The ProsenPeople

Interview with Judith Frank

Tuesday, July 01, 2014 | Permalink

By Elise Cooper

Elise Cooper recently sat down with Judith Frank to discuss her recently published novel All I Love and Know.

Elise Cooper: Were there autobiographical parts to this book?

Judith Frank: Elements are there. I have a twin sister who is alive and married to an Israeli man. My family moved to Israel when I was seventeen. I was in a country where I did not speak the language so my humor and intelligence could not be conveyed. Also, my twin children were born while I was in the middle of writing this novel. I understood what it was like to change your life to accommodate the children. There was also the experience of marrying out of my religion since my partner is not Jewish.

EC: Is one of the powerful themes of the book how to handle grief?

JF: I am writing about characters that are deeply traumatized. Grief is a horrible thing and people grieve in different ways. Daniel feels he is catapulted back into adolescence. He shut down while he was grieving because he had survivor guilt and ambivalence. He survived and gets to flourish instead of his brother. I wanted to show how all the family members are not at their best and feel threatened by their loss. I had Matt’s best friend die of AIDS because I wanted to intertwine the question about someone who dies from AIDS: Is it as meaningful as someone dying from a terrorist attack? Which death counts?

EC: Did you ever have to personally deal with grief?

JF: My father committed suicide when I was twelve. My mother died while this book was in proof. My sister had breast cancer in 2000. I remember the threat of my sister dying and that was very potent for me. Twin losses are among the greatest losses anyone can experience.

EC: You have the grieving families feel that they lost a part of themselves, including the quote about Daniel feeling he was leaving his dead brother behind. Please explain.

JF: The quote about being buried on different continents came out of my feeling that my identical twin sister and I will be buried separately. That thought just kills me.

EC: Did you compare the relationship between the twins, Daniel and Joel?

JF: To differentiate from each other twins tend to show different personalities. My sister was verbally aggressive while I receded. I would refer to Joel as the outgoing brother and Daniel as the submissive one. But that has to do with their dynamics. He has guilt because he is now able to step forward due to his brother’s death.

EC: There is a scene in the book about social workers who are part of the Israeli government. Their job is to handle grieving families of terrorist attacks. Is that true?

JF: Yes. My sister who is a social worker introduced me to several women who handle grieving families. They have support systems for themselves and rotate in and out of this job. My sister thanked me for the portrayal of social workers. I thought about their job and was drawn to them. Those scenes affected me deeply.

EC: You included among the grieving families Holocaust survivors. Why?

JF: I thought how these people have gone through so much and now had to deal with the loss of their daughter. I am friends with children whose parents are Holocaust survivors. I also included it because I thought it was compelling that the children might stay in Israel to live with their grandparents who had suffered so much.

EC: You also explore the relationship of having a Jew and a non-Jew as partners. Can you explain?

JF: My children call themselves half-Jewish. What is important to us as a family is to have a sense of community, which I tried to convey through Matt and Daniel. When my mother died we had two Jewish communities helping us, setting up Shiva. That was very moving for us. Even though we are pretty secular it was really nice to be surrounded by Jewish people who were willing to take care of us. One of the jokes about Matt is that he really loves Jews and has always been attracted to Jewish men.

EC: You included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of the theme of the book. Do you think you were even-handed?

JF: I think a lot of Jewish people might not think I was even handed, although I did. I put the Israelis traumatized by terror and the social worker scenes into the book. Because of Daniel’s political position it made it a lot harder for him to grieve. If he could feel rage or if he could feel the war on terror was a righteous one it would have been easier. His political views are wrapped up in his sense of justice and empathy. What happens if you lose someone to a terrorist attack and do not buy into the cultural script?

EC: You had quotes from your characters that leaned heavily toward the Palestinian point of view. For example, the tradition in a Jewish wedding of breaking the glass, “to symbolize the shattering of their lives when Joel and Ilana died, and the continued shattering of Palestinian lives.”

