Pho­to by Alber­to Paniagua

I’m here today and alive because my grand­moth­er knew to play dead,” a man said. Her vil­lage was oblit­er­at­ed in a pogrom. She hid in the rubble.”

My grand­fa­ther hid in a cof­fin,” a woman in the row next to him said.

We were in Israel, sit­ting in a swel­ter­ing room with a bro­ken air con­di­tion­er. The win­dows were open but there was no breeze, only the sounds of kids play­ing in the park. Glass­es filled to the brim sat on the back table: water or vod­ka, or both. We were gath­ered to talk about my new book, A Bend In The Stars. At its core, the nov­el is about sur­vival. Broth­er and sis­ter, Miri and Vanya, are Jews liv­ing in pre-WWI Kovno. They are caught in the ris­ing wave of anti­semitism and to sur­vive they make plans to flee to Amer­i­ca. In order to intro­duce these char­ac­ters, and to talk about why I cre­at­ed them, I told the group about my great aunts. These two women were tow­er­ing fig­ures of my child­hood. Like Baba in my nov­el, they came from a Russ­ian fam­i­ly and were as wide as they were tall; they offered advice when I want­ed it, and when I didn’t. Many times, they pulled me to them and said, You have to always be ready to run. Do you know where your par­ents keep your pass­port and the emer­gency mon­ey?” I nod­ded every time because of course I knew where it all was and no mat­ter how much I want­ed to squirm away from their her­ring breath, I didn’t dare.

How will I know when it’s time to run?” I asked when we had this conversation.

You’ll know,” they said. And as I repeat­ed those words to the group in Israel, they all nod­ded. When I told the same sto­ry a week lat­er to anoth­er Israeli group, they nod­ded too, and jumped in with even more stories.

I’ll nev­er for­get the face of the Swedish sailor who pulled me out of the boat. I knew, final­ly, I’d live,” one man said.

I was on the Kinder­trans­port,” anoth­er said. Strangers took me on a train. They were good people.”

How will I know when it’s time to run?”

These con­ver­sa­tions in Israel shook me in a way no oth­er con­ver­sa­tion ever has. Per­haps it was because I was caught off guard. I didn’t expect these groups to relate to my nov­el in that way, let alone share their dark­est moments couched in such casu­al com­ments. But the more I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk about A Bend In The Stars with Israeli audi­ences, the more sto­ries I heard, and the more I real­ized what shook me so hard was how famil­iar the expe­ri­ences were. Not only that, what grabbed me was the sheer num­ber of peo­ple shar­ing these sto­ries and nod­ding as oth­ers spoke.

I had the hon­or of pre­sent­ing to groups who spoke Eng­lish as a sec­ond, third, or fourth lan­guage. They’d been raised in Hebrew, French, Span­ish, Ger­man, Russ­ian, Dan­ish, and more, and while on the sur­face that might have meant the peo­ple gath­ered to hear about my nov­el had lit­tle in com­mon, the fact was their bond was as strong as any bond can be. At some point their par­ents, grand­par­ents, or they them­selves thought they would die for being Jew­ish. But they sur­vived. Each and every one had a sto­ry that involved some sort of smarts, cun­ning, and luck — or all of that com­bined. Most impor­tant of all, they’d pushed them­selves and their fam­i­lies to make a new life, a bet­ter life.

Writ­ing this in the wake of Tisha B’Av — the hol­i­day dur­ing which we mourn the destruc­tion of the first and sec­ond tem­ples in Jerusalem — I can’t help but think about the gen­er­a­tions upon gen­er­a­tions of Jews raised to be aware of the signs, to always have their pass­ports’ and emer­gency mon­ey at the ready. It is a nar­ra­tive and a les­son that has been passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion and the nar­ra­tive is not about suf­fer­ing. It’s about want­i­ng to live — about look­ing for more.

It is a nar­ra­tive and a les­son that has been passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion and the nar­ra­tive is not about suf­fer­ing. It’s about want­i­ng to live — about look­ing for more.

