The ProsenPeople

Why I’m a Jewish Writer

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 | Permalink

Stuart Rojstaczer was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he was educated in public and Orthodox Jewish schools. For many years, he was a professor of geophysics at Duke University. He has been a Karma Foundation Annual Short Story Finalist and a National Science Foundation Young Investigator. His debut novel, The Mathematician's Shiva, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for the Visiting Scribe series.

One day last year I was speaking to my cat in the front yard. A neighbor walking by stopped because he was surprised I wasn’t speaking English. “What language are you speaking to your cat?” he asked.

“Yiddish,” I said.

“Your cat knows Yiddish?”

“About as well as she knows any other language.”

My neighbor had set me up unwittingly. He isn’t Jewish. He didn’t grow up speaking Yiddish. How was he supposed to know I was going to turn his innocent question into a joke? But my father, if he were still around and had been on my porch at the time, would have seen what was coming a mile away. My wife, who grew up around Yiddish speakers, would have seen it too had she been there.

When I was a kid, there was something that Jewish men of my dad’s age who had been born in America would sometimes say, “Dress British. Think Yiddish.” Neither my father nor I dressed British when I was growing up. But being born in Poland, my father definitely thought Yiddish. So did my mother, who was also born in Poland. Being around those two, how could I not think Yiddish as well?

We spoke Yiddish in our Milwaukee home. I learned English when I was little by watching shows like Leave It To Beaver. I think Yiddish to this day. My Yiddish is, because I haven’t used it regularly in decades, rusty. And to keep it from disappearing, I speak it to my cat. Don’t think I’m not waiting for the next unsuspecting neighbor to innocently ask what language I’m speaking to her. Jokes, bad and good, are an intrinsic part of Yiddish culture. So is repetition of jokes, both bad and good.

In America, Yiddish has been distorted into some cutesy thing that’s all about jokes, colorful curses, and sentiment. But in my childhood home, it wasn’t a cute language. It was the language of commerce, heated arguments, and sophisticated thought. It was also a language for discussing religion and although I never thought of my family as particularly religious, we kept a kosher home and had a Sabbath meal every week. I’d also be ushered off to read the Old Testament and Rashi with black hats, and attend evening prayers with those black hats, bobbing my head as I prayed, three or four days a week.

Write about what you know, they say. Nowadays, I don’t go to synagogue more than about ten times a year, but given my background, what are the odds that I’m going to write about Anglicans? Or Catholics? Or atheists? Or secular humanists? About the same odds as my cat actually understanding Yiddish.

Write about what’s in your heart, they say, too. My heart, mein hartz, is Jewish. My first language was Yiddish. I look at my face in the mirror in the morning and I know that I don’t look anything like Sylvester Stallone or Alec Baldwin. Who have people confused me with on the street more times that I can remember? Albert Brooks, whose real name is Albert Einstein. (Yes, Mr. Brooks’ father was a Jewish comedian.). I know who I am, I’m happy to be who I am, and I know what I am: a Jewish writer.

Stuart Rojstaczer has written for The New York Times and Washington Post, and his scientific research has appeared in both Science and Nature. He lives with his wife in northern California. Read more about him here.

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Interview: Joel M. Hoffman

Tuesday, September 09, 2014 | Permalink

by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

A frequent speaker at synagogues and JCCs, Joel M. Hoffman, Ph.D., authored two books before writing his most recent book, The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor (Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press), and has collaborated with his father, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, on over a dozen other works, including the National Jewish Book Award winner My People’s Prayer Book (ten volumes, Jewish Lights Publishing).

Lawrence A. Hoffman: Why did you write a book about what didn’t make it into the Bible?

Joel M. Hoffman: The more I read these ancient texts, the more I fall in love with them. They enlighten our reading of the Bible and offer compelling accounts that speak to the human condition with surprising insight.

LAH: For example?

JMH: I especially like the Life of Adam and Eve, a vivid description of what happens to the first man and woman after they’re expelled from the Garden of Eden. The narrative also explores the kind of unexpected sorrow that everyone faces eventually. I have a whole chapter on that.