JF: American Jews must question their relationship with Israel and what kind of criticism can we level towards Israel. We are at a moment with a lot of Jewish Americans at a turbulent transitional phase about Israel. I am sure some people will be thrilled and some will be angry.

EC: Why did you put this quote in since you never explained its context? “If a Palestinian living in Jerusalem marries someone from the West Bank, they can’t live legally together in either place.”

JF: This is a novel, not history. A lot of gay people wrestle with the institution of marriage. Daniel starts to think about marriage for everybody. He is thinking about himself and sees this as a tragedy of Jewish history. The Jews have suffered such persecution; yet, they have succeeded in building their homeland through the oppression of others. I really wanted to intertwine the lives of the Palestinian and gay people.

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

JF: I wanted to write about a person struggling with his sense of identity and justice. This entire novel is about the consciousness of Jews and Israelis. You can love Israel and deplore its policies. I also hope the readers were moved by a family suffering from incredible grief and sorrow.

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.

Related Content:

Gertrude Stein Reissues Focusing on the Artistic Process

Monday, June 30, 2014 | Permalink

by Dina Weinstein

Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) was a rule-breaking poet and writer, supporter of the arts, and salon hostess.

The Poetry Foundation describes Stein as a bold experimenter and self-proclaimed genius who rejected the linear, time-oriented writing characteristic of the nineteenth century for a spatial, process-oriented, specifically twentieth-century literature. Stein created dense poems and fiction which was criticized for being devoid of plot or dialogue. She is known for memorable phrases ("Rose is a rose is a rose") but not commercial success. Her only bestseller, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is a memoir of Stein's life written in the person of her partner, Toklas.

Two of Stein’s early books are now reissued. With the centennial of Stein's infamous and influential if bewildering little book Tender Buttons, the avant garde publisher City Lights Books in San Francisco is publishing Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition, which includes Stein's handwritten edits.

Tender Buttons is a showcase of Stein’s joyful draw to words. She plays with language focused on the mundane and the theoretical. The book is divided into three sections: objects; food and rooms, and a collection of playful gibberish or provocative posits: “Rhubarb is susan not susan not seat in bunch toys not wild and laughable not in little places not in neglect and vegetable not in fold coal age not please.”

The afterword by the scholar Juliana Spahr explains that the work was revolutionary in its time, giving much heft to descriptions of domestic spaces. Spahr does not shy away from the fact that Stein was a Jewish lesbian interested in the work of Otto Weininger, the author of the anti-Semitic, homophobic, and misogynistic Sex and Character. Stein was, of course, Jewish, and never denied it; fascinatingly, she sympathised with Petain's Vichy regime and admired Hitler. She insisted on remaining in wartime France with Toklas—also a Jewish lesbian.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Stein's children's book, The World Is Round, Harper Design has published a volume replicating the original 1939 edition, including Clement Hurd's blue and white art on the rose-pink paper that Stein insisted upon.

The 34-chapter story chronicles the adventures of a young girl named Rose in a tale that explores the ideas of personal identity and individuality. Her inquiry is an affirmative quest to find her place in the world. Rose’s character as an inquisitive girl was a new direction for storybook characters.

With our modern sensibilities, this reissue will appeal to adults interested in Stein as a writer or in early children’s books.

Insight into the world of early children’s literature and this particular work is a key feature of the forward by Thacher Hurd, the illustrator’s son, and the afterword by Edith Thacher Hurd, the illustrator’s wife.

Previously unpublished photographs and correspondence between Stein and Hurd, who is best known for illustrating Goodnight Moon, are a window into the creative process and the then-burgeoning world of children’s literature. Stein crams The World Is Round densely with words and plot twists. The book was written when the children’s book industry was in its infancy and trailblazers were experimenting in many directions.

Today the structure seems dated. The World Is Round has a dense plot that frustrates as it lists event after event. But lines also delve into the dreamy unconsciousness of childhood: Why am I a little girl/ Where am I a little girl/ When am I a little girl/Which little girl am I.”

