Digging up history for a historical novel

April 21, 2022

How far in the past does a novel need to take place for it to be considered “historical fiction?” That question came up recently in an online writing discussion group that I follow, and the answers were both varied and revealing.

Varied: Some people suggested a fixed amount of time, such as fifty years in the past. Others suggested it simply needs to be distant enough that many readers didn’t experience the era. Still others offered specific criteria: Before cellphones, or before computers, or before the most recent war….

And revealing: For some of us, it was boggling to think that parts of our own lives—the 1960s, the ’70s, maybe even 9/11 ?—might now be shelved with historical fiction. 

Historical fiction… isn’t that Ken Follett writing about medieval cathedrals? Not me shopping for bell bottom jeans as a teenager in Greenwich Village! Am I now as antique as a Gothic cathedral?

Nothing says “historical fiction” like an 1,104-page novel about a cathedral

With the new novel I’m starting, though, there’s no question that it’s historical. It’s set in the 1600s in the Jewish communities of Europe.

And that’s requiring a level of research beyond anything I’ve done before.

My non-fiction book on U.S. girls’ schools certainly required historical research—lots of time in school archives—but nothing from before the early 1800s. All the sources were in English, and the stories took place in a world that was different from mine yet recognizable.

My forthcoming fantasy novel has characters from the deep past, such as pre-colonial Africa and the edges of the Roman Empire, but those are all secondary figures. The main character is from 21st century San Francisco: I’ve walked the streets she walks and eaten the burritos she eats. Though I had to research those other characters, I only needed enough for brief walk-ons—not enough to carry an entire book.

With this new project, I need to know 16th century life in the lands we now call Germany and Italy and Turkey. I need to know how Jews and others dressed, what their homes looked like, what they ate. I need to know how their streets smelled and sounded. I need to know how they got from one place to another.

How a Jewish woman in Istanbul might have dressed in 1574, from “Jewish Costumes in the Ottoman Empire” (published by Golem Santa Galerisi)

That last question has preoccupied me for several weeks. My character travels from Hamburg to Istanbul. But how? Does she go by land, sea, or some combination? What is her exact route? Would she have ridden in a coach or a wagon, and, if so, what did vehicles from that era look like? What did ships from that era look like? How many passengers on a merchant ship and where did they sleep? How many miles per day would her coach or ship have travelled? How did Jewish voyagers interact with Christians during their travels? And so on. 

Images of ships from a 17th century Haggadah

Yes, it’s fiction. Which means I can make everything up: There is no single right answer. But some answers are more plausible than others. I need to learn enough about travel logistics of that era to make her journey believable and historically accurate.

I don’t want to be like some 25th century writer recreating the year 2022 and saying that the heroine flew from California to Paris in an hour and a half!

The 1600s are what historians consider the “early modern era” of Europe. Because of developments like the printing press, there are more written documents available from this period than from prior centuries. But photography hadn’t yet been invented. Unlike cathedrals and palaces, few “typical” Jewish homes still exist with their 17th century form and furnishings. And while I’ve found some artistic depictions of 17th century ports and cities, they are far less numerous than, say, in the 19th century when every young painter aspired to do a Grand Tour of Europe.

So this is challenging. But it’s also a great treasure hunt. The subterranean stacks of U.C. Berkeley’s main library are one of my favorite places. I’m finding treasures such as Alfred Rubens’s oversized A History of Jewish Costume. (It weighs almost four pounds.) Or a history of coaches and carriages first published in 1877. Or a recent book by a Brown University professor on “the great Jewish refugee crisis of the 17th century.” 

A History of Jewish Costume

I slogged up the stairs from the stacks this week lugging about 15 pounds of books. (Rubens’s tome wasn’t even in that batch!) It felt like physically unearthing past centuries and raising them into the afternoon Bay Area light.

It’s strange to be writing a novel where I will spend a year or more at work before typing a single sentence of story—before I even know my character’s name—but I need to understand the backdrop in order to figure out what happens to her.

Very occasionally I wonder, What did I get myself into? But mostly I’m having a lot of fun.

Smoke and (our own private) mirrors

March 19, 2022

Today I delivered a drash (commentary) on the weekly Torah portion, which was Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 through 8:36). I won’t reprint the entire thing here, just the part I liked the most. :-)

Tzav primarily focuses on the role of the priests in carrying out sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons on where to make the sacrifices, what to wear, how to dispose of the ashes, etc.

I was struck by the repeated use of language about “turning sacrifices into smoke.” This is the phrasing the writers of Tzav use to say that an offering should be completely burned up. For instance:

“The token portion of the meal offering shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”

“The priest shall turn the (fat of the guilt offering) into smoke on the altar as an offering by fire to the Lord.” 

“Moses washed the entrails and the legs with water and turned all of the ram into smoke.”