LAH: What else jumps out at you?

JMH: The sources clarify so many details about the Bible. The Tower of Babel was deliberately waterproofed to withstand another flood, for example, but without these texts, the only way you’d know it is if you happen to be an expert in ancient materials science.

LAH: If these passages from the cutting room floor had become the canon instead of what we have, would western civilization be differ­ent?

JMH: What a fascinating question! For one thing, people would have a different view of misfortune, which most people today intuitively see as a punishment. “Why me,” they ask when something goes wrong. Or, “what did I do to deserve this?” They get that from Deuteronomy. But this classical notion of reward and punishment was only one under­standing of misfortune back then. The texts on the Bible’s cutting room floor highlight others: Suffering is simply part of human life, neither deserved nor undeserved. Or people were not supposed to suffer at all, but God’s world is slightly out of control. If alternative approaches like these hadn’t been whitewashed from mainstream Judaism and Christi­anity, people today might have better tools to understand life and cope with its traumas.

LAH: How does this book relate to your translation work?

JMH: As I was growing up, you taught me by personal example to appre­ciate my heritage and to pursue learning. My translation work is driven by a desire to use that learning to show people the original beauty of the Bible.This is too.

LAH: You have no idea how proud I am of you as your father. I re­member how you used to help me copy-edit my books when you were young. Now you’re writing your own. It’s a joy to see.

JMH: That’s not a question.

LAH: No, it’s not. I get to do that. I’m your father.

JMH: I love you, Dad.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., is a two-time recipient of the National Jewish Book Award, and has written or edited more than 40 books, including over a dozen that include his son. His latest such work, All the World (Jewish Lights Publishing), focuses on the High Holiday themes of particularism and universalism.

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Interview: Joseph Berger

Monday, September 08, 2014 | Permalink

by Carol Kaufman

Jewish Book Council's Carol Kaufman recently spoke with Joseph Berger about his new book The Pious Ones: The World of Hasidim and Their Battles with America, which was published this week by Harper Perennial.

Carol Kaufman: Why did you decide to write a book about the Hasidim, and why now?

Joseph Berger: I had been writing many articles about Hasidim and thought I had learned enough to write a book explaining what many outsiders consider a curious, esoteric group. The fact that my mother grew up in a Hasidic summer resort outside Warsaw and filled me with Hasidic tales may have been a subconscious motivation.

CK: In the book you write about a sleep-away summer camp in the Catskills for Satmar boys ages 9-13, where the boys get up each morning at 6:45 and eagerly study Torah and Talmud for six hours a day. Your book is filled with examples of what some might call extreme behavior. Why do you think some Hasidic sects have become more austere, punctilious, and zealous than their Eastern European forebears ever were?

JB: The Baal Shem Tov and other founders of Hasidism emphasized fervor in prayer and fulfillment of the mitzvot, and that zeal practically defines Hasidim. How else would you have frail Hasidim hooking themselves up to IV’s in synagogue basements on Yom Kippur so they can gain nourishment without actually eating.

CK: You've reported on New York, including its Hasidim, for about 30 years. As you delved deeper into Hasidic culture for this book did you learn anything about them that surprised you?

JB: The ways in which Hasidic zeal is expressed astonished me. Take shopping for Passover. A Hasidic market will have two rows of root vegetables—washed and unwashed. Wholehearted Hasidim prefer to see granules of earth on their vegetables and clean them off themselves so they can be sure no hametz contaminated the washing. I was also surprised by how often the Hasidic approach conflicted with the democratic American approach, like the Monsey Hasidim who string a curtain down the aisle of a publicly-financed bus so they can have separate seating for prayer.

CK: Crystal ball-gazing, where do you see the Hasidim ten years on? Do you think most of the various sects will be thriving? Do you think the ranks of the rebels, the defectors—reflected in the plethora of recent memoirs by ex-Hasidim, mostly young women—will continue to grow? And, are they becoming more influential in terms of policies and politics?

