Jan­ice Weiz­man was born in Toron­to, and moved to Israel at the age of nine­teen. She is a grad­u­ate of the Cre­ative Writ­ing pro­gram at Bar-Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty, where she ini­ti­at­ed and serves as man­ag­ing edi­tor of The Ilan­ot Review, an online lit­er­ary jour­nal. Janice’s fic­tion has appeared in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals includ­ing Lilith, Jew­ish Fic­tion, and Scrib­blers on the Roof. Her first nov­el, The Way­ward Moonwas recent­ly award­ed the Gold Medal in the Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­er Book Awards and first place in the Mid­west Book Awards, both in the cat­e­go­ry of His­tor­i­cal Fic­tion. Vis­it her web­site: http://​jan​iceweiz​man​.com/. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

A young man leaves his home and sets out on a jour­ney. He is impres­sion­able, sen­si­tive, and inex­pe­ri­enced in the ways of the world. Because he is young, every­thing is new, sur­pris­ing, a rev­e­la­tion. He is awk­ward, but also hope­ful. He knows lit­tle, but he is eager to learn. He is betrayed by those he trusts, and hap­pi­ly sur­prised by peo­ple he thought were his ene­mies. So it goes as he jour­neys in and out of chance meet­ings, mishaps, and adven­tures. And ulti­mate­ly, after feel­ing the full weight of his expe­ri­ences in his soul, he comes to under­stand a truth about him­self, about the world, and his place in it. 

The lit­er­ary term for this sort of nov­el is the bil­dungsro­man. In Eng­lish, we might call it a nov­el of self-dis­cov­ery and it is a clas­sic genre in both West­ern and world lit­er­a­ture. Our lit­er­ary canon is full of such tales of self-real­iza­tion. Tom Jones and David Cop­per­field are exam­ples of the genre as are Catch­er in the Rye, On the Road, and A Por­trait of an Artist as a Young Man. Though works involv­ing a hero­ine are few, Jane Eyre comes to mind as a rare excep­tion. But gen­er­al­ly, women, and par­tic­u­lar­ly Jew­ish women, are absent from the genre. 

This is not at all sur­pris­ing. Tra­di­tion­al­ly, Jew­ish women were not the pro­tag­o­nists of sto­ries about self-dis­cov­ery. Rather, they were usu­al­ly mar­ried off and on their way to moth­er­hood while still teenagers. The tra­jec­to­ry of a Jew­ish woman’s life was set out for her from the day she was born, and it did not involve ven­tur­ing into the world to seek one’s fortune. 

But what would have hap­pened if a woman was forced by cir­cum­stance to under­take such a jour­ney? What if she had to make her way in the world alone? What would be her fears? Her con­cerns? Her par­tic­u­lar vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties? How would she sur­vive? What would she learn about the world? What would she learn about herself? 

In The Way­ward Moon, I’ve put my hero­ine in pre­cise­ly this sit­u­a­tion. Rahel Bat Yair is a 17-year-old Jew­ish girl liv­ing in the Baby­lon­ian town of Sura in the 9th cen­tu­ry Mid­dle East. The sto­ry opens on the eve of her engage­ment, and Rahel, entire­ly con­tent in her own world, has no desire to trav­el any­where. Unlike the typ­i­cal male hero of a bil­dungsro­man, she has no use for expe­ri­ence or adven­ture. When cir­cum­stance forces her to take to the road, like Homer’s Odysseus, she wants noth­ing more than to go home, but unlike him, she has no home to return to. 

Typ­i­cal­ly, at the end of a bil­dungsro­man, the hero has achieved a mod­icum of self-knowl­edge, and whether he returns home or begins anew, he is able to uti­lize his expe­ri­ences in forg­ing his life as an adult. Would Rahel Bat Yair be able to uti­lize her expe­ri­ences? Would there be a way for her to draw on her hard-won knowl­edge to enable her to con­tribute to her com­mu­ni­ty? Or would she choose to con­ceal what she has seen and done? 

Con­sid­er­ing how lit­tle has come down to us about women’s lives in Jew­ish soci­ety of her time, we can eas­i­ly spec­u­late about the answer.

Check back on Wednes­day for Jan­ice Weiz­man’s next post for the Vis­it­ing Scribe.

Jan­ice Weiz­man is the author of the award-win­ning his­tor­i­cal nov­el, The Way­ward Moon (Yotzeret, 2012), which will be reis­sued with Toby Press next month. Her writ­ing has appeared in Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Report, LilithWorld Lit­er­a­ture Today, and oth­er places. She served for 10 years as a Fic­tion edi­tor for The Ilan­ot Review, and now curates the book review web­site, Read­ing Jew­ish Fic­tion. Her sec­ond nov­el, Our Lit­tle His­to­ries, was recent­ly pub­lished with Toby Press.