Organized by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL), the Book Carnival is hosted by a different participant’s site on the 15th of every month. It’s my turn and I’m delighted to welcome you to my blog.
I hope you enjoyed the Chanukah festivities in your corner of the world. What with the candle lighting, dreidel spinning and gift giving—not to mention the making of latkes and sufgenyiot—did you find some quiet time to enjoy a good book or two? If you are looking for more reading material, you’ve certainly come to the right place! Check out these amazing links and entries:
Please note that the Association of Jewish Libraries started a podcast, “Nice Jewish Books,” and launched it featuring Talia Carner and her novel, THE THIRD DAUGHTER (finalist in the National Jewish Book Council Award in the book Club category)
Also, The NJ Jewish Ledger ran a profile of author Talia Carner in connection of her appearance at the National Council of Jewish Women.
On her blog, Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, Deborah interviewed Helaine Becker about her new children’s picture book, The Fabulous Tale of Fish & Chips.
Heidi Slowinski recently reviewed Roy Hoffman’s Chicken Dreaming Corn. Hoffman’s book is literature depicting life as this historical fiction novel explores the Jewish experience in the south.
Barbara Bietz interviews Jeff Gottesfeld about his new picture book, THE CHRISTMAS MIRACLE, a story of faith, friendship, and community.
The Book of Life Podcast pairs Red and Green and Blue and White by Lee Wind with The Christmas Mitzvah by Jeff Gottesfeld. These two 2021 holiday picture books are both based on true stories of allyship and they have a lovely synergy.
The Sydney Taylor Shmooze is a mock award blog that brings you reviews of Jewish kidlit that is potentially eligible for the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Book Award. Check out this month’s reviews!
The new Storytime Solidarity website offers quality resources for getting your storytimes started or boosting them to the next level. A guest post on their blog, “If Hanukkah Is Not the Jewish Christmas, What Is It?” by Heidi Rabinowitz, explores Hanukkah and its context within the U.S.
Shiloh Musings reviewed a real “cliffhanger,” The Devil’s Breath by Tom Hogan, which a very different sort of Holocaust story. A Jewish couple imprisoned in a concentration camp are asked by the camp head to discover who’s pilfering the stolen gold.
A Jewish Grandmother finds herself in a dilemma reviewing Why We Fly” in which she finds one of the subplots problematic. Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal’s book is for youth and depicts a religious and ethnically mixed American community in which Jews dating non-Jews doesn’t raise eyebrows. One of the two main characters is Jewish, and she’s very idealistic.
Reuven Chaim Klein just posted 5 book reviews at the Rachack Review. Do take a look!
I’ve been addressing Jane Austen’s work and the correlating themes found in Judaic text. The reason for this exercise stems from my desire to find historical fiction or historical romance novels that contain a modicum of Judaica. Of course, Austen’s work isn’t considered historical fiction. Her stories were contemporary; her readers would have recognized their world amongst the backdrop of her settings. But that’s not my point. Sorry!
While I have scoured endless book titles and conducted mind numbing Internet searches in the hopes of finding some hidden gem, I have very little to show for my effort. That was the impetus to take pen in hand, so to speak, and to write my own fanfiction. And why not? Jane Austen’s work continues to inspire and entertain a diverse, world-wide audience. We are presented with modern interpretations of her classics novels, time-travel storylines, and narratives that focus on any number of ethnicities and cultures. Evidently, our thirst for new and tantalizing Austenesque plots and themes is not so easily quenched! And for this particular reader, it seemed only logical that the Jewish community be represented in Austen’s fandom.
That being said, I am not an advocate of racelifting. By that I mean, I have no need to replace a character’s Anglican faith for Judaism. I am satisfied with the introduction of Jewish protagonists and themes that are a true reflection of our community as a whole. For other authors and readers, I understand that it is imperative to see a Jewish character cast in the original role. And that’s okay. That’s the magic of fanfiction. InThe Meyersons of Meryton, I introduce a rabbi and his family to Austen’s fictional town in Hertfordshire. In Celestial Persuasion, I create a friendship in-between Captain Wentworth and the Isaacs siblings that stretches far beyond England’s shores. With Destiny by Design~ Leah’s Journey, I showcase a story that is loosely based on my ancestors’ experiences. Although this novel is not a J.A.F.F. (Jane Austen Fan Fiction), there is a definite nod to the author and her work. These novels, along with my first title, Becoming Malka, are my small contribution to the lesser known genres of Jewish Historical Fiction and Jewish Historical Romance.
As we are now officially in the “holiday season,” there is an opportunity to address diversity and Jewish characters in other forms of entertainment. For example, Hallmark has attempted to incorporate Jewish storylines and characters in their holiday lineup. These shows are a bit cringe-worthy, I’ll admit it, but at least they’re trying. I’d encourage them to try a littleharder. While I do want to see Jewish representation in these soapy movies, I do not want to see Hanukkah downgraded to a Christmas-wanna-be. The whole point of the Maccabean revolt was not to assimilate to the dominating culture. It is a fine line, I understand. Hallmark can do better.
Over at Disney, we were introduced to a Jewish heroine for one episode of Elena of Avalor. The character is supposed to be a Sephardic princess, but she uses Yiddish terminology and speaks of Ashkenazi traditions. And, I’m sorry to say, the princess is not very attractive. Like the folks over at Hallmark, the imagineers could have put forth more effort. This piece needed a little more research into the character’s cultural background and a lot more generosity in developing her aesthetic. Perhaps they could have taken a page from the variety of diverse characters showing up in other animation, comics, and television series and given the Jewish community a proper heroine.
And speaking of television, did you hear the collective “oy!” when fans of Downton Abbey found out that Lady Crawley’s father was Jewish? The writers did not stop there. The series also introduced a Jewish family of the upper echelons of society. Apparently, Lord Sinderby’s family had fled the pogroms and persecution of Imperial Russia some sixty years ago. Sparks fly when his son, Ephraim (he goes by his second name, Atticus) meets and falls in love with Lady Rose…who is not Jewish. This all-too-familiar predicament, as well as other issues of anti-Semitism in Edwardian England, are brought to the forefront. While I was not entirely pleased with the outcome, I was glad that at least our community’s presence was addressed.
With the success of Sanditon and Bridgerton—and the plethora of costume dramas in the world today— it seems clear we are in need of the escapism that these shows provide. We fantasize and yearn for the days of polite society and social graces. How much more pleasing is it to read a novel or watch a show that allows one to identify with a character— someone who stands to represent one’s community, one’s values, and heritage in a positive light? It is time to come out from the shadows of the likes of Heyer, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Their Jewish characters were cliché and demeaning. The Jewish community has played a proud and active role in nearly every culture around the world. We are connected to that history by a chain that spans over five thousand years.
Jane Austen certainly instilled her biblical knowledge and values into her novels. She commented on societal issues with her wit and keen power of observation. Her readers, no doubt, recognized and identified with these truths. If one of my books brings a sense of connection, a sense of community, a sense of pride to a Jewish reader, I would have fulfilled my goal. My books are a link in that ancient chain. They are another opportunity to say: Hineini —I am here. We are here. And we’re not going anywhere.
Throughout this series, I have been looking at Jewish themes that can be found in Jane Austen’s work. That’s not to say that the renown author intentionally incorporated Judaic messages in her writing; however, as I’ve pointed out in my previous posts, Austen was raised in an observant environment and would have been quite at home quoting from the Good Book or referencing various biblical storylines. I am enjoying finding the similarities. I hope you are too!
SELICHAH, MECHILAH, and KAPPARAH ~ The different forms of Forgiveness.
