Little did I know what I was getting myself into when one day I decided to delve back into my Jewish Egyptian roots. I was born in Egypt but expelled with my family during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis when I was 3 years old. We moved to France but ended up immigrating to the United States when I was 17. My life had been too busy and chaotic to journey back into the past until one day I was struck by a sort of midlife crisis. It was not the passage of time nor the meaning of life that kept me awake at night, but rather the nagging need to discover the truth about my people’s roots. Who were those Jews living in Egypt? What were they doing there? And what went wrong? I did not want anecdotes. I wanted hard facts.
Soon I started hitting the history books, and while I knew that Jews had been living in Egypt since biblical times, I learned that the largest wave of immigration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when the country underwent a massive modernization and the Suez Canal was built. Jews came from all over the Mediterranean basin, and that’s when my family came. I was so proud to discover the integral part Jews played in the building of the country. They were doctors, lawyers, bankers, legislators, athletes, and movie stars. They built the greatest department stores and hospitals. They helped draft the Egyptian Constitution and were advisors to the king. By the advent of World War II Egyptian Jews were on top of their game. They were thriving.
But the Jews were not thriving in a vacuum, they co-existed famously with the many other foreign minorities that had also come to settle in Egypt—Italians, French, Belgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and of course the English, who had colonized the country. My research grew exponentially as I became fascinated by this unique, cosmopolitan Levantine society, who built a city that mirrored Paris in the heart of Cairo with grand boulevards and exquisite gardens.
My research grew wider when the next natural step was to understand how the Egyptian people reacted to that onslaught of foreigners. I was delighted to learn how tolerant and accepting they had been—that is until World War II, when the English held the country with a tight grip for fear of losing the vitally strategic Suez Canal. Factions of all kinds began to seriously challenge the Brits, and it was with extraordinary interest that I learned about young, rebellious army officers like Sadat and Nasser, the emerging Muslim Brotherhood (which also started attacking Jews and spreading anti-Semitism), the young dashing King of Egypt, and all the various political groups of the day.
Factions are usually based on ideologies and soon I found myself immersed in researching huge, topics that are as relevant today as they were then: colonialism, Arab nationalism, fundamentalism, and Zionism. It was all new and fascinating to me, and I remember when I first read about Theodor Herzl and the birth of Zionism, jumping out of my desk chair and proclaiming, “I’m a Zionist!” And then the next day, taking it back, “Maybe not.” But the following day, I wavered again.
Learning about Egypt during the war led me to investigating what was happening in Palestine, in Iraq, in Syria. It was all connected, and it was all so profoundly interesting. I had discovered a secret treasure that had been buried for decades, and it’s no wonder I decided to write about it.
After 10 years of researching and writing, my midlife crisis is over. My hunger for the truth has been satiated—at least for now. I know there is so much more to learn. Stay tuned!
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In my novel, Margot, I reimagine Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister, having survived the war and come to Philadelphia where she works as a legal secretary living under the assumed name of Margie Franklin. My book takes place in 1959, just as Anne’s diary is coming to the silver screen, and where Margie Franklin’s present and Margot Frank’s past begin to collide.
As I was writing the novel, I had trouble finding much information about the real Margot Frank. Though Margot also kept a diary when the family was hiding in the annex, hers was never recovered after the war, and very little is known about her today. I could gather only small tidbits from the descriptions of Margot in Anne’s diary and from a few other books published about the family.
But one thing that stood out to me in my research was the reason why the family went into hiding when they did: Margot received a call-up notice from the Germans to report to a forced labor camp. The family moved up their plans, and went into hiding the next day, essentially to keep Margot safe.
I read that Margot Frank left for the annex separately from Anne and their parents, so as not to arouse suspicion. She layered on clothes and rode her bike (which Jews were restricted from doing at the time) in the pouring rain. She rode to the annex with Miep Gies, as if the two of them were simply Gentile secretaries, on their way to work.
The fictional events of my novel are far removed from this bike ride that the real Margot Frank took, but that was the vision I began with of Margot – a young woman terrified and without her family, but composed enough to ride her bike through the pouring rain to go into hiding, to save herself. A woman who was brave even when she must’ve been deeply afraid. A woman who understood how to hide herself, even when she was out in the open.
People ask me how much research I had to do on art forgery for my new book A Nearly Perfect Copy. The answer is: a lot. Some of it was even necessary. Some of it was just procrastination.
To that end, I wandered into the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris on one hot day, more in search of a bathroom than in search of wisdom. But, reader I found both (and if you’ve been to Paris, you know how valuable a quality public bathroom is).
The exhibits were what you’d expect (Sephardic artifacts, Vichy government deportation narratives, synagogue records, suitcases—Jewish museums always have a lot of suitcases…), but the true gem here is the library. It’s small but comprehensive, and the librarian was exceedingly helpful when I asked for information
I’m not sure I found anything I couldn’t have found in other English language archives, but this pleasant air conditioned afternoon in a quiet and free study space made me think of two things.
