Spiritual thriller flying off shelves

A clandestine sect with evil plans to end the world. An ancient code. Secret saints. And the Kabbalah.

These are the key elements of The Book of Names, a new spiritual thriller that has been flying off the shelves since its release last month.

The book, co-written by Chicago native Jill Gregory and her best friend/writing partner Karen Tintori, was released Jan. 9 with a first printing of 75,000 copies and already has gone into its second printing, Craig Libman, a publicist for St. Martin’s Press, said Friday.

‘Watch out Dan Brown’

The foreign publishing rights for The Book of Names have been sold in 16 countries, and in Germany, where the book was published as Das Buch der Namen in December, it is No. 14 on the best-seller list and has sold more than 155,000 copies.

As the Economist newspaper in London put it in a headline that accompanied a glowing review of The Book of Names: “Watch out Dan Brown.”

Gregory and Tintori’s latest novel — they’ve written two other “romantic suspense” novels together under the pen name “Jillian Karr” — blends religious history and mysticism with Tom Clancy-esque international intrigue into a classic page turner.

The plot turns on a legend from the Talmud that says in every generation, the fate of the world rests in the hands of 36 righteous people known as lamed vovniks or “hidden ones.” These special people don’t know they are one of the chosen 36, and neither does anyone else.

The lamed vovniks just go about their everyday lives, doing what is right and good and keeping the rest of the world from God’s wrath.

In The Book of Names, a (fictional) nefarious offshoot sect of the ancient Gnostic tradition known as the Gnoseos has learned the identities of 33 of 36 lamed vovniks and has set about assassinating them to hasten the end of the world.

Through plot murder-mystery-meets-mysticism plot twists, the book’s hero, a political science professor named David Shepherd, uncovers the Gnoseos’ plans and also realizes that his young stepdaughter is one of the remaining three lamed vovniks the Gnoseos — whose members include heads of state and other luminati — are systematically murdering.

From Brooklyn to the holy city of Safed in Israel — to London, with the help of Yael HarPaz, a fetching Israeli archeologist — Shepherd sets about saving his stepdaughter and the rest of the world by unraveling codes based on gematria, numerology applied to the Hebrew alphabet.

“We wanted, first of all, to tell an exciting story,” Gregory said, sipping tea last week with Tintori at Jack’s restaurant in Skokie. “But we also felt that there are a lot of people, even Jewish people, who don’t know about Kabbalah and certain aspects of Judaism. So we thought this would be an opportunity to share some of what we’ve learned.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Gregory and Tintori aren’t proselytizing for Kabbalah converts. Both women, who are Jewish, have been fascinated by Kabbalah for more than 20 years, but don’t consider themselves Kabbalists, or serious students of the Jewish mystical tradition.

“We’re just very interested and fascinated, but not practitioners,” Tintori said. The idea to write a novel based on the lamed vovniks came from Tintori, who learned about their Talmudic legend while she was taking an adult bat mitzvah class in 1990.

The name of every creature

It took the pair another 15 years to figure out how to structure a novel around people whose special identity isn’t known to anyone, even themselves. But two years ago, while doing some research, Tintori read about the biblical character Adam’s book, in which the name of every living creature was written.

“I thought, if Adam’s book has the names of all living creatures, it has to contain the names of the lamed vovniks,” Tintori said. “And then we decided to put them in code.”

And a thriller was born.

Gregory hopes that readers will take something spiritual away from The Book of Names, apart from an enjoyable read.

“I hope that they have a better understanding of Kabbalah and some of the beauty that is inherent in Judaism, like the appreciation for life, which was contrasted with the Gnoseos’ view that life wasn’t valued,” Gregory said. “In Judaism, life is everything, as we say in the book, and if you save one person it’s as if you’ve saved the world.

“It’s everybody’s job to heal the world,” Gregory continued, as Tintori finished her thought by adding: “And it ties in so beautifully with the lamed vovniks — you never know who’s walking amongst you.”

More articles by Cathleen Falsani

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Chicago Sun-Times, USA
Feb. 4, 2007
Cathleen Falsani, Religion Reporter

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This post was last updated: Wednesday, February 7, 2007 at 7:24 AM, Central European Time (CET)