Monthly Archives: March 2014

How the Rabbi Hooked Me

davidson-and-schachter-shalomiIn the spring of 2009, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi spoke at the Boulder Book Store to a jammed and eager audience. I was sitting on the floor, so charmed by his singing and story telling that when I greeted him afterward, I impulsively said, “I’m between writing projects, so if there’s anything I could do to support your work, let me know.”

I did not expect to hear from him. We’d met in the 1970s, when I was revisiting the Jewish tradition I’d walked away from at seventeen. Reb Zalman, who turns 90 this year, had escaped the Nazis as a child, been ordained a Hasidic rabbi in Brooklyn, then began looking for wisdom outside his community. Breaking with the Orthodox, he founded the Jewish Renewal Movement to infuse Judaism with spirit and relevance, and encourage people to have a direct experience of God.

As a reporter, I’d often called him for a quote over the years—I could count on him to say something colorful or outrageous—but we’d never really come to know each other. So I was startled, after our meeting at the bookstore, when he called at eight the next morning. He said he wanted to have a series of talks with me about “what it feels like when you’re in the December of your years. What is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery? It could lead to an article or a book, I don’t know.”

I jumped at the chance to spend time with him. I’d long feared that death would be a complete annihilation while Reb Zalman felt certain that “something continues.” He said he didn’t want to convince me of anything. “What I want is to loosen your mind.”

For two years, we met every Friday morning, recording our sessions. From the beginning, he wandered so far from the stated topic that I began to lose hope that I’d ever find a way to shape and tame our interactions into a narrative. But we both looked forward to our talks, and despite his constant straying from the subject, there would always come an unexpected zing—a discovery, an insight, or a new thought that shone like a jewel.

In March of 2011, I rented a studio on the ocean in Hawaii for a month to determine: could I find a way to construct a book out of what seemed a sprawling mass? If not, it was time to move on. I went into total immersion, shutting off the phone, listening to the recordings and going over all my notes. By the third week, I realized I had a lion by the tail. A rare capture of Reb Zalman’s stories and memories, his earthy knowledge and dazzling flights.

An outline quickly emerged, and I wrote the first chapters in a few hours. The book moves forward on three tracks: our conversations, his life story, and my story during the years I spent with him. During that time I was nearly killed by a suicide bomb in Kabul, and Reb Zalman suffered a steep decline in health. We created strategies to deal with pain and memory loss and to cultivate fearlessness and joy—at any age.

Most important for me was the bond that grew between us. Every Friday, no matter how troubled or distracted we were when we sat down to talk, at some point a current of warmth and appreciation would move between us. We sang and laughed. We expressed our most vulnerable feelings and received from the other unconditional acceptance. At one such moment, Reb Zalman looked at me and smiled. “Who said that people only make love with their bodies?”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 27, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Is History a Prison or a Home?

sliver-of-lightIn 1951 my family left the region in which they had lived since Nebuchadnezzar II took a bunch of Jews captive and brought them to Babylon in 587 BCE. My father was a toddler but my grandfather took part in the underground Zionist organization in Basra, Iraq that tried to convince people to leave their ancient homeland for another ancient homeland. It must have been difficult to convince a strong-rooted community to relocate to Israel/Palestine where Ashkenazim didn’t speak their language nor share their culture. The disturbances in 1941 scared many Jews into relocating. But two hundred deaths are not enough to account for a mass exodus of 125,000 people ten years after the incident.

Now, when I visit my Iraqi-Israeli family in a suburb of Tel Aviv, the memories of Mesopotamia are thin. Only aunt Frida’s pickled mangos, classical Arabic music, and foggy stories of a dead generation survived the twenty-three centuries between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

When I crossed the Tigris in 2009, I expected to cross back over in a few days. I posted on Facebook that “I was exploring my roots.” I felt jitters at the idea of being in Iraq: the place of my father’s birth; the cradle of civilization; the site of the war that I protested against in America. But my Facebook post was more metaphorical than real. I traveled to Kurdistan – a region untouched by the war – and my father was born in the opposite part of the country. Many Kurds don’t even speak my father’s native Arabic.

My first steps onto Iraqi soil were at night. I exited the taxi that took me over the border from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan into a hotel. The stairwell reeked of pickled mangos like aunt Frida’s dinner table.