I previously touched upon the subject of repentance, but the matter requires further discussion. The theme of granting forgiveness can be found in nearly every book that Jane Austen penned. Just think for a moment. Elizabeth forgives Darcy, Elinor forgives Edward, Fanny forgives Edmund, and everyone is only too willing to forgive Emma!
In Persuasion, we are introduced to a couple long separated by distance and pride. Captain Frederick Wentworth has spent years holding a grudge, nursing his bruised ego and feeling the victim. For those who don’t know the story: Miss Anne Elliot had entered into an understanding with the gentleman, but —for better or for worse—was persuaded to end the budding relationship. Years pass before the two are brought back together again. Captain Wentworth tells his new friends that he finds Miss Anne, “altered beyond his knowledge.” Ruthless, heartless man! The gentleman is still licking his wounds…
He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure.”
It has been eight years and he still didn’t understand her! Had he used the time to reflect and to try to comprehend Anne’s actions, it would have been emotionally and mentally healthier for all concerned. Of course, that would have changed the arc of the story and no one understood that better than Austen.
In Northanger Abbey, we are introduced to a young lady just coming out into society. She has very little to say in her favor; and in fact, our heroine spends her days daydreaming and imagining herself the helpless victim of some gothic novel.
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine.”
Catherine is invited to stay with family friends in Bath, and finds herself, quite suddenly, in over her head. With no real experience of socializing with others who have more—shall we say—life experiences, her naivete and imagination run wild. She wrongly suspects General Tilney (the father of the young man she comes to admire) of a crime he did not commit. In the end, she is somewhat exonerated, but the acknowledgment doesn’t come without some distress.
Your imagination may be overactive, but your instinct was true. Our mother did suffer grievously and at the hands of our father…No vampires, no blood. But worse crimes, crimes of the heart.”
Like any biblical story that focuses on Teshuva, Catherine experiences growth through pain. She recognizes her failings, repents, and determines to improve her behavior. The arc of her story is in keeping with Austen’s philosophy. The mean-spirted and conniving Thorpe siblings, however, do not see the error of their ways and they suffer for it. Austen uses their storyline to illustrate her point once again. Those who merit a HEA (happily ever after) will be rewarded in the end.
My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.”
I can’t help but think of the period leading up to the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We begin by commemorating the holiday of Selichot and use the time before “the gates begin to close” to think of those we have wronged.
Asking for forgiveness, for selichah, is the first step we must take. This is where we realize our error, we apologize to the injured party, and we show remorse.
When our poor behavior has caused much pain, we speak of mechilah. We ask that our transgressions be wiped away. We want things to be as they were; or better yet, to go on stronger than before. This can prove to be difficult for the injured party; for though many of us can forgive, it is very difficult to completely forget.
If the wrongdoing is of biblical proportions, a person may feel they are not worthy of forgiveness. They believe that there can’t be a positive outcome, no matter the excuse, no matter how many promises are made. Most people are not capable of forgiving an act of this magnitude. In fact, the forgiveness we seek, the kapparah, is beyond human capacity. The atonement, in fact, comes from a higher source, such as on Yom Kippur. This is when G-d looks into your heart, sees your repentance and says, “Be comforted.”
In Persuasion, Jane Austen presents us with a scenario that is just as relevant today as it was three hundred years ago. Secure in his righteousness, Captain Wentworth needlessly wallows in Anne’s perceived betrayal. Obstinately holding on to his resentment only succeeds in polluting his view of the truth! Their meeting again gives them both a second chance to speak their heart. It’s a story full of angst and it is sometimes intolerable to witness their pain. When the captain overhears Anne speaking of love and loss to another gentleman, he finally comes clean. Captain Wentworth writes to Anne and bares his soul—as he should have done years ago.
You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.”
In the ensuing paragraphs, Austen satisfies our need for the couple’s reconciliation. Anne and Frederick speak honestly to one another, exposing their vulnerabilities and the various misunderstandings that led to such despair. They forgive one another (selichah), their love is stronger for it (mechilah); and because they merit a HEA, they are comforted (kapparah). Quintessential Austen. Brilliant. Just brilliant!
In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, it is clear that Miss Abigail Isaacs shares similar characteristics with her newfound friend, Captain Wentworth. Fear and resentment have colored her view, not only of her ever-changing circumstances, but of a certain gentleman. As Mr. Bennet— of Pride and Prejudice fame— urges: read on, friend, read on…
A soft scratch upon the door shook her out of her musings, miserable and disheartening as they were. Abigail bade the interloper to enter, as she wiped away her tears.
“I have brought you some broth, my dear,” said Mrs. Frankel. “I thought you might be hungry, as we had not had to opportunity to dine. Do you think you might take a little?”
“I am much too shaken to eat, though I thank you for your concern. Will you not have it in my stead?”
“I have had some sent to my room, Avileh. I will leave you to rest then—oh, but I nearly forgot!” Mrs. Frankel exclaimed. “I have a letter for you, my dear. It is from Mr. Gabay.”
“Mr. Gabay! Whatever could he want? He barely spoke two words together in my presence. I fear his affections have been won over by Miss Kendall, Frankie dearest. They must have quarreled, for he was scowling all evening. Did you not notice?”
“No, indeed. However did you come to such a conclusion? Truly, my dear, you can see clear into the heavens but you cannot see what stands right before you.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Never you mind. Have a bit of your soup and read your letter,” she insisted, placing the envelope upon the bed. “Good-night, my dear.”
Abigail watched as Mrs. Frankel closed the door behind her. She eyed the broth with little interest and settled her gaze upon the letter instead. What could he have to say? Another jest? Another commentary on the state of the new union? Upon closer inspection, she noted that he had hastily folded the missive, it had not been sealed and it had not been addressed. Though she had had her fill of surprises to last a lifetime, her curiosity would not be neglected. She would read his letter and be done with it. For what could he possibly have to say that would lighten her heart?
What do you think? Will Mr. Gabay’s words cause more harm than good? Will Abigail be able to forgive past transgressions, even if that means forgiving herself? I invite you to read the story and come to your own conclusions. Until next time, thank you for stopping by!
It would be funny, if it wasn’t a little… demoralizing. The conversation starts off well enough:
“What do you do?”
“I’m an author. I’ve written five books.”
“Oh wow! That’s amazing! How did you manage to get published? I hear it’s kind of rough out there.”
“I self-published. I’m an independent author.”
Then comes that awkward moment where you see the admiration slowly fade away. It’s replaced with a smile and a nod…and a look that says: She can’t be any good if she can’t get a publisher to take on her work.
When you say that you’ve self-published, people tend to think of poorly formatted, unedited manuscripts, and ugly covers. But with the advent of various mediums, such as the Amazon platforms, authors have found the means to publish quality work. These pioneers have slowly begun to reverse the stigma attached to being an independent. That being said, even an indie author needs to collaborate with others in order to produce a marketable book. At minimum, they will need to consult with beta-readers; and if the budget allows, a proofreader, a copy editor, and a designer are highly recommended. And then there is the small matter of marketing and promoting.
In my experience, the marketing component is the hardest part of all. It requires not only creativity and aplomb, but hours and hours of dedicated time on social media, interacting with potential customers, participating in blog tours and interviews, and well…truthfully, trying not to pester your friends and family with requests to LIKE, SHARE, and spread the word. Unbeknownst to many readers, even if one chooses the “traditional” route, publishing houses rely on the author to assist with sales these days. There’s just no escaping the task.
Given the fact that I’m still working at my day job, I try to utilize social media platforms that have proven to give me the best results. I started this blog and am so grateful for those who have joined me here. During my time on Facebook, I had over 1,500 followers; but due to that site’s policies and algorithms, it wasn’t productive or cost effective. I’ve had more success on Goodreads, and less so on Pinterest and Instagram. Recently, I joined the ranks of other authors, traditional and independent, on BookBub. I’ll have to see how that goes, but of course that entails more pestering. If you are a reader and utilize that site, please follow me on BookBub. And yes…please spread the word.
