Ear­li­er this week, Joshua Max Feld­man wrote about why he chose to write a nov­el based on the Book of Jon­ah and who would be on his Jew­ish Mount Rush­more. His debut nov­el,The Book of Jon­ah, will be pub­lished on Feb­ru­ary 4th by Hen­ry Holt and Co. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I began my first post with a Sarah Sil­ver­man joke, so let me start this one with a more tra­di­tion­al exam­ple of Jew­ish humor: Once upon a time in the Shtetl, a rab­bi was in his study, pour­ing over the Tal­mud, when all of a sud­den he noticed some­thing he’d nev­er seen before: A new word. Now, this rab­bi had read the Tal­mud dozens of times, he prac­ti­cal­ly knew the entire thing by heart, so for him to dis­cov­er a new word was like a chemist trip­ping over a new ele­ment in the back yard. He ran out to tell his wife, dragged her in to look at the new word, and only when she brushed away the fly that had land­ed on the page did he real­ize what had happened. 

I tell this joke not only for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to write, Once upon a time in the Shtetl,” but also because the tale is emblem­at­ic of a promi­nent fea­ture of Jew­ish think­ing: The bor­der­line man­ic atten­tion to indi­vid­ual words. Jew­ish schol­ar­ship exam­ines texts on the most gran­u­lar lev­el, with the belief that each phrase, each word — even, in Hebrew, the let­ters mak­ing up the words — con­tain mul­ti­ple lay­ers of mean­ing that, like light refract­ing through a prism, can be revealed through care­ful study. We are very much the Peo­ple of the Book in that for thou­sands of years we’ve been read­ing the same books — the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible—over and over, wrestling with and argu­ing over and rein­ter­pret­ing the finest nuances. You can draw a fair­ly clear line from the Mish­neh Torah to con­tem­po­rary debates over whether genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied food is kosher.

As a writer, I’m often asked about my process.” As a Jew­ish writer who just com­plet­ed a nov­el loose­ly based on a book of the Bible, I’m often asked about the role of my reli­gion in my writ­ing. I can answer both these ques­tions by point­ing to this tra­di­tion in Judaism of grant­i­ng the high­est esteem to each and every word. I’m an inher­i­tor of this tra­di­tion, and it is fun­da­men­tal to how I write. Sim­ply put, when I write, I do my best to give every word the atten­tion I believe it deserves. God is in the details” is an old say­ing that both nice­ly sums up my aes­thet­ic view and points back to the schol­ar­ly tra­di­tion that shaped it. For a writer, it’s in the details where the mys­tery and majesty of art can be found; for a Torah stu­dent, it’s in the details where the mys­tery and majesty of the divine can be found. 

So how does this belief in the val­ue of indi­vid­ual words play out in prac­tice? Well, here are the first few sen­tences of my nov­el, The Book of Jon­ah:

Jon­ah knew the 59th Street sub­way sta­tion well enough that he did not have to look up from his iPhone as he made his way among its cor­ri­dors and com­muters to the track. He felt lucky as he came down the stairs to the plat­form to see a train just pulling in — he board­ed with­out break­ing his stride, took a seat by the door of the near­ly emp­ty car, went on typ­ing. A crowd of peo­ple flood­ed in at the next sta­tion, but Jon­ah felt he’d had a long enough day that he need not give up his seat. But then an old­er woman — frumpy, blue-haired, with a grand­moth­er­ly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose — end­ed up stand­ing direct­ly before him, and Jon­ah decid­ed to do the right thing and he stood. 

I prob­a­bly rewrote that para­graph dozens of times in the course of the two or three years I worked on the book. At var­i­ous points, Jon­ah was look­ing at a Black­ber­ry and not an iPhone; the name of the sub­way sta­tion was omit­ted, then spec­i­fied, then moved from Union Square to up to 59th Street; a dash grew and was cut and then grew again between emp­ty car” and went on typ­ing.” The old­er woman in an ear­ly draft did­n’t have a grand­moth­er­ly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose” but rather a grand­moth­er­ly sweet but­ton nose.” 

I won’t get into the think­ing behind these many changes, and I cer­tain­ly won’t argue for the rel­a­tive degrees of mys­tery and majesty the var­i­ous drafts achieved. My point is that I write with the idea that even the slight­est vari­a­tions in a word or its punc­tu­a­tion can cre­ate rip­ples across the entire sen­tence, the entire para­graph — real­ly, when you come right down to it, the entire book. The con­text, need­less to say, is dif­fer­ent, but like a yeshi­va stu­dent, I try to respect the lay­ers of every word. 

Now, I should add that a lot of writ­ers have this mind­set, many of them non-Jews. But as I think about the con­nec­tions between my reli­gion and my work, this atti­tude toward words is one of the first things that comes to mind. I should also men­tion that there’s a real down­side to writ­ing this way: My writ­ing process is a slow one, filled with con­stant recon­sid­er­a­tion and reeval­u­a­tion. Many times, I’ve felt like that rab­bi in his study — believ­ing I’ve stum­bled onto some­thing great, only to dis­cov­er that I’ve been mistaken. 

Like they say, God is in the details. 

Joshua Max Feld­man is a writer of fic­tion and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, he grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and has lived in Eng­land, Switzer­land, and New York City. The Book of Jon­ah is his first nov­el. Read more about him here.

Joshua Max Feld­man is a writer of fic­tion and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, he grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and has lived in Eng­land, Switzer­land, and New York City. This is his first novel.