The ProsenPeople

Five Books That Counter the “Negative” Narrative of Jewish Literature

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Devorah Baum wrote about the twelve most stereotypical Jews in literature. Today, she explores five books that counter the "negative" narrative of Jewish literature. She is the author of the book Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone), out this week from Yale University Press. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Grace Paley – Collected Stories

Everyone should read Grace Paley. She deals with tough stuff with wit, vitality and grace and she tempers what many would consider tragic storylines with an insistence that where there is life there can always be ‘enormous changes at the last minute’. Unlike the dominant male voices in American Jewish letters, who’ve tended to resist the labeling of either themselves or their fictions as Jewish, Grace Paley showed no such commitment phobia: “I like being Jewish” she once – shockingly – said.

Hélène Cixous – Reveries of the Wild Woman, Primal Scenes

In which the injustices suffered on account of her Jewishness – in the Algeria where she was born and raised, and which she continues to love – become the vital means by which she becomes a singularly creative, original, ‘wild’ and empathetic voice capable of interpreting, understanding and entering into all sides of every conflict of a (civil) war whose unfolding dynamic officially ascribed those with her ancestry no legal standing at all. Yet it’s on the basis of this nowhere-to-stand that she learns by degrees to feel her way everywhere.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg – The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious

Returning to the ancient Jewish sources accompanied by Avivah Zornberg’s insight and sensibility has been one of my life’s great gifts. By reading Tanach, Talmud and midrash alongside modern literature, psychoanalysis and philosophy, she makes them live, she makes them sing, and she makes them speak directly to you, no matter who you are.

Naomi Alderman – The Liar’s Gospel

Deep knowledge of the Jewish sources of the period when Christ was preaching, teaching, and gaining a following, plus a remarkable ear for the rhythms and melodies of Hebraic scriptures and their exegetical traditions, has enabled this novelist’s distinctly Judaic vision of the dawn of the new religion and of the key personalities involved. Once you’ve read Alderman’s psychologically nuanced, politically aware, and profoundly sympathetic take on Judas (amongst others), you’ll find that the normatively prejudicial telling of religious history in the West has been effectively unravelled.

Simon Schama – The Story of the Jews, Vol 1.

Simon Schama tells Jewish history as it’s never been told before, challenging many of its rehearsed clichés and assumptions and locating Jewish life in far flung and rarely noted corners of the ancient world. He cites, for example, copious evidence that images and aesthetics have played a greater role throughout Jewish history than is normally recognized. With reference to, for example, the beautiful mosaics inlaid on the floors of the archaeological remains of synagogues of antiquity, Schama claims that Jewish lives have been at least as sensual as they’ve been cerebral, and as much in thrall to beauty as to the law.

Devorah Baum is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southampton, UK, and affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. She is the co-director of the documentary feature film The New Man (2016). Find out more about her book, Feeling Jewish, here.

The 12 Most Stereotypical Jews in Literature

Monday, August 21, 2017 | Permalink

Devorah Baum is the author of Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone), out this week from Yale University Press. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Daniel Deronda – You’ve heard of the ‘magical Negro’, well here is George Eliot’s magical Jew (positive). A philo-Semite’s vision of the Jew as manifesting radiant spirituality, wisdom, morality, Zionist longing and soulfulness. F. R. Leavis thought the novel would be excellent if only the ‘bad half’, i.e. the sentimental bit featuring Deronda himself, could be removed.

Svengali the magical Jew (negative) – And then there’s the anti-Semite’s vision (George du Maurier’s) of the wicked, mysterious arch-manipulator: the immigrant foreigner who spoils the purity of the good people of England, and not least the innocent young girl he seduces.

Cohen of Trinity – The late nineteenth century Anglo-Jewish character in Amy Levy’s short story by the same name is everything you’d expect from one of the only Jewish students in a Cambridge college: hysterical, fascinating, grotesque, bewildering, self-conscious and self-hating.

Tevye the Milkman – The loveable, super kvetchy Jewish patriarch and shtetl dweller on very intimate if not combative terms with God: “You help complete strangers – why not me?”

Joseph K Kafka doesn’t explicitly say he’s Jewish, but we can’t but suspect that he is (just as we don’t doubt that that strange insect in the Metamorphoses must be, surely). Joseph K is the existential Jew, forever on trial for he knows not what.

