still celebrating when Father’s friend Aaron came hurrying toward the house. “Where’s your father? Simon!” he shouted. “They’re taking the eagle down!”

Father came out to meet him but Aaron was too excited to even kiss him in greeting. “They’ve gone to take Herod’s eagle off the Temple!”

Even at the age of six I had heard plenty about this abomination affixed to the great Temple gate, this golden kiss of our king to the buttock of Rome. It was everything a Jew must hate: a graven image, which was an affront to God’s law, and the symbol of Rome.

“Boys, get inside,” Father said. And then he left for the Temple.

For hours, I imagined him on the shoulders of others, tearing the eagle free to the sound of cheers. But when he returned, his jaw was tight beneath his beard.

“Pack what you can carry. Quickly,” he said. “We’re leaving.”

We left that night, bribing the guard to let us out the small door in the city gate.

All the next day we traveled in silence, my mother’s hand viselike around mine, my brother pale and pensive as he cast furtive glances at my father.

I didn’t know what had happened—only that Jerusalem was somehow unsafe and the lines had deepened around Father’s eyes. I knew better than to press him with questions; I would ask Joshua to explain it all to me later. He was brilliant, my ten-year-old brother. Even then everyone knew he would become a great teacher of the law. And for that reason I wanted to become one, too.

But a few hours later, when I realized I was the farthest from Jerusalem I had ever been, I began to worry.

“Father,” I said. “Will we be home in time for Passover?”

It was my favorite holiday, a time when Joshua and I went with him to buy our lamb and bring it to the Temple priests.

“No, Judas,” he said. “Jerusalem is a tinderbox and God calls us to Galilee.”

“But why—”

“No more now.”

That night, in the dank lower room of an inn, my brother lay in troubled silence beside me.

I leaned up on my elbow. A lone lamp somewhere on the floor above cast a dull glow across the stairwell; I could just make out Joshua’s profile staring up at the ceiling.

“Herod isn’t dead,” he said finally. “I heard Father talking with one of the men we traveled with today. It was a rumor. The king’s sick, but he’s alive.”

“But Father said—”

“He was wrong. They all were. The rumor gave men the courage to take the eagle down. Until Herod’s soldiers arrived.” He turned and looked at me. “Aaron was arrested.”

I stared at him in the darkness.

“It was the teachers Judas and Matthias who led the charge to the Temple with their students.”

Father and Aaron both had been students of the famous teacher Judas bar Sepphoraeus. It was partially for him—and for Judas Maccabee, the warrior called the Hammer—that I had been named. The lower room was suddenly far too cold.

“I heard Father say that when they got there Aaron pushed right through the mob. He climbed up on the shoulders of one of the students to help pull the eagle down. But Father couldn’t get through the crowd. So he stood back to watch—he said he wanted to witness for his sons what would surely become known as the first day of the Lord’s coming. They had just gotten the eagle off when the soldiers came. No one heard him trying to warn them through the cheering.”

“Then he didn’t do it!” But even as I said it, I was afraid.

Joshua was silent.

“Will they arrest Father?”

“No. But that’s why we left.”

“What’ll happen to the others?”

“I don’t know.”

“But what if—”

“Mother’s coming. Go to sleep.”

But I couldn’t sleep. Only after Father came down did I even close my eyes, but not before wishing we had traveled through the night. For the first time since leaving Jerusalem, I wished we were a league away.

I dreamed of soldiers. I was used to seeing them throughout the Holy City, coming in and out of the Antonia Fortress or working along the walls and aqueducts, but that night they came to the room where we slept and dragged my father away. I woke up screaming.

“What’s this, Judas? Hush,” Father said, drawing me next to him. I could smell the heat of day lingering on his skin. “All is well. Sleep now.”

I curled beneath the weight of his arm, my eyes open in the dark, until the soldiers became as fleeting as ghosts and there was only the low rumble of his breath beside me.

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WE WERE FIFTEEN MILES from the Sea of Galilee by the time we stopped in Scythopolis. It was nearly Purim, the spring feast before Passover.

Scythopolis was the largest city we had come to since Jericho and there was construction everywhere, including a wide street being paved in perfect basalt squares. We passed a building that looked like a temple and I gaped at the statue of a nude man in front of it, the finely chiseled face and full lips—the naked sex dangling between his thighs like a cluster of grapes. I had seen few graven images and I had never seen an uncircumcised penis.

“Look away,” Father said. “This is not the Lord’s.”