A reviewer in 1939 felt that children were Stein’s proper audience but her work seems more a precedent to the Beat Poets.

A blunt child told the reviewer: “It’s cuckoo crazy.”

Dina Weinstein is a Miami, Florida-based journalist currently researching Jews in St. Augustine, Florida during the 1960s era civil rights struggle there with a grant from the Southern Jewish Historical Society. She mentors young journalists as an adviser at the Miami Dade College student newspaper The Reporter. Weinstein has taught journalism and mass communications at a number of colleges including Miami Dade College. She is a Boston native and a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Boston University School for the Arts.

Related Content:

Novels and the Art of the Mauritshuis

Friday, June 27, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nina Siegal wrote about Asher Lev as a model for Rembrandt and being Jewish in Amsterdam. Her newest novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Last night, I had the great honor of reading from my new novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday) inside the museum that holds the 1632 Rembrandt masterpiece that inspired it: “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.”

The occasion was the opening of the renovated Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague, a jewel-box museum with a small (with just 800 artworks) but extraordinary collection of Dutch and Flemish Golden Age paintings. Its holdings also include Vermeer’s “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” and Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” two paintings that have been the inspiration for two highly successful novels.

Lately, a lot of people have been asking me why one museum contains so many works of art that have been explored through recent works of literature. It’s a good question, and one I’ve been mulling for a while.

First, a disclaimer: Until I first visited the Mauritshuis in 2006 to start doing research for my own novel, I didn’t know that “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” was housed in the same museum, even though I was aware of Tracy Chevalier’s novel of the same name. And I didn’t hear about Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch, until my agent was shopping my book and her publisher rejected mine on the grounds that “two such deserving novels shouldn’t be competing on the same list.” I took that as a great compliment – and it’s one of my favorite rejection letters ever.

No, back in 2006, I used to visit the Mauritshuis about once a month, traveling down to the Hague from Amsterdam, sitting with the painting for about an hour a time, looking, thinking, listening to art patrons and docents talk about the painting, scribbling notes in a small Rembrandt notebook I’d bought in the gift shop downstairs – basically just soaking in the work. It was a work I loved before I came here, of course, and I had been looking at it in reproduction for a long time. My father purchased a 9x11 inch poster in the same gift shop downstairs in 1965, just after he finished medical school, and he hung it in his study. That’s where, as I child, I looked at it quite often.

Seeing the real work in person was something else entirely. First, I was awed by the size of it – nine figures on a canvas, all life-size. In that intimate gallery setting, you really feel as if you’re in the dissection chamber, in and among the surgeons. Looking at a dead body that’s right there before you. The faces of the live men are vivid, colorful, ruddy-cheeked. The dead man is pale, but fleshy, a human being too.

Second, I was amazed by how much I could discover by just sitting with it in that gallery, observing. It’s the kind of painting that’s almost like a great jazz recording, which you can listen to again and again and always discover something new. I found inspiration sitting there, sometimes when I was carrying around emotions and thoughts from my own life, a few times in moments when I was too tired to even look anymore.

One morning, I was particularly sad because a man I’d fallen in love with in Amsterdam was going off to travel, and was leaving me. I looked at the dead man in the painting, stripped almost bare, his body pallid and naked, and I thought: someone loved that man, too, and he left her. First, he left her through wandering – he was a thief and a vagabond – and then he left her for good. It was the start of one of the key narratives of my book.

For the last two years, the Mauritshuis has been closed for expansion and renovation, and in the meantime “my” painting has been exhibited at various museums, including the Gemeentemuseum, another gorgeous museum also in The Hague. I went to visit it there two months ago, and felt like it was a bit far away from me, although I could still walk up to it and see it up close. The gallery spaces were just much larger, and in the broader context with many more works surrounding it, it just felt less intimate.