Shimon Susskind - Bernard Malamud’s refugee character in his short story "The Last Mohican" is another wandering Jew who first appears to the American Jew who has come to Europe as a wide-eyed tourist as a less than pleasing hanger-on: a schlemiel, a schnorrer, a hustler, and a social embarrassment. Yet these same qualities are ultimately transformed into the means by which Susskind, by the end of the story, is established as a moral guide, a history lesson, and a religious revelation.

Micòl Finzi-Contini – The beautiful young daughter of the Finzi-Contini family with whom the narrator falls helplessly in love in Girorgio Bassani’s magisterial representation of that other stereotype, the rich Jew. The Finzi-Contini family live behind high walls in a mansion opening on to a garden of earthly delights. But though they separate themselves as much as possible from the rest of the Jewish community and the world at large, their riches and high walls ultimately fail to save them from the gathering fascist storm that will remove them all to a concentration camp in Germany.

RosaCynthia Ozick’s fictions have dared to imagine the interior life of more than one Holocaust survivor. In her short story, "The Shawl," it’s the figure of Rosa, who becomes a ‘walking cradle’ for her baby before the child is seized by a concentration camp guard and hurled to her death against an electric fence, who continuously haunts me.

Herzog – Like James Joyce’s earlier incarnation of the wandering Jew, Leopold Bloom, we have rich access to the stream of consciousness of Saul Bellow’s much more cerebral but no less profane Herzog, whose physical wandering is propelled by his wildly wandering mind. Herzog is a mad genius in the throes of a breakdown that casts, as Bellow’s fictions invariably cast, a critical but revealing light on the society in which he wanders.

Sophie and Alexander Portnoy – In Philip Roth’s book length comedy of the Oedipus-Schmedipus relation, it’s impossible to separate the castrating Jewish mother from the long-suffering Jewish son who acts out and blames his mother. Irving Howe once suggested that it’s because immigrant families are forced, in the context of an alien and hostile world, to fall back on themselves, that they tend to exhibit more symptoms of Oedipal angst than most.

Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf – The court Jew of the fascist President of the US in Philip Roth’s counter-historical novel, The Plot Against America (written in 2004 about what might have happened if the celebrity turned unlikely GOP nominee, the Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh, had been elected instead of Roosevelt). Bengelsdorf is a fascinating portrait of a self-regarding Jewish character who imagines that proximity to power and the powerful will ‘save’ both himself and his co-religionists from their politics and prejudices. By lending support and trust to the bad man in the White House, he manages to deepen the divide between Jews within their families and communities, and more important, his whitewashing of Nazi beliefs and behaviours has the effect, as another irate Jewish character in the novel points out, of ‘koshering Lindbergh for the goyim’.

Jacob Bloch – Moving from the far right to the liberal left, the protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Here I Am, is a contemporary American Jew unsure of his purpose or place—in history, in geography, in politics, in religion, in his work life, in his family life, in his romantic life, in his own life. Like Abraham and Joseph K, he feels life is a trial, and perhaps too he feels he’s obscurely guilty of a crime he hasn’t altogether committed. He knows that he’s had the great good fortune to have been positioned in one of the better, as in easier, chapters of Jewish history, and with that in mind he’s sought to be always on the right side of history (as in the left side of history), but he’s no less crushed and in crisis and he senses that his Jewishness (and his historical comfortability) might have something to do with it. Since it’s not clear, however, what part Jewishness plays, or needs to play, or what may be done about it, all he can do is pour his heart and mind and fantasies and fears and lusts and guts out, thus ironically resuming the position of the biblical patriarch Abraham whose responsive word to the call of God – “Hineni” – we can interpret in this modern American novel as an assertion not of identity but of its annihilation: since I do not know who I am, all I can say is here I am.

Devorah Baum is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Southampton, UK, and affiliate of the Parkes Institute for the Study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. She is the co-director of the documentary feature film The New Man (2016). Find out more about her book, Feeling Jewish, here.

New Reviews August 18 2017

Friday, August 18, 2017 | Permalink

How Memory Changes Our View of History

Monday, August 14, 2017 | Permalink

Neville Frankel is an Emmy winner and author of the recently published novel On the Sickle's Edge. A native of South Africa, he immigrated to the US when he was 14. He is blogging here today as a part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Memory is changed by the passage of time.

Childhood beach vacations with siblings and cousins might have been difficult and fraught with rivalry. But fast forward fifteen years, and a young person struggling to make ends meet and involved in an on-again, off-again romantic relationship may remember those vacations as idyllic periods of joy and harmony.

In the same way, the passage of time also changes our perceptions of political and economic history—but with more far-reaching consequences.