And so on.

Not a sacrifice! Someone is cooking potatoes on a DIY stove. But it still produces smoke. Photo: Frank Benson

Now, there are so many ways one could describe what is being done with these offerings. You could simply say that Moses burned up the entire ram. Or that Moses incinerated the ram. That he turned it into ash, that he turned it into cinders, that he burned it so thoroughly that the amount left was smaller than a pebble. 

But over and over, Leviticus tells us that these offerings were “turned into smoke.”

Why this emphasis on smoke?

Thinking historically, perhaps this was another of many steps in differentiating Judaism from the surrounding religions. Many ancient religions saw gods as similar to humans in that they needed to eat, and these societies viewed sacrifices as literally feeding the gods. Judaism took a different view of God—as being above and beyond human needs such as eating— and wanted to make clear that these ritual sacrifices were not Doordash for God. The sacrifices were not food for God’s survival. Instead, they were something intangible to please and connect with God: a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”  

But I also like to think about it metaphorically, especially as it applies to the guilt and sin offerings. The fiery sacrifice turns something solid and heavy and bloody into something light and airy and (to God, at least) pleasant smelling.

Isn’t that what we’d like to have happen with our transgressions and regrets? They weigh us down, we carry them heavily… but wouldn’t it be nice if we could let them float away into the air? Through the ritual of the sacrifice, that’s what these ancient Israelites were doing. 

Candle smoke. Photo: Tigerzeng.

So, with your indulgence, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Close your eyes. Think of one thing you’ve done in the past week that you regret because it was wrong. It doesn’t have to be a big thing: In fact, it’s most likely a small thing. Were you rude to the clerk at Safeway? Did you snap at your spouse? Did you read a news story and respond with cynicism rather than open-hearted empathy? Did you share a piece of gossip that, inside, you knew you probably shouldn’t? Did you gloat over someone else’s troubles? 

Take a minute. Think of one small thing that you regret. We’re going to sit here quietly while you come up with that thing.

(wait)

Okay, now picture that small thing as a heavy block of wood. It’s hard to lift. You’ve been lugging it around all week. You don’t want it, but there it is. It’s heavy.

And now — keep those eyes closed! — envision setting that block of wood on fire. You know what you did was wrong and you’ll think twice the next time such a situation comes up. You’ll do better. The block of wood is burning and getting smaller and smaller and lighter and lighter and this thing you regret is turning into smoke. There! It’s past. It’s floating away. You’ve learned something and will do better next time. The wood is gone and the weight is gone and the smoke is dissolving into a broad blue sky.

Take a deep breath now, a full breath. You’ll do better. You’re learning, all the time. It’s never too late to learn. Your lungs fill with fresh, clean air and the smoke is no longer even visible, but God smells the smoke from your offering and, indeed, it is a pleasing odor to Adonai.

Open your eyes.

Shabbat Shalom.

Book contract!

February 1, 2022

Did you hear the shouts reverberating through your modem?

I have a publisher!

I’ve signed a contract with Hypatia Press to publish my two-book fantasy series, Shaken Loose.  

No, this is not a specifically Jewish book. But it did indirectly grow out of some of the issues we’ve explored together in this blog—such as the contradiction between a supposedly just God and a universe so full of injustice. 

This moment has been a long time coming. I started writing Shaken Loose in 2014, at which point I envisioned a single book. I began querying agents in 2017 with no luck, did several rewrites, realized it needed a sequel, queried more agents with no luck, hired a developmental editor and did more rewrites, gave up on agents, and finally moved on to small presses that allow you to submit without an agent.

Now here we are at the start of 2022, and these books finally have a home. Hypatia Press is a newish small press dedicated to “quality irreligious publishing,” which is a perfect description of Shaken Loose

This is Connecticut. Not my book. Photo: Ilana DeBare

It’s set in a dystopic afterlife—a Hell that includes both truly evil people and anyone from throughout history who was not a baptized Christian. Yep, that would include me. And billions of other folks. Maybe you? It’s more fascinating than grim as the modern, secular Bay Area protagonist encounters 4th century Hun tribesmen and Chinese revolutionaries and Jim Crow-era segregationists and, of course, Satan. 

And viewed today—as opposed to when I started writing back in 2014—it’s a relaxing, almost benign kind of dystopia! There is absolutely nothing in there about Covid or Trump or climate change. 

Maybe this is the start of a new genre: “Escapist dystopia.”  :-) 

The tentative publication date is summer 2023. Now I start a new stage of this process—marketing. I need to create an author web page, solicit promotional blurbs from other writers, develop a social media strategy, maybe start an additional blog that is more focused on fiction than this one. Not as much fun as writing the actual books, but at least I have a long lead time to work on it.

I’ll keep you posted! And at some point, probably early next year, I’d love your help in spreading the word.