JB: With their large families, Hasidim are growing at a breathtaking rate and as a result Orthodox Jews could become a majority of Jews in New York in 20 years, changing the community’s liberal, cosmopolitan profile. Despite the attention they get, defectors are still a tiny slice of the Hasidic population. The way of life is so all-encompassing that it is difficult for skeptics to leave. The Internet’s subversive impact, however, may upset such calculations. Politicians have long woken up to muscular Hasidic growth and are eager to gain their bloc votes, so controversies like one over circumcision practices often end in the Hasidic favor.

CK: Are you thinking about the next book you might like to write?

JB: I’m taking a breather and enjoying some of the responses I’ve received to The Pious Ones. Then perhaps I’ll think about my next project.

Carol Kaufman is the editor of Jewish Book World.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of September 1st

Saturday, September 06, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It may have been a short work week, but there was plenty to read on the Jewish Book Council website!

Over the holiday weekend half the Jewish Book Council staff reread The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. after pressing it into the hands of a lovelorn friend—and discovered the book cover for the UK edition!

It was a great excuse to revisit the longest interview ever: a conversation with Adelle Waldman that was too good to cut down, so we published the whole thing in three installments.

Interviews with novelists are endlessly fascinating, and this week the Jewish Book Council featured several interviews with some major writers! Tova Mirvis filled our readers in on her ten-year hiatus between The Ladies Auxilary and her current novel, Visible City, in conversation with fellow JBC Network author Adam Rovner. Together they discussed discovering the human capacity for change how stained glass windows reflect the writer’s task in authoring a novel:


You can look at those win­dows as a whole, but you can also look at each individual piece of glass and get a sense of how they were constructed to be a part of this mas­sive work. It made me think about novel writing and I said: “That’s what I’m trying to do, to put all my little pieces together.” And so I developed this love for stained glass.

Wondering what’s next for Tova? Read the interview.


You might notice a fair amount of focus on JBC Network authors this week. This is because the roster of 2014-2015 JBC Network authors and their titles went public September 1st! Browse the online lists to see who is touring North America through the Jewish Book Council this year; if you’re inspired to learn more about the program, please visit our resource pages for publicists and authors or book program coordinators.

In addition to the interviews, this week we published reviews of several JBC Network books: How Could This Happen? Explaining the Holocaust by Dan McMillan; I Pity the Poor Immigrant, a novel by Zachary Lazar; and Pepper, Silk & Ivory: Amazing Stories About Jews and the Far East by Marvin Tokayer and Ellen Rodman. We also salivated over that icon of Jewish cuisine, the knish, in Laura Silver’s journey In Search of the Jewish Soul Food through Brooklyn, New Jersey, and across the world.

Another feast for the eyes: the paintings of Theresa Bernstein, brought to light in a new biography of the twentieth century American artist and her work, A Century in Art. We further indulged in the Arts this week with Eruv, Eryn Green’s prize for winning the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition and a gift to the rest of us. And you can’t review a new David Grossman novel and not mention it:

A rumination on the porosity of the barrier between life and death, and above all an elegy to his son Uri, killed in Lebanon in 2006, distinguished Israeli author David Grossman has poured into this book all the literary forms this brilliantly imaginative writer has at hand—prose, poetry, allusion, fable, theater, narration.

It was certainly a busy week of Jewish Book Council online content, but be sure not to miss Bel Kaufman’s reminiscences about her grandfather, Sholem Aleichem, recorded by Tradition! author Barbara Isenberg shortly after Kaufman’s 100th birthday. Kaufman became a distinguished author herself as an adult, but her memories of her grandfather are quite simply darling:

I remember the sound of his laughter, and I have two or three visceral memories. I remember the feeling of his hand. He used to tell me that the harder I held his hand, the better he wrote. So I take all credit, for I held on very tight.

Book Cover of the Week: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Friday, September 05, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I revisited Adelle Waldman's debut novel over Labor Day, recommending The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. to a friend who sadly experienced some major heartache this summer. And this novel is so. Good.

My forlorn friend's immediate response to the book? "Great cover art!"

This is not the book cover he saw. Apparently, this is what The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. looks like in Australia? But the original is pretty great, too.

Update: Henry Holt & Co. verified that the image pictured is the UK edition!