Last night, before I read from my novel, I snuck back upstairs to the gallery to see “my” painting in the room where I’d visited with it so many times before. It felt like visiting a dear friend. It occurred to me then that perhaps the reason the Mauritshuis’ collection has inspired works of literature is that when you’re in the museum you feel a kind of personal intimacy with the paintings that’s rare in larger museums – perhaps Chevalier and Tartt felt that too.

For me, that moment of being alone in the room with “The Anatomy Lesson,” eight years later, now with the novel finished, was a kind of homecoming, the circle finally complete.

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. She got her B.A. at Cornell University and her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she has written extensively about women in US prisons, housing and homelessness, and all sorts of urban cultural issues, Siegal lately focuses on the intersection of art and society, which is also the theme of both her novels. Read more about her and her work here.

Related Content:

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, June 27, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

Related Content:

In Honor of Stuart Matlins

Thursday, June 26, 2014 | Permalink
by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reflects on the career of long-time JBC board member and the founder of Jewish Lights Publishing, Stuart Matlins.

I am not sure what prompted Stuart Matlins, now just over two de­cades ago, to give up a successful career as a management consultant and found Jewish Lights Publishing but I am certain it was very good for the Jews. Matlins is one of the great Yidn of our generation—fiercely ethical, spiritually open, intellectually restless, and insatiably interested in all matters Jewish. Indeed, his continuing success at prying open the life of the spirit to an ever-widening audience may be one of the most hopeful signs yet for the future of liberal Judaism in America.

Stuart Matlins brings to publishing a uncompromis­ing commitment to ethics. The publishing business is notoriously hidebound; it pays authors only after many, many months; it is also opaque. A friend and best-selling author once cautioned me not to bother asking the publisher for sales figures: “Even if they do tell you, they lie.” And, whatever you do, don’t try to decipher a royalty statement. Contrary to all this, after twenty-three years, the royalty checks from Jewish Lights have never arrived so much as one day late and they are accompanied by a statement my granddaughters can understand.

The success of Jewish Lights (nearing 400 titles!) amply testifies to Stuart’s skill as a shrewd businessman. Permit me an example: When JLP was about to publish its first “Kushner book,” I sat with the staff around his dining room table planning the promotion for my The Book of Letters: A Mystical Hebrew Alphabet. Someone reasonably asked how we would distinguish me from my old haver and friend, Rabbi Harold Kushner. Stuart closed his eyes, wrinkled his brow and, then, opening his eyes again, grinned: “Why would I want to do that?”

Stuart Matlins, of course, has brought to light works by such impor­tant teachers as Arthur Green, David Hartman, Lawrence Hoffman, and Norman Cohen. But, less well known, he has also published other authors you’ve probably never heard of. He once referred to these books as his “defense attorneys,” you know, for when he goes before the heavenly tribunal. God [I imagine] looks over the list of titles and says something like, “You published that book?! I don’t get it. You knew you’d never make a nickel on it, but you published it anyway—just because it was important and holy!”

Then God, as it were, smiles and says, “Welcome!”

I and the authors of your other “defense attor­neys,” and a whole lot of Jews, too, rise on this occa­sion of your receipt of the Abraham Geiger Medal to salute you and thank you.

Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congre­gation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is an adjunct member of the faculty of the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. He is the author of 18 books, most recently I’m God; You’re Not: Observa­tions on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego, (Jewish Lights, 2011) and a novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story, (Doubleday/Morgan Road, 2006. He has also co-authored and co-starred in a feature length film, Your Good Friend.



Asher Lev as a Model for Rembrandt

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nina Siegal wrote about being Jewish in Amsterdam. Her newest novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

After reading the penultimate draft of my latest novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), a trusted reader and one of my closest friends from the Iowa Writers Workshop, author Josh Rolnick, suggested I take a moment to read Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev.

