Sir Martin first met “Auntie Fori” in 1958,when he arrived in New Delhi with a letter of introduction from her son, a fellow Oxford student. Their friendship flourished for forty years through correspondence and visits to the capitals where her husband, the diplomat B. K. Nehru, was posted. Then, at her ninetieth birthday celebration in 1998, Auntie Fori told her “adopted nephew” that she was not of Indian birth but was actually Hungarian–and Jewish. She did not know what this Jewish identity involved, historically or spiritually, and she asked him to enlighten her.
In response, Sir Martin embarked on the series of letters that have been gathered to form this book, shaping each one as a concise, individually formed story. He presents Jewish history as the narrative expression–the timeline–of the Jewish faith, and the faith as it is informed by the history. Starting with Adam and Eve, he then brings us to Abraham and his descendants, who worshiped a God who repeatedly, and often dramatically, intervened in their lives. The stories of Genesis and Exodus lead seamlessly on to those of the eras when the land was ruled by the Israelite kings and then by Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome–the Biblical and post-Biblical periods. In Sir Martin’s hands, these stories are rich in incident and achievement. He then traces the long history of the Jews in the Diaspora, ending with an unexpected visit to an outpost of Jewry in Anchorage, Alaska. Ranging through almost every country in the world–including China and India–he maintains a chronological structure, weaving in the history of other peoples and faiths, to give Auntie Fori, and us, a sense of the larger stage on which Jewish history has played out.