First, there are an extraordinary number of Jewish museums. I am in the middle of a project with two friends in which we visit every museum in the five boroughs of New York City (a project that started out interesting and fun and has deteriorated into a duty as we slog through the last 29 museums. You can find a blog about the project here). There are seven Jewish museums out of the 110 museums in New York (eight if you count the Tenement Museum, ten if you count museums founded by Jews). No other ethnicity or culture or religion has as many museums devoted to it (and we’re not even counting memorials, which are not technically museums).
There are of course many reasons for the proliferation of Jewish museums: there is the rich history of the Jewish presence in New York; museums can be seen as a response to the Holocaust’s attempt to wipe out Judaism. But there is also the long history of Jewish involvement in the arts.
A subplot in my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy is the attempt to gain reparations for art stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. These attempts continue in real life, and encounter thorny legal issues. How can a family prove ownership when the records were destroyed? How do you award a painting to what is now dozens of inheritors? What if the current owners acquired the painting by legal means? Who determines the value of the paintings, and what government should be responsible for paying reparations? In my book, characters exploit these complicated ethical issues for their own financial benefit.
Though I ultimately chose not to focus on this battle (other books, fiction and non have done an excellent job of chronicling the theft—particularly from dealer and collector Paul Rosenberg—and the Nazis’ interest in art), it is worth thinking about the Jewish connection to art.
These days, when people write a book, they invariably have an acknowledgments page, where they thank a few people or–like someone going on and on at the Oscars–everyone they ever knew, down to the babysitter who once braided their hair in elementary school. My own acknowledgements page for my most recent book thanks my first readers–the friends who commented on my stories in draft–and the artist colonies that offered me an extended time to write.
Now that I think about it, and think about it in terms of what really enabled me to do what I needed to do, I realize I should also have thanked New York’s Tenement Museum. The museum consists of a modern visitor center at 103 Orchard Street and a tenement at 97 Orchard that has been “restored”–or perhaps safely kept in its earlier dismal condition. The rooms have been furnished as they were during the years (1863-1935), when the tenement was occupied.
This may sound drearily like any number of museums, where you stand behind a rope while you look at a Victorian bedroom or see the trundle bed where Melville’s children slept. But it is nothing of the sort. Instead the tour guide who takes you into 97 Orchard Street (you can’t just wander alone) tells you the story of one of the immigrant families who once lived there. And at least some of those immigrants were Jewish.
The Museum gave me the very thing that I needed to write: a sense of the lived life, the specifics of daily existence. I have at times got buried in, and distracted by, my efforts at verisimilitude. I have tried to do research for books and only learned how much I don’t know, how there was no way I could write my book unless I had more courage, more of an ability to ask people who I didn’t know what their lives were like. But intruth you don’t need to know everything to write a story or novel. You just need enough to convince. In an interview on identitytheory.com, the fiction writer Jim Shepard talks about the role of research in fiction this way:
Henry James said, ‘She had eyes like this and a nose like this.’ And you go, ‘I could really see her.’ You have two details! Theoretically you could do the same thing with the Battle of Antietam, right? If you get the right details. Part of the point of all that research is not, ‘Oh, I am going to be able to deploy more details.’ It’s that I am more likely to come across those two.”
What The Tenement Museum gave me were the details, ironically enough, to imagine where my characters lived. I only used two things from the visit to the Museum: a detail about where toilets were placed in a tenement and what the lay out of an apartment might be like, but, in my head, the whole world was quite vivid. I could see it all, and hopefully my readers can as well.
You are working on what?” most of the people I met in Jerusalem asked while I was writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Jerusalem is not where scholars generally go to write a book on the Civil War, even if it involves Jews. The majority of Israelis, in fact, know nothing about Ulysses S. Grant (one of them asked me how he felt about Israel and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank.) Still, my wife and I consider Jerusalem our second home; my wife’s research can best be done in Israel’s National Library; and the Mandel Foundation offered me a senior fellowship during my sabbatical. So it was that I found myself writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews in Jerusalem, even as my thoughts centered on such Civil War sites as Holly Springs, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky.
Anyone who writes about Ulysses S. Grant depends upon the magnificently edited 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by the pre-eminent Grant scholar, John Y. Simon. No complete set of those papers may be found in all of Israel. Anyone who writes about the Civil War also depends upon the 130 volumes of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, published by the Government Printing Office. I could find no set of those records in Israel either. Once upon a time, that would have doomed my project as simply not doable in Israel. But no longer. For the Grant Papers, the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion and numerous other primary and secondary sources required for my study have in recent years all become available via the internet. A high speed connection brought them directly to my desk-top in Jerusalem. Once, when I needed unique materials from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, they kindly scanned them for me and sent them to my inbox the next day.
In time, all of the impediments to researching the Civil War while living in Jerusalem disappeared. To me, of course, this proved a great relief. I actually managed to submit my manuscript to the publisher a few months early. At a deeper level, the experience reinforced for me how the globalization of information is democratizing knowledge by making once inaccessible materials available to anyone with an internet connection. Where one physically resides and the quality of local libraries make far less difference today than they used to.
Nowadays, as my book demonstrates, one can research even the history of General Grant’s Civil War order expelling Jews from his warzone, while living in an Israeli apartment. My Jerusalem neighbors my not have appreciated what I was studying, or why, but I feel confident that American readers will.