In A Bend In The Stars, I divide the book into sec­tions by the Hebrew months, and pref­ace each with a descrip­tion of the mean­ing and sym­bol of the moniker. I write that while Av is a time for mourn­ing, life is a cycle and no sor­row is all-con­sum­ing. The begin­ning of the month is marked by sad­ness and the end is said to be des­ig­nat­ed for find­ing one’s bash­ert—one’s soul mate. The sad­dest days are fol­lowed by the hap­pi­est and this is what I saw in Israel. The audi­ence around me talked about their sad­dest moments but then, by sit­ting there freely and open­ly as Jews, tak­ing time from their day to talk about a book, they were also cel­e­brat­ing their hap­pi­est — the fact that they had sur­vived, that they had fam­i­lies, chil­dren and grand­chil­dren. And by being in that swel­ter­ing room, they were cel­e­brat­ing the fact that they now had the lux­u­ry of being able to appre­ci­ate and dis­cuss lit­er­a­ture and ideas.

I mod­eled my char­ac­ter Baba after my great aunts and like them, she kept going because of a fierce belief in a bet­ter future. As Baba says in Bend, bet­ter days will come. This belief is what I want­ed to cap­ture, but there’s some­thing else, too. By the time we hear or read about the end­ing, a per­son brave enough to run has already encoun­tered so many twists and turns that it’s almost impos­si­ble to trace their way back to the begin­ning and know where they started.

I read an arti­cle in Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can in 2014 mark­ing the hun­dredth anniver­sary of Einstein’s pur­suit of the Russ­ian eclipse, a pur­suit he thought would prove his the­o­ry of rel­a­tiv­i­ty. He’d already pub­lished the idea, broad­ly speak­ing that light is bent by grav­i­ty. The only piece he was miss­ing was phys­i­cal proof to con­vince the world he was right. That proof, a pho­to­graph of light bend­ing, could only be tak­en dur­ing a total eclipse. He sent a team to Rus­sia to cap­ture the pho­to­graph but troops stopped them at the bor­der. It was a good thing too, because at the time, Ein­stein, revered now as the great­est genius to ever live, had the math wrong. He lat­er cor­rect­ed his equa­tions, but in 1914 he was wrong.

It was a good thing too, because at the time, Ein­stein, revered now as the great­est genius to ever live, had the math wrong.

The most famous pho­tos of Ein­stein depict an old­er pro­fes­sor liv­ing com­fort­ably in Prince­ton, NJ — but this was the back­end of his life. War — chance — kept him from poten­tial­ly ruin­ing his career. What if his life, or his 1914 expe­di­tion, took a dif­fer­ent turn? Sim­i­lar­ly, what if the Swedish sailor hadn’t seen the man’s boat? Or the woman’s grand­fa­ther hadn’t thought to hide in a coffin?

The mid­dle of the jour­ney is what makes us human and why I focused Bend on Miri and Vanya and their flight from Rus­sia. It is why the audi­ences in Israel who shared their des­per­a­tion — the mid­dle of their jour­ney — gave me hope. Like my great aunts, they sur­vived with a belief in a bet­ter tomor­row. This is the great­est gift they can share — the les­son that we always need to keep fight­ing because life will get bet­ter. These sto­ries, these lives, gave us the future and con­tin­ue to give us the future. L’dor va’dor.

Rachel’s debut nov­el is A Bend In The Stars. It has been named a New York Times Sum­mer Read­ing Selec­tion and a Barnes & Noble Dis­cov­er Great New Writ­ers Selec­tion. It is also a Boston Globe Best­seller. Rachel’s sec­ond nov­el, The His­to­ry of Time Trav­el, is forth­com­ing from Grand Cen­tral (2021)

Rachel is a pro­lif­ic writer and review­er for the LA Review of Books and Dead­Dar­lings. She is a grad­u­ate of Grub­Street’s Nov­el Incu­ba­tor. In a for­mer life she was a hedge fund man­ag­er and a spin instruc­tor. She has degrees from Har­vard in Busi­ness, and Lit­er­a­ture and Phi­los­o­phy. She lives in Hanover, NH with her hus­band, three chil­dren, and dog named Zishe — after the folk hero who inspires many tales around their din­ner table.