A jovial hotel owner about my father’s age greeted my friends and I from the couch in the lobby. We sat down and chatted in English. Soon enough, he slapped my inner thigh – like only my father does – and told me his political opinions: George Bush was his hero for killing Saddam Hussein, and he admired the military might of Israel. What would have happened if Jews continued in Iraq for the last sixty years? We’ll never know.

Since Jews emigrated from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Morocco en masse, the only country in the Middle East with a sizeable Jews community (besides Israel) is Iran. That’s where I ended up because I took a hike beyond a waterfall located too near the Iranian border and ended up in Iranian prison under suspicion of espionage.

In Psalms the captives lament the detention of Nebuchadnezzar II and yearn for home. “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” Fifty years later the Persians conquered Babylonia and the Persians freed some Jews to return to their homeland.

It took me twenty-six months to make it out of Persian prison, but my family doesn’t have a homeland. My family has lived in Iraq, Israel, and in various corners of America. Yet, I recently received a little clue, which I cling to as if it were my destiny. When I recently moved to Brooklyn, the apartment I moved into – I learned after renting it – had belonged to my great grandmother for several decades. I’ll take any clue I can get.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Quotas: On Being Jewish in Pre-Revolutionary Russia and Soviet Russia

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I keep thinking about a scene from one of my favorite childhood novels, The Road Disappears Into the Distance by Alexandra Brushtein. The novel, set in pre-Revolutionary Russia, is about a young Jewish girl, Sashenka Yanovskaya. In the scene in question, nine-year-old Sashenka is sitting the entrance exams at the Institute for Young Ladies. Each girl is asked to read a short passage from a textbook and to diagram a simple sentence. Sashenka, who is waiting her turn, is relieved to find the questions so easy. One by one the girls are called to the front of the class, but not Sashenka. A recess is announced, at which point only seven girls remain. Each one is a Jew.

After the break, these girls – Sashenka included – are subjected to a rather different exam: complex passages from the classical works of literature, follow-up questions that test their knowledge of geography and history. The girls perform admirably; they’ve been prepared well. But Sashenka doesn’t understand why they are being singled out. Later, as she is leaving the Institute lobby, she is accosted by an acquaintance, a daughter of non-Jewish family friends. “None of you Yids will be admitted,” the girl says to her.

In this dramatic manner, the heroine of Alexandra Brushtein’s novel learns what it means to be a Jew in the Russia of 1894. I read Brushtein’s book, in 1986, almost a hundred years later. Growing up in the Soviet Russia, I had done my own share of learning, though it had been more gradual. Some name-calling out in the streets or in the classroom. Some hints of the troubles during the Stalin’s times. Most of all, though, it was my parents’ insistence that I had to study twice as hard as my peers, because I would be judged twice as strictly.

In pre-Revolutionary Russia, quotas for Jews were a law. But in the Soviet Russia they were more insidious. We were all supposed to be equal, weren’t we? All those nationalities. All those republics. Our songs celebrated the friendship of the people, and there was always some regional folk dancing on TV.

My parents knew better, of course. And so did my teachers. My sixth-grade literature teacher read to us The Road Disappears Into the Distance in short installments, whenever we had a bit of time left at the end of the class. She was a great teacher; she could make you fall in love with a book. But when I told her I wanted to be a writer – a journalist maybe? – she said no, it couldn’t be done. She was Jewish, like me and my parents, and she knew what she was talking about.

Colleges had quotas – that’s what it all came down to. Good colleges and mediocre colleges alike. A few were safe bets, like the Institute of Auto Industry or the Institute of Petrochemical Engineering. Some never accepted Jews at all. There was nothing official, no laws you could point toward. You had to rely on hearsay and common knowledge. A neighbor my father met while walking our dog said they never accepted Jews at the well-known institute where he worked. “They all have poor vision,” he said, by way of explanation.