It has been said that history is written by the victors. But time can change that, too, as succeeding generations bring their perspectives to bear.

It can be instructive to think about a few examples and see what—if anything—they have in common.

Beginning in 1915, the Ottoman government killed about 1.5 million Armenians. For decades there was little discussion of this atrocity as a systematic attempt to destroy an entire people. Then, in 1944, the term genocide was coined, and the Armenian Genocide was given its name. The present day Republic of Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies that there was ever a systematic attempt to destroy the Armenian people, but Armenian communities, scattered across the globe, have increasingly made an accepted case that what occurred was indeed genocide.

Following World War II, prominent members of the political, military, judicial and economic leadership of Nazi Germany who planned, carried out or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes were tried and prosecuted at the Nuremberg Trials. There was no doubt in the minds of the Allies who liberated the concentration camps, and the historians who ploughed through Nazi records, that the Nazis planned—and almost succeeded in—achieving a Jewish Genocide. Yet today, fringe groups of Holocaust deniers cling to the belief that the Holocaust never happened.

In writing my novel On The Sickle’s Edge, most of which takes place in Moscow over much of the twentieth century, I’ve become more familiar than I ever wanted to be with other demagogic leaders. They range from Stalin, a deranged monster in human guise if ever there was one, to Putin, who brings with him an autocratic legacy of his service in the KGB, and who has encouraged and profited from a level of corruption that far surpasses the inefficiency and bureaucratic corruption that brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, there seemed to be the promise of a more transparent, more democratic and open Russia. Information about Stalin and the systematic murder of millions of his own people—information that had been long refuted, denied and hidden—was suddenly accessible. But under Putin, massive corruption, economic hard times, a crackdown on opposition and an almost total government takeover of the news media have made the promise of openness and democracy a joke. The Russian people increasingly hold Stalin up as the ultimate leader, forgetting what it was like to live in fear under Stalinist rule. Historians studying the Stalinist period report that they have trouble getting access to the archives they need. If an authoritarian leader wants his people to accept a particular version of history, all he has to do is make other versions of history unavailable.

In all these examples of cultural memory and forgetting, there are some common themes. Those who want to change our view of history always have a self-serving agenda—financial, political or cultural. Discredit a group’s historical claim to land. Gain possession of assets. Assert cultural identity. Initiate the payment of reparations. Repress a view of the past that gives ammunition to a political rival.

I’m not making a value judgment on any of these groups’ assertive desire to rewrite history. But I am struck by the human capacity to forget the past; to change the perception of the past in order to shape the future. Because we have difficulty seeing beyond the curvature of our own lifetime horizon, the perspectives of those who came before us are easily obscured—leaving history precariously balanced in the hands of those who tell the story today.

This is far more than a simple but interesting observation. It has far-reaching implications for how we behave in the real world, and in determining the actions we take today that will most definitely have consequences for all of us, our children, and grandchildren.

Find out more about Neville Frankel here.

New Reviews August 11 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017 | Permalink

The Female Heroes of David and the Philistine Woman

Thursday, August 10, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Paul Boorstin wrote about why he decided to tell David's story in his novel David and the Philistine Woman and how his background as a documentary film-maker impacted upon his writing. In his final post, Boorstin explores the women who stood behind David. He has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

I believe that the role of women as a moral anchor in the Hebrew Bible cannot be overstated. Of course, that role was not as openly discussed in ancient times as it is today. When I set out to reimagine the story of David and Goliath in David and the Philistine Woman, I saw the part played by women as crucial.

On the surface, the epic clash of the Israelites and the Philistines does not involve women. And yet, my book is as much about extraordinary women as it is about David’s own remarkable journey. As I envision his story, young David would never have been able to survive his rite of passage from shepherd to king, if it wasn’t for the strong women who offered their support and risked their lives for him.

First, I decided to include David’s mother. I was surprised to learn that her name is not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, though it is given as “Nitzevet” in the Talmud. Knowing from the biblical text how David’s father, Jesse, favored his older brothers over him, it was easy to imagine that David’s firm moral grounding came from Nitzevet, a strong and loving mother. Despite her omission from the biblical account, I wanted to show how I believe that her influence on David would have been significant.

I was also fascinated by Saul’s youngest daughter, Michal. She later becomes David’s first wife, and is the only woman in the Hebrew Bible of whom it is explicitly said that she loves a man. (I Samuel, 18:20): “Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David.” Though Michal never bears David a child, the Bible recounts how she saves his life, helping him to escape Saul’s assassins (I Samuel, 19:11). Michal’s actions in my novel illustrate her heartfelt devotion to him despite mortal danger.