At first, I couldn’t quite imagine how a novel about a Hasidic Jew in twentieth century New York City would relate to my story, which centers around the creation of Rembrandt’s first masterpiece, “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp,” set on a single day in Amsterdam in 1632. But Josh has never steered me wrong in the past, so I followed his advice.

Potok’s 1972 novel tells the life story of a young Orthodox Jew with prodigious artistic talent growing up in a cloistered Hasidic community in Brooklyn, who finds himself torn between his family’s expectations and his artistic calling. The more he follows the path that seems to be his destiny, the more he finds himself in serious conflict with his father and alienated from his community. In the end, Lev paints an image that makes it impossible for him to ever return home again: a crucifixion.

After reading the book, I could see certain immediate parallels with my own novel. In Potok’s novel, Lev invokes Christian iconography to explore a non-Christian theme: Jewish suffering in general, and in particular the suffering of his own mother, Rivkeh, who has been at the center of the emotional tug-of-war between father and son. (Marc Chagall also painted a crucifixion scene, by the way, “White Crucifixion” (1938), which is widely regarded as a representation of the suffering of the Jewish people). In my novel, Rembrandt brings Christian iconography into a totally secular setting: the intellectual and medical arena of the anatomy theater.

Rather than a crucifixion scene, Rembrandt painted a secular group portrait of surgeons, barbers, and apprentices at a dissection as though they were disciples standing around the dead Jesus. That’s one interpretation, of course. It’s also possible to read the dead man in Rembrandt’s masterpiece as a kind of Lazarus in the tomb. Scholars over the years have suggested both. In either case, Rembrandt has employed biblical imagery in a context where it would’ve been considered highly provocative, if not scandalous.

Rembrandt doesn’t appear to have been much of a churchgoer, but he was clearly a reader of the bible, and he painted scenes out of both the Old and New Testaments. More importantly, like Asher Lev, he was a student of art history, and western painting begins, of course, with Christian imagery: crucifixion, Madonna-and-child, last suppers, ascensions, descents from the cross... A painter can’t be a master, even today, unless he or she is familiar with this imagery. For Rembrandt in the seventeenth century and for a painter worth his salt in twentieth century New York, invoking classical western art traditions in this way was more about painting than religion.

But this may not have been the main reason Josh suggested I read My Name is Asher Lev. What he was offering me, by way of Potok, was a model for a narrative arc that would help me take my novel to the next, and higher level. That is to say, a way to have the novel explore how a man comes to break through his personal and cultural barriers to create a work of art that is both of himself and beyond himself – i.e., in some way universal.

That was the fundamental shift that my novel needed to contain, and after reading Asher Lev I was able to go back to The Anatomy Lesson with fresh eyes, and a clearer perspective on the larger narrative arc that my novel needed to take. I was grateful to Josh for the suggestion, and to Chaim Potok for showing me the way.

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. She got her B.A. at Cornell University and her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she has written extensively about women in US prisons, housing and homelessness, and all sorts of urban cultural issues, Siegal lately focuses on the intersection of art and society, which is also the theme of both her novels. Read more about her and her work here.

Related Content:

On Writing Jewish Books For Children

Wednesday, June 25, 2014 | Permalink

by Leslie A. Kimmelman

“Why do you write so many Jewish books for kids?” I’m asked frequently.

The truth is, writing Jewish books for kids was never my intention. Judaism is an important part of my life, but it wasn’t until some time after I’d finished my first picture book in the late 1980s and couldn’t find a good Hanukkah book for my then-preschool-aged daughter, that I even considered it. I’d been looking for something simple—not the story of the holiday, but rather, what she’d experience during the holiday: the lighting of the candles, the tasting of the latkes, the spinning of the dreidels. And please, some colorful pictures to go with. The Jewish books I remembered from my childhood were disappointingly didactic, with way too much text and way too little color—drab cousins to the vibrant stories and lavish illustrations of the Christmas titles (think The Night Before Christmas or The Gift of the Magi). They were more about the responsibility of being Jewish than about the fun and warmth of being part of a wider religious community. I can’t say I was enticed.