In this series, I have been examining the works of Jane Austen and finding parallel lessons within the vast teachings of Judaism. I am not a literary scholar or theologian, but I am drawn to the subject and am enjoying my findings. I hope that you, dear reader, feel the same way. As the title suggests, this is the third post of the series. I began by pointing out the long-held Jewish tradition of midrash~ the reworking of sacred text in order to personalize a story or to reimagine a story in a different setting. It is my theory that Jane Austen had mastered this skill. She was raised by an Anglican minister and was devout in her faith. Having been exposed to the sacred text of the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch) the whole of her life, she would have easily been able to combine her knowledge with her wit and keen sense of observation in the creation of her novels.
Lo tov he–yot ha-adam le’vado ~ It is not good for Man to be alone
I realize that the quote mentioned above is from Genesis, but are you familiar with the Book of Ruth? I find even a cursory review of that story—or any story in the Torah, for that matter—shares similar socioeconomic truths found in Austen’s fictional town or settings. Don’t believe me? I offer Sense and Sensibility as an example for comparison. In the biblical story, Naomi (Mrs. Dashwood) has lost her husband. Her sons are out of the picture as well (think Mr. John Dashwood). She is practically penniless and loses her home (Norland Park). Naomi (Mrs. Dashwood) has lost her place in society without the protection of her men. We are then introduced to Ruth, one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law. In my mind, Elinor Dashwood matches Ruth’s stalwart qualities. Ruth is the fearless, faithful, and rational daughter. Ruth (Elinor) strives to maintain some order and to see her family flourish once again. In comes Boaz, a man alone (Mr. Edward Ferrars or Colonel Brandon, if you prefer) to save the day!
Whether we read Torah or an Austen novel, we understand that the marriage state is desirable for the female protagonist. It ensures her financial and physical wellbeing. For the male, marriage obviously allows for the continuity of the family line; an heir to take on the role of provider and protector. Marriage, of course, is a sacred and divine institution. Entering into this holy covenant is a necessity to propagate the human race (Gen. 1:28). But in order for the marriage to be successful, both the biblical author and our Regency author require that the couple have a deeper understanding of the importance of morality and their significant role in preserving the fabric of society. It is evident in both types of stories that happy endings are granted to those of moral character. Elinor exudes this characteristic. When Marianne asks her sister how she could bear her disappointment regarding the loss of Edward, Elinor replies:
By feeling that I was doing my duty. My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret. I owed it to her, therefore, to avoid giving any hint of the truth; and I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me… I did not love only him; and while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt.”
Elinor Dashwood is held up as a role model. We are meant to admire her qualities, to condole with her when she suffers, and to celebrate her merited happiness. In our biblical story, we know that Boaz admires Ruth’s dignified and modest behavior. He feels protective of her and fulfills his duty towards Ruth— that is, once the scene is set and all obstacles to their union are removed. Likewise, Elinor and Edward find their happiness. But the couple is only rewarded because they adhered to societal rules and remained fixed to their moral compass. The story would not have the same meaning if Edward reneged on his promise to Lucy and ran into Elinor’s waiting arms. Not wanting to leave Colonel Brandon on his own, Austen grants Miss Marianne and the gentleman their H.E.A. as well; but only after the young lady reevaluates her life, and is found deserving of such happiness.
My illness has made me think…My feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall…be regulated, [they] shall be checked by religion, by reason , by constant employment.”
Naturally, Austen does not grant Lucy Steele the same consideration as the other couples. Lucy doesn’t deserve it, neither does her popinjay-of-a-husband, Robert Ferrars. To do so would go against Austen’s philosophy and theology. I’m certain the biblical author would agree.
In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, Abigail Isaacs is a young lady with many unique qualities. Charts and instruments and mathematical equations are her forte; but when it comes to matters of the heart, Abigail is at a loss. Having known disappointment at a tender age, she is quite determined not to err again. Don’t misunderstand me, dear reader. She no longer finds fault with the young man of her youth. Oh no. She squarely lays the blame at her own door. Because of this, Abigail decides she can’t trust her instincts. The intoxicating sensations of her first love are overwhelming, they cloud her judgment and eclipse her path.
In the following passage, see how Abigail unburdens her heart to a new friend, Mariquita Sanchez de Thompson.
Mariquita smiled. “I know what it means to live in the shadow of men. But no more of that! All this talk of study and work…what of love? Why have you not married?”
“Ah, here is a frequent and familiar question. You must seek alliance with Mrs. Frankel and join in her enduring campaign.” Abigail thought to make light of it but sensed she would fail. “In truth, it is a painful subject to discuss.”
“If it haunts you so, perhaps you do better to share it with a friend. It will extinguish the power it holds over your heart.”
Abigail arose and began to pace the length of the gallery. She battled with the emotions that raged within and recognized that a transformation was, indeed, under way. The girl she had been in Exeter would not have dreamed of exchanging such intimate history with a relative stranger. But she recalled Mariquita’s candid declaration of her own tribulations and now felt tempted to pronounce her own.
“I was but seventeen when I found myself in love,” began Abigail. “I was a pretty young thing then and believed myself quite capable of living a happy, full life as a wife. His name was Mr. Bloom. Gabriel Bloom. He was four-and-twenty when he came to live with us, as an apprentice to my father’s medical practice. I had taken one look at him and fell under his power. His golden hair and light eyes shone like the sun. Everyone who knew him could not help but enjoy being in his presence.” She paused, staring across the garden yet seeing something altogether different in her mind’s eye.
“And was he a good student? Did he hold your father’s favor?”
“No, not at all. In fact, he would fail miserably at his tasks. But such was his affability, that my father granted him leniency time and time again. As time progressed, Papa could no longer disregard the errors or his lack of skill. Gabriel would laugh even as Papa scolded him. The admonishments continued, and yet Gabriel would not be moved. Somehow he believed his patients would heal, and better themselves, simply by his caring heart and tender ministrations. And then one day, Gabriel offered for me and promised a life full of laughter and adoration. I was mesmerized; his conquest was complete, and I willingly accepted.”
“Did your father dismiss Mr. Bloom from his service?”
She shook her head, as a tear made its way down her cheek. “If only that had been the case. Perhaps it would have been Gabriel’s salvation—and mine. What came to pass was altogether more painful. Papa had gone to Uppercross, a village not far from home. There had been a fever spreading around the villagers, but we had not thought it had reached Exeter or the surrounding farms. That evening, we had a knock upon the door. It was one of our neighbors, distraught and concerned for his babe. The child had broken out in a rash and was burning with a fever.”
“Oh, my dear!” cried Mariquita. “Tell me your father returned in time to save the child.”
“He did not. I begged Gabriel not to go in my father’s stead, but he chided my lack of faith. Quoting some witticism, he packed away his potions and powders with no regard to my pleas. Instead he rushed out following in the farmer’s footsteps.”
Abigail returned to her place alongside her friend and took up her now-tepid tea as if it could provide the sustenance necessary to complete her story. “The child did not survive, and when my father returned, he found a shell of a man. Gabriel could not forgive himself, though my father had reviewed the case and found no error had been committed. For weeks he suffered from a merciless depression. He refused to work; and when my father pressed him, one night at my urging, Gabriel became incensed. He railed at us, saying that we were in the wrong. How could he claim any happiness for himself? he demanded. He thought himself unworthy of any such absolution.”
“Indeed, it is a sorrowful tale,” said Mariquita.