And then, there is perhaps the book’s biggest surprise: Nara—the “Philistine woman” of the title. I was so intrigued by the notion of a female Philistine protagonist, that Nara was the first character I conceived. While Goliath the Philistine is one of history’s most despised villains, I wanted to show that this much-maligned people also could have fostered heroes. And why not a woman?

As depicted in the novel, Nara is the tallest, strongest young Philistine woman. She is forced to marry Goliath to bear him warrior sons. But Goliath abuses her. Meanwhile, young David is destined to face Goliath in combat. Though they are from different worlds, David and Nara help each other to survive against impossible odds. It is a message of hope for our own divisive times. Together, David and Nara share a bond that is more profound than physical love—their mission to help their warring peoples survive to live in peace.

In David and the Philistine Woman, the women of David’s time, like women today, risk their lives for what they believe is right, whether or not they get the credit they deserve.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

A Documentary Film-maker takes on David and Goliath

Wednesday, August 09, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week,  Paul Boorstin wrote about why he decided to tell David's story in his novel David and the Philistine Woman. Today, he explores how his background as a documentary film-maker impacted upon his writing. Boorstin has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

As a writer, producer and director of television documentaries, I’ve made National Geographic TV specials about big cats in India and baboons in Africa. I’ve traveled up the Amazon and yes, to Timbuktu in the Sub-Sahara. I’ve made MSNBC documentaries about convicted murderers in supermax prisons, and a History Channel documentary about the Kennedys in the White House.

Working with camera crews around the world under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions, I learned that what is happening outside the narrow perspective of the camera lens—both behind the scenes, and in the human heart—can be more revealing than what finally appears on film or video. In the same way, when I wrote David and the Philistine Woman, I felt I had to reach beyond the few paragraphs of the narrative in the Hebrew Bible to fully understand its meaning. I was convinced that there was more to the story of how David the boy becomes David the leader of his people.

I drew on lessons I had learned while making documentaries about the history of our own time—in particular, researching and writing The Lost Kennedy Home Movies. This two hour History Channel documentary, shown annually on the anniversary of the JFK assassination, explored the private lives of the Kennedy family. I learned that there were many intimate events that happened just “off camera”—secret loves and power struggles, triumphs and defeats. I realized how much of what takes place is hidden, lost forever to history.

Guided by that experience, while writing David and the Philistine Woman, I set out to reimagine the journey of young David with both a scope and an intimacy that it had not been told before. Over the years, I’ve learned that for a documentary to deliver in depth, it must use both a wide-angle and a close-up lens. That was my mission with this novel: to capture the broad panorama of the epic struggle between the Israelites and the Philistines, while zooming in on the turbulent relationships of David, Jonathan and Saul, and the murderous psyche of Goliath.

Like a powerful documentary, a historical novel can plunge us into a decisive moment in history, make us feel that we are there. It is that intensity, that total immersion in a distant time and place, which I was determined to bring to David and the Philistine Woman.

I have devoted much of my life to the demanding craft of documentary film-making. I respect the power of that unforgiving medium. But a novel can do things that a documentary cannot: evoke the softness of a lamb’s fleece, the delicate aromas of spices in a Jerusalem market, or the stench of rotting corpses on a battlefield. Even more important, a novel can reveal a character’s most private thoughts and feelings too intimate to ever confess on-camera.

I believe that those inner conflicts, the demons that we human beings all wrestle with, have not changed in the thousands of years since that fateful moment when David picked up his stone from the dust of the Valley of Elah. Evil exists now, as it did back then, and that cold fact places a burden on all of us. Because whether or not we look to God for miracles, it is for us to do all that is in our power to fight the good fight in our own time, as young David did in his.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

Why I Told David’s Story—and Why David Matters Now

Tuesday, August 08, 2017 | Permalink

Paul Boorstin is an award-winning writer, filmmaker, and author of the novel David and the Philistine Woman. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

The duel of David and Goliath, the ultimate clash of good against evil, is barely a page long in the Hebrew Bible (I Samuel, Chapter 17). The story is so familiar, each of us feels as if we own it. Why was I driven to take my version, the one that I have “owned” since I was a child, and bring it to life?

