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The Power of Story: How Ancient Tales Shaped One Author’s Modern Fiction

Tuesday, August 11, 2015 | Permalink

Laura Nicole Diamond is the author of Shelter Us, a finalist for the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Award. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.

A few months after I gave birth to our first child, my husband and I went out for that rarest of date nights: dinner and a movie. Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica bustled with people— teenagers and senior citizens and families with children of all ages. As we walked from the restaurant to the theater, one woman sitting on a bench, her hand on a stroller, caught my eye. There was something askew, something that made me wonder about her all through the movie. When the credits rolled, I told my husband we had to go back to that bench.

The Promenade was quiet and empty, but the woman and her baby sat precisely where they had been three hours earlier. There was something about her that broadcast “otherliness.” We approached and asked if she was okay, and she explained that they had outworn their welcome with friends. They would sleep in that spot. They were homeless.

Maybe it was because we had a baby of our own, maybe it was because she revealed she was Jewish so I felt a certain kinship, but we could not bear the thought of them—really, her baby—sleeping outside. But what could we do? Take them to our house? What if she was mentally ill? What if she harmed us or our baby? I didn’t think she would, but could I take that chance? I felt guilty, but knew we could not bring her home.

So we offered to take them to a motel for one night. She accepted and told us where to take her. We drove them there, prepaid, said goodbye, and went home. I could not shake the thought that our act was tantamount to nothing. The next morning at 11 AM, they would be without shelter again.

Perhaps it was guilt, or my good Jewish upbringing (one and the same thing?), but this interaction galvanized me to find and volunteer for a non-profit that helped homeless families. I met young single mothers who were getting back on their feet with the help of social workers, federally subsidized rents, job training, and their own determination.

Just as I couldn’t stop thinking about that woman and her child during the movie, over the years I couldn’t stop thinking about all of these women—their stories, their courage, their setbacks, their successes. They resided in my imagination and became an integral part of my novel, Shelter Us. Shelter Us is the story of Sarah, a suburban mother haltingly recovering from a terrible loss, who becomes obsessed with “saving” a young homeless mother she sees on the streets of Los Angeles. In the character of Josie, the homeless mother, I wanted to humanize one face of homelessness, to show the grit and resilience of the young mothers I had met.

Like so many people do when faced with intense need, Sarah struggles with how to help Josie. She considers all of the concerns that pinged through my mind so many years before. Sarah, like me, wishes the world were different, that she could take them in. But Sarah makes a starkly different choice than I did. She reaches beyond the normal conventions of do-gooding and tzedakah, busting the parameters that say don’t get too close, don’t get too involved, with potentially life-shattering consequences. As I wrote and revised, I was vexed by how to make Sarah’s outreach to Josie more plausible. I found the answer in an unlikely place: Torah study.

Growing up, my family celebrated Shabbat intermittently, and did not follow (let alone know) most Jewish law. Like many modern Jewish families, social justice was essential to who we were. It was modeled by actions, not taught as dogma: my family went to rallies and walked for causes—civil rights, environment, peace—without explicitly connecting it to religion. As far as I knew, Torah study was exclusively for yeshiva students.

But a few years ago, midway through the writing of Shelter Us, out of curiosity I began attending Torah study at my (progressive, Reconstructionist) synagogue. I was surprised to discover that I loved it, that Torah study was not about learning static rules, but was a dynamic conversation about what it means to live with meaning, purpose, and compassion. One week, as my rabbi led a conversation about one of the thirty-six parashiyot that include the directive to “take care of the stranger,” an “Aha!” moment for the novel came to me: This lesson would explain Sarah’s courage to reach out to Josie. It would be a strong connection with her late mother, a Jewish convert who had modeled this value. Her mother’s legacy would spur her on. Imagine my surprise that Torah study helped me weave together the fabric of my novel.

There is an epilogue to this story. If it came as a surprise that Torah study would play a role in solving a plot point in my novel, perhaps it should not be surprising that it subsequently played an important role in a crucial family decision. After the manuscript of Shelter Us was with the publisher, I received an email from a friend of a friend, asking if I knew anyone who might be able to foster a teenage girl who had fled her violence-plagued country and needed a home. I showed the message to my husband. Down the hall slept our child who had been an infant when we first encountered a young homeless mother. He was thirteen, and his younger brother was ten. Re-reading the email, I couldn’t shake the feeling that in writing Shelter Us I had written myself a map for this moment.

In a bigger sense, it was Torah that had written us a map. Because of the weekly conversations about Jewish values prompted by its ancient stories, I did not have to agonize, research, or debate. I had conversed with my ancestors and my community, had wrestled with it in my fiction, and although there was anxiety, I had arrived at an answer: We would welcome this stranger into our home. We would find the courage to do what we knew was right.

Laura Nicole Diamond is the editor of the anthology Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, whose proceeds benefit women and children in need. She is a Board Member of PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), and past Board Member of Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades. A civil rights lawyer, Laura lives in Los Angeles with her family. For more, visit www.LauraNicoleDiamond.com.

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