Debra Sparks newest book, The Pret­ty Girl, is now avail­able. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In lit­er­a­ture, as in life, you may go look­ing for one thing, only to find anoth­er. Sev­er­al years ago, I decid­ed to go to Lon­don to do research for a nov­el I was plan­ning to write. I had writ­ten a short sto­ry about Vic­to­ri­an toy the­atres — it’s in my most recent book, The Pret­ty Girl—and I didn’t think I was quite through with the sub­ject. I had an idea of writ­ing a nov­el that was set, at least par­tial­ly, in Vic­to­ri­an times and focused on a Jew­ish engraver of plates for the toy the­atre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Vic­to­ri­an Lon­don? Much less Jews in that time peri­od? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a day­long tour of Jew­ish Lon­don. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my nov­el. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Ortho­dox syn­a­gogue. My female tour guide and I arrived dur­ing ser­vices and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the bal­cony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any oth­er women up there in decades. In one back cor­ner of the bal­cony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lin­gerie. Down­stairs, men dav­ened seri­ous­ly, mut­ter­ing their Hebrew so quick­ly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he con­tin­ued to pray, and I thought per­haps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment. 

I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my plea­sure. I was dispir­it­ed. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in his­to­ry, before I could write the book I intend­ed. I was also anx­ious to get back to the Mar­riott in Swiss Cot­tage where I was stay­ing. My moth­er and young son were wait­ing for me, and I knew my son would be impa­tient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extend­ed separation.

It was late in the day when I final­ly got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the ele­va­tor, I saw a man in a yarmulke hold­ing a clip­board. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be inter­est­ed by my dip into his­to­ry. I saw the words Adin Stein­saltz on the man’s clip­board. Now I had anoth­er rea­son I felt like speak­ing. He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.

What’s that?” the man said, interested.

The Thir­teen Petalled Rose.”

Do you under­stand that book?” the man said abruptly.

I had actu­al­ly stud­ied the book, which attempts to explain the Jew­ish mys­ti­cal sys­tem that is kab­bal­ah, fair­ly seri­ous­ly at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. I feel like if there are 100 lev­els on which to get that book, after read­ing it twice, I man­aged to get to lev­el two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kind­ly or not, influ­ence the struc­ture of the uni­verse. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the uni­verse, and sim­i­lar­ly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the poten­tial to cre­ate the world as a bet­ter or worse place.

Well, I tell the Rab­bi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he intro­duced him­self. He was Steinsaltz’s per­son­al assistant.

I was shocked. The Stein­saltz book — and oth­er books by Stein­saltz — had once been so impor­tant to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My hus­band, who isn’t Jew­ish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jew­ish such an Irish name. Some­how Adin,” though I knew it was pro­nounced dif­fer­ent­ly, made me think it would be OK after all.

It turned out that the Rab­bi, who is known per­haps best for his trans­la­tion of the Tal­mud, was speak­ing that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assis­tant said he could get me in. As excit­ing as this prospect sound­ed, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my moth­er. So the assis­tant offered some­thing else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have cof­fee with him.

I could bare­ly sleep that night. I was so excit­ed. Lat­er, I told Steve Stern, a Jew­ish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, He’s a holy man!”

My meet­ing was brief. I was embar­rassed by my sec­u­lar self in front of the rab­bi. I should have count­ed on not feel­ing quite frum enough to be meet­ing with him. I felt I should have a ques­tion for him, but I hadn’t pre­pared a ques­tion. I didn’t know what to say. He was gen­tle and kind, but I strug­gled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hear­ing isn’t so great. I end­ed up decid­ing to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had trou­bled me, since I reread it in prepa­ra­tion for tak­ing my son to his first Purim cel­e­bra­tion. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gal­lows that he intend­ed for Morde­cai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that after­ward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 addi­tion­al men. I asked the rab­bi about it. The lack of clar­i­ty in the Book of Esther both­ered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Per­sians have per­mis­sion to attack Jews on a cer­tain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are tak­ing advan­tage of that per­mis­sion, when the day comes. 

Well, you’ve nev­er been beat­en,” the rab­bi said.


If you were beat­en, you’d understand.”

It seemed to me that we were talk­ing about con­tem­po­rary Israel and Pales­tine and not ancient Jews and Per­sians. Lat­er I real­ized we prob­a­bly were. I dis­cov­ered that the rabbi’s pol­i­tics were far to the right of my own. The oth­er thing the rab­bi said, though I can’t remem­ber what we were talk­ing about that led him to these words, is that he liked chil­dren, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wis­dom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love chil­dren myself.

Why am I telling these stories?

Because the meet­ing with the Rab­bi redi­rect­ed me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, antic­i­pat­ing my morn­ing cof­fee with the rabbi.

When we talk about fact and fic­tion in nov­el writ­ing, I think we are fre­quent­ly talk­ing about direct bor­row­ings from one’s own auto­bi­og­ra­phy. For me, fact works in a more com­plex way in my fiction.

I nev­er wrote that book about toy the­atres, the one I planned to write when I went to Lon­don. Instead, I wrote a nov­el, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explic­it use of the Rabbi’s words about being beat­en. I also wrote a sto­ry for my sub­se­quent book, The Pret­ty Girl, called A Wed­ding Sto­ry.” In it, a rab­bi says what Stein­saltz said about chil­dren, and the char­ac­ter who hears his words stum­bles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.

I couldn’t under­stand enough about the facts of the Vic­to­ri­an world, so I couldn’t write the nov­el I intend­ed to. I couldn’t under­stand the Rabbi’s think­ing, and so I found a sto­ry I did feel I could write. Stu­pid­i­ty, you could say, stopped me, and stu­pid­i­ty led me for­ward. Dif­fer­ent kinds of stu­pid­i­ty. To write about some­thing, you need to know about the things that are know­able. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknow­able. You just need to be present to it.

Debra Spark is the author of The Pret­ty Girl, a col­lec­tion of sto­ries about art and decep­tion. She has been the recip­i­ent of sev­er­al awards includ­ing a Nation­al Endow­ment for the Arts fel­low­ship. She is a pro­fes­sor at Col­by Col­lege and teach­es in the MFA Pro­gram for Writ­ers at War­ren Wil­son College. 

Debra Spark is author of the nov­els Coconuts for the Saint, The Ghost of Bridgetown and Good for the Jews. She edit­ed the best-sell­ing anthol­o­gy Twen­ty Under Thir­ty: Best Sto­ries by Amer­i­ca’s New Young Writ­ers, and her pop­u­lar lec­tures on writ­ing are col­lect­ed in Curi­ous Attrac­tions: Essays on Fic­tion Writ­ing. Debra is a pro­fes­sor at Col­by Col­lege and teach­es in the MFA Pro­gram for Writ­ers at War­ren Wil­son College.