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, September 05, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Interview: Daniel Silva

Friday, September 05, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Elise Cooper recently spoke with Daniel Silva about the newest book in his Gabriel Allon series, The Heist, which was published in July 2014 by Harper.

Elise Cooper: Why do you think Gabriel Allon is so popular?

Daniel Silva: He is a character with two distinct sides, as an art restorer and an Israeli intelligence agent. He resonates with people because he is a decent human being who is asked to do some dirty jobs over the years. That combination of attributes allows me to craft my stories in a way that makes them very different from most spy novels. Actually, I had to be talked into writing him as a series character; I was hesitant because I was deeply concerned about the anti-Israeli sentiment and anti-Semitism in the world. Thankfully I was proven wrong, and I think we all are glad he is out there.

EC: You have a very powerful quote by Leah, Gabriel’s first wife: “The snow absolves Vienna of its sins. The snow falls on Vienna while the missiles rain down on Tel Aviv.” Can you explain?

DS: That is something Leah said in the very first novel, before she was severely wounded in a bombing. Here she was in Vienna, the country that produced Hitler, the Nazi leadership, and the Nazi machinery. She looked out and saw a beautiful snowy night in Vienna while on the TV she saw missiles raining down on Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War.

EC: Does Leah symbolize the horrors of terrorism?

DS: We must remember that for every one of the attacks during the Intifada there were survivors who lost limbs, eyes, and/or had been badly burned. Leah represents something very important: Gabriel is an art restorer and can fix just about anything except her. It is very painful for him that he can never make her right.

EC: Gabriel also seems to want to redeem Christopher Keller, a former British commando turned professional assassin. Correct?

DS: They are a classic pairing: two tough, funny guys who are always trying to one-up each other. Gabriel tries to restore more than paintings. As I commented about Leah, he wants to restore people. He does not believe it morally right or appropriate for Keller to kill people for money, even if most of the time those people deserve to die.

EC: Your last few books have plots that go beyond the terrorist angle. Why?

DS: Last year in The English Girl Gabriel undertook a search for a kidnapped British woman. In the previous book to that he was investigating an apparent death by suicide at the Vatican. This is the beauty of the Gabriel character: I can write him doing all sorts of things.

EC: In The Heist you have a lot about art history. Why?

DS: The first half of the story is very much an art book and deals with the famous missing painting by Caravaggio. I thought it would be interesting to discuss who he is, why he painted the way he did, and what his life was like. I hope readers found him to be a compelling, fascinating, and amazing character. I’ve always wanted to write about the missing Caravaggio for many years. The loss of the painting leaves a hole that can never be refilled.

EC: You refer to a Middle Eastern despot indirectly stealing a lot of art. Why did you decide to write about this topic?

DS: The Arab Awakening showed the greed of the Arab dictators. Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Kaddafi, and now the Syrian government have accumulated a huge amount of assets. I learned that finding assets isn’t really difficult, but tying them to a ruler is very tricky. I have also been intrigued and angered that thieves have made off with masterpieces. I think there has been a tendency over the years to dismiss art crime as something romantic or a sort of a gentlemen’s game. The truth is, art crime is a big business. These stolen paintings can be used as a form of underworld cash.

EC: If I were to interview Gabriel what would he say is the greatest danger to Israel today?

DS: In its early days Israel had to face hostile Arab nation states. What we have now is what he would call AlQaedastan, a non-state actor and a belt of Sunni extremism. If they get WMDs they could inflict devastating blows to Israel. He is really worried about it because he feels these groups will eventually turn their attention to Israel, and is very pessimistic about ever having peace.

EC: What would Ari Shamron, the legendary former chief of Israeli intelligence, say is the gravest danger to Israel?

DS: He is very worried about Iran. Privately he thought Israel could cripple Iran with a nuclear strike. He probably would have recommended it to the Prime Minister. He lost his family and lived through one Holocaust and is not anxious to see another. He fears his life’s work of protecting the State of Israel is in grave danger.

EC: What would you like the reader to get out of The Heist?