MLK Jr. in Haftarah Trope

January 18, 2022

It’s no longer Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but I just found out about this YouTube video of some of Dr. King’s speeches chanted to the trope (melodies) of the Haftarah. It’s amazing!

Elise Barber chanting from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “trope” refers to the traditional melodies used to chant from the Hebrew Bible in synagogue. There’s one set of melodies for the Torah (Pentateuch), and another set for Haftarah, the weekly readings from books of the Prophets.

This video is of Massachusetts Cantor Elise Barber chanting excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches to Haftarah trope, the melodies used for the Prophets. It’s an appropriate choice because Dr. King was the embodiment of a contemporary prophet, a Micah or Isaiah for our times.

Listen to how particular phrases are paired with rises and falls of the melody to emphasize their meaning.

Within American Judaism—particular the Reform denomination within Judaism—there is a long tradition of social justice advocacy and support for the civil rights movement. I found this video moving because it musically expresses this connection, blending centuries-old Jewish liturgical chanting with Dr. King’s visionary words.

Want to see more? Here’s a link to the words of this chant, plus some background, the cantillation marks, and an audio recording by Cantor Jack Kessler, who set the phrases to trope in partnership with Rabbi Marcia Prager.

Eyewitness to the Chmielnicki Pogroms

January 17, 2022

On Saturday, while an assailant was holding Jews hostage inside a Texas synagogue, I was reading about the Chmielnicki pogroms.

Thankfully, the Texas synagogue assault ended with the safe release of the victims. And based on the limited information that’s been released so far, it seems to have been the work of a lone attacker. So I’m not comparing its details with the Chmielnicki pogroms, a 1648 uprising by decommissioned Cossack soldiers and Ukrainian peasants that killed tens of thousands of Jews.

It was just… unsettling to be reading about pogroms while Jews were being threatened with death RIGHT NOW inside a U.S. synagogue.

I’d heard mention of the Chmielnicki pogroms, the worst disaster in Jewish history between the Iberian expulsions and the Holocaust. But—like many American Jews, I suspect—I knew almost nothing about them. I was researching the pogroms as background for a potential novel set in the 1600s. But the book I was reading wasn’t a secondary source or historical work: It was a contemporary account by a rabbi who survived the pogroms, originally published in Hebrew in 1652.

It is stunning.

Abyss of Despair, by Nathan Hanover, is astonishingly readable for a work that is 370 years old. It’s only about 120 pages and straightforward in its style, almost conversational. In his summary of the history leading up to the pogroms, Hanover is surprisingly honest about the social position that Jews held in Polish-run Ukraine, and how that fed into the pogroms.

Excerpt from original manuscript of Abyss of Despair, or Yeven Metzulah / Courtesy of Wikipedia

Here’s my still-evolving understanding, based on Hanover’s book and some secondary histories:

At the time—early and mid-1600s—the kingdom of Poland extended far beyond today’s Polish borders to include much of Lithuania and the Ukraine. While there was a king, there were also many dukes and nobles who ruled chunks of territory and lived off of the labor and taxes of peasants there.

Jews were relative newcomers to Eastern Europe. Following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s, many moved to Holland and what today is Germany. But the decentralized states of Germany had their own waves of expulsions, and by 1570 Jews had been expelled from nearly every German city. Many of these exiled Jews moved east: The Jewish population of Poland/Lithuania rose from about 30,000 in 1500 to between 100,000 and 150,000 in 1575, according to European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism by Jonathan I. Israel.

Map of Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and surrounding states in 1648 / Creative Commons by Mathiasrex
Map of pogrom sites during the Chmielnicki upraising, from the Jewish Encyclopedia

The Polish kings and nobles welcomed the Jews, who filled a role of intermediaries between the nobility and the peasantry. Jews served as tax collectors for Polish noblemen and also ran estates, mills, and distilleries for them. (They also were innkeepers and engaged in crafts such as soapmaking and tanning.)

The Polish nobility tended to be Roman Catholic while the Ukraine peasantry tended to be Greek Orthodox. Hanover writes:

“King Sigismund [ruler of Poland from 1596 to 1632] raised the status of the Catholic dukes and princes above those of the Ukrainians…. and the masses that followed the Greek Orthodox Church became gradually impoverished. They were looked upon as lowly and inferior beings and became the slaves and handmaids of the Polish people and of the Jews….”

Meanwhile, the Polish king had recruited Ukrainian fighting men into a military force—called Cossacks—to guard the frontier with the Tatars, a Muslim people occupying the region of Crimea, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The Cossacks held privileges such as being exempt from taxes. But after several unsuccessful Cossack-led Ukrainian revolts, the king decommissioned tens of thousands of them—creating a powder keg of downwardly-mobile and unemployed armed men. 