Growing up in Chicago as a Jewish kid with thick glasses and zero athletic ability, I was always the last to be picked for baseball, football, soccer, you name it. So when I learned at our synagogue about the unimposing David triumphing over the giant Goliath, I instantly chose the little guy as my role model. I was soon inspired by other “Davids” in history—from Joan of Arc to Nelson Mandela—underdogs triumphing over impossible odds. At the top of my list, of course, were the Jewish people, who for centuries were persecuted exiles, yet who overcame fearsome obstacles through spiritual strength.

Half a century after I first discovered him, young David is still my favorite “super-hero.” I find in his life the true meaning of heroism: as much a matter of moral character as physical courage. Beginning with the biblical text, I reimagined David’s story based on the narrative I envisioned between the lines, to discover what mysteries and surprises might be hiding there. My purpose in writing David and the Philistine Woman was to broaden the scope of the narrative to encompass the conflict of the Israelite and Philistine peoples. I also wanted to focus on the minds, motives and hearts of some of the Bible’s most fascinating figures, along with original characters—male and female—that I created.

While writing David and the Philistine Woman, I was determined to remain faithful to the spirit of the Biblical original. Beyond that, I wanted my novel to show that what links people of goodwill is not so much the god they worship as it is their bond of common humanity and shared compassion.

Researching the early years of the Hebrew Bible’s most beloved figure, I was surprised to discover a young man who is still a hero for us in the twenty-first century: For unlike Moses or Abraham, young David, as depicted in my novel and in the Bible, does not hear the voice of God. He must seek out that voice in the stirrings of his own heart. That is the spark that kindled my passion to tell this story. For like David, in our troubled world we must do the right thing without God whispering a command in our ear to direct our actions.

By the end of David and the Philistine Woman, David learns that whether or not it is ordained in heaven, nothing of value is achieved here on earth unless it is done by human hands. The task has never been more urgent for us than it is today.

Download a book club resource kit for David and the Philistine Woman here. Learn more about Paul Boorstin here.

New Reviews August 4 2017

Friday, August 04, 2017 | Permalink

The Importance of Coming-of-Age Novels

Friday, August 04, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder, author of The Fix: A Father's Secrets, A Daughter's Search, has been guest blogging throughout the week as part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In this final segment of my Prosen People series, I will discuss how reading coming-of-age novels encouraged me to change the structure of my novel, The Fix, entirely, and to drop the character of adult Sara in favor of the young protagonist who witnesses first-hand her father Josef’s affliction of heroin addiction.

Anzia Yezierska, Johanna Kaplan, and Myla Goldberg: Daughters in The Authors’ Coming-of-Age Novels:

I learned from the Jewish women authors in the “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World” seminar series how to bring scenes of the child Sara and her father to greater prominence in the novel. It was an obvious solution, but like Poe’s purloined letter, it was not on my radar screen! The novels by Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg were all coming-of-age stories, narrated mostly by the young protagonists themselves. I needed to change The Fix’s point of view! The young Sara—not the adult Sara—needed to tell the tale. Was I bold enough to perform the “surgery” and leave the adult Sara on the operating table because she was no longer alive? Could I revive the character of Sara as a child, starting from the moment she learns of her father’s addiction and then trace her unfolding understanding of him and of the meaning of his illness?

Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg had their female protagonists—Sara Smolinksy, Merry Slavin, and Eliza Naumann—all follow a similar narrative arc: Each develops autonomy in rebellion against her father and follows a life path guided by her own will but ultimately comes to see her father in new ways, more maturely. This is what I wanted to show in the arc of Sara Katz’s life: rebellion against her absent father for whom she harbors unresolved anger and rage, and ultimately reconciliation with that same father once she gains greater distance and understanding.

Bread Givers

Sara Smolinsky in Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) is the youngest but most outspoken of Reb Smolinsky’s four daughters, the one he calls Blut-und-Eisen, blood and iron, because of her strong will. I followed the pattern Yezierska set when she began her story with an eight-year-old narrator who finally explodes against the tyrannizing of her Orthodox father when she is seventeen. In this scene, Sara is speaking up for herself and her three intimidated sisters:

“For seventeen years, I had stood his preaching and his bullying. But now all the hammering hell that I had to listen to since I was born cracked my brain ... Should I let him crush me as he crushed them? No. This is America, where children are people.”

Those ages, eight and seventeen, became markers in my character’s life as well. My Sara first learns at age eight of her father’s heroin addiction, a condition she doesn’t understand at all. By seventeen, she’s attending the funeral of her father, a victim of heroin overdose. By this time, her needy mother and grandmother have turned her into a “parentified” child who has learned more about the family wreckage her father’s condition causes than any youngster should know. At the funeral, she says to her younger brother:

“I can’t believe it. Daddy was just with us at your bar mitzvah. And now he’s gone ... "

"How do you think Daddy died? … Did Daddy ... do it ... to himself?”