“Gabriel left that evening, late at night when we were all abed. He scribbled a note begging my father’s forgiveness—and mine. My father wrote to his home and sought information from his parents. They had not heard from him in months. Then, one day, a patient came to the house. He told my father he had seen Gabriel Bloom in Plymouth. He was penniless—a vagrant, they said. I thought of him, wandering the streets, alone and miserable. Such needless suffering. I was heartbroken, but that sentiment rapidly evolved into something darker. I grew angry and afraid. You see, I had trusted him implicitly. All prudent thoughts were lost when I was with him, his hold over me was absolute. Had I followed Mr. Bloom in his wake of self-destruction, I would have condemned myself.”
“For all his devil-may-care affectations, it seems the poor young man was not strong enough to face life’s trials,” Mariquita replied. “You, my dear friend, are much stronger. Of that there can be no doubt.”
“Yet, sometimes, in the deepest, darkest part of the night,” Abigail murmured, “when the house is silent and still, I feel I understand him completely.”
“How so, querida?”
“I have come to Buenos Aires to start my life anew, but my heart remains heavy. I have lost everyone I have ever loved. My brother’s life was taken mercilessly. My mother and father are gone, long before their time. And I lost my Mr. Bloom—my only love, I fear.”
“Why should that be? You are young yet.”
Abigail’s weary sigh affirmed her resignation. “Like Mr. Bloom, I am not altogether certain that I merit much happiness. No, I will live out my days filling each moment with productivity and, hopefully, in service to others.”
“That is utter foolishness!” cried Mariquita. “Once I have you securely tucked under my wing, you will soon heal your wounds and fly free! And there are many of my acquaintance who are—let us say, they are well situated in society. You will wish to speak to them about your projects.”
The impromptu meeting did much to unite the women, for the bonds of friendship are made stronger when put to the test. Mariquita made her farewells with the understanding that they would meet in two days’ time. As she saw the carriage off, Abigail sent up a prayer of gratitude. She had never spoken of this burden, though she believed Mrs. Frankel had some notion of it, for she was known to recite Deuteronomy chapter and verse whenever she saw Abigail appear downhearted: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, And you shall choose life…
Gabriel Bloom did not do away with his life, but neither did he choose to live it. Did she truly wish to follow in his footsteps? Did she have the courage to live life to its fullest? Her head began to ache, the emotions of the morning wiping away any impetus to work. She found a cozy nook with a comfortable chair. Settling in under a soft coverlet, Abigail closed her eyes and was soon fast asleep.
I mentioned earlier that Abigail is a young lady accustomed to calibrating instruments and taking measurements. She jots down her findings and follows their projected trajectories. But will she follow her internal compass and allow love into her heart, or will she reject all the signs—Heaven sent, or otherwise— and continue to walk alone? You’ll have to read the story and find out for yourself. Next time, we’ll look at Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Thanks for stopping by!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that our sages and their faithful students have been reinterpreting biblical texts in the hopes to discover new insights, to make them more accessible, or even to reveal different conclusions. As I mentioned in the original post of this series, it is in keeping with our traditions to recreate these sacred passages, to personalize the story with our own life experiences or our imaginations. In Judaism, these reworkings are known as midrash.
Jane Austen was the daughter of an Anglican minister. Her upbringing in the church would have given her sufficient exposure to Judaic theology to help me make my point: Austen used her knowledge of sacred text and reimagined the lessons into the workings of her famous novels. Today we’re going to examine Emma for Judaic themes.
TESHUVA ~ Repentance
In most cases, it is the author’s duty—and the reader’s expectation—to allow a story to unfold in such a manner that the protagonist evolves throughout the tribulations of the novel. The transformative journey is, after all, what the audience craves. Setting aside the specifics, it is within this transformation that the reader intimately identifies with the struggle, the lesson, and the resolution.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Interestingly enough, in many ancient cultures, such as within Greek society, it was not an accepted belief that one could change one’s behavior. Rather, it was thought that a person behaved just as his or her destiny foretold. Great Britain’s Rabbi Sacks (baruch dayan ha’emet) spoke of this message in a sermon fittingly prepared for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He even mentioned Jane Austen’s Emma.
A well-to-do, “handsome” young lady, it could be said that Emma Woodhouse has been spoiled the whole of her life. In addition to that, she is a bit of a snob.
She possess the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.
With little else to do, she goes about the county doing—what she believes to be—good works. In fact, Austen’s heroine is a yenta. She imagines that her matchmaking skills will bring about much happiness and shalom bayit to every hearth and home in Highbury. But Emma’s attempts at pairing her acquaintances are not as successful as she would have hoped. This is not surprising in the least! How can a young lady understand the workings of the heart in others, when she doesn’t understand herown? It is through personal struggles that Emma comes to understand her errors. When she is faced with her own heartache, Emma determines to change her ways.
Every year, as we commemorate the High Holy Days, we repeat the words of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer and consider our missteps, our mistakes, and our failures. But then we hear: “Teshuvah (Repentance), Tefillah (Prayer), and Tzedakah (Charity) avert the evil decree.” During the ten days in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are meant to examine our lives and to reflect on bettering ourselves. In Rabbi Sacks’ sermon, he postulates that Judaism was probably the first religion to ponder Free Will for this very reason. We can decide to do better.
Jane Austen presents us a storyline that highlights a young woman’s emotional growth. Three thousand years after the sacred text of the High Holy Days appear in our liturgy, Austen allows her protagonist to confess her sins, to show remorse, and to show a desire to improve herself.
Emma grows before our very eyes when she decides to learn from her mistakes. She becomes more charitable towards the other members of Highbury’s diverse society. She becomes more charitable towards herself when she opens her eyes, and her heart, to Mr. Knightly.
In my latest novel, Celestial Persuasion, I introduce Miss Abigail Isaacs, a young lady whom most believe to be past her last prayers. While she has had an offer of marriage, Abigail’s dreams have been shattered on more than one occasion. Her friends encourage her to marry, for security at the very least. This she cannot accept. Rather than opening her heart to the possibility of love, Abigail retrenches and strives to build a life of seclusion, safe within the confines of an astronomer’s observatory.
I have begun to believe that I am not meant for love.”
According to those familiar with her upbringing, Abigail’s education and access to the world of academia has had secondary effects. She is quick to judge and often times thought to be haughty. Her snobbish ways are not unlike Emma’s—though she is not a woman of means—and her comments are usually kindly meant. She is bookish and awkward in the company of strangers. In truth, she is an innocent; and more often than not, Abigail misjudges perilous situations and societal obligations. It is when she is entrusted into the care of Lieutenant Raphael Gabay that Abigail meets her greatest challenge. The gentleman has little patience with her improper pride.
Might I suggest you set down your astronomer’s paraphernalia to examine what is before you, here on earth, and not in the night’s sky? You have excused me of shielding my truths with incessant jesting, but it is you, madam, who hides behind instruments and tomes.“
Will the young lady repent and change her ways? Can she forgive, and forget, and give love another chance? Join Abigail on her journey to the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata and find out for yourself. But stay tuned! Next time, I’ll discuss Sense and Sensibility.
As an emerging author in the realm of Jane Austen Fanfiction (J.A.F.F.), I have introduced Jewish characters thus far into the world of Pride and Prejudice, as well as Persuasion. I purposely didn’t alter the beloved characters created by Austen’s imagination. I mean, of course, that Anglicans remain Anglicans. Instead, I present the reader with a different—more inclusive—makeup of the communities where said characters reside.
