As a writer of Jewish Regency Romance and Jewish Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF), I can relate with the desire of wanting representation of my culture in a period piece; but my need goes as far as introducing new characters into Austen’s world. For me, it is enough to envision the diversity in the background, such as with the introduction of Rabbi and Mrs. Meyerson in The Meyersons of Meryton—or in the forefront with Miss Abigail Isaacs and Lieutenant Gabay taking the lead roles in Celestial Persuasion. Some would argue that Austen’s worldview was restricted and insular—that she never met a Jew—and that I’m missing the point.
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In a letter dated December 17, 1816, Jane Austen describes her work to her sister, Cassandra, as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” Is it possible that even the author doubted her talent? In my view, Austen was very much present and interested in the world. She was well read and acquainted with the work of her contemporaries, however, Jane Austen transcended these novels that so often demanded and preached by creating her own nuanced style. It is precisely her iconic wit and sardonic commentary of society that is quintessential Austen.
Austen’s contributions have been so widely adopted and adapted by other authors, it can be easy to forget how groundbreaking her work really was.”
Elizabeth Wilder, Stanford University
In a thesis presented at Leiden University, it is postulated that “Austen’s notion of realism stems from the detailed portrayals of her characters’ emotions and the social environment of the landed gentry.” This paper goes on to address what we Janeites already knew. Jane Austen was well aware of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, socio-economic, and socio-political issues. The issues of the day were a given—she didn’t need to beleaguer the point. Austen provided just enough of a backdrop for her audience to lose themselves in the fiction, yet feel completely ensconced in realistic scenarios.
Jane Austen may have lived a relatively quiet life as a parson’s daughter, but she was not without culture. She enjoyed books, plays, and operas written by foreign artists and compatriots alike. In fact, much has been written regarding a certain German author and his influence on Austen’s work. August von Kotzebue was tremendously popular during the Regency era. Over 170 editions of his plays were published, translated, and performed throughout Britain. While living in Bath, Jane attended a performance of one of his plays, Die Versöhnung (The Birthday) on June 19, 1799. It is very possible that she returned to watch another performance of the same play at the Bath Theatre Royal on May 21, 1803.
The Austen family had been keen exponents of amateur drama, and Jane herself was a discerning theatergoer.”
Joan Rees, author of Jane Austen: Woman and Writer
We don’t know what Austen thought of these performances; however, there is evidence that the play influenced her writing—specifically with Emma and Mansfield Park. Readers will recall that while the patriarch, Sir Thomas, is away from home, the Bertrams and Crawfords decide to try their hand at an amateur theatrical. They settle on the lascivious, Lovers’ Vows—an adaptation of Kotzebue’s Das Kind der Liebe.
Austen doesn’t specify the play’s author (or translator in this case) in her book. Just as she has done in other works, Austen trusts her audience is enlightened and up to speed on current trends. However, by using Kotzebue’s play as a plot device—with its open flirtation and seduction—Austen cleverly address the changing social mores (or lack thereof) in British culture. She also proves that she was in touch with the world around her and not “imprisoned in her wretched conventions of English society.”
For my purposes, I prefer to leave Austen’s characters as she would have imagined them in her own mind’s eye and add my cultural influence to the periphery. There were Jews in England in Austen’s day and they lived in various social spheres throughout the land. By not imposing this fact or truism upon beloved, fictional characters, I hope to follow Austen’s example. I’m simply adding another layer of dimension in the Regency world.
Just as Austen looked to Kotzebue for inspiration, I have looked to others to emulate. One such author was not Jane’s contemporary. Kate Emanuel was born to a family of German immigrants. Her grandfather had been a merchant and a goldsmith; however, by the time of Kate’s birth in 1844, the family was well established in Portsmouth and well known within the Jewish community. At the age of seventeen, Kate was a Sunday School teacher and devoted much of her free time to reading and writing.
