Why We Write Jewish Historical Fiction

By | Jan 13, 2015
Arts & Culture, Latest
Stack of books

by Nomi Eve and Stephanie Feldman

What makes Jewish historical fiction special—as an art form, and as a conversation among Jewish writers and readers? Novelists Nomi Eve (The Family Orchard, Henna House) and Stephanie Feldman (The Angel of Losses) discuss how they came to write about the Jewish past; the importance of women’s stories; and using magical realism to understand the Jewish experience.

henna-houseNomi Eve is the author of Henna House and The Family Orchard, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award.

She has an MFA in fiction writing from Brown University and has worked as a freelance book reviewer for The Village Voice and New York Newsday. She is a MacDowell Colony fellow and currently teaches at Bryn Mawr College. Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train Stories, The Voice Literary Supplement, Conjunctions, and The International Quarterly. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.

18085491Stephanie Feldman’s debut novel The Angel of Losses explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters. NPR calls the book a “breathtakingly accomplished debut” and Barnes & Noble has named it a Discover Great New Writers selection. Stephanie is a graduate of Barnard College and lives outside Philadelphia with her family.

Stephanie Feldman: Nomi, you’ve written two historical novels about Jewish families. How did you decide that these were the stories you wanted to tell?

Nomi Eve: I knew that these were the stories I wanted to tell because no matter how hard I try to tell other stories (secular stories) I fail every time. My creative spirit is firmly anchored in Jewish history, and I’ve come to terms with this. I can’t budge the anchor, nor should I. Jewish history sustains me as a writer. It provides me with a steady diet of metaphor, which I desperately crave, and it gives me evocative landscapes through which my characters travel.

My American grandparents came to America as children fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe. They made their way in this world. When I was growing up, they had a bakery, and every Friday night our extended family gathered at the bakery for Shabbat dinner. I learned early on that the stories my family shared around my grandmother’s Shabbos table were as nourishing as the food she prepared. My father is from Israel; we spent summers living with my grandparents on their Moshav. My grandfather was an orchard man. Their house was in the middle of the orchard — lemons, oranges, grapefruit…. My cousins and I would run through the groves and then stop to help our grandfather dig up Roman-era mosaic stones from between the roots of the trees. I am who I am as a writer because of both of these heritages. The bakery and the orchard. America and Israel. I write in English, I am a student of English Literature, and I am deeply connected to Jewish history and Israeli history through personal experience and stories.

SF: I came to my novel from a different direction. I’ve always written away from my life. (Maybe I’m just contrary—that old workshop cliché “write what you know” feels so constricting!) I modeled The Angel of Losses on the old British gothic novels I studied in school—family secrets and mysterious strangers and ghosts. I quickly became fixed on the figure of the Wandering Jew, which, it turns out, is rooted in Christian myth. It bothered me that the Wandering Jew isn’t Jewish! I felt a strange responsibility to him—I wanted to “take him back,” for reasons I found difficult to articulate at the time.

Instead of mining family stories, I began in the library. I studied Jewish folklore and history and theology, all sources for my new mythic figure; when I began writing, however, I realized my story was really about a contemporary family struggling with the persistent burdens of the Jewish-European past. Identity, exile, history and memory—I hadn’t realized at first how desperately I needed to explore these very Jewish themes. I think you’re right. In the end, we don’t have much of a choice when it comes to the stories we tell.

How far back do your own family stories go?

NE: When I was growing up, my father researched our family history going back many many generations. Now I write with my father’s family tree framed above my computer. The family tree tells me that the Maharal from Prague was my ancestor, as was Rashi and many other illustrious Rabbis and scholars. But I am also related to someone named Dina from the 1500’s, and a woman named Uta, a woman named Esther, and a woman named Nechama, all from centuries past. These women have no last names and left no treatises, no exegeses, no volumes of Talmud, they are not prominent figures in Jewish history. But they are my foremothers, so it is up to me and my fellow Jewish women writers to speak for them. So I do…

SF: I’m always fascinated by Jewish families that can trace their history so far back. My ancestors came from Europe in the late 19th– and early 20th-centuries, and their history has been lost twice. The war destroyed the communities they came from and the sisters and brothers and cousins they left behind, and their own stories got lost in successive generations of assimilation.

I feel this gap looming in my personal history, and that absence inspired a lot of The Angel of Losses, too. My characters and I both use storytelling, rather than objective or evidence-based history, to understand the past. We also use magic. You can see magical realism animating the Jewish-European past in so many works by Jewish-American authors, like Judy Budnitz and Jonathan Safran Foer. I keep coming back to the idea that fantasy may be our greatest tool to understand the past—not just how our ancestors may have experienced it, but how it continues to shape our understanding of ourselves as Jews.

NE: Right now, I am deep in the woods of Belarus with Jewish partisans. Once again, I’ve followed my family tree back in time. With this novel, I am telling a story of the person I was named for, a Holocaust orphan who survived a miraculous journey across Europe and was ultimately smuggled into pre-State Israel. Like my other books, I’m inspired by family history but in no way tethered to it. Family history and Jewish history are my diving boards. I have to have my feet firmly planted before I jump off into the unknown.

SF: There are so many Holocaust stories, and yet, so many more to tell. While writing The Angel of Losses, I spent a lot of time learning about the Vilna ghetto in Lithuania. It’s a fascinating story, and offers a portrait of East European Jewish society, which was so diverse (and contentious). I felt a great responsibility to portray the ghetto, and the people in it, accurately—though as a fiction writer, I know that truth is not always the same as fact.

Right now, I’m writing about invented characters. They’re not Jewish, but they are pariahs, and I feel that same sense of responsibility. I think I can’t help but bring my Jewish sensibility—a respect for history, a sensitivity to oppression, an outsider perspective—to everything that I write. I’m grateful for it; it gives my stories, however realistic or fantastic, meaning.



5 thoughts on “Why We Write Jewish Historical Fiction

  1. Nomi Eve says:

    So excited to be in Moment with Stephanie Feldman. And I wanted to let readers know about my 100 Book Club challenge. I’ve challenged myself to meet with 100 book clubs, either via Skype or in person to chat about Henna House. I have 83 clubs signed up so far and am looking for book clubs all over the country to get me to 100. You can check out photos of my journey on my website blog (nomi-eve.com). Let’s make a date!

  2. marion cuba says:

    Marion Cuba
    I write historical fiction (Shanghai Legacy) because I “write what I do NOT know.” Growing up in the South, I learned nothing about the Jewish past from my parents because they were so conscious of our being a minority, wanting our family to assimilate. Nor did I learn anything about the Holocaust in school—probably the only freshman entering Brandeis University so lacking in knowledge.
    Maybe because of that, the Holocaust has always been a secret thorn in my heart. On a trip to China, I learned about the Germans who fled Hitler to Shanghai, the only place in the world that would take them without a visa. How could I not have known? My father was Sephardic, and the wealthy Sephardic families in Shanghai created schools and housing and sustenance, for the now-impoverished Jews.
    Once home, I researched the subject and knew I had to write about it. Specifically, I wanted to write fiction in order to personalize and, hopefully, memorialize this phenomenon. It also dovetailed with a theme that has haunted me—again, from being protected by my parents from the tragic parts of our past (though I attended synagogue, I became a bat mitzvah, was confirmed, celebrated Passover and the major Jewish holidays)—namely, how a survivor’s story affects and afflicts the next generation.
    May current project concerns another little-known chapter of the Holocaust: the internment camps in Vichy, France.
    My goal is to learn and to teach, and to try to make personal that which is a universal story.

  3. I have become fascinated with the legacy of the Holocaust in fiction of second and third generations to victims and survivors. My own novel, Even in Darkness, tells my great aunt’s story, honors the complexity of the choices that she and the priest who became so important in her life had to make, pays homage to my grandparents who lost everything and re-found everything differently, and most importantly, celebrates the legacy of reinvention that honors the past, forgets nothing but forgives much for the sake of creating meaning out of horror. I too chose fiction for the immediacy of character and narrative, and wrote my way to an understanding of the universal themes to be mined from my Jewish past.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.