DS: I’d like readers to be entertained and learn a little something along the way. I have always been loathe to say what the reader should take away from my work. What is unique about reading is that we see every character and every scene through the prism of our own little theatre in our head. It is private. Books touch each of us in a unique way. I don’t want to intrude on that.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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The Comings and Goings of Songs in “Fiddler on the Roof”

Thursday, September 04, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week Barbara Isenberg wrote about reminiscing with Bel Kaufman about Sholem Aleichem. She is the author of Tradition!, is an award winning journalist who has been writing and lecturing about theater for over three decades. Barbara has been blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

Broadway musicals are known for being not just written but rewritten, and many composers, lyricists and book writers have stacks of unused material in their closets or computers. With plot changes comes the need for new scenes, and with the new scenes comes the need for new songs. This was certainly the case with Fiddler on the Roof, the subject of my new book, Tradition!: The Highly Improbable, Ultimately Triumphant Broadway-to-Hollywood Story of Fiddler on the Roof, The World’s Most Beloved Musical.

When director/choreographer Jerome Robbins came onboard, he asked playwright Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick and composer Jerry Bock for rewrites many times. Stein wrote five drafts of his book. The songwriters turned out about 50 songs, of which the show uses fewer than one-third.

Consider the all-important opening number, for which “Tradition,” was a late arrival. Before Robbins got involved, the show opened instead with “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet,” a song about getting ready for the Sabbath that matriarch Golde sang with her daughters. Among its lyrics were cautions about getting those noodles made, chickens plucked, liver chopped and challah baked in time to light and bless the Sabbath candles.

But that song didn’t promise audiences the show Robbins had in mind. Again and again, he’d ask his authors what their musical was really about, and he refused to accept their answers that it was simply a story of a milkman and his five daughters. Finally, Harnick replied that the show was about tradition, and, replied Robbins,”That’s it. Write that.”

Today among the best-known and beloved songs ever written, “Tradition” sent “We’ve Never Missed a Sabbath Yet” scurrying. With it also went such Bock and Harnick creations as “ Poppa Help Me,” “A Butcher’s Soul,” “The Story of Jacob,” and “Baby Birds.” Gone was a love song called “As Much As That” and one of producer Harold Prince’s personal favorites, “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine.”

Similarly, Tevye first sang not “If I Were a Rich Man” but rather, “That’s Life,” a lament about his lame horse. Among its lyrics was the stanza: “So you’d like to be lazy and fat, of course/Well, it’s your rotten luck to be Tevye’s horse.” But Robbins was worried about having a real horse onstage that could make some of the highly-stylized sets look out of proportion. So he sent songwriters Bock and Harnick back to try again.

Fortunately, the songwriting team soon happened to be at a benefit when a mother and daughter came out to sing a Hasidic chant. Both men were taken with how the women substituted nonsense syllables for words, and Sheldon Harnick augmented their dedededums with some very descriptive language from Sholem Aleichem’s short stories. “I’m very smart,” Harnick once said.” I know where to take from.”

Barbara Isenberg is the author of Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical, State of the Arts: California Artists Talk About Their Work and Conversations with Frank Gehry. Her work has appeared in the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Esquire, The Huffington Post, and London’s Sunday Times. She lives in Los Angeles. Read more about her and her work here.

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Interview: Stephanie Feldman

Wednesday, September 03, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Angel of Losses, Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel, weaves together history and Jewish folklore into a multi-generational family saga. At the heart of the story is the relationship between two sisters, Marjorie and Holly. Marjorie, who is on a quest to find the meaning behind her grandfather’s fairy tales, must also come to grips with her own resentment toward her married sister and her newfound family. The novel’s universal themes are family and loss, exile and redemption. Elise Cooper interviewed Stephanie Feldman for the Jewish Book Council.

Elise Cooper: Where did you get the idea for the story?