It has been suggested that Kate delayed getting married—afraid that she wouldn’t be afforded the opportunity to write. Does that remind you of someone? Unlike Jane Austen, however, Kate was fortunate in her choice. She married her second cousin, Philip Magnus in 1870; and happily, her fears were unfounded. Her husband’s position as a teacher and rabbi at West London Synagogue allowed Kate the time, energy, and focus to become successful in her own right. She published The Outlines of Jewish History in 1880 and later Jewish Portraits, a series of essays on Heinrich Heine, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and Moses Mendelssohn, amongst other subjects. In 1886, Philip was elevated to the peerage for his work in reforming national educational policy and the couple’s place among society was secured.
Lady Magnus speaks in the easy, cultured persona of the educated upper-class Englishwoman, often using irony and sarcasm…”
Cynthia Scheinberg, literary scholar
Again, I am reminded of that “other” British authoress. And much like Jane Austen, Kate Magnus did not underestimate her audience. She wrote as she saw, but didn’t impose her understanding of contemporary issues on others.
In 1906, The Jewish Encyclopedia compiled a list of over three hundred British citizens who, from 1700 on, “distinguished themselves in service, the arts and sciences, government, finance, and education.” Among these are fifteen women writers, including Kate Emanuel, Lady Magnus.
In dedication to her works, her son, Laurie, wrote: “Readers of Lady Magnus’s books, who knew the author, will know how steadfastly she practiced many of the virtues which she praised in the heroes of her religion. All her lifelong, she never omitted to spread the white cloth and light the candles in honor of Sabbath. From the beginning, her life and her writing were proudly Jewish.”
Austen and Magnus: two women who continue to influence my writing with their wit and understanding of the world. Who knows? Perhaps—”after a bit of labour”—I will find that my “bit of ivory” will also produce some effect.” Stay tuned and we shall see!
The Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) has launched a new podcast entitled, “Nice Jewish Books.” A leading authority on Judaica librarianship, this AJL series focuses on adult Jewish fiction.
Host, Sheryl Stahl is the director of the Frances-Henry Library on the Jack H. Skirball campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is an avid reader herself; and after serving the AJL in various capacities, she has now taken on the role of Podcaster. Stahl’s background comes into play as she interacts with authors and provides a platform to discuss their work. The premise for the show is to talk about Jewish literature, although her preference is not to include books based on war, political thrillers or Holocaust-related works. That, of course, was what drew my attention! Here— at long last— was a place to discuss my passion for Jewish historical fiction.
Do me a favor, won’t you?
Make yourself a nice cup of tea and tune in!
I am honored and delighted to announce that I was a guest author on the program. Please follow the link and listen in. Leave a comment on the website for Sheryl and the AJL community of readers and bibliophiles. I’d be so proud to know you stopped by. Happy reading (and listening)!
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!
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!
This is a monthly event, bringing together those who cover Jewish literature online to “meet, read, and comment on each other’s posts.” Organized by the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL), the Carnival is hosted by a different participant’s site on the 15th of every month.
As you can see, I have prepared a lovely tea to celebrate the occasion. Join me, won’t you?
This month on gilagreenwrites, Gila interviews author Sharon Kirsch on her new book The Smallest Objective. According to Kirsch, the book is categorized as a memoir but it is a “hybrid of genres.”
This month, I will have the great honor of hosting the Jewish Book Carnival on this site. If you are not familiar with the event, let me tell you a little bit about it. Each month, a host welcomes links and posts from a myriad of other bloggers who are promoting works of Jewish content. It is an incredible format that allows us to share in rich and varied topics ranging from Children’s literature to Adult fiction and everything in between.
Barbara and I met like many people do these days; that is to say, we met online. In preparing for the Carnival, Barbara contributed a link (don’t forget to visit this site on April 15th!) and also shared some information with regard to her new book. I had the pleasure of reading her latest work; and while it is not a subject that I normally lean towards, it is an important topic and is sure to have a long-lasting impact. Without further ado, please join me in welcoming today’s guest, Barbara Krasner~ author, blogger, and historian extraordinaire!
Host: Barbara, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book. I found the format unique and unexpected. It pulled on my heartstrings; but more importantly, it brings up a subject that often is neglected. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop now and allow you to tell the audience about your newest release.
