Matthue Roth’s first book, Never Mind the Goldbergs, was a NYPL Best Book for the Teen Age and an ALA Best Books nominee. His latest is The Gobblings, illustrated by Rohan Daniel Eason. By day, he’s a video game designer. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
The first time I tried to explain where I found the idea for my new picture book The Gobblings, I had to start and restart a few times. I was wrestling with all these Big Ideas, ideas which included:
- The nightly parade of fairy penguins from the Australian coastline
- Being separated from your friends, and semi-stranded in a country where the only people you knew were your parents, who didn’t understand you (actually, for me, my in-laws, who were really valiant and tried hard but still mostly didn’t understand me)
- Is it possible to be friends with robots?
And a bunch more things. I wrote a blog post about my motivations, called it “I Stole a Story from the Baal Shem Tov,” and tied it up as narratively neatly as I could.
But the essence of The Gobblings was an early Hasidic folktale called “The Alef-Bet” (or “The Alef-Bais” for you old schoolers). It’s a quick one, so let me tell it here:
On Yom Kippur night, a boy wanders into a synagogue. He doesn’t know how to pray, he doesn’t know Hebrew; all he knows is the Hebrew alphabet. So he recites that and hopes the letters will rearrange into the right words. At the end of the story, they do, and his prayers not only give him a good year, but they also save everyone else in the whole synagogue.
Nice, right? I always loved the story, and it also freaked me out. Like, what was a boy doing wandering alone into synagogue? Why didn’t he just pray in whatever words he understood? But I also really understood it, because it felt like everybody’s experience praying. We’re all alone. We’re all shouting out to someone who might not be there. We don’t really know what to ask for — I mean, a nice house and money and a suitcase full of Legos would be cool, but none of us knows what we truly need.
Writers are sadists. I first imagined Herbie, and everything came to me in a rush — his loneliness, his sense of exploration, the fact that, if he were on a space station, he’d instantly try to find all these secret rooms and make robot friends. And for every thought I had, there was an equal and opposite thought of: How do we show this in the clearest, best?
And the answer is always: You throw your character — your new creation; the thing you love most in the world — in front of the bus.
When I want to show how much Herbie cares about his friends, I make him isolated and alone. To show his creative spirit and his ingenuity, I put him in a place where there’s nothing to do and force him to build his own robots. When I want to show him at his best and most heroic, I try to break him.
I’m pretty sure that literary theory is not the way that the Baal Shem Tov wrote “The Alef-Bais.” But that’s exactly what happens in it, right? The nameless child has no one, so he shows up to the synagogue. He isn’t on the intellectual or cultural level of the congregation, so he isn’t given a prayerbook or a kind word. He doesn’t know how to pray, but it is the wanting to pray itself that registers as the deepest and most effective prayer.
Writers are sadists. And I occasionally do feel really guilty about this. (I also occasionally get some really wonderful and loving letters from readers who think I’m an absolute bastard for doing these things to my characters.) But if the Baal Shem Tov did it, then maybe it’s not all bad? And maybe — maybe — I’m not all bad, either.
Matthue Roth lives in Brooklyn with his family and keeps a secret diary at matthue.com
- Reading List: Jewish Folktales
- Shadow Play: A True Story of Tefillah by Leah Pearl Shollar
- Reading List: The Back Story, Inspiration, and Family Ties