Some people may question why I chose this path, rather than the racebending or race-lifting phenomenon we are seeing today in fandom. Transforming the Bennets or Mr. Darcy as Jewish role models would not have satisfied my creativity. Instead, I wanted to personalize the canon with my heritage, so that our collective experiences in that period—known as The Regency—would not go unacknowledged. Some may question why I would want to meddle with works of art in the first place. They are classic novels, loved the world over. The answer is simple: It goes back to the practice of creating a midrash.
I’ve read several editorials and essays that pose an intriguing hypothesis. The authors stipulate that the concept of fanfiction is an accepted and familiar practice in Judaism. And I wholeheartedly agree. It is a truth universally acknowledged that our sages and their faithful students have been reinterpreting biblical texts in the hopes to discover new insights, to make them more accessible, or even to reveal different conclusions. It is in keeping with our traditions to reimagine these sacred passages, to personalize the story with our own life experiences or even to postulate the unknown—the “what-ifs.” These new interpretations or reworkings are known as midrash.
According to penlighten.com, “Fanfiction is basically fiction written by fans or, to put it in a better way, admirers of the original work. Fanfiction writers include much of the same characters and also sometimes choose to add new ones. Fanfiction stories often reflect the writer’s view (in this case, the view of the reader of the original work) as to what should have happened in that particular story.”
The great Ibn Ezra’s opinion on Midrash Aggadah was pretty clear. There are words, and there are meanings. As long as the reader gets the meaning of the text, it doesn’t matter how the message is communicated. Therefore (Finally! I’m getting to my point!) in my next series of blog posts, I mean to provide a ‘drash on Judaic themes in Regency literature by expressing how we can find Judaism in Austen’s work. Hopefully, this will encourage other authors, and readers, to open their minds to this particular genre. And that might have the happy chance of prompting even more discussion!
While Austen was the daughter of an Anglican minister, she didn’t follow the admonishments of clergymen such as James Fordyce, a Presbyterian minister infamous for his Sermons for Young Women. However, her work—or her “pestiferous” novels, as labeled by Fordyce—were characterized by morality. This could be recognized by her characters manners, their sense of duty to society, and their religious affinity. Furthermore, no self-important or indolent clergyman was safe from Austen’s eagle eye and sharp wit.
Without a doubt, she had strong opinions of correct and proper behavior, but Heaven help the poor soul that was caught in her crosshairs! She examined and cross-examined everyday life. Everyone was fair game. Everything was questioned and brought to light.
That is the epitome of Jewish study, is it not?
Throughout Austen fandom it has been said that Jane very likely never met a Jewish person; but her upbringing in the Anglican church would have given her sufficient exposure to Judaic theology and that is enough for me to proceed. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, today’s post will deal specifically with Pride and Prejudice.
EISHET CHAYIL~ A Woman of Valor
In Chapter Eight, we find Mr. Darcy, Miss Elizabeth Bennet, Miss Caroline Bingley, Mr. Bingley and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst in the drawing room. Miss Bennet is holding her own against Miss Bingley’s abuse. She is being chided for wishing to read, instead of joining the party at cards. The point of the conversation is to draw Mr. Darcy’s attention to Miss Bennet’s lack of social graces and accomplishments. But Miss Bingley miscalculates in offering her definition of a lady of Quality and Mr. Darcy, indubitably, puts her in her place.
All this she must possess,” added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”
Elizabeth Bennet expresses her amazement at Mr. Darcy’s description of an accomplished woman. To my ears, it all sounded vaguely familiar.
I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.”
Where do we find similar commentary within our liturgy?
Take a look at Proverbs, and in particular, Eishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor Who Can Find? Austen’s use and understanding of biblical language seems to be jumping off the page! Without a doubt, Jane Austen was familiar with these words. Her own dear brother made certain to memorialize her using a quote from the same Proverb 31.
She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness”
In today’s society, a woman is expected to be a superhero. She must be a good daughter, wife and mother. She must be teacher, nurse, caregiver, friend, homemaker, and provider. As Jewish families gather around the Shabbos table, husbands sing King Solomon’s praise of their Eishet Chayil. I would guess many women, exhausted and possibly overwhelmed, may secretly wonder if they are worthy of such a tribute. Can anyone truly live up to such perfection? I believe that is Elizabeth Bennet’s question. She challenges Mr. Darcy’s remark with great bewilderment.
I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united.”
But according to a midrash, King Solomon was not actually describing one perfect woman. He was describing the combine attributes of our matriarchs and biblical heroines. They each brought their own treasured qualities and values. King Solomon did not expect one woman to do it all. Rather, the idea was that each woman should be held in high regard for her own precious and unique gifts.
Mr. Darcy, through the wisdom and creativity of Austen, was able to comprehend “a great deal.” He observed Miss Bennet’s skirts covered “six inches deep in mud…her hair, so untidy, so blowsy!” Instead of censuring her lack of grace, he saw a woman who cared not for her appearance. Her mission that day was to attend her sister, Jane, who was ill and needed nursing. He saw a woman who could not be swayed by the pressure of the group and stood her ground to read a book, rather than to play at cards. We know that Mr. Darcy despises cunning and deception; and in my view, Austen portrayed Elizabeth Bennet —at least in this chapter—as an Eishet Chayil. Her true character is showcased by her good actions and generous spirit.
LASHON HARA~ Gossip
We are introduced to George Wickham, that evil cur, in Chapter Fifteen when he arrives in Meryton to join the militia. He is handsome and amiable. Miss Elizabeth Bennet quickly falls for his charms. Although she prides herself for being astute and a good judge of character, Elizabeth is easy prey for Wickham’s mean-spirted insinuations and outright lies.
Mr. Wickham was therefore at leisure to talk to Elizabeth, and she was very willing to hear him, though what she chiefly wished to hear she could not hope to be told—the history of his acquaintance with Mr. Darcy.
It is not until Chapter Thirty-six, when Elizabeth is presented with a letter from Mr. Darcy, that she comes to terms with her error in judgement. Had she behaved according to the precepts of her faith, her upbringing, and her own good sense, Elizabeth would have refrained from participating in such idle gossip.
She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.
In allowing herself to listen to Wickham’s diatribe against Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth all-too eagerly solidified her poor impression of an innocent man. And in doing so, Elizabeth causes needless distress to herself, Mr. Darcy, to her family, and to Meryton at large. Shortly after, George Wickham’s evil nature is exposed for all to see when he steals away with Lydia Bennet, the youngest sister. Elizabeth suffers cruelly for the part she played in her family’s undoing, not to mention her own broken heart. Again, I say, this speaks to how much Austen’s Judeo-Christian upbringing influenced her work.
In our tradition, we are commanded to remember how siblings, Miriam and Aaron, listened to gossip about Moses’ private affairs with his wife… “And God heard.” Miriam was considered the instigator of the incident and was severely punished with Zora’at—leprosy. When you take into consideration that brother and sister spoke to Moses privately and apparently with his best interests at heart, it is clear that the sin of lashon hara is grave, indeed. Mr. Wickham and Elizabeth spoke behind Mr. Darcy’s back. A worse affront, to be sure. Elizabeth’s penalty was not of biblical proportions; nevertheless, Austen’s message comes through all the same.
ZELOPHEHAD and his FIVE DAUGHTERS
Several years ago, a clever man suggested that the film, Fiddler on the Roof, shares common themes with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In his blog, Robert Lockard brings up the similarities in between the Mother/Father relationship, rejecting a marriage proposal, forbidden love, soul mates, and losing one’s home. Needless to say, the author also mentions that the Bennets have five daughters, as do Tevye and his wife. I’m willing to take it one step further. Could Austen have been thinking of Zelophehad and his five daughters when she plotted out her storyline?
