Naming my only kid, who came when I was 56, was the hardest thing I ever wrote. I wanted a biblical name, and chose Gideon (his mom, who isn’t Jewish, and I agreed we’d each choose one name) because I liked the character. He only gets a few biblical chapters, but he’s a thinker, a fighter and a democrat! I also associated him with a dear friend: the late, truly great actor, Douglas Campbell. Dougie had played Gideon on Broadway in Paddy Chayefsky’s play.
Before Gideon was born, he and I had many conversations in my head. I don’t know if it was in one of those, or in real life, that he asked why he’d been given that name. I said, at least in my mind, “it’s from the Bible.” He would say, in the same vein, “what’s the Bible?”
He didn’t have any formal Jewish education, but I wanted him to know about the connection and he clearly did, too. So in addition to lighting Chanukah candles and attending family seders on Passover, we talked often about the biblical tales I told him. They took their place alongside Robin Hood, who he adored, and the Justice League. I loved revisiting those Bible stories and I suppose he noticed.
Before Gideon was born, he and I had many conversations in my head.
When I spent a year as an undergrad in Jerusalem, I’d taken classes with Nechama Leibovitz, the remarkable biblical scholar, and one of the great teachers in human history. She drew in sources from anywhere, in fact it was from her that I first heard about Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. “He thinks you can make literature a science,” she said, “and he’s wrong. But you must read him.” Above all, she revered the medieval Hebrew commentators you can find in Mikraot G’dolot, with its brilliant, unique typography: a central column of biblical text, surrounded by various commentators, up and down the page, above and below, a conversation across many generations, reproducing the give-and-take of the oral tradition on the printed page. In those days, the 1960s, she sent out mimeographed Hebrew sheets with questions based on those texts weekly. If you sent them back with answers filled in, she’d respond herself, no matter where in the world you wrote from.
So it was in the spirit of Nechama Leibovitz, and the form of Mikraot G’dolot, that we’d have our own conversations on the page: the texts in the centre, illustrated, and Gideon and I talking up and down all around them.
In addition to our chats over his entire lifetime, we also set aside a few weeks several years ago, at our island cottage north of Huntsville, Ont., to talk Bible. We’d each read during the day, then exchange ideas as I made notes. On our way up, we had lunch with our friend, Ken Dryden, in Huntsville. He was curious about the project, as he is about so many things. “You know, Gideon,” he said as we parted, “it’s not every kid who spends his summer vacation discussing the Bible with his dad.” (We also, by the way, watched TV, read, swam and sailed.)
Being a parent is itself by far the most challenging intellectual experience I’ve ever had.
Our conversations formed into a book project. Dusan Petricic agreed to illustrate. He is a national institution in his native Serbia, but we became friends and collaborators during his 20-or-so years in Toronto. He draws in the European tradition (think of Honoré Daumier), which portrays ideas as much as it does people or events. I am in awe of the way in which he catches delicate nuances even in minuscule sketches of our conversations.
It turns out to be fortunate that the project lingered over so many years. The book has benefited from Gideon’s evolving insight as he grew and, largely due to his growth, I too was learning and changing. Being a parent is itself by far the most challenging intellectual experience I’ve ever had, and this takes it another step.
Rick Salutin is a columnist for the Toronto Star. Gideon’s Bible will be published by Canada’s ECW Press. For more information, or to help with the special production costs involved, visit its Indiegogo page.