A wealthy and charismatic Cossack named Chmielnicki launched another revolt against the Polish overlords in 1648. But this time there was a crucial shift in the power balance: Chmielnicki formed an alliance with Ukraine’s neighbor and traditional enemy, the Tatars. 

The rebel forces targeted Jews as well as Polish nobles and Roman Catholic priests. Hanover explains the dynamic when describing a particular Jewish man who “was the nobleman’s tax farmer, as was the customary occupation of most Jews in the kingdom of [Little] Russia. For they ruled in every part of [Little] Russia, a condition which aroused the jealousy of the peasants, and which was the cause for the massacres.”

The title of Hanover’s book in its original Hebrew was “Yeven Metzulah,” which literally translated means “Deep Mire,” a reference to Psalm 69, which says, “Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck; I am sinking into the deep mire and find no foothold.”

Most of the book is a description of one massacre after another. 

As Chmielnicki’s army advanced, Jews fled from small towns and the countryside to the fortified cities held by Polish nobles. But in one city after another, they were slaughtered. In one case, the Polish defenders of the city struck a deal to hand over the Jews to the rebels. In another, the Ukrainian rebels gained entrance by waving Polish flags and pretending to be Polish reinforcements. In yet another, Ukrainian peasants working as guards along the city walls let their countrymen ford the walls with ladders. In other cases, cities were stormed and burned. 

Hanover’s descriptions of what happened in captured towns are stark and appalling. Even if we allow that some of the atrocities were exaggerated, as often happens in war, there is still enough to horrify:

“These persons died cruel and bitter deaths. Some were skinned alive and their flesh was thrown to the dogs; some had their hands and limbs chopped off, and their bodies thrown on the highway only to be trampled by wagons and crushed by horses; some had wounds inflicted upon them, and thrown on the street to die a slow death; they writhed in their blood until their breathed their last; others were buried alive. The enemy slaughtered infants in the laps of their mothers. They were sliced into pieces like fish They slashed the bellies of pregnant women, removed their infants, and tossed them in their faces. Some women had their bellies torn open and live cats placed in them. The bellies were then sew up with the live cats remaining within. They chopped off the hands of the victims so they would not be able to remove the cats from their bellies…

“Women and young girls were ravished but some of the women and maidens jumped into the moat surrounding the fortress in order that the uncircumcised should not defile them. They drowned in the waters. Many of them who were able to swim jumped into water, believing they would escape the slaughter, but the Ukrainians swam after them with their swords and their scythes, and killed them in the water… till the water became red with the blood of the slain.”

Print of massacre of Poles by Ukrainian rebels after a 1652 battle / Wikipedia

These descriptions sound histrionic, but Hanover’s narrative is more nuanced than that. He describes rivalries among the Polish nobility that hampered them from putting down the rebellion. He notes a successful survival strategy of some Jewish communities: Letting themselves be captured by the Tatar troops, who would enslave rather than kill them. (The enslaved Jews were sold south to the Ottoman Empire, where Jewish communities in Constantinople and Venice ransomed at least some of them.) Hanover pens a dramatic narrative of the rebels’ advance over time—one city falling, news arriving at the next town, those inhabitants fleeing to the next fortified city, which in turn falls, and so on.

Really, it is worth reading. 

But what are we to make of these horrific events today, over three centuries later?

Some initial thoughts, still evolving:

The Chmielnicki pogroms are a reminder that anti-Semitism didn’t begin with the Nazis. The Holocaust was unique in its vast scale, its technology of death, and its systematic approach to wiping out Jewry, but it was one of many, many expulsions and massacres that Jews faced in Europe over the past millennium. There were multiple centuries when Jews were not allowed to live in countries like England that today we view as icons of liberal tolerance. The saga of one forced exodus after another—from Spain to Germany, from Germany to Poland, from Poland back to Germany— is sobering.

Yet the fatalistic conclusion that “everyone will always hate us, no matter what we do” is not necessarily warranted. Granted, Christian theologians and clerics vilified Jews as despicable Christ-killers for much of European history. But Hanover’s account spotlights the vulnerability of Jews’ position in the Ukraine—as the most close-at-hand and thus most easily hated representative of an oppressive, foreign overclass. The pogroms grew out of specific economic and social circumstances, not pure religious dogma.

Those 16th century Jews threw their lot in with the Polish nobles and counted on the nobles’ protection. That protection turned out to be absent or inadequate once faced with a massive peasant revolt. Jews living in the Diaspora will always be a minority, and faced with a similar choice of where to place their allegiance—the current regime? the regime’s challengers? the suffering masses? 

Would it have been wiser to ally with the masses of impoverished Ukrainians? Would it have even been possible? 