In Numbers 27, we are introduced to a family of five sisters: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah. As their father, Zelophehad, has died, the women are dependent on marriage to secure their future. Just as we see in the Bennet household with regard to the entail of Longbourn, these sisters may not inherit their father’s land. But here is where the two stories differ. Unlike the Bennets, these sisters speak up! They take their claim to Moses, who refers the question to God. And He says:
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them
Of course, if Austen followed the suggestion found in her bible, her plot would have lost its arc. Mr. Darcy— and his ten thousand a year— would have been superfluous! Perish the thought! I still hold fast to my hypothesis and will continue with my examination of Judaic themes in Austen’s novels; only now, I will offer up my own work as an example.
LECH LECHA~ Go forth or Go towards yourself
In my book Celestial Persuasion, Abigail Isaacs finds herself at a crossroads. With few alternatives before her, Abigail chooses to heed her brother’s wishes and leaves home and hearth to make her way to a strange and distant land. I can’t help but connect this with the message that was given to Abram.
Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”
In researching this parsha (this section), I was drawn to a Kabbalistic interpretation of these famous words. Go from your land, becomes Go from your will—set aside your plans, your limited views of what you can become. From your birthplace, is understood to mean, walk away from your emotional self—which, as often is the case, is the product of one’s environment. From your father’s house, refers to the intellect or that which has the authority over one’s feelings and behavior. This interpretation fits my protagonist to a T.
Abigail Isaacs is a woman torn. She had set her eyes on a certain path and dedicated herself to fulfilling that one goal. In the process, Abigail closed the door on love, on the possibility of being hurt, of making mistakes. Tucked away in her observatory, she was safe. She set hard boundaries and felt secure. When her brother seemingly speaks to her from beyond the celestial veil, Abigail—much like Abram—is challenged to go forth and to become what she was always meant to be. I only can add that I hope you pick up a copy of the book and see how the story unfolds.
That’s all for today, my friends, but stay tuned. Next time, we’ll take a look at Emma.
Today, I am happy to welcome Shirley Reva Vernick to the blog.
Vernick is the author of four novels. The Blood Lie is an American Library Association Best Fiction for Young Readers pick and a Sydney Taylor Book Award honoree. Remember Dippy won the Dolly Gray Literature Award from the Council for Exceptional Children. The Black Butterfly is a Junior Library Guild selection.
She is a graduate of Cornell University and an alumna of the Radcliffe Writing Seminars. When not creating stories, she mentors incarcerated individuals with their writing via the Prisoner Express program.
Shirley! That last bit is intriguing all on its own! I am certain that we could spend an hour just talking about your work with the Prisoner Express program. What a mitzvah! But today, we’re here to chat about something altogether different and I’m excited to get started. Let’s begin, shall we? Tell us about your upcoming project.
Guest: Thanks for your warm welcome, Mirta! I’m a big fan of your work, and I’m delighted to be here today. My new upper-MG/early-YA novel is Ripped Away (Regal House Publishing, February 8, 2022). This story is based on the experiences of Jewish immigrants to London during the Jack the Ripper spree, when xenophobia ran high.
In Ripped Away, a fortune teller reveals that classmates Abe and Mitzy may be able to save someone’s life…and then she sweeps them to the slums of Victorian London in the middle of the Jack the Ripper spree. To get back home, they’ll have to figure out how the fortune teller’s prophecy is connected to one of history’s most notorious criminal cases. They’ll also have to survive the outpouring of hate toward Jewish refugees that the Ripper murders triggered.
My purpose in writing Ripped Away is to illuminate this episode in history, as well as to inspire readers to contemplate possible responses to intolerance. National Jewish Book Award-winning author Anne Blankman calls Ripped Away “an engrossing adventure. From the moment Abe and Mitzy are swept back in time to the infamous Jack the Ripper, readers will clamor to find out what happens next.”
Host: I applaud your efforts and motivation for writing this book. Why do you think Jewish Historical Fiction is an important, stand-alone genre?
Guest: Jewish history is incredibly rich—the people, places, philosophies, and so much more. This history is is important not just for contemporary Jews, but for the world, because Jews and their millennia-long experiences have been formative to modern sensibilities, science, ethics, politics, you name it. I believe that Jewish Historical Fiction allows meaningful access to these elements. It also inspires substantive conversations and cross-cultural understanding.
Host: That is very well said. Our history is so much more than what we normally find in school books, novels, and film. Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?
Guest: Yes, the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. I still go back and reread his timeless tales.
Host: One of Singer’s quotes states: “The greatness of art is not to find what is common but what is unique.” What did you discover that was unique, while researching Jack the Ripper and the Jewish community in the Victorian era? Were you moved or surprised by your findings?
Guest: Yes and yes! I was anguished to learn that London’s Jewish refugees, who had endured such hardship in Eastern Europe (think pogroms), finally got to a place that seemed reasonably safe, only to have the antisemitic attacks happen all over again. I was sadly surprised to learn that the city of London engaged in the antisemitic hysteria—for instance, examining the knives at kosher slaughterhouses.
Host: In researching your book, I found some interesting information on the protagonists. You state that these modern-day youngsters, Abe and Mitzy, are learning to deal with “formative issues” such as acceptance, hate, sacrifice, crushes, and the meaning of friendship. Can you pick a favorite amongst these two? Which of your characters resonate with you most?
Guest: It’s hard to pick a favorite “child”! But if pressed, I would say that Abe resonates with me most. He is a social outsider in the way I often felt as a youngster, the nerdy, unathletic, insecure kind. The kind who wants friends but doesn’t quite know how to go about it. And, of course, he’s a writer.
Host: I understand being an outsider! My grandparents were among the Russian Jewish immigrants in Argentina during the riots and pogroms of January 1919—the so-called “Tragic Week.” Because of hateful rumors and insinuations, immigrant communities were attacked—none more so than the rusos.
In Ripped Away, you showcase how rumors about Jack the Ripper spread throughout London and how the Jewish community was implicated out of pure antisemitism. In today’s society, what with the advent of social media, rumors and false information are running rampant. Young people, in particular, are targeted. Their ability to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions seems to diminish while they spend countless hours scrolling online. How do Abe and Mitzy fare in Victorian London, where word of mouth spreads propaganda and false truths?
Guest: Abe, Mitzy and their new families must brave the police searches, riots and vitriol triggered by the antisemitic lies in Victorian London. I sometimes wonder whether they would have fared better or worse if social media had been available then. On the one hand, false propaganda can spread much more quickly and pervasively online. On the other hand, I’d like to believe that the voice of reason, of truth, might also be heard faster and more broadly with modern technology.
Host: Your bio is impressive, Shirley. How long have you been writing? When did you first consider yourself an author?
Guest: As a preschooler, I used to scribble on a scrap of paper and ask my mother what I’d written. Genius that she was, she read back “my” pithy prose or imagery-rich poetry. I figured, hey, I’m a writer already! Yes, I began early.
Host: One never knows when the writing bug will bite! I want to thank you once again for stopping by today. Tell us, where can we learn more about you and your work?
Guest: Thank you, Mirta! I really enjoyed this conversation and your thoughtful questions. Here are relevant links:
The High Holidays are upon us. In a few days, we will gather to hear the shofar blow. We will contemplate the year we are leaving behind (Baruch Hashem!) and the year that is unfolding. May it be a sweet and healthy new year for all!
Today, I have been busy baking challah— punching out air bubbles from the soft dough, smoothing the edges, and rolling out long ropes that will form the traditional crown for Rosh Hashanah. Baking my own challah is a new talent I’ve incorporated into my repertoire (thank you @JamieGeller). I’m more known for my sweet brisket and potato knishes. I also am proud of my honey lekach and apple strudel. So many traditions! My parents were not “religious,” but they passed down enough yiddishkeyt to impress upon me the importance of staying connected to our roots.