In the summer of 1990, I was sitting the entrance exams at the Moscow Institute of Electronics and Mathematics. I’d studied hard. I’d had tutors. My lovely physics tutor used to point out all the Jewish physicists in my textbook. He was convinced I would succeed. But my math tutor, who actually taught at the Institute, said the outcome would depend on the Party directives they were about to receive. On the day of my physics exam, I sat in a large classroom and waited for my name to be called. More than a hundred years had passed since the events of The Road Disappears Into the Distance, and I wasn’t sure whether anything has changed at all.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Remembering Hebrew School in Iranian Prison

joshua-fattalI struggled to remember ever scrap of Judaism that I could. My family is secular. My mother feels uncomfortable in yoga class because “namaste” is too spiritual for her. My mother’s father, my grandfather, was an atheist psychoanalyst who trusted Freud’s Moses and Monotheism more than the bible. My Iraqi-Israeli-American father disdains American synagogues with their unemotional comportment, their transliterations, and their Ashkenazi accents. My mother raised me as a Reform Jew, and all I remembered from Rodeph Shalom’s Sunday school was that my teacher bribed me with cookies to behave.

In cell fifty-four in Evin Prison, Tehran, I saw a sliver of the sky through the glass window and the two sets of metal bars. From its position and size, I deduced that it was waning and that it’d be a new moon in a few days. It was September and I believed that the coming new moon signified Rosh Hashanah.

The green walls of my cell, the menacing footsteps down the hallway, and the stale air made minutes feel like months. I had no communication with my family, with a lawyer, or with my two friends that were just down the hall from me. I had to wear a blindfold whenever I left my cell. My interrogators wouldn’t even tell me the name of the prison – let alone their names. I didn’t have enough to read to fill my endless, blank, undifferentiated hours. Though the idea of apples and honey felt ironic, I was glad to have a holiday to look forward to.

Three days later, breakfast consisted of flat bread, a diner-sized packet of honey and butter. Lunch included an apple for dessert. I saved the necessary ingredients and waited until sundown to mutter my prayer, “Baruch atah adonai…. shal Rosh Hashanah.” The sky out my window was pitch black presumably studded with a silent new moon.

Ten days later, I fasted for Yom Kippur. Five days after that, I slept without my scratchy wool blanket to simulate being in a sukkah. I realized that somewhere in my rapidly rusting mind, I remembered tidbits of my heritage, which helped me survive.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Searching for My People

ellen-litmanMy first job out of college was at a large insurance company in Baltimore. I was a computer programmer there, and in addition to my entry-level salary, I was entitled for five days of vacation, ten sick days, a handful of standard federal holidays and on top of that, two floating ones. Those floating holidays – they were just freebies, really. They could be picked at random, used for anything. At least that’s what I thought.

I started the job in July and now it was autumn. Rosh Hashana was approaching, to be followed closely by Yom Kippur.

“You’re taking the floating holidays?” asked my co-worker Ami. It was more of a statement than a question. Maybe even an order. Ami grew up in Israel, married an American, and now, in her fifties, had three daughters close to my age. At the office she was famous for speaking her mind. Even the upper management feared her sharp tongue.

But she was kind to me. I was a fellow Jew, a fellow immigrant. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in me. Maybe she saw one of her daughters. My family and I came from Russia three years before. They were in Pittsburgh now, while I was here in Baltimore, living on my own for the first time in my life. Ami must have felt sorry for me, a young girl, all alone. We were supposed to have things in common, she and I. A worldview, a set of values, a sense of shared history. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to disappoint her in a dozen different ways.

I shook my head and told her no. I wouldn’t be using my floating holidays. Why should I? I thought. What would I do with myself – all alone in my small apartment? I’d never observed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before, and I wasn’t planning to start now.

Ami stared at me for a moment. “You poor girl,” she said. “You don’t even know who you are.”

I should have felt chastened, I guess; but instead I was furious. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I had no religion and didn’t feel a need for one. But that didn’t make me any less of a Jew. Back in Russia, it was my ethnicity, my nationality, a line in my Soviet passport, a way of life. It was in my last name (decidedly un-Russian) and in my facial features. “Just so you know,” a college classmate once told me, unprompted, “I have no problem with Jewish people.” This was a variation on the “some of my best friends are Jews” line and a dead giveaway that something was afoot. “He’s such a Jew,” another college classmate said in passing, referring to a particularly unappealing professor.

So yes, I knew exactly who I was and where I stood, even if the only time I stepped into a synagogue in Russia was to purchase a year’s supply of matza. (You couldn’t get it anywhere else.) I had good friends, also Jewish, and we’d long ago learned what to expect: colleges we couldn’t apply to, professions we couldn’t pursue. We shared a certain sense of humor, a certain kind of sadness. We’d learned to recognize others like ourselves. “Our people,” we called them.