One of the founding visions of Zionism was a society where Jews would not be at the mercy of a host regime—would not be at risk of expulsion, would not be limited in their professions, would not have to be landless, powerless “middlemen” trapped between powerful nobles and angry masses. How has that worked out? That’s a complicated discussion for another day.

No answers here, just questions. I’m a novice when it comes to pre-modern Jewish history. If you’re someone with more expertise, feel free to weigh in via the comments! I welcome corrections, additions, or simply more questions. 

And in the meantime: read Abyss of Despair. (I was lucky enough to find an inexpensive used copy online.) It’s gripping, sobering, and documents a piece of history that deserves to be known and discussed.

Rachel and Leah: Rivals into Allies?

November 13, 2021

It was my turn this Shabbat to deliver a d’var Torah (commentary) after the group discussion in Temple Sinai’s weekly Torah study class. This week’s portion, Vayetzei, covers Genesis 28:10 to 32:3, but the class discussion focused only on the final third. So I chose to center my presentation on an earlier section, the rivalry between Rachel and Leah. Here it is.

Like many of the parshot in Genesis, a lot happens during Vayetzei. Jacob sets out from his family’s home in Beersheva, both to flee the anger of Esau and to find a wife from among his mother Rebecca’s family. Lying down to sleep on a rock, he dreams of a ladder or ramp to heaven with angels going up and down. In his dream, God stands beside him and blesses him, saying his descendants shall spread out to the four corners of the earth and all the families of the earth will be blessed by them. 

Jacob wakes and names the site Beth-el, House of God, which is located about ten miles north of Jerusalem, near what today is the Palestinian city of Ramallah on the West Bank. 

Jacob continues on to Haran, which is quite a long journey, up through Syria into what is today Turkey. He meets his cousin Rachel at a well, much as Abraham’s servant found Isaac’s future wife Rebecca at a well. Rachel’s father Laban agrees to let him marry Rachel if he works unpaid for seven years; then on the wedding night, Laban tricks him by substituting Rachel’s older sister Leah—a parallel with how Jacob tricked his own father by pretending to be Esau. Laban requires Jacob to work without pay for another seven years in order to marry Rachel too. 

The Torah then enters into an extended section on the two sisters’ childbearing—or lack of childbearing. Eventually Jacob decides to return home, and there is an episode of one trickster tricking another trickster, with Jacob slyly arranging to get possession of many of Laban’s sheep and goats. That gets us up to the portion of Vayetzei that we read together today in class. 

But I’m going to return to that long section about childbearing and the relationship between Leah and Rachel. 

Rachel and Leah, as imagined by 19th century English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (It looks a little more like a romanticized Renaissance England than the ancient Middle East, don’t you think?)

The Torah tells us that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. “And God saw that Leah was unloved and he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah conceives and bears one son—Reuben—then another, and another, and another— four sons in a row while Rachel can’t get pregnant. 

Both of these sisters are in deep emotional pain. 

Infertility is certainly traumatic, especially in a society like the ancient middle east where women were valued only as mothers of sons.  “Give me children, or I shall die,” Rachel pleads to Jacob in a dramatic statement of how crucial childbearing was to her.

But I felt an even deeper identification with Leah. She was married, presumably without any say in the matter, to a man who didn’t love her. When her first son is born she chooses the name Reuben, saying “It means the Lord has seen my affliction. It also means, ‘ Now my husband will love me.” But it doesn’t help. Whenher second son comes, shge says, “The Lord heard that I was unloved and has given me this one also.” And it doesn’t help. And then the third. She says, “This time my husband will become attached to me for I have borne him three sons.” And it still didn’t help.

She is doing everything in her power to win Jacob’s love —everything possible to fulfill the role expected of her, to provide healthy male heirs, everything that anyone in her world would ask of her—and it still doesn’t help. 

I imagine this desperate young woman, getting her hopes up over and over—this time it will work! this time it really will!—and each time it doesn’t. Haven’t we all been there at some time, trying so hard and yet knocked down over and over again? 

Perhaps when we were in our teens, infatuated with some boy or girl, convinced that If I wear my new red miniskirt, they’ll notice me! If I bake chocolate chip cookies, they’ll notice me! If I help them with their math homework, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, so sincerely, and of course they don’t notice.

Or perhaps at work, trying to get a promotion: If I stay until 6 pm each night, they’ll notice me! If I turn in the most thorough report ever, they’ll notice me! If I learn to play golf, they’ll notice me! Trying over and over, playing by all the rules, and of course they don’t notice. Because you’re female, or Black, or you’ll never be one of the “old boys,” or whatever…. 

In those modern scenarios, the advice is clear: Leave. Find a new crush, find a new job. But Leah, as a wife in the ancient Middle East, had no option of leaving. And the stakes for her were so much higher than a junior-high crush or a promotion. This was pregnancy and childbirth—nine months of pregnancy, hours or days of labor, things that in those days truly risked death. But none of it made Jacob love her.