I did look away, but I was already reconstructing the images in my mind—of the nude man and wreath-headed others dancing in naked relief across the temple face behind him.

We found an inn run by Jews and that evening, after changing into clean clothing, began our fast and went to the synagogue.

Right in the middle of the reading of the scroll, my stomach began to growl. Joshua leaned over and whispered, “Maybe our fast will bring God’s kingdom that much more quickly.”

I nodded. I didn’t know exactly what the coming kingdom would look like except that there would be no Romans or Gentiles or Samaritans in it.

Most important, Aaron would not be arrested and Father would be safe.

That night we stayed up late on the roof with the other guests beneath the full moon. At home, my cousins would play games into the night and sleep late the next day, shortening the time until sundown when they could eat at last. But here there were no games, and the little children had already eaten and fallen asleep beside their mothers.

I was by then miserable with hunger, my stomach twisting into a fist. But I knew I must learn to fast if I hoped to be an important teacher like my brother, who listened in on the men’s conversation as though he were one of them already. But as the night wore on I began to pray for the comfort of sleep.

“Herod’s moved all those they rounded up to Jericho,” I heard the innkeeper say. “A merchant brought the news two days ago.”

Joshua nudged me and I realized they were talking about the men who had been arrested. Suddenly I was very awake.

Another man, who had walked with us from the inn to the synagogue earlier, shook his head. “There’ll be no good end for them. Why must they martyr themselves when, in a few more days, Herod will be dead? May the Lord make it so!”

A round of assenting murmurs.

I stared at Joshua, my heart hammering. I didn’t know what a martyr was, but I saw the roundness of my brother’s eyes, the grim line of Father’s mouth as all the men began speaking at once.

“The Romans will still be here.”

“I’d take the Romans over Herod. His own family isn’t even safe from him. Caesar said it right that he’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

“I wouldn’t put it past that whoreson to eat a pig.”

I rolled forward, arms clutched around my middle.

“Come, Judas,” Joshua whispered, motioning me to follow him downstairs. I uncurled in agony to follow him.

He led me to his roll near our things in one of the inn’s back rooms. After rummaging around, Joshua took my hand and laid a stale piece of bread in it. “Here. If you don’t eat, you’ll be sick like last time.”

I looked from him to the bread, thinking. I should give it back. I should throw it down.

“You are very zealous,” Joshua said. “But you are young and not expected to go without food.”

“But the coming kingdom—”

“A piece of bread will not make the Romans leave or Herod die any faster. I’m your older brother, aren’t I?”

I nodded, tears welling stupidly in my eyes. I ate the bread in quick bites as I followed Joshua back up to the roof.

I was just swallowing the last of it when a surprised shout broke the night—followed quickly by another and the shrill sound of a woman’s voice.

We ran back to the roof to find everyone on their feet staring at the sky. And then I saw why: The moon, so full and white when we had gone down into the house, was partially sheathed in shadow.

“It’s an omen!” someone said. “A sign!”

I blinked at the sky, at the moon half-covered as though with a black lid. Would it go out? What evil could do that?

And then I knew.

I began to tremble, my skin having gone cold and then hot at once. A wail filled my ears. It came from my throat.

“Shush, Judas!” My mother pulled me to her. But as she did, my stomach lurched and I doubled over and vomited at her feet. It was only a little amount, the bread having come out in pale bits shamefully illuminated by the light of the disappearing moon. I began to cry, the acrid taste in my mouth and nostrils, as my mother gathered me up and carried me past the mess to the corner. I was by now beside myself, shaking, hot tears tracking down my face.

“It’s my fault!” I cried.

“What?” My mother said.

“The moon—I did it.” As Eve with her fruit, I had ruined the moon for the sky.

“Ah, my dove, no you did not—what is a little bread to God? I told Joshua to give it to you so you wouldn’t get sick. Hush now,” she said, starting to clean my face. “This is not about you, Judas.”

But as shouts sounded from other rooftops and the men began to argue about what it meant, I knew better. The world could be ruined by the smallest of actions. For striking a rock, Moses had never entered the Promised Land. And now I had been the sky’s undoing.

I jerked away from my mother, ran to the clot of men, and found my father. I grabbed his sleeve.

“Judas! What’s this?”

I fell down to my knees, and he hauled me up under my arms.

“It’s my fault!”

“This? No, Judas, it’s a portent, a sign. Don’t be afraid. The Lord winks at us. See?”