“You know about things like that?” Sara asks in surprise.

He nodded.

“We just don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know ... Ma and Grandma didn’t want an autopsy ...”

Never in the past could she speak to her father about what she knew—his shameful life. Never could she find the right words, the right time. She had imagined approaching him that very week. And now it was too late. … Anger welled up in her—anger at her father for leaving them. And later, when Sara’s guidance counselor at school suggests she write to her deceased father to process her lingering anger, Sara says in her letter:

“I blamed you. ... Mom was willing to endure the rough periods, even your hurting her at times, when you were desperate for money. I can’t believe I watched you hit her! ... How could you? Oh, Dad, when will I stop blaming you for not giving up heroin totally?”

O My America!

In Jewish Book Award winner Johanna Kaplan’s novel O My America! (1980), the tables between father and daughter have turned. Merry Slavin’s father, Ez Slavin, is the flamboyant radical this time, an anarchist/pacifist whose Old Left politics in the 1930s morph into New Left politics in the ’60s. He’s an inveterate individualist constantly fighting off media attention that he claims will threaten his ability to think. After Merry’s mother dies after giving birth to her, Merry seeks greater intimacy with her absent father, a public political personality who soon partners with other women and has other children with them. Ez, who believes the nuclear family is a bourgeois construct, refuses to play traditional father with Merry.

I adopted two of Kaplan’s structural devices. The first is having the father die at the beginning of the narrative. Kaplan opens her novel with Merry waiting in her New York apartment for her father’s phone call to arrange a place for them to meet. Instead, the call comes in from the police, who have brought her father to a hospital where he dies of a massive heart attack. I open The Fix with Sara and her family waiting for Josef’s Sunday morning visit, now that he’s living with Sara’s grandparents. Instead, Sara’s mother, Helen, gets the call from her brother-in-law, who has found Josef dead from a heroin overdose in his father’s butcher shop. The deaths coming at the outset set up the question of what these men’s lives were really like. Both protagonists, Merry and Sara, have devoted much of their young lives to uncovering the mysteries surrounding their fathers’ identities.

The second is the failure of the funeral scenes in both novels to yield the true picture of the deceased, and what the impact of lack of full disclosure is on loved ones. The honorific eulogies by those who knew Ez Slavin professionally present a stark contrast to the flawed man we have met through Merry’s eyes. Likewise, Josef’s funeral scene in The Fix highlights the discrepancy between the ill man who has terrified Sara’s childhood and the good husband and father praised by Rabbi Korn’s falsehoods of omission.

Bee Season

Finally, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000), a New York Times Notable Book, features protagonist Eliza Neumann, a grade-school student at McKinley Elementary who is second fiddle in her father, Saul’s, eyes to her older brother, Aaron, until her remarkable and uncanny ability to spell difficult words becomes an “item” of note to her teachers. Eliza has always desired more of her father’s attention, but once she has it, the attention turns sour because Saul’s doting becomes a helicopter dad’s means of control. We learn that Eliza’s mother, Miriam, also has needed to “free” herself from Saul, turning to solitary activities like letter writing, shopping, and housework at odd hours. Bee Season taught me to balance my attention in The Fix on the parenting Sara receives from both parents, Helen and Josef. Bringing in the seemingly less dominant character, the mother, at the end of the novel can make use of the strategy of surprise if the mother is exposed in some unexpected and ironic way. Toward the close of Bee Season, the reader learns how psychologically ill Miriam has become “from years of being alone” avoiding the family dynamic in an unusual way. In The Fix, Helen’s insistence on keeping Josef’s addiction a secret, even after his death, turns out to be her own way of veiling her complicity in the addiction pattern, her years of enabling.

The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search

I am left with gratitude for having had the occasion to read with care these novels by great Jewish writers and to discuss them with thoughtful audiences. As I reflect on my writing process, I see how the magical osmosis of influence has enabled my work to become invested with elements I found both consciously and unconsciously in these stimulating works of fiction. My revision of The Fix as Sara’s coming-of-age story enabled me to find the right point of view for getting in touch with my character’s childhood trauma and for communicating it convincingly. By reading fiction, I was able to reach more of the essential truth of my own story. The Fix is based on my life.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at