Here in America being Jewish meant something else entirely. I didn’t quite know what it meant. Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs? Hebrew schools? High holidays? Days after arriving in Pittsburgh my family and I were taken to a synagogue for Yom Kippur. I remember feeling jet-lagged, disoriented, bereft of my old life, and desperate for something to believe in, somewhere to belong. But the synagogue was huge, and inside there were rows upon rows of well-dressed people, who all seemed to know one another and who had no time for us. I sat up on the balcony listening to the Hebrew words I didn’t understand and I wanted the whole thing to be meaningful. But nothing felt familiar. There were no miracles that day, no sudden sense of coming home.

In the years to come, I would keep searching. Not for a new identity, but for that elusive feeling of belonging. Who were “my people” now? I’d find them in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. At software companies where I worked. In writing classes I took at night and later in grad school. Some of these people would be Jewish, but not all.

I still don’t attend a synagogue or observe holidays, though. Does it make me a bad Jew? Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jews Don’t Celebrate Christmas (Except in Prison in the Islam Republic of Iran)

sliver-of-lightIn Iranian prison I didn’t hear the anti-Semitism that I anticipated. For months, I feared revealing my religion to guards. When I finally let on, I found that some guards were ignorant about Judaism: “Oh, Jews don’t celebrate Christmas.” Others were excited to connect our common monotheism. A guard would point to me approvingly and said, “Moses” and point to my gentile friends and said, “Jesus.” Then they’d point to themselves smilingly, “Muhammad.” I’d nod awkwardly at the attempt to find common ground.

That’s not to say there was nothing to be offended by – especially on Iranian government-run television. However, the most pernicious stereotype occurred at my hearing when the judge sentenced me to eight years. He equated Jewishness with Israelis, and Israelis with mortal enemies. Hence, by association, I was guilty of espionage. The prosecutor and the judge contradicted the consensus among the guards: “Jew – no problem. Israel – problem.”

One day, when I was eleven years old, I was playing roller hockey in the parking lot of St. James Church with a bunch of Jewish friends. When a group of peers left the school building attached to the church we interrupted our own game and skated circles around them. I never met those kids before, we usually played at Kenneth Israel down the road. We started spontaneously asking the Catholic school boys questions: what did you learn in school today? Do you think the Jews killed Jesus? Jews are stingy – don’t you think? The Catholic boys looked confused, but eventually one made the anti-Semitic comments we were looking for.

Unaware of this pre-pubescent incident, St. James Church put me on their prayer roll and held events and vigils for my freedom. In solitary confinement, I lambasted my childish behavior, adding fuel to my ongoing battle against a rapacious self-hatred. When my friend was allowed to move into my cell, we shared everything, and when Christmas came I celebrated for my first time in my life.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 17, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Stained Glass

tova-mirvisHow is this book different from all your other books?

The most obvious answer: in Visible City, there are no description of Shabbat or shul, little grappling with religion and community. My other novels, The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World, were clearly Jewish novels. My subject matter was steeped in questions of Jewish belonging and identity, belief and doubt. In the ongoing panel discussion debates about who is or isn’t a Jewish writer, I always felt comfortable saying I was certainly one. I didn’t feel the label as limiting, didn’t think it prescribed me in any way, but it did describe the place I was writing from, the world from which my imagination sprung.

There was no clear cut choice then, back when I was writing my first two books, to write a specifically Jewish novel. I wrote from what moved me, preoccupied me, fascinated me. I wrote out of my own grappling with my Orthodox Jewish community, a world which has shaped so much of who I am. My Jewish self has always been inextricable from my writing self.

And then here too, when I started writing Visible City, there was no explicit decision to write a different kind of book, no moment when I decided I was going to write a book with less Jewish content. I started Visible City without being sure where I was going. Each piece led me to the next, one interest kindling another, one character creating the need for another. There were Jewish parts that I arrived at along the way – one character was raised Orthodox but no longer is and this leave-taking impacts the choices he makes in the novel. Throughout the book, many of my characters are Jewish, though this isn’t mentioned explicitly. (Academics, lawyers and therapists on the Upper West Side. You don’t need to tell us that they are Jewish. We know! Said one of my early readers.)