I cried harder, hiccupping now. He didn’t know the grievousness of my sin. “I ate and see what happened!” I wouldn’t blame my mother or Joshua—I alone had eaten the bread.

He blinked at me in the darkness, and then chuckled. It had not bothered me so much that my mother did not understand, but hearing this from my father—and in the face of such obvious disaster—I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life.

“Do you think you’ve caused this, little Judas? But there—see? The moon is emerging again.”

I followed the line of his finger. Sure enough, the shadow had moved a little bit away. I watched as it began to retreat, my fear subsiding the tiniest increment.

He patted my back. “The Lord won’t reject you for being a hungry boy. But if it will make you feel better, we will immerse tomorrow.”

The next day I immersed in the synagogue mikva three times to the bafflement of my father and the empathetic observance of my brother. Not until the third time did I feel any measure of relief, and even then not until I went outside that evening and saw that the moon was whole once more.

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THE NEWS CAME BEFORE we left Scythopolis: Herod had died the night of the eclipse—but not before burning two of Jerusalem’s great teachers and forty of their students at the stake in Jericho. My father broke out with a great cry and tore his clothes. Joshua did likewise.

I simply cried.

The students who said they had not instigated the taking down of the eagle survived, and I hated them for it. I hated them because I knew Aaron was not among them—Aaron who would have condemned Herod until the last of his life for sheer love of the law. And then I cried harder because I wished he had not loved the law so much.

For nights to come I shivered beneath my blanket and dreamed of the students burning in the fires.

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THOUGH I THOUGHT I shouldn’t love Sepphoris, I did. I shouldn’t, because it was far from Jerusalem, and her fortress seemed to inhabit a world that knew no such thing as the holy Temple. And I should not love it because it was Herod’s, and even though Herod was dead, his sons were eagle-kissers just like him who wanted everything Roman—down to the scraps of power the empire threw them like crusts to dogs.

But I loved it because Father was safe. Nothing could touch us here.

I came to know Sepphoris by its sounds. Voices of children my own age wafted up from farther down the hill where the farmers kept their houses and tended their vineyards. Roosters crowed throughout the day. At times I could hear one of the distant shepherds playing a flute. And always there was birdsong.

That spring when it rained, water trickled from the roof into the channels of the cisterns below. It was a good sound, the sound of water. Moss clung to the stones of the houses, so that even on sunny days the air near any house seemed to smell of rain as pines rustled overhead.

We stayed with my father’s cousin, Eleazar—a priest who helped place Joshua and me with a teacher who was so impressed with Joshua’s early abilities that he called him “little rabbi.”

I saw how everyone looked at him with ready fascination, as though such a boy might be proof that God had not forgotten us, but planted in the soil of this generation the mustard seed of a greatness unknown by the last. And though I knew I would never be Joshua’s equal, I didn’t care. People would say, “There goes the brother of Joshua bar Simon. What is his name? Ah, that’s right—Judas.” And that would be enough.

That year was the first that I did not go to the Temple for Passover. Instead, we watched the families that left together, my heart full of jagged envy as they sang their psalms out the city gate.

Eleazar had fallen ill weeks before and been unable to leave with the rest of the priests. I saw the way his wife, old Zipporah, covered her face with her hands when she thought no one was looking. It made me afraid for Eleazar, whom I had grown fond of, and I prayed for him. I immersed so often that my brother got angry with me and told me that even the Pharisees didn’t wash that much, nor the Essenes, who were so extreme as to not move their bowels on the Sabbath. Was I going to keep from that as well?

I did briefly consider it, but I knew better than to rely on my stomach to do what it was told.

We celebrated Passover in the synagogue and at the home of Eleazar, who had recovered in what seemed like a miracle, claiming it was Mother and Zipporah’s good lamb stew.

Then, a few days later, the first pilgrims began to return.

Too early.

We had just gathered for the evening meal when Eleazar’s nephew came into the house, tearing at his hair.

“They slaughtered them with their sacrifices!” he shouted.

“What’s this?” Eleazar demanded, rising from his seat.

“The new king sent his guard to the Temple the day before the feast—a guard of foreign mercenaries. Some of the pilgrims started throwing stones at them in protest. The king retaliated by sending in his army. They massacred the people. Pilgrims—men, women, children. Thousands dead!”

Father staggered, the color gone from his face. The house that night was filled with Mother’s and Zipporah’s weeping and the groans of Eleazar, who sounded less like a weathered old priest than just a broken old man.

Three thousand died in the massacre that Passover. The tinderbox had exploded.

It was only the beginning.

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