So I wrote my own, very basic, manuscript. It eventually became Ha­nukkah Lights, Hanukkah Nights. Because I was a children’s book editor then in a large publishing house, I went first to my own colleagues. It’s hard to believe today, but there was a lot of discussion about whether there’d be enough people interested in a Hanukkah title from a trade (rather than a specialty Jewish) publisher. My response, only partly tongue-in-cheek, was something along the lines of, We may be small in number, but we’re all readers, and we all celebrate Hanukkah! After the title went on to good sales in hardcover, paperback, and board book editions, my editor asked me to do something similar for Passover, then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then a book for all the holidays together. And I was off...

The world of Jewish children’s books has, happily, grown exponen­tially; there are a dizzying number of great choices now, from just about every publisher and about every conceivable topic—fiction and nonfic­tion, funny and serious, thoughtful and inspiring, contemporary and old-fashioned, and most of the time, gorgeously illustrated. It’s hearten­ing to see a growing library of high-quality titles that introduce Jewish children to the core beliefs and values of their religion and connect them to their roots. Books in which they can see themselves reflected. It is no less important that children of other faiths have access to these books. Living in New York City, it’s easy to forget how many people there are with little or no exposure to the Jewish religion. (I remember how shocked I was to learn from my first college roommate that she’d never met anyone Jewish before; later in my freshman year, the college food service considerately—and naively—ordered beautiful braided challahs “all the way from New York City” to help celebrate Passover.)

I’ve been asked if it’s limiting to write Jewish books. Judaism has an ancient history and fascinating culture to research, colorful traditions to explore, a rich religion to delve into, and a wonderfully unique sense of humor to make use of. I keep a list of colorful Yiddish proverbs above my desk, in case one should spark an idea—sayings like Truth never dies, but lives a wretched life and If God were living on Earth, people would break his windows. How can writing about Judaism be limiting?!

Many people involved in children’s books will tell you that, in general, while girls will read books with boys as the main character, the reverse isn’t typically true. Boys mostly want to read only about boys. In the same vein, could it be true that Jewish children will read books with non-Jewish main characters, but not the other way around? Jewish children are used to reading about their favorite characters irrespective of religion, and they don’t bat an eyelash. I’m not sure if the reverse is always true. I believe that the more children’s books are available with explicitly Jewish characters, whether or not they have explicitly Jewish stories, the closer we will get. It feels good to be a small part of creating this library.

Leslie A. Kimmelman has been a children’s book editor for more than twenty-five years, and currently works at Sesame Workshop. She is also the author of many picture books for children, including many with Jew­ish themes, such as The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah and The Shabbat Puppy. She and her family live near New York City.

Book Cover of the Week: The Baroness

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

Hannah Rothschild's 2012 book The Baroness is an expose of her great-aunt Nica, the "rebellious Rothschild," a woman who lived out her years hovering on the edge of society. The book cover illustration capturing Nica's particular je ne sais quoi is by San Francisco based artist couple Vivenne Flesher and Ward Shumaker.

Related Content:

Downton Abbey Made Me Do It

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 | Permalink

This week, JBC Network author Wendy Wax, the author of While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, blogs for The Postscript on the inspiration for writing her newest book The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

If you're an Anglophile who loves Downton Abbey and wants to read more about the lives of British Jews, see our reading list on the British Jewish Experience.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of television programs in my day, but Downton Abbey is the first one that inspired me to write a novel.

I won’t say I was living in a cave at the time, but I did somehow miss season one and only tuned in after some prodding from a friend. I was hooked immediately and was in the middle of a weekend long Downton Abbey marathon, when I started imagining how cool it would be if I could find a way to use my new addiction to bring together my own cast of characters.

As I pondered the possibilities, I realized that while I wanted Downton Abbey to be at the heart of the story, I didn’t want the story to be about the program. I wanted it to be about my characters.