Guest: Thanks, Mirta, for having me. I’m always interested in talking about Jewish historical fiction! My new book, 37 Days at Sea: Aboard the MS St. Louis, 1939, is a middle-grade novel in verse. It’s the story of twelve-year-old Ruthie Arons, traveling with her parents and nearly 1,000 other German-Jewish refugees bound for Cuba. But the ship is not allowed to land, and the captain receives orders to return the ship to Germany. Ruthie and her friend, Wolfie, take action to help minimize the despair.
Host: From reading your blog page, I see that you are a historian, linguist and an author. Your list of accomplishments speaks to the love for your heritage and dedication to your craft. Tell us what intrigued you about this particular period in time?
Guest: My mother told me something about the St. Louis growing up. I decided to explore it in 2010 and read Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie’s Refuge Denied, which determined the fate the passengers after the ship landed in Antwerp in June 1939. I contacted Scott and he gave me the names of survivors who lived in the New Jersey-Pennsylvania-New York area. One by one I contacted them and interviewed them in their homes during 2010. The narrative actually started as nonfiction, then transformed to poetry for adults, then poetry for kids, ultimately fictionalized.
There are many time periods I’m interested in: Jews in early America, the mass immigration period, the postwar period (Displaced Persons). The Holocaust period, for me, takes precedence because these stories must be told to remember and honor those who perished and to keep warning the world about the loss of human rights and genocide.
Host: I understand that you are specializing in Holocaust & Genocide Studies. The scope of such a curriculum must be daunting, to say the least. Have you always been a great reader? Do you remember your first Jewish fiction that was non-Holocaust related?
Guest: I am currently a doctoral candidate in Holocaust & Genocide Studies at Gratz College outside Philadelphia. I’ve always been attracted to historical fiction even as a young reader and loved Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series about a Jewish family in the early 1900s in New York City.
Host: Yes! That was one of my childhood favorites as well. As an immigrant myself, I found it to be highly relatable in so many ways. The focus on identity, assimilation, and pride in heritage was powerful for this young Argentine Jewish girl, trying to understand her place in the world.
With regard to the MS St. Louis, and the general understanding of America’s position towards Jewish refugees at the time, I feel that the history has been downplayed to the detriment of our society. Given your professional experience in this genre, I would assume you are accustomed to the grim and the tragic aspects attributed to the subject matter. What did you learn, while doing your research, that particular affected you?
Guest: I spent days researching the St. Louis at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee headquarters in New York City as well as several days at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. I interviewed about eight survivors who had been aboard the St. Louis as kids. What struck me most was the resilience of these people. I noticed in one survivor’s home all the Judaica that hung on the walls. He said, “Hitler did not survive. We did.”
Host: That, indeed, is a poignant statement. Resilient. The word is applicable to Ruthie Arons. Her innocence, hope, and courage touched my heart. How did this character resonate with you?
Guest: Ruthie’s character is a composite of people I interviewed and then some. Writing in verse helped me better understand her character and how she would respond to situations.
Host: I found the verse format to be compelling. It painted a singular picture of the situation; and though the story is told through a child’s eyes, it is not childish. I was completely engaged. Barbara, tell us a little about some of the places you have visited and their connection to your books.
Guest: In 2008 I traveled to my grandparents’ “shtetlekh” in northeastern Poland to research a historical novel. While that manuscript is still in the drawer, standing on the same ground as my grandparents was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My grandmother’s hometown of Ostrow Mazowiecka felt like my hometown.
Host: I had a similar experience when I traveled to Argentina and visited the Jewish colonies in the pampas~ the land that adopted my Russian grandparents. I felt like a time traveler. Talk about research! I would love to hear more about this manuscript, stashed away in the drawer. Will it come out soon or are you working on something else?
Guest: I have a few projects I’m working on now that I guess one could characterize as Jewish historical fiction. Too soon to talk about them in detail, but both take place in America during the Cold War.
Host: I can relate…Stories take on a life of their own; and sometimes, books understand timing better than we do! Even so, I wish you all the best with this project and in your future endeavors. It is important work. Kol hakavod! Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to add?