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 my own.
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 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 identity, 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.
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 & A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure of interviewing bestselling authors from many different genres.