When I think of Jewish literature, I think of voices from around the world calling and speaking to one another through the ages. In truth, this is how I think of all literature: a continuous conversation between the living and the dead, the imaginary and the non-imaginary, between authors and readers and writers and the characters who have a little bit of each of us in their souls (the same way that we have bits of the stars in our very bones and flesh).
The Talmud tells us that to save one person is to save the world. It is logical, then, that to write one story of salvation is to continue the conversation of courage and hope through time.
Two of my favorite Jewish novels — Markus Zusak’s powerful Holocaust tale, The Book Thief, and E.R. Frank’s heart-rending story of child sex trafficking, Dime—do just that.
Death is the infamous narrator of Zusak’s The Book Thief. Fourteen-year-old Dime is the narrator of E.R. Frank’s eponymous 2015 novel. What does a book narrated by Death, concerning a German foster child and the Jewish man she rescues and hides during WWII, have to do with a fourteen-year-old African American foster child nick-named Dime and a letter that is meant to save her friend’s newborn baby?
Everything. And this: the first inspired the second; the second carries and echoes the strength and reach of the first. This is the power of stories.
Zusak’s story takes us into the basement of a home in Germany, into the heart and mind of a girl who sees what is wrong with the Nazis and does her part to save one starving, persecuted man. Frank’s novel, Dime, is focused on a trafficked teenager and her efforts to write a note in a “voice” – like the voice of Death in The Book Thief – to save a newborn child, and to save herself.
Entrapped in a life of prostitution and depravity, Dime finds strength in stories and books as varied and sweeping as James and the Giant Peach, To Kill a Mockingbird, Good Night Moon and, of course, The Book Thief.
In The Book Thief, our young heroine Liesel Meminger, learns to read and then shares her new love of books with her neighbors (during bomb raids) and with the Jewish man she’s hiding in the basement. Together, she and her hidden refugee Max write a book, and in this way merge their imaginations, their minds and their hearts.
In both novels, it is the telling and sharing of stories that save the protagonist. And this, to me, is an essential nature of the experience of Jewish people, and Jewish literature. Jewish people (my great-grandmother among them) have been forced, through hardship, poverty, pogroms, discrimination and the Shoah, to move and relocate around the globe in order to survive and thrive.
To keep our stories linked — to keep our lives linked — we need literature.
It’s impossible for me to read The Book Thief or Dime without thinking about the books that have meant so much to me — these titles and others, from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, to The Red Tent, The History of Love, Everything is Illuminated, Catcher in the Rye, Ellen Foster and Jane Eyre—stories about survival that each, in its own way, is also about the importance of telling, writing and sharing stories in order to preserve ones own sanity and to keep hope and humanity alive.
Laurie Lico Albanese has published fiction, poetry, journalism, travel writing, creative nonfiction, and memoir. Her books include Blue Suburbia: Almost a Memoir, Lynelle by the Sea, and The Miracles of Prato, co-written with art historian Laura Morowitz. Laurie is married to a publishing executive and is the mother of two children. To learn more visit her at LaurieLicoAlbanese.com.