For a time, I thought that the book would round some bend, become more specifically Jewish. But as the months and then the years of writing went by, the book continued to take me in different directions. Every book is a surprise, to the writer as much as to the reader. I arrived at underground explorers, historical preservation. I arrived at stained glass windows, an art form I’d always associated with churches and which I was little interested in. But now, I fell in love: the abundance of color, the intricacy of the work, the varying colors illuminated depending on how the light shines through.

In a novel too, there are the parts that more easily catch the light, parts that are less clearly evident. Even in a novel that is ostensibly about other things, where my Jewish identity and interests are less prominent, I feel the Jewish part of myself present here as well.

In particular, I see it here in my interest in the way the individual relates to the group, in the way we shape ourselves to match outside expectations. But more than that, on the instinctive gut level from which writers write, my Jewishness is part of everything I write. It’s entrenched inside me, a permanent part of my eye even as I look out at other worlds. All of us, we write from the mix of shapes and colors inside us, the mosaic of our personal and family histories, from our own experiences and from the experiences that live in our imaginations. Like the stained glass windows I’ve come to love, a novel is an assemblage of blazing colors, the individual pieces of who we are visible at different times, depending on the light.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 14, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The City Below

postcard-city-hall-subway-stationI started writing Visible City in the weeks after moving from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Boston. More than anything, I missed walking in the city, down Broadway, up Columbus, where there was always the chance of something interesting happening.

In the suburbs, I felt a kind of sensory deprivation. I still walked, to the library a few blocks away, to the town center that was half a mile from my house, but there was little to look at, no one I might pass: just houses, just cars.

On every visit I made back to New York, I felt my eyes regaining a wider stance. I was like a tourist, always looking up. Once I started writing about the city, my homesickness eased. When I wrote, I could still be on my beloved streets, still walking as I always had.

But as home as I felt, there was no denying the fact that the city I was writing about was changing – new buildings were going up, stores were changing, the people I knew moving away. The city I was writing about was my particular version of a place that comes in millions of versions. Each city dweller occupies a different place. We all navigate our own internal maps. In addition to the sights we see around us, there are parts of the city that exist in our memories: those old buildings that once stood, torn down to make way for something new. The people who occupied our apartments before us, leaving behind tiny traces.

And there are also parts of the city buried out of sight. As I wrote Visible City, I became fascinated with the idea of yet another version of the city that lay below, the old “ghost” subway stations which are no longer in use but still intact. The stacks beneath the New York Public Library, what used to be the water system of the Croton Aqueduct. The labyrinths beneath Grand Central. The steam pipes and atomic tunnels beneath Columbia University. The unused Amtrak tunnels under Riverside Park.

As a novelist, the metaphors were inescapable: what parts of ourselves are buried too? Can those closed-off parts ever come above ground, become visible?

There seemed to me too to be something very Jewish about the notion that the past remains a part of who we are, and in this case, physically so. As I wrote, I thought often about the different archaeological sites I’d visited in Israel, the excavations underneath Jerusalem’s Old City or in the town of Bet Sha’an. Here was the Manhattan version of these ancient sites. Even in a place so bustling, so modern, the physical remnants of the past were close by.

I researched urban explorers who snuck into these sealed off spaces. I visited City Hall Station – which is fleetingly visible if you stay on the 6 train after the last stop and is accessible by MTA tours a few times a year. Each time I went back to New York, I rode the 6 train, staying on for this glimpse of the grand stairway, the red and green tiles.

What is the allure of gaining entrance to these closed off spaces? What are these urban explorers in search of? A place, amid the crowds and congestion, that we can think of as being all our own. A view we share with no one. A feeling that we alone have discovered something new.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Walls, Windows, Doors

visible-cityFor me, writing fiction always begins with curiosity about other people: what are they really thinking but not saying? What does it feel like to live inside someone else’s body?

I trace this curiosity, in part, to my Orthodox upbringing – to the feeling that people (or was it just me?) were thinking things they were not saying, that there existed for many a shadow inner life that did not align with the outer one. There, tucked away under a hat, walled inside the private domain, were the feelings not allowed into the light. So much had to be encased, or run past the internal censor before it could be said. Everywhere, the sense that you were being watched, evaluated, judged. So few places where the inner experience – messy, complicated, impolite – could be revealed.

