“Many artists are ‘underground’,” a writing instructor of mine once remarked, “but no one is more underground than writers.” To that I would add that no one is more underground than writers who don’t write in the language of the place they live. It amounts to a sort of double life. On the outside, you function in the same language as everyone around you. But then you have this other world, where you think and create in the tongue of a stranger. Your boss, the next-door neighbors, the mother of your child’s best friend and Moshe from the makolet might be aware that you are working on a novel, but you know, from the very first word you write, that they will probably never read it.
While I was writing The Wayward Moon, a novel which takes place in the 9th century Middle East, the situation was even more confusing. I was constantly alert to the fact that rather than Hebrew or English, my characters would have spoken something that sounds like Ha lachma anya di achalu avtania, and dizabin abah bitrei zuzei. If, like me, these phrases from the Haggadah are all the Aramaic you know, then you understand the difficulty. As I wrote the novel, I realized very early on that I could never really know how Rahel Bat Yair, the story’s heroine, really spoke. All I could do was try to imagine her “voice,” not only the sound of it, but the “music” of it, its point of view, its inherent assumptions and ways of seeing the world. It wasn’t a matter of getting it “right” or “wrong,” because due to the absence of Jewish women’s voices in the few documents that have come down to us from that time, it was impossible to know exactly what idioms she would have used to express herself. All I could do was read the limited material that is available (e.g., letters from the Cairo Geniza, writings by men of her time) and listen to the tones, attitudes and modes of expression as they play out in the folk tales, songs, films, and poetry of people who have lived their lives in the lands of Islam.
While this sort of linguistic alienation is challenging for a writer, it can nonetheless be conducive to writing. The sense of being isolated, of having to wrestle alone with the voices in your head, enacts something existential. Writing becomes a sort of refuge, a place where you can sink into the words and phrases and fully inhabit your state of aloneness.
Having said that, if any Israeli publishers are reading this, Moshe from the makolet is still waiting.
All fiction writers have a streak of audacity. To make up something and then ask readers to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to your vision is, well, a little outrageous. Among the most audacious are the writers of historical fiction. How can anyone presume to know what it was like to live and work and raise a family in a time other than their own? How can one comprehend the hopes, the limitations, and the challenges of people who lived their lives in historical periods with radically different circumstances and assumptions?
Logic says that it’s impossible. Yet the imagination insists that it’s not. It insists that, with a little bit of help, it can transcend space and time and understand something beyond the here and now.
Allow me to offer an example. Let’s say you want to write a scene in which a character goes to a bathhouse. You could do worse than to make your way to Acco, a city in the North of Israel. When you get there, you may want to linger for a few minutes on the boardwalk, enjoying the vista of the bright blue sea, but don’t stop there. Continue along the boardwalk, and head for the old city. You’ll know it by the shops and vendors at the entrance, selling nargillas, Armenian pottery, olive wood carvings, humous, and fresh pomegranate juice. Look for the signs on the walls pointing the way to the Hammam – the public bathhouse. When you get there, you’ll have to take the tour. Maybe you’re the type that doesn’t like tours, but do it anyway. That way you’ll get to see the inside. You’ll be shown the various pools, now dry and empty, and hear the stories about the generations of balanim – bathhouse attendants who would scrub you down with sponges and brushes and fill you in on the latest gossip. And then there will be a moment when the group moves on, but don’t follow them. Remain behind and linger a little longer.
Instead of the empty stone pools, think of steam rising from the hot water. Instead of the scent of moldy walls, imagine wafts of rosewater and jasmine oil. And now, in the dim light and the silence, try to hear the voices. Hear the groans of the women being scrubbed with rough sponges by stern-faced attendants, the trills of laughter from a group listening to the town matchmaker tell a racy joke, the soft whispering of two girls in the corner, pointing to a third and whispering, “Look at that stomach. If she isn’t pregnant, then I’m a Rabbi.”
If you can see all this, then you’ll feel it in your bones—how the very drama of life played out alongside the tiled bathing pools. And as you emerge into the alley that leads back to the market you’ll know, from some mysterious place in your head that you never knew existed, exactly how to write the scene in the bathhouse.
A young man leaves his home and sets out on a journey. He is impressionable, sensitive, and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Because he is young, everything is new, surprising, a revelation. He is awkward, but also hopeful. He knows little, but he is eager to learn. He is betrayed by those he trusts, and happily surprised by people he thought were his enemies. So it goes as he journeys in and out of chance meetings, mishaps, and adventures. And ultimately, after feeling the full weight of his experiences in his soul, he comes to understand a truth about himself, about the world, and his place in it.
The literary term for this sort of novel is the bildungsroman. In English, we might call it a novel of self-discovery and it is a classic genre in both Western and world literature. Our literary canon is full of such tales of self-realization.Tom Jones and David Copperfield are examples of the genre as are Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Though works involving a heroine are few, Jane Eyre comes to mind as a rare exception. But generally, women, and particularly Jewish women, are absent from the genre.
This is not at all surprising. Traditionally, Jewish women were not the protagonists of stories about self-discovery. Rather, they were usually married off and on their way to motherhood while still teenagers. The trajectory of a Jewish woman’s life was set out for her from the day she was born, and it did not involve venturing into the world to seek one’s fortune.
But what would have happened if a woman was forced by circumstance to undertake such a journey? What if she had to make her way in the world alone? What would be her fears? Her concerns? Her particular vulnerabilities? How would she survive? What would she learn about the world? What would she learn about herself?
In The Wayward Moon, I’ve put my heroine in precisely this situation. Rahel Bat Yair is a 17-year-old Jewish girl living in the Babylonian town of Sura in the 9th century Middle East. The story opens on the eve of her engagement, and Rahel, entirely content in her own world, has no desire to travel anywhere. Unlike the typical male hero of a bildungsroman, she has no use for experience or adventure. When circumstance forces her to take to the road, like Homer’s Odysseus, she wants nothing more than to go home, but unlike him, she has no home to return to.
Typically, at the end of a bildungsroman, the hero has achieved a modicum of self-knowledge, and whether he returns home or begins anew, he is able to utilize his experiences in forging his life as an adult. Would Rahel Bat Yair be able to utilize her experiences? Would there be a way for her to draw on her hard-won knowledge to enable her to contribute to her community? Or would she choose to conceal what she has seen and done?
Considering how little has come down to us about women’s lives in Jewish society of her time, we can easily speculate about the answer.