So the competition went on, dragging in other parties like a world war. After Leah’s fourth son, Rachel still can’t conceive and so gives her servant—her handmaid— Bilhah to Jacob as a concubine. 

(Just an aside: The Torah has Rachel saying to Jacob, “Here is my maid Bilhah. Consort with her, that she may bear on my knees and that through her I too may have children.” Some commenters including Robert Alter say that “bearing on my knees” refers to an ancient practice of placing children on someone’s knees as a ritual of adoption. But writer Margaret Atwood chose to take this literally in her patriarchal dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale—this is the source for the horrible practice of the handmaid literally giving birth between the knees of the patriarch’s wife.)

But back to Rachel and Leah and their childbearing competition. Leah is ahead, 4 to nothing. But then Rachel’s servant Bilhah bears two sons by Jacob, and Rachel says “A fateful contest I waged with my sister, and I have prevailed.” You can imagine her doing an ancient Mesopatamian fist punch in the air. 

So Leah then gives Jacob her servant Zilpah, who bears two sons. This is starting to sound like the US-Soviet arms race. It parallels the sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, yet in some ways it is more intense and painful because both siblings were so aware of it—two women living side by side  in the same family compound for 20 years, with close-up, unavoidable views of each other’s ongoing victories and failings. 

It’s horrible to think of these two sisters in a permanent state of war. Some of the commentators seemed to think so too: There are midrashim that weave stories of empathy and solidarity between Leah and Rachel. 

One midrash from the Talmud says that Rachel knew in advance of Laban’s wedding-night trick, warned Jacob, and he came up with a way to defeat Laban’s scheme.

Jacob gave Rachel signs [so that he would be able to recognize her on their wedding night].

When Leah was brought under the wedding canopy, Rachel thought: “Now my sister will be shamed [when Jacob discovers the fraud and does not marry her].” She gave the signs to Leah.  (BT Bava Batra 123a).

According to the Rabbis, Laban would not have succeeded in deceiving Jacob without Rachel’s involvement. Rachel had to choose between her love for Jacob and her compassion for her sister, and she decided in favor of the latter. The most extreme description of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice appears in Lam. Rabbah, according to which Rachel entered under Jacob and Leah’s bed on their wedding night. When Jacob spoke with Leah, Rachel would answer him, so that he would not identify Leah’s voice (Lam. Rabbah [ed. Vilna] petihtah 24).

I would like to think that, alongside the pain of infertility or being the second-choice wife, there was also empathy and solidarity between the sisters. Like the rest of the Torah, this parshah was written by men, from stories handed down by men, and this reproductive arms race may be their outsider’s view of what was going on within the family tent while the men were away with the flocks. 

Let’s look at what happens next, after Bilhah and Zilpah have each birthed two sons and the total son count is up to eight. Reuben, Leah’s oldest son, brings her some mandrakes that he finds in the field. (Mandrakes, having a root that is bizarrely shaped like a human figure, have been imagined in many cultures to bring fertility.)

Mandrake root / Photo by Jenny Laird

Rachel asks Leah for some of the mandrakes, hoping to cure her infertility. Leah at first refuses, saying, “Was it not enough for you to take away my husband, that you would also take my son’s mandrakes?” But then Rachel promises that Leah can sleep with Jacob that evening in exchange for the mandrakes, and Leah agrees. 

Leah goes out to meet Jacob that evening and tells him. “You are to sleep with me, for I have hired you with my son’s mandrakes.”

This is a truly shocking moment. Leah is in command for once—unlike her own wedding night, she has the power here. She is commanding Jacob to sleep with her. And not just commanding him, she is saying that she hired him, like you would hire a prostitute, like you would hire an ox to plow a field.

Perhaps her grief all those years was not just at being unloved—it was at being powerless, manipulated by her father in order to get more work out of Jacob, unable to choose her own fate. Here for once she is able to take fate into her own hands and turn the tables. Jacob in effect becomes a sex object here. 

It’s not pretty, but perhaps it was satisfying or even restorative for Leah. Perhaps Rachel wanted to give her this gift of momentary power. 

We don’t know. What we do know is that, three sons later, when Jacob is ready to leave Haran, the two sisters respond in unison.

“Then Rachel and Leah answered him, saying, ‘Have we still a share in the inheritance of our father’s house? Surely he regards us as outsiders, now that he has sold us and has used up our purchase price. Truly, all the wealth that God has taken away fronm our father belongs to us and to our children. Now then, do just what God as told you.”

In current slang, we might say there’s no daylight between the two sisters here. No rivalry, no disagreement. They have long been done with their father’s manipulation and are ready to leave—together—for Jacob’s promised land.

Writering

October 26, 2021

The other day I invented a new word for what I was doing­—writering.

Of course it wasn’t really new. With the web, you can almost always find someone else who has already done something similar to whatever you’re doing.

But it was new to me. Coming up with it made me happy. So there! 

Writering refers to all the ancillary work that writers have to do that is NOT writing. That could include book research, updating one’s web site, querying agents or publishers, printing business cards, commenting on a friend’s work-in-progress, or even taking all those scrunched-up photocopy receipts out of one’s wallet and putting them in an “expenses” folder.

I just wrapped up a six-month stint back on the staff of Golden Gate Audubon, doing communications there again. (Which partly accounts for the lack of recent blog posts here.) During those six months, my novel was on hold, which was in fact a welcome and restorative break. I’d been querying literary agents without success—often getting form-letter rejections or no response whatsoever—for a book that has been under construction since mid-2014. Seven years! So it felt wonderful to be working with people who appreciated me, and equally wonderful to have finite projects like newsletters that could be started and finished in a single day.

But now it’s wonderful to get back to the book!

I’m doing some limited re-writing, but even more writering. I’m reviewing my spreadsheets of agents and small presses to figure out whom to query next. I’m researching those agents and presses, to make sure I understand what they’re looking for. I’m educating myself about alternatives such as hybrid publishing and self-publishing. I’m starting historical research for my next novel, which remains an alluring but skeletal concept.

“Did you have a good writing day?” Sam asked the other evening.

“I had a good writering day,” I said.

I like the word writering because it sounds like motoring, with its connotation of forward motion. Revving engines! Speed! Distance! Progress!  (Remember that Mini-Cooper ad campaign from a few years ago with the tag line, “Let’s motor?”)

In the driver’s seat

It’s easy to feel unproductive when I’m not actually adding new pages to a manuscript. There are few things as fulfilling as looking back at the end of a day and seeing that I’ve created two, five, or maybe even ten pages of story out of nothing. It didn’t exist, and now it exists! It’s even better when I re-read those pages and like them. I feel like I’ve earned my evening glass of wine….

A day of mucking around in spreadsheets and query letters doesn’t give that same sense of accomplishment. But hey… it’s not “mucking around,” it’s writering.

As the Mini-Cooper folks would say: Let’s writer!

Reparations in Exodus: Parshat Bo

January 24, 2021

It was my turn to give the D’var Torah (commentary on the weekly reading) for my Torah study group at Temple Sinai. This week’s parsha (portion) covered Exodus 10:1 through 13:16. The most prominent parts of Parshat Bo are the dramatic final plagues of darkness and death of the Egyptians’ first-born, and God’s instructions to Moses on how Passover is to be celebrated through the coming generations. But I chose instead to focus on a small part: The Israelites taking valuable items from the Egyptians as they prepare to flee Egypt.

One reference occurs in Exodus 11:1: 

And the Lord said unto Moses… Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharoah’s servants, and in the sight of the people. 

The other occurs slightly into next week’s reading, Parshat B’shalach, in Exodus 13:35:

And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

There is ambiguity in the Hebrew about whether the Israelites are asking to be given or to borrow all this wealth. Robert Alter and JPS translate it as “borrow,” while Soncino translates it as “ask.”  The medieval commentator Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, interpreted the word as a gift, not a loan.

The Israelites taking the Egyptians’ gold and silver, The Golden Haggadah, f. 13, 1325–1349.

Personally I prefer the translation as “ask,” since it avoids the morally uncomfortable situation of requesting to “borrow” things that were never intended to be returned. So for now let’s assume it is an ask and a gift, not borrowing or a loan.

How then should we understand the decision of the Egyptians to give so many of their valuables to the Hebrews, who until then had been slaves, the lowest of the low?

One likely motivation might have been sheer terror. The Egyptians had just suffered the ten plagues; in the final plague, their oldest sons had been killed. In fact, the Torah tells us that “the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.'” So possibly the Egyptians may have been thinking, “Here, take whatever you want, take everything, just get out the Hell of here before your God does something even worse to us.”

Yet the verses talk about the Israelites finding favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, which seems to be something positive rather than the negative motivation of terror. It implies a relationship of friendship between at least some Egyptians and some Israelites: “every man ask of his neighbor and every woman ask of her neighbor.” It implies a relationship where they lived close to each other: I imagine a Jewish woman crossing her yard to borrow salt or olive oil from the Egyptian woman next door, or an Egyptian man knocking on the door of his Jewish friend for help patching a hole in the roof. 

In this case, perhaps the valuables were given out of personal affection, the way many of us would chip in to help a neighbor whose house had just burned down. Yet that personal connection doesn’t quite seem to cover this situation, since so many Egyptians gave so much—not just blankets or food or even an extra donkey or two, but vast amounts of gold and silver. 

