Sharon Led­er, author of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search, will be blog­ging here all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series. Check back here through­out the week to read more from her.

In my pre­vi­ous post, I wrote about the deep pro­fil­ing of char­ac­ter that Philip Roth achieves in Amer­i­can Pas­toral, enabling the read­er to under­stand how a priv­i­leged young­ster of the 1960s becomes a ter­ror­ist. Mer­ry Levov’s evo­lu­tion con­vinced me I could find a way to make my char­ac­ter, Sara Katz, more sym­pa­thet­ic than the rad­i­cal fem­i­nist in the orig­i­nal ver­sion of my man­u­script of The Fix: A Father’s Secrets, A Daughter’s Search. Today, I’ll dis­cuss Yid­dish writer Sholem Aleichem’s skill at using dia­logue to devel­op the char­ac­ters of Tevye’s daugh­ters in Tevye the Dairy­man (18941914), and how I then ampli­fied dia­logue between my young Sara and her father, Josef, a hero­in addict, in flash­backs in my nov­el to illus­trate my char­ac­ters’ complexities.


Sholem Ale­ichem: Tevye the Dairy­mans Daugh­ters

Ale­ichem, sto­ry­teller par excel­lence on whose Tevye the musi­cal Fid­dler on the Roof” is based, taught me I need­ed more dra­mat­ic dia­logue between Sara and her father to make their char­ac­ters more con­vinc­ing, more alive. Tevye’s dia­logues with his daugh­ters bril­liant­ly illus­trate the way parental influ­ence real­ly works. Each time a defi­ant daugh­ter of Tevye mar­ries, his great con­scious obses­sion to have his daugh­ter mar­ry rich is under­mined. The father-daugh­ter dia­logues reveal that the daugh­ters are much more like Tevye than he is will­ing to admit. In choos­ing hus­bands, the daugh­ters express Tevye’s own fan­tasies and val­ues, even his uncon­scious ones.For exam­ple, Cha­va, the daugh­ter Tevye loves the most, is iron­i­cal­ly the most trans­gres­sive because she mar­ries Chved­ka out of her reli­gion, a goy! Aleichem’s sparkling, humor­ous dia­logue shows Cha­va tak­ing to heart — more than Tevye ever imag­ined — her father’s yearn­ings for a more equal and demo­c­ra­t­ic Rus­sia free of unfair class struc­ture, espe­cial­ly when Cha­va says to Tevye in defense of Chved­ka, God … cre­at­ed us all equal.” Tevye’s response shows his wit­ty manip­u­la­tion of lan­guage, “‘So He did,’ I say. He cre­at­ed man in His like­ness. But you had bet­ter remem­ber that not every like­ness is alike.’”

How could I use dia­logue to show that in spite of Sara’s father’s addic­tion, Josef also could be a pos­i­tive influ­ence on Sara’s activism? The Tevye his daugh­ters defy is a com­plex, many-lay­ered char­ac­ter whose bot­tom line is his love for his fam­i­ly. Could I fol­low Aleichem’s mod­el and cre­ate a more com­plex Josef? I did not want to present my protagonist’s father as a vil­lain. Could dia­logue show the nec­es­sary nuances?

The pub­lished nov­el, The Fix, includes many more scenes filled with dia­logue between the child Sara and her father than did the orig­i­nal man­u­script of 2006. One such scene occurs on a Sat­ur­day, a Shab­bos after­noon. Josef takes Sara to Man­hat­tan with him to get John­ny Mathis’s sig­na­ture at a Sam Goody’s record store and to meet cus­tomers on the Upper West Side to whom Josef, a butch­er, deliv­ers kosher meats and poul­try. But on the dri­ve home, he makes a stop in Green­wich Vil­lage, where Sara sees a black man quick­ly pass some­thing to Josef-some­thing he places in his pocket.

These peo­ple seem dif­fer­ent,” Sara says out loud. Do they all get along together?”

Down here,” Josef says … lots of dif­fer­ent peo­ple mix with one another.”

This is the first time I’ve seen a Negro man with a white woman,” Sara says. … Would­n’t it be nice, she thought, to have a Negro friend? … What about those oth­er peo­ple on the street?” Sara asks. Like those two men hold­ing hands. Do you know them?”

They’re homo­sex­u­als, Sara,” Josef says. They like to be with peo­ple of the same sex. Good peo­ple come in all col­ors and sex­es. The impor­tant thing is not to judge some­one because of what you see on the outside.”

When Josef and Sara arrive home, and Sara’s moth­er, Helen, asks if all is okay, Sara excit­ed­ly shouts, We went to Green­wich Vil­lage and saw homo­sex­u­als and lots of Negroes with white peo­ple.” Helen’s smile turns to a frown, and she asks sus­pi­cious­ly why Josef has tak­en Sara to the Vil­lage. He replies that Helen can’t keep Sara in a shell for­ev­er. Sara is ten, and though she knows her father has sneaked some­thing wrong into his pock­et, the pos­i­tive lessons she learns about inte­gra­tion and tol­er­ance stay with her for her entire life. In the process of mak­ing his con­nec­tion, the drug-addict dad has taught his daugh­ter how to be a human being.

Because I saw how the use of dia­logue could enable me to human­ize Josef, I cre­at­ed more and more scenes between the young Sara and her father.I was then left with many oth­er new flash­backs and dream scenes of the young Sara’s life in school, of her rela­tion­ships with friends, and of her rela­tion­ship with her moth­er, who relied on Sara as a con­fi­dante. I won­dered how I could inte­grate this new mate­r­i­al with the strug­gling adult, Sara, who found it dif­fi­cult hold­ing onto jobs in the field of women’s stud­ies when the con­flicts she had with male admin­is­tra­tors threat­ened her career. I found my answer after study­ing the A Mind of Her Own: Fathers and Daugh­ters in a Chang­ing World” seminar’s com­ing-of-age nov­els by Anzia Yezier­s­ka, Johan­na Kaplan, and Myla Gold­berg that I will dis­cuss in my final Pros­en Peo­ple segment.

Dr. Sharon Led­er Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta is a nat­ur­al orga­niz­er who found­ed Jew­ish Stud­ies at S.U.N.Y.-Nassau Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege. Past Vice Pres­i­dent of Am HaYam Cape Cod Havu­rah she cur­rent­ly serves its Inter­faith Jus­tice Com­mit­tee. With Mil­ton Teich­man she edit­ed Truth and Lamen­ta­tion: Sto­ries and Poems on the Holo­caust” (Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois) nom­i­nat­ed for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.