The ProsenPeople

Interview: Jessamyn Hope

Friday, February 12, 2016| Permalink

with Elise Cooper

Safekeeping is a novel about personal tragedy, hope, and suffering within the backdrop of Jewish history. Between flashbacks to Jewish history from the German pogroms, the Holocaust, and the founding of Israel, the story takes place in 1994 on an Israeli kibbutz, where six people connect through a search for their identity, each one looking to escape their own personal crisis.

Elise Cooper: How did you come to write this book that includes so much Jewish history?

Jessamyn Hope: I was raised Jewish and consider myself a Zionist, although I am not very religious. I am very much interested in Jewish history and the fate of the Jewish people.

EC: Your characters are a melting pot from around the world. What interested you in the multicultural characters?

JH: My mother was born in Italy and converted to Judaism; my father grew up in South Africa, where is grandparents immigrated to from Lithuania. Growing up, my father loved to travel and would save all year to take the family to places in the United States or overseas, and that love of traveling was passed on to me. I have visited over forty countries—by public bus in Rajasthan, in a third-class car on the Trans-Siberian railway, by bicycle from Istanbul to Gibraltar, and recently I was in Thailand and Laos. All of these experiences helped my writing of Safekeeping, which features an international cast of characters.

EC: Since the kibbutz is such an important backdrop for the story did you ever spend time in one?

JH: During my junior year in college I visited my uncle’s kibbutz. The following year I went back and stayed on Ramat Yohanan, my cousin’s kibbutz fifteen minutes outside of Haifa, which inspired the kibbutz in the novel. I met someone there who, like one the character Ofir, had recently lost his eardrums and some of his eyesight in a bus bombing.

EC: There seems to be a particular dichotomy between kibbutz life and New York in the book. How do these contrasting settings serve the story?

JH: New York is the opposite of the kibbutz: you can live autonomously and pursue your own passions without pressure to belong to a community. As an artist I am a very big individualist, a free thinker. But part of me is drawn romantically to a larger cause bigger than myself.

It’s not just about New York is all about being an individual while the kibbutz is all about community; New York City is a place where people come to reinvent themselves, to leave behind their past and go after their individual dreams, but the Zionist story of starting a country and being willing to sacrifice fascinated me. This was reflected in two of my characters: Franz, a Holocaust survivor, an individualist who lives day to day, while Ziva, a Kibbutzim pioneer, has a higher ideal, with a strength and energy to start up a new country. And because the novel takes place in 1994, the Israeli survival mode of the time, completely foreign to the American experience, contrasts directly with the cultural exchange post-9/11: now Israelis want to experience the Western culture of self-expression while New Yorkers live with the insecurity of terrorism—much more than they did twenty years ago.

EC: Is that why you put the scene in the book when Ziva tries to give Franz a Hebrew name after he escapes to Israel from the Nazis?

JH: “All I’m saying is that the Nazis tried their damnedest to do away with Franz, and if it’s quite all right with you, I’d prefer to not lend them a helping hand.” For me, this quote is crucial to the book. In building Israel, Jews were asked on some level to reinvent themselves. Franz had no Hebrew identity and wanted to hold on to his old identity, while Ziva, by extension, Israel, is asking him to give it up. She represented those who founded Israel by turning away from their past, reinventing themselves.

EC: What do you think the theme of the book is?

JH: Self-perseverance despite tragedy. I wrote the Russian immigrant character and Ziva as Scarlett O’Hara types. I was inspired by Scarlett and fascinated by Gone With The Wind. I wanted to write that type of character. The entire cast is morally ambiguous, extremely ambitious, yet you can’t help but be inspired by their grit and determination. They use any tool to survive.

EC: Does the brooch also signify human perseverance?

JH: It represents in some ways Jewish history, with the fears and desires passed down through the generations. Among my intentions with these brooch stories was to show how events from the past—moments we don't know about—affect who we are today. The brooch was a way to show readers that they are influenced by what happened to their family through past generations. Every single character in the book has a personal challenge, often an inherited one. My character Adam represents those who go through a tragedy and cannot adjust. How much choice does he have with his alcohol addiction and suffering?

EC: Are any of the characters based on yourself?

JH: No character is based on myself. In an earlier draft there was a character similar to me, but she got cut out and replaced with Claudette, the Canadian one. She is a young woman who lost her mother and suffered from OCD. I went through that as well, but fortunately I got better. Unfortunately, I found the healthy version of myself boring, so I wrote in the crisis with the orphanage where the province of Quebec falsely identified orphans as being mentally ill in collaboration with the Catholic Church.

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

JH: We are living in a time where individuals need to speak up. On some level there is a competition between looking out for yourself and taking a responsibility for the larger community. I called the book Safekeeping for a reason. Israel is supposed to be a place where everyone can be kept safe. Sadly project forward to today where there is still a search for safekeeping, especially as the world turns its back on Israel. Safekeeping is less and less guaranteed.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and interviews for various outlets including the Military Press.

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