Stephanie Feldman: I first got the idea in college while studying eighteenth-century Gothic novels. I wanted to write something similar: a tale with mysterious figures, ghosts, and family secrets that also tackles the issues of identity and social obligation. I made it my own by setting it in the contemporary U.S., and rewriting the Wandering Jew, a common Gothic character, using Jewish tradition. Through my research I learned that the wandering Jew was based on a Christian legend: a Roman, who taunted Jesus as he carried the cross, and is condemned to immortality, forced to wander the earth until Jesus returns. This legend definitely had anti-Semitic incarnations. Because I wanted to take that figure back I incorporated the story with Jewish tradition.

EC: Were you exposed to Jewish mysticism and religion as a child?

SF: No. I grew up as a Reform Jew. We celebrated the holidays but were not particularly observant. I went to Philadelphia public schools where I was one of the only Jewish children in my class. I felt my duty was to be the representative of those who are Jewish. Then I went to Barnard College, which has a very large Orthodox Jewish population. I made friends who were very religious and realized I did not know some of the words spoken or the customs practiced. Suddenly I thought ‘maybe I am not as Jewish as I thought I was.’ This was about the time I started thinking about writing this book. I realized I wanted to explore Jewish identity, including mine.

EC: Is that why you compare and contrast secular and religious Jews in the book?

SF: I wanted to explore with the characters what they thought of each other’s Jewishness. There is this gulf between the characters and how they see the world. They are not willing to see where each other comes from. The story has them exploring the need to be more open-minded and accepting of each other’s beliefs; although the book never comes to a resolution on what makes somebody Jewish.

EC: Why did you write the Holocaust scenes?

SF: In my family the Holocaust was always part of our Jewish identity. What I think all Jews have in common is that shared history, which I incorporated into the story. For Grandpa Eli, fairy tales are a way of telling a history that he is unable to communicate, or personally confront head-on.

EC: Did you do a lot of research for the book?

SF: I didn't have any favorite folktales coming in, but the ones that struck me the most, and which you'll see in the book, describe holy men who attempted to force the coming of the Messiah and Paradise. These men love G-d so much they're willing to destroy His laws for the chance to be closer to Him. I am very interested in learning about group loyalty and its relationship to social construction. Jewish identity is particularly thorny because it is a religion, tradition, and there is the Jewish nation of Israel.

EC: Since the sisters’ relationship is so important throughout the book, please describe the interaction between Holly and Marjorie, and between Chava, Holly’s religious name, and Marjorie.

SF: Marjorie loves Holly fiercely but is also furious with her, although most of her anger is a mask for her own hurt and sadness. She feels abandoned by Holly, who made the choice to leave her sister behind. Marjorie resents Nathan, Holly’s husband, because she blames him for taking Holly away, and every interaction between them becomes a battle. Marjorie has a forceful personality. She is self righteous, driven, not very forgiving, and single-minded. Holly is the nice sister, the forgiving one who is easiest to get along with. It took time for me to put Marjorie's feelings and judgments aside and see Holly as she sees herself. After Holly becomes Chava she is more like Marjorie; both are very stubborn.

EC: Is this a book about exile?

SF: The Angel of Losses has a yearning for what exists and cannot be left behind. There is the feeling of exile, and the desire to have a reunion with G-d. This book’s theme is about exile: Holly exiled Marjorie, and Marjorie exiled herself as she left her home and family where she grew up. The exile theme also comes into play within the mysticism portions of the book. Exile is a key Jewish concept: the exile from the Garden of Eden, exile from G-d, and from a physical homeland. To be exiled is to have a sense of loss, which Marjorie, Holly, Nathan, and Eli all experience and must come to grips within their own way.

EC: What does the White Rebbe represent?

SF: He is not based on any particular rabbi. He is a fairly modern person who is struggling with what it means to be his father’s son and a member of the tribe, and with what he owes his loved ones and what he owes himself. As Marjorie learns more about the White Rebbe and her grandfather she comes to see her own life as another version of their stories.

EC: What do you want the readers to get out of the book?