What evolved is While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, a story about three strangers and the British concierge of their Atlanta high-rise, who meet and bond through weekly Downton Abbey viewing parties. All are at crossroads in their lives and none anticipate the unexpected friendships that form between them. Serious fans of the show will notice that some of the characters are inspired by those living at Downton Abbey both upstairs and down; Samantha Davis, like Lady Mary is financially responsible for her younger siblings and marries Atlanta ‘Royalty’ (old money) to take care of them. Edward Parker, the building’s British concierge is a modern take on butler Carson except he has a degree from Cornell and George Clooney looks. (A writer has to have her fun!)

Together Samantha Davis, Claire Walker, Brooke Mackenzie and Edward Parker watch seasons one and two unfold. While we see bits and pieces of the episodes, the focus is on them, their growth, and their developing friendship. There are no spoilers for fellow latecomers and no need for anyone to feel left out if they haven’t watched Downton Abbey. In fact, some readers have told me the book spurred them to watch the show.

As I wrote what Newsday later dubbed ‘possibly the first novel written about fans of the show,’ my Downton Abbey addiction intensified. I don’t leave my house on Sunday nights when it airs and I can—and have—spent long hours happily discussing the lavish costumes and settings as well as the twists and turns of the series’ storylines. I blew my household Kleenex budget halfway through season three. And when my husband found me crying in a darkened room after one particular death bed departure, I had to reassure him that I didn’t want a divorce and I was fairly certain that I didn’t need antidepressants.

The truth is, I’m hanging on by a slim thread until season five airs in the states in January. Every day I have to fight the urge to read Downton gossip and I can only hope I’ll have the strength to duck spoilers when the new season airs in the U.K. months before we see it. I console myself with the thought that my novel can provide a temporary ‘fix’ for others experiencing this kind of withdrawal.

I’m always excited when a book club adopts While We Were Watching Downton Abbey and love hearing about groups that discuss my book and dish about my favourite series, sometimes while dressed in Downton-era clothing, sipping Downton style tea or cocktails, and snacking on British delicacies. I’m also thrilled that my publisher has selected While We Were Watching Downton Abbey for their Read Pink campaign this fall and that they’re offering a complimentary copy to JBC book clubs that would like to consider it*.

I’m happy to have had this chance to be in touch with you all. I hope you’ll stop by my site authorwendywax.com to read reviews and excerpts of my novels or, if you’d like me to join your discussion by phone or via Skype. You know, whatever I can do to help other Downton addicts hang on until the new season begins.

*Book giveaway closes on Friday, June 27 at noon ET.

Related Content:

On Being Jewish in Amsterdam

Monday, June 23, 2014 | Permalink

Nina Siegal grew up in New York City and Great Neck, Long Island, but these days she lives in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where she works as an author and a frequent contributor to the International New York Times. Her most recent novel, The Anatomy Lesson, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Recently, a journalist who was interviewing me asked me to describe what it felt like to be a Jewish New Yorker living in Amsterdam. She put it this way: “Is it okay for you there?” As it happens, the interviewer was a Dutch Jewish woman who had moved to New York, where, she confessed to me, she felt a lot more “at home.” “It’s hard to be Jewish in Amsterdam,” she said.

It was interesting to me that she put it that way. So many of the Dutch people I’ve met here are always saying what an open, tolerant, international city Amsterdam is, and how Jews have always been so welcome here. But the truth is, I’ve never been able to say that I’ve felt “at home” as a Jewish person in Amsterdam, though I have been living here for the last eight years and in many other ways I do feel at home.

I came here in 2006 to begin research for my second novel, The Anatomy Lesson (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014), which takes place in this city on way day in 1632, and tells the imagined story behind Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. I rented my first apartment in the part of the city where Rembrandt used to live, which is known as the Jodenbuurt, or Jewish quarter. The Rembrandt House Museum, in Rembrandt’s former home, is on the Jodenbreestraat, or Jewish Broadway.

