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Interview: Stephanie Feldman

Wednesday, September 03, 2014 | Permalink

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.

EC: What does the White Rebbe represent?

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.

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Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Thursday, July 17, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stephanie Feldman wrote about her favorite Wandering Jews. Her debut novel, The Angel of Losses, will be published by Ecco on July 29th. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

On the first day of "The History of the Jews in Eastern Europe," my college professor explained the tension between our family stories—our oral history—and the recorded facts. His example: almost all families from the Pale of Settlement (the Jewish region of Imperial Russia) claim an ancestor who fled Europe to escape conscription in the Czar’s army. History, however, tells us that Jews were rarely, if ever, drafted.

I know very little about my own Eastern European forebears—a big reason why I was taking this class—but one of our only family legends describes my great-grandfather leaving Ukraine to avoid service in the Russian army. I immediately told my grandmother, his daughter, that his story is a common myth. I expected she would share my academic interest: Why would he pass off this story as truth? Why did so many men like him do the same?

Just as my professor warned, my grandmother only became angry. Her father didn’t lie. The historians must be wrong.

I was sorry to have upset her. I agreed it was possible my great-grandfather was one of the few threatened with conscription, or at least believed he was under threat. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but believe my professor, and I was disappointed. I felt like I had lost one of my few family stories from Europe.

But I had to stop thinking like a twenty-first-century American college student, and start thinking like the Jewish ancestors for whom I was searching. I began this journey when that same professor assigned the works of eminent historian Yosef Yerushalmi.

Yerushalmi argued that traditional Jewish history has little to do with facts and dates (or what the Czar's army said to my great-grandfather). Instead, it's an exercise in memory and performance that captures our experience. It's inextricably linked to the calendar; think of how Jews relive their entire history each year, one holiday and weekly Torah portion at a time. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, European Jews interpreted current events using the framework of traditional stories. Regional Jewish perils and clashes with authority were understood as Purims, with chroniclers even renaming their enemies Haman; the Napoleonic Wars were interpreted using the Old-Testament terms Gog and Magog.

Storytelling-as-history is a powerful idea—one that I returned to while writing my novel, The Angel of Losses—but it's not an easy answer. As a Jewish person living after the Holocaust, I'm not persuaded that legend can entirely compensate for lost history. Sometimes, though, the legends are all that's left, and Jews are particularly ready to find meaning in them. I don’t know if my great-grandfather was nearly drafted into the Russian army, but his tale was, at the least, a kind of truth; a part of his history, and mine.

Stephanie Feldman lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Read more about her and her work here.

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My Favorite Wandering Jews

Tuesday, July 15, 2014 | Permalink

Stephanie Feldman is a graduate of Barnard College. Her debut novel, The Angel of Losses, will be published by Ecco on July 29th. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I grew up assuming that the Wandering Jew was a Jewish creation, our metaphor for the Diaspora. When I began studying gothic literature in college, however, I learned that he's actually a Christian legend, a Roman who taunted Jesus and is punished with immortality.

But I loved the Wandering Jew—his mystery, his magic, his mix of danger and tragedy. I couldn't leave him behind to the more-or-less explicit anti-Semitism of 300-year-old British authors. I didn't want him to be, as my professors would say, "the Other."

I decided to write my own gothic novel with a Wandering Jew based on Jewish tradition. I studied Jewish folklore and history and found a wealth of wizards and travelers, some of whom appear in my novel, The Angel of Losses.

Here are a few of my favorite Wandering Jews:

1. Elijah

A body of Jewish folklore features the prophet Elijah, back on earth after his ascension to help pious Jews in need. He arrives as an unnamed stranger, and disappears again before anyone can guess his true identity.

2. Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph

The second-century rabbi is a famous mystic and religious scholar—"Head of all the Sages," according to the Talmud—but he was also a political figure. Akiba traveled through the Middle East encouraging Jewish communities to support the Jewish general Bar Kochba, who led a briefly successful revolt against the Romans. I prize him for his legendary journey to paradise. According to lore, Akiba brought three rabbis with him on this forbidden mission. Upon breaching paradise, one died, another went insane, and the third became an apostate. Akiba, somehow, survived unscathed.

3. Eldad Ha-Dani

In the ninth century, Eldad Ha-Dani traveled through North Africa, the Middle East, and Spain, announcing himself as a member of an independent Jewish kingdom in Africa founded by four of the ten Lost Tribes of Israel. His contemporaries accepted as truth his tales of an extraordinarily wealthy, hidden Jewish nation. Today, scholars consider him to be a fraud, but his mastery of an unusual version of Hebrew suggests that he may have indeed come from some kind of surviving isolated Jewish community in Africa.

4. Benjamin of Tudela

A twelfth-century Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tudela traveled through Europe, North Africa, and Asia. His narrative, recognized as a precursor of Marco Polo’s, features both meticulous observations of Jewish communities and fantastic tales of Jewish magicians and enigmatic tribes.

5. and 6. Shlomo Molko and David Reubeni

Messianic fever gripped the Jewish population in the wake of the fifteenth-century Spanish expulsion. Molko, the son of conversos, rediscovered his Jewish heritage and traveled through Europe and the Middle East with self-proclaimed Messiah David Ruebeni. Molko and Reubeni’s journey speaks to the desperation and hope of their time, the sense that the reassembly of the diaspora—and the Ten Lost Tribes of legend—was imminent. Molko was burned at the stake in Italy, and his shawl is still on display in Prague.

7. Israel Cohen

Reading him when I did, I came to see Israel Cohen, who published several books about the Jewish communities of Europe, as an early twentieth-century successor to Benjamin of Tudela. I couldn’t shake one of his notes about the Vilna Jewish library, which one of my characters adds to his collection of legends of the Wandering Jew: “Beneath the Library there was a little room, on the door of which in bold letters appeared the sign of a Hebrew scribe. The door opened as I descended, and out came a hungry-looking man, with sunken, stubbly cheeks, and a dirty collar.”

8. The White Rebbe

A medieval Polish legend describes a "White Rebbe" who sends a calf into a cave. When the animal fails to return, the holy man determines he’s discovered a magical path to Jerusalem. The White Rebbe descends into the cave himself and is never seen again.

I borrowed the name “White Rebbe” for my own Wandering Jew, the hero—or anti-hero—of the mysterious fairy tales my protagonist Marjorie Burke discovers among her late grandfather’s belongings. My White Rebbe's story combines the magic, history, daring, and spiritual longing of the Jewish travelers I discovered in my research, and like the Wandering Jews of gothic literature, he refuses to remain safely in the past.

Stephanie Feldman lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and daughter. Read more about her and her work here.

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