But in a novel: here, finally, there is freedom and access. The walls give way to windows. Here, what people really think, say, feel. In life, how many of us walk around with no trespassing signs affixed to our bodies? But in a novel we enter into characters who stray and fear and lie and love and seethe and desire, that great messy stew of what it means to be human. Real empathy comes not from concealment but from revealing. We hide out truest selves for fear of what others will say, yet in those messy spaces we are, however ironically, most sympathetic.

This chance to peer into others is what makes me read, and what makes me write. I’ve always thought of the novelist as a kind of voyeur – a job which requires you to assemble pieces of other people’s lives into a larger whole.

In Visible City, my third novel, I started with a young mother who watches her neighbors out the window, catching snippets of their lives. In the city, we live a combination of anonymity and intimacy. We watch but act as though we don’t see one another, thus allowing this shadowy dance to continue without becoming overly exposing and invasive. So much around us is packaged and covered. Here, the chance to see one another unrehearsed. To escape our own lonely nights, to pretend as though we occupy other lives.

But at the same time, in all those views out the window, surely we are seeing not just others but ourselves. As I was writing, I was fascinated by the question of whether we can watch and remain unchanged. In my novel, my main character is ultimately not content to just watch. Watching breeds the desire for something more. Doors open and she becomes entangled in the lives of those she watches. But even if we are never caught watching, even if we never walk through our own doors, we are still changed. When we see into other people, we grow wider, more empathetic.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 10, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Would Judah Do?

mapmakers-daughterThe father of philosopher Isaac Abravanel and grandfather of Judah the Lion (arguably the most famous member of this illustrious family) was in his own time one of the great leaders of Jewish Iberia. A courtier to the Portuguese king, Judah Abravanel financed many of the early explorations of Prince Henry the Navigator and served as an advisor on diplomatic and other matters. Judah Abravanel is also an important character in my novel The Mapmaker’s Daughter (Sourcebooks, 2014).

The difficulty I had fleshing out the character of Judah is the same as with all real-life individuals in my historical fiction. With invented characters, if I want to have them travel somewhere, I research how long it would take, what route was most likely, what conveyance they would use, and what might happen along the way. This research takes a great deal of time and effort, but once it is done, I can proceed with confidence to invent a story consistent with known facts.

With real life people, though, the challenge is different. There is a truth to their lives that can never be known. When Judah traveled, he took a specific route, had a specific means of transportation, and had specific experiences along the way. I cannot hope to guess right about all that. The standard to which serious and reputable historical novelists hold themselves may vary in some particulars, but the bottom line is that as long as we don’t do anything to misrepresent the person or the story, a novelist is free to fill in the details.

What has to be filled in, however, is almost everything that makes a novel—dialogue, everyday details, emotional life. I may not know specifically what Judah Abravanel had for breakfast, but if I know what was typical for Jews of the time, it is reasonable to put a plate of that in front of him. Assuming some reactions and emotions are universal seems fair as well. It’s either that or not write at all, so I make my peace with the idea that I can get many particulars wrong without telling untruths in a larger, more important sense.

With Judah I faced another dilemma, one which I think may give some readers pause. I want to avoid spoilers, so I must keep this general, and you can read the book if your curiosity is aroused. At one point he advises a young, intelligent, and spirited Jewish widow that she might want to consider nurturing a relationship with an attractive, unmarried Muslim man visiting Lisbon. “Wait a minute,” I hear you saying. “Could that happen?”

The answer, I believe, is yes it could. Would it? I don’t know. Do you? Since she was a widow, there was no chastity to protect and little chance any Jewish man would propose marriage. In fact, the Talmud strongly warns against marrying a widow for fear her late husband’s spirit would cause trouble. Still, it would take a very special man to care about this woman’s happiness, and to venture into the territory of her personal relationships.

Was Judah this kind of man? Possibly not. Perhaps he would have sternly admonished her to keep to her widow’s weeds and not question God’s will. That fits the stereotype, but how accurate are those? Perhaps we don’t give people of that time enough credit for having their own minds.

At any rate, I chose to think of Judah as recognizing that what falls outside of observance of Jewish law is a matter of choice, someone able to recognize what is no one else’s business. Maybe I’m wrong, but I like this version of him. Besides, as a novelist, an opening for a very romantic and passionate relationship is an opportunity not to be missed. It is fiction, after all, and historical novelists count on readers to remember that.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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Posted on March 7, 2014

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