My heritage—like so many of us—is a mishmash of cultures. My grandparents were children when they immigrated from Imperial Russia to Argentina. And like so many other rusos, their food, their music, and their prayers were influenced by the local community. But these Argentine Jews were resilient! Their impact on society can’t be denied. Their influence is still felt today.
So, what is yiddishkeyt? Look up the word on the Internet. The first definition is simply: “Jewishness.” To me, the word is about the phenomenon of taking something ordinary or commonplace and incorporating a bit Jewish quality or custom into the mix. OK, so now you ask: what does porteño mean? This refers to a person from the port city of Buenos Aires, but it also can be a local tradition or cultural way of doing things. I could also write about doing a gauchada or making something criollo, but that’s another post. The point is that immigrants from various nations brought their ingenuity to their new country. For example, Italian food has long dominated Argentine cuisine. Another Italian creation is fileteado, an art form that has become synonymous with Buenos Aires (see example below). Suffice it to say that Argentines crave their Argentinismos, just like Jews crave yiddishkeit. The rusos took their Ashkenazi faith, culture, literature, theater, and film, gave them a local flair, and yiddishkeyt porteño was born!
Immigrants fleeing pogroms and persecution arrived to their new country and were soon expected to assimilate to their adoptive land. They learned to drink mate and to sing the songs of the pampas.
They were taught Argentine history and the national anthem. And when they slowly began to acclimate, these Jewish gauchos built schools, hospitals and charitable organizations. They printed newspapers, wrote novels, and staged theatrical performances.
They learned to sow wheat and corn and sunflowers too —it reminded them of their homeland. And for their efforts, they reaped doctors, lawyers, teachers and philosophers. They watched their children grow strong amongst the fertile land and new-found freedom, and waved them off as they left the inner provinces for Buenos Aires.
As I separate a piece of challah and say the appropriate prayers, it fills me with a sense of connection and a sense of peace. I think of those that came before me and know that I stand on the shoulders of some remarkable people. My ancestors brought knishes and kugel and sweet wine to make kiddush on the pampas. They wished their neighbors a gut shabbos and buen provecho. I wish you the same as well. Until next time…
It’s been a while since I’ve posted an author’s interview. I’m excited to spend some time with this powerhouse, Valerie Estelle Frankel. She has has won a Dream Realm Award, an Indie Excellence Award, and a USA Book News National Best Book Award for her Henry Potter parodies. Frankel has written over 80 books on pop culture, including Hunting for Meaning in The Mandalorian; Inside the Captain Marvel Film; Star Wars Meets the Eras of Feminism; and Who Tells Your Story? History, Pop Culture, and Hidden Meanings in the Musical Phenomenon Hamilton.
Many of her books focus on women’s roles in fiction, from her heroine’s journey guides From Girl to Goddess and Buffy and the Heroine’s Journey to books like Superheroines and the Epic Journey and The Many Faces of Katniss Everdeen. Her Chelm for the Holidays (2019) was a PJ Library book, and now she’s the editor of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, publishing an academic series for Lexington Press. Once a lecturer at San Jose State University, she now teaches at Mission College and San Jose City College and speaks often at conferences. You can explore her research at http://www.vefrankel.com
Impressed yet? I know I am! Let’s get on with the interview. It is sure to be fascinating!
Host: Welcome to my blog, Valerie. I am so happy to get to know you.
Guest: Hi, thrilled to be here. We need more Jewish book sites—there’s so much amazing fiction and scholarship out there!
Host: I couldn’t agree more! A few years ago, I dabbled in writing a bit of Jewish Historical Fantasy with Becoming Malka. By incorporating a mythical (and mystical) tarot card, I transported my modern-day protagonist to Imperial Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. And in my latest novel, a Jewish Historical Romance entitled Celestial Persuasion, I introduced Judaism’s ancient connection with Astronomy and Astrology. Why do you think it is important to emphasis the Jewish factor in these genres?
Guest: Jewish history is quite distinct from the history of the local country. Sadly, the main reason is that of pogroms and other persecution (I’m reminded of the moment in The Big Bang Theory in which actress Mayim Bialik tells the cute goy girl that it’s actually not an adorable story that she and her Jewish fiancé come from neighboring Polish villages). I think every Jew I’ve met identifies as Ashkenazi or Sephardic before having ancestry from a particular country (Israel being the exception here). You can really see it in the languages, the food, the culture beyond the religion.
Host: In the introduction of your latest book, Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1945, you state that “Science has always been linked to Judaism.” What do you find so intriguing about this subject matter?
Guest: I see so many people insisting they have to choose—that total faith in God means ignoring science, facts, reality itself. One thing I’ve always about Judaism is that such blind denial isn’t required. We’re a religion that invites argument, debate, even protest. And you mentioned the astronomy and astrology (at the time a legitimate science, so it goes)—exactly! While the Arab world is known for mathematics and early science, Jews also heavily participated in medicine, invention, and translation, especially partnered with them in the Golden Age of Spain.
Of course, the other fascinating, largely unknown story (if we fast-forward all the way to 1920s America) is that science fiction as we know it was really created by Jews. After Frankenstein, the genre was popularized by Verne and Wells, and then authors like Robert E. Howard, but they were all writing pulps—a focus on adventure in which the science didn’t have to be even a little plausible. Hugo Gernsback, a Jewish-Belgian immigrant in New York, started the first real science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, which emphasized the plausible inventions being developed all around him. In fact, his electronics-based short story called “Ralph 124C 41+,” predicted microfilm, vending machines, tape recorders, synthetic fibers, the jukebox, the television, satellites, and spaceflight and even included a blueprint for radar. His authors, many young Jewish New Yorkers, spun off to edit more magazines. They also founded the first fan clubs, fan zines, and conventions. And the first inter-fandom battles, but that’s another story…
Host: Did they invent superheroes too?
Guest: There was a lot of crossover. The brand-new industries of American film, science fiction, and comic books all were willing to hire Jews, at a time when most “serious” professions weren’t. So Jews started working in them all, and, along with Sci-Fi and the comic book itself, invented almost all the well-known superheroes. Superman and Captain America were fighting Hitler on front covers. Likewise, Batman (plus Catwoman, Joker, Robin and the rest), Sheena, Black Canary, and Green Lantern were all invented by Jews—everyone but Wonder Woman. (All the Avengers, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Black Panther were invented by Jews as well, but not for a few more decades.) Overt Judaism was rare, but they were all fighting for social justice.
Host: The idea that these Jewish artists were crafting stories based on our history and experiences is riveting. It has always appeared to me that, here in America, we tend to focus on two narratives: The Holocaust and Fiddler on the Roof-type themes. There is so much more to discuss! For example, I have always been curious to learn about the lives of medieval Jews. What has your research taught you about Jewish customs and traditions during these times relative to your subject matter?
Guest: I know what you mean! Publishers are out there begging for diverse Jewish stories about the modern experience. Or history besides 1939 and 1492. One fascinating area few have heard of is that the Khazars, Turkish horsemen living between the eastern Crimea and the northern Caucasus, converted as an entire country to Judaism. From 650 to 965 CE, the Khazars balanced life between the Byzantine Empire and the Arabic lands as mighty warriors who wrote in Hebrew and followed rabbinic beliefs.
There are a few history books as one might expect. But there’s also an Indiana-Jonesstyle lost world novel–The Wind of the Khazars by Marek Halter—and a Michael Chabon sword and, er, sword (not any sorcery that I recall) novel called Gentlemen of the Road. The Book of Esther is alt-history as it sets the Khazar empire in the 1940s and sends a young warrior woman out to save her people. Most fascinating was Yugoslavian author Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, which tells a postmodern triple story from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives. Dreams, folktales, and letter-magic are woven in to give it a magical realism flavor too. So that’s just one moment in history that fantasy writers have decided to share in so many colorful ways.