SF: I hope they enjoy the story. I want them to think about their own identity. A family’s history should be passed down to each generation. This family is like many other families whose members love each other but make a lot of mistakes interacting and understanding each other. They are struggling as a unit with loyalty, duty, when to sacrifice for one another, and when to speak up. Untying those knotty relationships was intense, and I was grateful to escape into fairy tales sometimes, into the legends I created.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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Interview: Tova Mirvis

Tuesday, September 02, 2014 | Permalink

by Adam Rovner

Best-selling author Tova Mirvis achieved mainstream success with her novels about women in insular Orthodox communities. After a ten year hiatus, Mirvis is back with her third novel, Visible City (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an intensely personal tale of love, loss, and transformation.

Adam Rovner: Some reviewers of Visible City found the novel to be pessimistic because it depicts failed relationships. Can you discuss your own sense of whether Visible City was optimistic or pessimistic?

Tova Mirvis: I wanted to write about real life and I don’t think we divide real life into optimistic and pessimistic. Life has its ups and downs. The hard parts and good parts are all intertwined. I felt that the book was about the possibility of change. At the beginning of the book, a lot of the characters are in a state of paralysis, but what I think is amazing about life are those openings—those windows—where we can and do make a change.

AR: Speaking of windows, a central plotline in Visible City concerns the search for a lost masterpiece of stained glass by American artist John LaFarge (1835-1910). Stained glass seems to me to be an especially Christian art form. I always associate stained glass windows with churches, even though synagogues have them as well. For a writer who is so steeped in Jewish tradition, why did the motif of stained glass attract you?

TM: I have those same associations! Stained glass was probably one of my least favorite areas of art, ironically. I got interested in stained glass because of my ex-husband. That was how I learned about John LaFarge. There are stained glass windows that LaFarge made near Boston that I went to see. They are huge and stunning. You can look at those win­dows as a whole, but you can also look at each individual piece of glass and get a sense of how they were constructed to be a part of this mas­sive work. It made me think about novel writing and I said: “That’s what I’m trying to do, to put all my little pieces together.” And so I developed this love for stained glass.

AR: Jeremy is one of two characters in Visible City who searches for the lost LaFarge window. He’s intriguing because he has left the Or­thodox Jewish world. At one point in the novel there’s a lament from Jeremy’s perspective about the loss of Shabbat observance. Why was Jeremy’s abandonment of tradition so crucial to the novel?

TM: His story felt important to me because I was interested in what happens when we make change. I felt like the idea that we can change our lives doesn’t tell the whole story, because of course we bring the past with us. I was writing a book about physical objects that were left behind in the city—stained glass windows that are walled up, or [aban­doned] subway stations—and then I thought about the parts of our own past that are sort of emotional ghost stations. Even when you make a change, even when you want that change, there is still regret and loss. I felt like Shabbat was an example where you view time differently, and having some experience with lawyers myself, every second can be taken up by work. But Shabbat is kept separate. By leaving that behind, Jer­emy no longer had the feeling that at least for those twenty-five hours, his time was his own.

AR: Would it be fair to say that Visible City may be even more personal a novel than either of your previous books?

TM: Visible City was hewn out of my own need for change, my own emotional trajectory. It took ten years [to write], which I can’t really believe. […] It took a lot of time and a lot of soul-searching to figure out how to finish this book. Ultimately, I feel like I had to be willing to unleash the characters and write a book where people make changes. I think I had to come to learn that people do make changes, do take action. I had to be willing to let that happen, both in my own life and for the characters.

AR: Can you let us in on what you’re working on next?

TM: I’m working on a memoir, which is new for me. I wrote an essay that was in The New York Times about my divorce that will be the first chapter. Writing [that essay] was not the emotional part—putting it out there was. But I ended up getting a few hundred emails from strangers and it was so nice to have people share their own stories of change, of divorce, and of religion. There was this feeling that I’m telling a story that other people experience also. So now I’m writing a book—the tentative title is The Book of Separation, which is a translation from the [biblical] Hebrew term for a divorce document: sefer kritut. I’m writing about how you make changes after having lived in a certain world, what you leave behind, and what it means to recreate you own sense of com­munity or belonging that’s different from what you’re accustomed to. I have to turn it in December of 2015. That scares me because I’m used to the ten-year plan, so I’m hard at work.

Adam Rovner is an associate professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a narrative history of efforts to establish Jewish homelands across the globe.

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