JBC’s Nat Bernstein recently sat down with Joshua Max Feldman to discuss his debut novel, The Book of Jonah, which will be published on February 4th by Henry Holt and Co. Check back next week to hear more from Joshua Max Feldman for the Visiting Scribe series.
Nat Bernstein: What about Jonah and/or his story in the Hebrew Bible stood out to you enough to inspire a new novel?
Joshua Max Feldman: Ever since I first read the Biblical Book of Jonah, which was probably third grade in Hebrew school, it’s been a book that’s really fascinated me, and the more I returned to it as an adult it’s fascinated me. There’s something about it that stands out to me as being very honest in its portrayal of the relationship between Jonah and God: something very honest, something very funny, something very human. In Jonah’s decision to resist God’s commands I see a relatable relationship to the Divine — and one I think a lot of modern people can relate to. If you can imagine yourself in the Biblical Jonah’s position — going about your business, having an ordinary day, and then all of a sudden God is giving orders — I think a lot of people would do just what the Biblical Jonah does: run screaming in the other direction. So I found something about that really intriguing, in the context of the Bible, and it was something I wanted to play with more — and the more I played with it, the more it grew.
NB: I’m curious about the opening encounter with the stereotypically oracular Hasidic man in the subway station. What is crucial about his message, and why did you feel that his role needed to be cast as a Jewish caricature?
JMF: Well, I hope he rises a little bit above caricature: I didn’t want him to be so — you use the word “oracular,” and I understand why. I wanted him to be a little slippery, I wanted him to have one leg in that traditional, stereotypical, “Oh, here’s a guy who’s so wise and so educated, and he thinks he has all the answers,” but another leg in something that maybe Jonah doesn’t really trust. There’s something about him that seems a little off. That moment was actually inspired by a real incident: I was walking down the street and a Hasidic Jew came up to me and started talking, and we had this conversation, and I would flip back and forth between, “Wow, this guy really has some insightful things to say,” and, “Wow, this guy might just be completely nuts.” So I wanted to cast a little bit of ambiguity. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether what you’re hearing is a voice of wisdom, and sometimes it can be hard to tell whether the voice you’re hearing is divinely inspired or just something you misunderstood because you, you know, had a weird drug experience or whatever it might be.
NB: Is there a “Belly of the Whale” moment for this Jonah, and when would that be?
JMF: For me, the image of the whale — or, you know, being swallowed by the giant fish — presents an image of being completely ensnared in circumstance, completely trapped in what’s happening around you, and for me that comes when Jonah’s in Amsterdam, toward the very end of that section. What is interesting to me about moments like that — and one of the reasons the image of being swallowed by the fish is so resonant with people — is that it’s something people can identify with: we’ve all had that moment of feeling completely overcome and completely overwhelmed by circumstance.Those are the moments when we’re really capable of changing our path, when we’re really capable of changing as people, and that’s what I tried to show happening with Jonah. When he reaches rock-bottom in Amsterdam, then he’s able to say, “Ok, I’m going to try to look at this in a different way; I’m going to try to address what’s happening to me in a new way,” when he wasn’t capable of that before.
NB: You only really get inside the heads of Jewish characters in this book — Jonah, Judith, and even, briefly, Zoey — but not anyone outside of The Tribe. Was that intentional?
JMF: No, that’s a great observation. I didn’t think about that. I guess it’s no surprise that the two main protagonists are Jewish, because that’s how I associate with the Book out of which they came to be. I didn’t think about not having a chapter in Sylvia’s head, for instance, but part of the reason Zoey has her own mini-chapter is because I loved the character, and I wanted to explore her a little more. So I wasn’t intentionally leaving anyone out: it’s just where the story took me.
NB: It felt like in that one mini-chapter you mention, Zoey finally got some sort of justice from the book — we get to see at least one scene from her perspective. I really appreciated that.
JMF: I’m glad! As a writer, when you have a character you’re fond of, you often decide that you want them to find justice, too.
NB: You mentioned that the two main protagonists, Jonah and Judith, grew up with strong Jewish identities, but Judaism means something very different to each of them: Jonah’s knee-jerk definition of his Jewishness is “I feel guilty on Yom Kippur”; Judith, before losing faith, finds something spiritual and inherently Jewish in scholarship of any kind. Were you posing two different paradigms of Jewish identity?
JMF: Certainly with Jonah I wanted to show the highly-secular-but-still-strongly-Jewish identity, which really exists for Jews of my generation and even for my parents’ generation, too — and actually, now that I think about it, for generations before that. There is an idea in Judaism that is pretty unique among religions, which is that you can be strongly part of your religion without really practicing any of the religious components of it as such. Jonah doesn’t necessarily think of himself as “less Jewish” because he doesn’t go to synagogue.
And with Judith, her family’s not super devout, but she’s certainly more interested in the specifics of the religious practice than Jonah is, and certainly sees it as more of a spiritual enterprise than Jonah does.
NB: It’s only mentioned once, but Jonah’s mother is not Jewish. Why is this a necessary facet of his character, when it’s barely explored?
JMF: That’s an interesting question. I wanted him to have a certain ambivalence with regard to religion: at the start of the book, he’s in a place of “Well, I could take it or leave it,” but by the end of the book religion is something that he’s forced to engage with, and he’s thinking much more seriously about religious questions.
NB: Is the Age of Technology an age of sin, or is it more complicated than that?
JMF: I think it’s not as simple as yes or no — I doubt you were looking for a yes or no answer, anyway. Modern life presents a huge new array of challenges to any religion, and to the way we relate to the world. I believe religion needs to find ways to answer those questions, the questions that are raised by modern life — which are really unique to any period of history, because technology has advanced so quickly over the last even ten or fifteen years. I think people do feel a certain bewilderment as they look around the world, and I think faith has a lot to offer in that context.
NB: What’s next for you?
JMF: I am going to enjoy this period of the ramp-up to the book coming out. It was a long journey writing the book, and I’m thrilled to be answering questions about it and sharing it with people. I am working on a new novel — I’m not ready to talk about it yet — but I’m feeling good, and this whole process has been a wonderful one for me. As a writer, every book starts out in a very solitary place, and if you’re lucky enough to have people pay attention to it, it feels really great.
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.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.