Host: Magical realism seems to play an important role in Jewish literature. Is that different from Fantasy?
Guest: Well, there’s the culture—European-American fantasy generally has a big reason magic works—you have to cross over to Oz, or the wizards have been hiding at Hogwarts, or we’re in the ancient past of Middle-Earth, or you find a magic ring or leprechaun (or a magic tallit in the lovely children’s book The Blue Thread). It’s a shocking moment. By contrast, in magical realism, a woman starts crying and then cries so hard the house is flooded and they have to move—magic is treated as everyday and dealt with practically. It’s largely seen in South America and Israel (who have developed their own flavor of fantasy) but some European countries have it too. It’s often marketed as general fiction in America.
Host: The Wizard of Oz isn’t considered a Jewish story per se, or is it?
Guest: Hmm. There, I’ve got nothing (it is a very American Midwestern fantasy, arguably based on politics of the time). I know the composer of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” was Jewish, and I’ve seen Jewish analysis of the tune and message. Lots of Jews blend the story into their Purim shpiel and the heroine of The Devil’s Arithmetic film tells the story in the camps. Oh, and now I’ve looked up The Secret Jewish History of the Wizard of Oz (ah, Forward…), it adds that in the film the lion was doing Borsht Belt shtick and they had a few more of those comedians lined up for the wizard. So there we go. I still like Mel Brooks’ version in Spaceballs.
Host: I once heard—and was surprised to find— the J.R.R. Tolkien based his elves on the Jewish people and even incorporated stories from the midrashim into his narrative. I believe you speak to this in your chapter on British fantasy. I found that to be very interesting, as Tolkien is not, himself, Jewish. While doing your research for this book, what most moved you? Did anything come as a surprise?
Guest: The Khazars were cool (okay, they’ll be in Book Two I think). The biggest thing was what a huge genre this is. I’ve written a LOT of analysis (80 books worth) on Buffy, Star Wars, Hamilton, Game of Thrones, that stuff. I thought it would be fun to discuss Jewish themes in Sci-Fi and talk about my favorite authors like Peter S. Beagle and Jane Yolen. I imagined I’d pop this book out like the others in a month or two. Now it’s been years and the project is currently about 500,000 words (or in laypeople’s terms, 5 books) and it’s spun off into multiple anthologies and books by other authors too. Oh, and I’ve been made an editor of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy for Lexington Press in order to make a home for this colossal thing. At this point, this, not the TV stuff or the heroine’s journey, may end up being my legacy.
When I started, I was surprised no one had written such a book, just some essays and an excellent bibliography. Now I know why…
Host: There is some controversy surrounding the Khazars. I’d be interested to see your take on the history in Book Two! Looking again at the introduction of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy through 1945, I was happy to see that you dedicated some time to discuss Latin America. When my eyes spotted the word, Argentina, I was immediately drawn in! As I was born there, Jewish Argentina is a passion of mine. Tell us what you learned, for example, about Borges, the Sephardim and kabbalah.
Guest: Borges, like Tolkien, was an admirer of Jews and wrote about them respectfully in his fiction. The questioning of religion was a real draw for him, a skeptic. Also, he thought of Jews and Latin Americans both as people of dual cultures forced to find balance. He was fascinated with kabbalah, and most of his stories have some kind of self-referential writing on the power of words and language. Short stories “The Secret Miracle,” “Baruch Spinoza,” “The Golem,” and “Death and the Compass” all address Judaism. “The Library of Babel” and “The God’s Script” were also fascinating.
South American Judaism doesn’t get a lot of press (until lately— Professor Ilan Stavans in particular is filling the shelves with collected fiction and scholarship). A few famously were the conversos who fled Spain. However, the waves of Ashkenazi immigration to the US in the late nineteenth century were paralleled in South America, and of course by the thirties, Jews were heading anywhere that would take them in. Consequently, there’s Jewish immigrant fiction that blends folklore of the old country and the new to make something unique. I’ve been searching up all the available collections…and really enjoying the treasure hunt side of all this.
Host: I consider myself a Trekkie—maybe not as knowledgeable as most devotees, but still a great fan. Mr. Spock, that venerated Vulcan, seemed to mirror Judaic philosophies and traditions. His “Live Long and Prosper” greeting, accompanied by the famous hand gesture, had us all kvelling! The traditional Vulcan response is to say, “Peace and Long Life.” It sounds very much like saying: ShalomAlecheim (Peace be Upon you) with its response: Alecheim Shalom (Unto you Peace).
It is fun to see one’s culture incorporated in literature and other media. How else has Judaism interacted with Science Fiction and Fantasy in the modern age?
Guest: Oh yeah, when people at parties ask me, “So what is Jewish science fiction,” I just give the Vulcan salute. Even non-fans get that one. And did you know that when Nimoy directed Star Trek III, he modeled Vulcan on Israel? (Star Trek, likewise, will be in Book Two. But there’s quite a lot to say about it.)
When I think of TV and the big franchises, I think of overt Jewish themes vs tokenism. Characters like Willow on Buffy identify as Jewish but never do anything with it. More recently, the Arrowverse has a few characters of that type. There’s also the “golem episode” in many shows, which features guest Jewish characters but doesn’t affect the big plot.
By contrast, Babylon 5 has Lt. Commander Ivanova sit shiva with Theodore Bikel and light Hannukah candles in a symbolic moment. And Neil Gaiman wrote an episode based on the eruv concept. Another fascinating one is the big metaphor behind Doctor Who—a bookish, pacifist wanderer exiled from his home, created by a Jewish immigrant. Another series more about a Jewish outlook than Jewish characters is the original Twilight Zone—which was condemning Nazis in a decade when America just didn’t want to discuss them. And yes, Rod Serling was Jewish. In subtly Jewish-flavored YA, Shadowhunters and Shadow & Bone just became TV shows. Of course, for the most Jewish-fantasy TV ever, check out the Israeli vampire show Juda, which fully explores all the theology and how the magic would fit into Jewish law and practice. There you can really feel the big questions.
Host: Are you working on Book Two now?
Guest: Oof, two, three, and four (maybe five) at once. Plus editing some anthologies of scholarly essays on Jewish SF (and I still have room! Everyone, contact me if you want to write one!) And editing others’ books for the series (one all about Goliath adaptations is coming next). And when I told Kar-Ben, the Jewish kiddie publisher who did my Chelm for the Holidays chapter book, about all this, they suggested I write a kiddie scifi story for each holiday. So I’m hoping that collection will come out soon too. Also my book on The Villain’s Journey will be out in September—which has nothing to do with any of this. And an academic anthology on Bridgerton. Phew. Clearly, I keep busy. I also teach.
Host: I am flabbergasted at the amount of work you put out! And as a fan of Regency, your academic anthology on Bridgerton caught my eye. That series has also sparked some controversy, especially in Jane Austen fandom. Valerie, thanks so much for stopping by today and sharing your passion. What would you recommend for fans of Jewish science fiction?
Guest: Thank you too—this has been great. As for the message, read! With Own Voices children’s and YA books I’ve been seeing a lot as Jews are encouraged to share their backgrounds. There’s so much great stuff—the bibliography has more than I ever would have guessed. (At the end of the bibliography is a video of a panel I did on Jewish SF, by the way, if you’d like specific recommendations). And if you’d like to contact me, I’m happy to chat about all this. Finally, to add the gratuitous author plug, all my books are on Amazon. Happy Jewish adventuring!