Ever since the sixteenth century this quarter of the city, outside of the Centrum, had been a sanctuary for Jews fleeing persecution first from Portugal and Spain, and later from Central and Eastern Europe. For a long time, scholars used to insist that Rembrandt was a friend to the Jews because he lived in this neighborhood and painted portraits of a famous Amsterdam rabbi and several Old Testament scenes here, but more recently that history has been called into question.

This is the neighborhood where Baruch Spinoza lived and worked. There are five synagogues in that neighborhood on a single block, including the awe-inspiring seventeenth-century Portuguese Synagogue, and four other synagogues that now comprise the Amsterdam Jewish Museum, a temple to a tragic history.

Amsterdam was indeed once known as city that was welcoming to Jews, who were granted citizenship as early as 1616; for years the city was known as “Mokum” the Hebrew word for “place.” And of course everyone knows the story of Anne Frank, Amsterdam’s most famous Jew, who was also a German Jew whose family moved here to get away from the Nazis – unsuccessfully, of course.

Some people still call it Mokum, and the Dutch national soccer team, Ajax, is still (in rather poor taste I think) still known as “the Jews.” But most of the Jews are gone now. About 90 percent of the Jewish population of the Netherlands perished in WWII, the highest percentage loss of a national population in all of Europe, according to the Columbia Guide to the Holocaust.

The Jewish community, such as it is, is now centered in the southern part of the city, and walking through Rembrandt’s old neighborhood feels like walking through a ghost town, with many of the Jewish buildings denuded of their former cultural purpose, or turned to memorials. Lots of the buildings in the district are new, too, and that’s because after the Jewish families were rounded up here, their homes were looted and ransacked to the extent that even the lumber was stripped from their walls and floors by desperate Amsterdammers during the Hunger Winter of 1944 and 45. They were in such a bad state that they had to be torn down.

Strangely, the experience of living and working in that neighborhood made me feel more Jewish than I had ever felt growing up in New York and Great Neck, in two very busy Jewish communities, surrounded by Jews. I have always called myself a “secular, cultural Jew,” who feels connected to Jewish life, but doesn’t practice any form of observance. I have no Dutch ancestry, as far as I know, but my mother’s side of the family was from Hungary and Ukraine. Most of my mother’s relatives in Hungary died in Auschwitz; my grandfather survived three concentration camps, and was liberated from Mauthausen. Those were the two camps where most of the Dutch Jews were killed as well.

Surrounded by a completely destroyed Jewish community, I started to feel the power and weight of an absence I had only ever imagined or read about in books. In place of a vibrant Jewish community holding services in the beautiful local temples, there were historical artifacts documenting those disappeared customs and people. Where there used to be a lively Jewish theater, filled with actors, musicians and laughter, there is now an empty shell of a building filled with a memorial wall and a single burning flame.

Over time, being in the Jodenbuurt engendered in me a deep sense of longing for a community I never knew. It made me long, too, for the community of easy Jewishness that I’d left behind in New York, where there were still people simply being alive, being Jews.

In answer to the interviewer’s question, I had to confess that somehow being here in Amsterdam helped me connect with some part of the reality of being a Jewish person. Not to connect to the culture that I had come to know as Jewish culture, but to come into contact with the element of our history that is absence, disappearance, and devastation. That is still very real here in Amsterdam, as it is in other parts of Europe, too, even if there are few people who want to talk about it anymore today.

None of that made it into the Rembrandt novel, but it will be part of my next book, a project I’m beginning to embark on now.

Nina Siegal got her B.A. at Cornell University and her M.F.A. in Fiction at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Although she has written extensively about women in US prisons, housing and homelessness, and all sorts of urban cultural issues, Siegal lately focuses on the intersection of art and society, which is also the theme of both her novels. Read more about her here.

Related Content: