The ProsenPeople

The Importance of Coming-of-Age Novels

Friday, August 04, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder, author of The Fix: A Father's Secrets, A Daughter's Search, has been guest blogging throughout the week as part of the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In this final segment of my Prosen People series, I will discuss how reading coming-of-age novels encouraged me to change the structure of my novel, The Fix, entirely, and to drop the character of adult Sara in favor of the young protagonist who witnesses first-hand her father Josef’s affliction of heroin addiction.

Anzia Yezierska, Johanna Kaplan, and Myla Goldberg: Daughters in The Authors’ Coming-of-Age Novels:

I learned from the Jewish women authors in the “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World” seminar series how to bring scenes of the child Sara and her father to greater prominence in the novel. It was an obvious solution, but like Poe’s purloined letter, it was not on my radar screen! The novels by Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg were all coming-of-age stories, narrated mostly by the young protagonists themselves. I needed to change The Fix’s point of view! The young Sara—not the adult Sara—needed to tell the tale. Was I bold enough to perform the “surgery” and leave the adult Sara on the operating table because she was no longer alive? Could I revive the character of Sara as a child, starting from the moment she learns of her father’s addiction and then trace her unfolding understanding of him and of the meaning of his illness?

Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg had their female protagonists—Sara Smolinksy, Merry Slavin, and Eliza Naumann—all follow a similar narrative arc: Each develops autonomy in rebellion against her father and follows a life path guided by her own will but ultimately comes to see her father in new ways, more maturely. This is what I wanted to show in the arc of Sara Katz’s life: rebellion against her absent father for whom she harbors unresolved anger and rage, and ultimately reconciliation with that same father once she gains greater distance and understanding.

Bread Givers

Sara Smolinsky in Yezierska’s Bread Givers (1925) is the youngest but most outspoken of Reb Smolinsky’s four daughters, the one he calls Blut-und-Eisen, blood and iron, because of her strong will. I followed the pattern Yezierska set when she began her story with an eight-year-old narrator who finally explodes against the tyrannizing of her Orthodox father when she is seventeen. In this scene, Sara is speaking up for herself and her three intimidated sisters:


“For seventeen years, I had stood his preaching and his bullying. But now all the hammering hell that I had to listen to since I was born cracked my brain ... Should I let him crush me as he crushed them? No. This is America, where children are people.”

Those ages, eight and seventeen, became markers in my character’s life as well. My Sara first learns at age eight of her father’s heroin addiction, a condition she doesn’t understand at all. By seventeen, she’s attending the funeral of her father, a victim of heroin overdose. By this time, her needy mother and grandmother have turned her into a “parentified” child who has learned more about the family wreckage her father’s condition causes than any youngster should know. At the funeral, she says to her younger brother:

“I can’t believe it. Daddy was just with us at your bar mitzvah. And now he’s gone ... "

"How do you think Daddy died? … Did Daddy ... do it ... to himself?”

“You know about things like that?” Sara asks in surprise.

He nodded.

“We just don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know ... Ma and Grandma didn’t want an autopsy ...”

Never in the past could she speak to her father about what she knew—his shameful life. Never could she find the right words, the right time. She had imagined approaching him that very week. And now it was too late. … Anger welled up in her—anger at her father for leaving them. And later, when Sara’s guidance counselor at school suggests she write to her deceased father to process her lingering anger, Sara says in her letter:

“I blamed you. ... Mom was willing to endure the rough periods, even your hurting her at times, when you were desperate for money. I can’t believe I watched you hit her! ... How could you? Oh, Dad, when will I stop blaming you for not giving up heroin totally?”

O My America!

In Jewish Book Award winner Johanna Kaplan’s novel O My America! (1980), the tables between father and daughter have turned. Merry Slavin’s father, Ez Slavin, is the flamboyant radical this time, an anarchist/pacifist whose Old Left politics in the 1930s morph into New Left politics in the ’60s. He’s an inveterate individualist constantly fighting off media attention that he claims will threaten his ability to think. After Merry’s mother dies after giving birth to her, Merry seeks greater intimacy with her absent father, a public political personality who soon partners with other women and has other children with them. Ez, who believes the nuclear family is a bourgeois construct, refuses to play traditional father with Merry.

I adopted two of Kaplan’s structural devices. The first is having the father die at the beginning of the narrative. Kaplan opens her novel with Merry waiting in her New York apartment for her father’s phone call to arrange a place for them to meet. Instead, the call comes in from the police, who have brought her father to a hospital where he dies of a massive heart attack. I open The Fix with Sara and her family waiting for Josef’s Sunday morning visit, now that he’s living with Sara’s grandparents. Instead, Sara’s mother, Helen, gets the call from her brother-in-law, who has found Josef dead from a heroin overdose in his father’s butcher shop. The deaths coming at the outset set up the question of what these men’s lives were really like. Both protagonists, Merry and Sara, have devoted much of their young lives to uncovering the mysteries surrounding their fathers’ identities.

The second is the failure of the funeral scenes in both novels to yield the true picture of the deceased, and what the impact of lack of full disclosure is on loved ones. The honorific eulogies by those who knew Ez Slavin professionally present a stark contrast to the flawed man we have met through Merry’s eyes. Likewise, Josef’s funeral scene in The Fix highlights the discrepancy between the ill man who has terrified Sara’s childhood and the good husband and father praised by Rabbi Korn’s falsehoods of omission.

Bee Season

Finally, Myla Goldberg’s Bee Season (2000), a New York Times Notable Book, features protagonist Eliza Neumann, a grade-school student at McKinley Elementary who is second fiddle in her father, Saul’s, eyes to her older brother, Aaron, until her remarkable and uncanny ability to spell difficult words becomes an “item” of note to her teachers. Eliza has always desired more of her father’s attention, but once she has it, the attention turns sour because Saul’s doting becomes a helicopter dad’s means of control. We learn that Eliza’s mother, Miriam, also has needed to “free” herself from Saul, turning to solitary activities like letter writing, shopping, and housework at odd hours. Bee Season taught me to balance my attention in The Fix on the parenting Sara receives from both parents, Helen and Josef. Bringing in the seemingly less dominant character, the mother, at the end of the novel can make use of the strategy of surprise if the mother is exposed in some unexpected and ironic way. Toward the close of Bee Season, the reader learns how psychologically ill Miriam has become “from years of being alone” avoiding the family dynamic in an unusual way. In The Fix, Helen’s insistence on keeping Josef’s addiction a secret, even after his death, turns out to be her own way of veiling her complicity in the addiction pattern, her years of enabling.

The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search

I am left with gratitude for having had the occasion to read with care these novels by great Jewish writers and to discuss them with thoughtful audiences. As I reflect on my writing process, I see how the magical osmosis of influence has enabled my work to become invested with elements I found both consciously and unconsciously in these stimulating works of fiction. My revision of The Fix as Sara’s coming-of-age story enabled me to find the right point of view for getting in touch with my character’s childhood trauma and for communicating it convincingly. By reading fiction, I was able to reach more of the essential truth of my own story. The Fix is based on my life.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.

Taking Inspiration from Tevye's Daughters

Wednesday, August 02, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder, author of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search, will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series. Check back here throughout the week to read more from her.

In my previous post, I wrote about the deep profiling of character that Philip Roth achieves in American Pastoral, enabling the reader to understand how a privileged youngster of the 1960s becomes a terrorist. Merry Levov’s evolution convinced me I could find a way to make my character, Sara Katz, more sympathetic than the radical feminist in the original version of my manuscript of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search. Today, I’ll discuss Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem’s skill at using dialogue to develop the characters of Tevye’s daughters in Tevye the Dairyman (1894-1914), and how I then amplified dialogue between my young Sara and her father, Josef, a heroin addict, in flashbacks in my novel to illustrate my characters’ complexities.





Sholem Aleichem: Tevye the Dairyman’s Daughters

Aleichem, storyteller par excellence on whose Tevye the musical "Fiddler on the Roof" is based, taught me I needed more dramatic dialogue between Sara and her father to make their characters more convincing, more alive. Tevye’s dialogues with his daughters brilliantly illustrate the way parental influence really works. Each time a defiant daughter of Tevye marries, his great conscious obsession to have his daughter marry rich is undermined. The father-daughter dialogues reveal that the daughters are much more like Tevye than he is willing to admit. In choosing husbands, the daughters express Tevye’s own fantasies and values, even his unconscious ones. For example, Chava, the daughter Tevye loves the most, is ironically the most transgressive because she marries Chvedka out of her religion, a goy! Aleichem’s sparkling, humorous dialogue shows Chava taking to heart—more than Tevye ever imagined—her father’s yearnings for a more equal and democratic Russia free of unfair class structure, especially when Chava says to Tevye in defense of Chvedka, “God … created us all equal.” Tevye’s response shows his witty manipulation of language, “‘So He did,’ I say. ‘He created man in His likeness. But you had better remember that not every likeness is alike.’”

How could I use dialogue to show that in spite of Sara’s father’s addiction, Josef also could be a positive influence on Sara’s activism? The Tevye his daughters defy is a complex, many-layered character whose bottom line is his love for his family. Could I follow Aleichem’s model and create a more complex Josef? I did not want to present my protagonist’s father as a villain. Could dialogue show the necessary nuances?

The published novel, The Fix, includes many more scenes filled with dialogue between the child Sara and her father than did the original manuscript of 2006. One such scene occurs on a Saturday, a Shabbos afternoon. Josef takes Sara to Manhattan with him to get Johnny Mathis’s signature at a Sam Goody’s record store and to meet customers on the Upper West Side to whom Josef, a butcher, delivers kosher meats and poultry. But on the drive home, he makes a stop in Greenwich Village, where Sara sees a black man quickly pass something to Josef-something he places in his pocket.

“These people seem different,” Sara says out loud. “Do they all get along together?”

“Down here,” Josef says ... “lots of different people mix with one another.”

“This is the first time I've seen a Negro man with a white woman,” Sara says. ... Wouldn't it be nice, she thought, to have a Negro friend? ... “What about those other people on the street?” Sara asks. “Like those two men holding hands. Do you know them?”

“They’re homosexuals, Sara,” Josef says. “They like to be with people of the same sex. Good people come in all colors and sexes. The important thing is not to judge someone because of what you see on the outside.”

When Josef and Sara arrive home, and Sara’s mother, Helen, asks if all is okay, Sara excitedly shouts, “We went to Greenwich Village and saw homosexuals and lots of Negroes with white people.” Helen’s smile turns to a frown, and she asks suspiciously why Josef has taken Sara to the Village. He replies that Helen can’t keep Sara in a shell forever. Sara is ten, and though she knows her father has sneaked something wrong into his pocket, the positive lessons she learns about integration and tolerance stay with her for her entire life. In the process of making his connection, the drug-addict dad has taught his daughter how to be a human being.

Because I saw how the use of dialogue could enable me to humanize Josef, I created more and more scenes between the young Sara and her father. I was then left with many other new flashbacks and dream scenes of the young Sara’s life in school, of her relationships with friends, and of her relationship with her mother, who relied on Sara as a confidante. I wondered how I could integrate this new material with the struggling adult, Sara, who found it difficult holding onto jobs in the field of women’s studies when the conflicts she had with male administrators threatened her career. I found my answer after studying the “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World” seminar’s coming-of-age novels by Anzia Yezierska, Johanna Kaplan, and Myla Goldberg that I will discuss in my final Prosen People segment.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.

Five Jewish Authors Who Influenced The Fix

Monday, July 31, 2017 | Permalink

Sharon Leder is the author of the recently published novel The Fix: A Father's Secrets, A Daughter's Search. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


I had the privilege in 2008 of teaching a seminar at the Wellfleet Library on Cape Cod on the father-daughter relationship in Jewish literature. The American Library Association sponsored the program, “A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daughters in a Changing World.” My teaching American Pastoral by Philip Roth, Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem, Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska, O My America! by Johanna Kaplan, and Bee Season by Myla Goldberg helped me find my own character, Sara Katz, eight years later. And in May 2017, my revised novel, The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search was published by KiCam Projects.

The original Sara Katz first appeared publicly in 2006 when I began circulating my manuscript. That Sara, who was a radical teacher of Women’s Studies, hadn’t resolved childhood traumas over her deceased father’s heroin addiction. As Sara attempted to mainstream the new interdisciplinary field, she entered into constant conflict with male administrators who, in her dreams, resembled her father, her memories of him laced with residual anger and resentment. The manuscript was rejected by agents and publishers who had problems with the character of Sara. Feminists weren’t especially popular heroines then, they told me, and they themselves didn’t find Sara particularly sympathetic. Change your main character was the advice.

How should I change Sara? Should I develop her character with a conscious eye toward dispelling any possible negative stereotypes of feminists as man-haters? Teaching fathers and daughters in Jewish literature was my opportunity to learn from the masters how to develop my characters! I learned different lessons from Roth, Aleichem, and the three women novelists who wrote coming-of-age narratives—Yezierska, Kaplan, and Goldberg—and the influence of each of these authors was indispensible to my completed novel.

As part of the Visiting Scribes program this week, I’ll share how each of these impactful writers empowered and educated me, beginning today with Roth.

Philip Roth's American Pastoral: Merry Levov, Terrorist

From Roth I learned that the reader can identify with a character, even one who takes radical stands, if the reader watches the character grow over time and feels connected to the character’s evolution. My Sara Katz did not by any means go to the same extremes as Roth’s Merry Levov, but both young women came of age during the turmoil of the 1960s, and both turned against the mainstream. The transformation of Sara that I began under the influence of Merry was extended and elaborated upon because I studied elements of fiction skillfully employed by the four other seminar authors. But my first mission was to create a sympathetic feminist with whom the reader could identify. Roth’s Merry, a terrorist, an inadvertent murderer, was a striking example of a character we could abhor but whose roots we understood.

Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral (1997) is the tragic account of what happens to a Jewish high school football hero after he marries an Irish Catholic beauty queen. They move to an idyllic spot in rural New Jersey and raise their only daughter, a stutterer, who eventually in the ’60s becomes a terrorist, a tool of Black Power and the Weathermen, responsible for several deaths. Though Sara and Merry were raised during the same political era, Sara’s political activism—becoming involved with the women’s liberation movement and the burgeoning field of women’s studies—took more constructive forms than Merry’s. I realized though, in reading Roth, that I knew so much more of Merry’s personal history than the reader knew of Sara’s.

In my original manuscript, the reader learned what led Sara to feminism only in dribs and drabs through flashbacks of the young Sara. I gleaned from Roth that to understand the genesis of an activist, the reader needs to know her full history, her family background, and her social/economic context. Roth is genius at creating the upward-mobility pressure cooker in which Merry is raised: her father, Seymour’s, success-driven glove factory; her mother, Dawn’s, personal farm where she raises cows; their professional-class network of friends. What does the reader need to know, I wondered, about Sara’s motivation to create new courses on women and teach them in the university? And if the reader is introduced to the triggers of Sara’s activism, will the reader then sympathize more fully with her determination to change the system?

Here is a scene from the final version of The Fix that was published, created as the origin of eight-year-old Sara’s passion to save women from domestic abuse. Sara’s mother, Helen, is confronting her husband, Josef, for the first time about his addiction. He is demanding that she turn rent money over to him for drugs, and Sara is witness to their argument:

“I’m not going to feed your habit!” Helen shouted. And when she didn’t go to the broom closet to get the money, when Josef saw her back away from him and quickly place her hand in her apron pocket, he lunged at her. “You’re insane!” she screamed, taking hold of the roll of bills and drawing both arms behind her back. Sara’s father darted toward her like a ferocious King Kong. Sara had seen the monster movie several times on TV and had nightmares about a large ape terrorizing people. “No! No! Daddy, stop!” Sara saw her father shove her mother against the wall, twist her arm, and rip her apron . . . Fear mingled with hate welled up inside her. Her mother was in danger, and she must save her. But how? Sara clenched her teeth. She pictured the sharp, gleaming knife that her father kept in the kitchen drawer, the one he used to carve roast beef and turkey (Chapter One, 1955).

Sara imagined “the grainy feel of the knife’s wooden handle in her palm” and thought, Do I really want to kill my father? The father she knew and loved might turn around and say in his jolly voice, “Sara, my Sha-Sha,” and she’d feel ashamed. Flooded by feelings of love, fear, and hate, she fell asleep, exhausted.

I was hoping to show, in contrast to Roth, that an activist does not have to become a terrorist. I wanted to give feminism a better rep. In the published novel, a maturing Sara extends her politics to include Civil Rights, my goal being to show that several popular movements of the ’60s offered Sara productive consolations from her family turbulence.

In my next piece, I’ll take a look at Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and how it affected my use of dialogue between Sara and her father in The Fix.

Sharon Leder taught English, women’s studies, and Jewish studies on several campuses of the State University of New York before beginning the second half of her life as a fiction writer and poet and releasing her novel, The Fix, in 2017 (KiCam Projects). As a teacher, she wrote books and articles on women writers, on the literature of the Holocaust, and on women in academia. In her fiction, Leder uses her life story as the oldest daughter of a heroin addict to help her imagine ways for her characters to survive conflict, tragedy, and trauma without losing sight of the supports they need to prevail. You can learn more about Leder at SharonLeder.com.