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So many of the elements of this novel seem normal to an average reader, but to a well-studied Jew or Christian, Jacob's behavior comes into focus. His life literally looks like a Bible story. For instance, there is the epic quality of his backstory (like Job who lost his family but regained another one), or the tension of his relationship to his pagan wife (which is literally the subject matter of most of the Old Testament), or the pilgrimage to Israel (like Moses) or the naming of his Sarah, his wife (like Abraham). The main character is literally reenacting the stories of his ancestors for us.
Scenes of slavery in Europe
Poland shown in all its glory, but just like the history of the nation is troubled, so is the imagery. Much of the scenes in Poland are supposed to remind the reader of the Jewish stories of slavery in Egypt. After all, the title of the book is The Slave. This means that to Jacob, Europe is a kind of exile from Jerusalem, and the journey back to Jerusalem means that Jacob is performing the Exodus story. Most clearly, of course, is Jacob's literal slavery to European pagans.
Pictures of divine deliverance
Jacob is constantly saved and vindicated (in his perspective). He is spared from slavery when his countrymen buy his freedom. He is spared from loneliness by a dream telling him to marry Wanda because she is pregnant. He is spared from his judgmental community by his focus on Jerusalem. And ultimately, he is delivered from the shame of his community when they die, and their bones push the walls of the cemetery outward to include the bones of his disrespected wife. In other words, death itself has restored his honor to him and his wife. They end up buried together, which is vindicating.
To say that this book is thoroughly Jewish would be the understatement of the year. What could be a clearer picture of Judaism than Jacob raising his son in Jerusalem to be in the clergy as a lecturer of the faith (wearing all the official garb). Jacob's food and drink are Jewish, his lifestyle is Jewish, and he himself is deeply attached to his Jewish faith.
Pictures of death
The last image of the book is the same as the first image in the book: death. The story begins when Jacob is displaced by a genocide in which his wife and children are murdered, and it ends with Jacob's own death and interment with the bones of his wife. This is fairly similar to the Biblical format "so-and-so died after this many years and was buried with his wife in the land of his forefathers." It completes the religious journey of Jacob's human existence. The focus on death poises an intimate and complicated question about what life is really all about, especially given the compelling religious beliefs of Jacob.
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Without his family Jacob's life would be hell. This is partly to do with the fact that he lives in an unstable, sometimes close-minded community, but mostly it has to do with the fact that he tragically lost his family once already, in the...