So perhaps the valuable were given because of something broader than personal friendship. The verses talk about Moses being “very great” in the eyes of Pharoah’s advisers and the Egyptian people. That leads me to picture a person with the status of a Martin Luther King Jr., a Nelson Mandela, or a Mahatma Gandhi—a liberator of the oppressed whose integrity, perseverance, and eloquence won the respect even of many who had benefitted from that oppression. The verses talk about “the people finding favor” with the Egyptians, which could imply that the Egyptians understood the Israelites’ collective suffering as slaves and wanted to help them as a group, not just as an individual helping out a neighbor.

Which bring us to the modern-day issue of reparations for slavery and oppression. Could we view the Egyptians’ donations of valuables as a form of reparations for 400 years of unpaid servitude?

There’s a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91A) that indirectly supports such a view.

This story says that in the time of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians summoned the Israelites before Alexander, demanding that they repay the gold and silver that the Israelites had “borrowed” when they fled Egypt many centuries earlier. The sages granted a prominent Jew named Gebiah ben Pesisa permission to advocate for the people of Israel.

Gebiah asked the Egyptians what the evidence was for their claim, and the Egyptians answered that the Torah itself provided their evidence. 

Gebiah responded that he would also bring evidence from the Torah in Israel’s defense. He quoted the sections that talk about the Hebrews’ 430 years of enslavement, and how they left Egypt with 600,000 men, and he demanded back wages from the Egyptians for 600,000 men working for 430 years—which would have been a staggering amount of money.

Alexander turned to the Egyptians for a proper answer. The Egyptians said they’d respond in three days but couldn’t find a satisfactory answer and fled.

Today we as Americans have an opportunity to address the damage caused by 401 years of slavery and its aftermath of systemic racism. The first African slaves were brought here in 1619. Their forced labor didn’t just make individual white landowners rich; they provided the basis for the cotton and textile industry that built and underpinned the economy of our young country. In that sense, we all benefited, even if our ancestors never set foot in the south or owned a slave. 

The abolition of slavery in 1863 didn’t end the inequality and exploitation of Black Americans. Jim Crow laws in the south and discriminatory policies and culture in the north meant that whites have had unfair advantages throughout the past century, up through the present day. 

Many of us who are Jews of European descent have traditionally taken moral comfort in thinking, “My ancestors were poor immigrants who came here in 1880, or 1920, or 1950. I never benefited from slavery or racism.” But in fact, white Jews—even those who came as poor immigrants to the tenements of the Lower East Side—HAVE benefited from what journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes in her recent book as a caste system. 

Because blacks were defined as the “other”—the lowest caste—European Jewish immigrants could define themselves as white. Yes, we faced anti-Semitism but we could also fit under the umbrella of being white. We were allowed to join labor unions, enter elite colleges (albeit with quotas), enter professions, obtain government-backed loans and mortgages, buy homes in many (though not all) white neighborhoods. 

Our immigrant grandparents, just a week off the boat, could apply for entry-level jobs that were not open to Black Americans who had been in this country for 300 years. 

Yes, we were poor immigrants, but we were also white, which gave us privilege. It allowed our grandparents and parents to start accumulating generational wealth—owning a home, building up savings accounts, perhaps investing in stocks—that they could pass on to our generation, either directly or through financing the education that allowed us to become doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

So even if our ancestors didn’t arrive here until 1920 or 1950, we benefited from these four centuries of subjugation of Black people. We have a moral obligation to take part in repairing that damage: The word “reparations” comes from the word “repair.”

There has been so much written on this in the past few years, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic. I can’t possibly do it justice in a short commentary. If you’d like to learn more about the history of systemic racism and the idea of reparations, there are many resources including Coates’ essay, Wilkerson’s Caste, and Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law.

There was also a terrific d’var Torah on reparations in this week’s email from the Union of Reform Judaism. Or see the URJ’s 2019 statement on reparations.

Over the past four years, we watched a presidential administration try to turn back the clock on civil rights. My hope with this week’s new administration is that, instead, we can enter into a national discussion of how to repair the economic and social damage done by slavery and institutionalized racism. 

It’s not just about giving people money. It’s not about expiating guilt. The gold and silver given by the Egyptians to the freed Israelites ended up providing the building materials for the tabernacle. So those Egyptian treasures were a kind of capital used to launch a new society—they helped take the Hebrews further than they’d ever been before—beyond that single family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, beyond twelves tribes—into the creation of an actual nation with a distinct and revolutionary monotheism and culture. Those Egyptian reparations helped build a new and better society. 

Similarly, a plan for American reparations should be something that acknowledges past oppression and uses that understanding to build something new and larger and better. Something that will provide more opportunity, dignity, and security for the broad community of Black Americans, and in so doing a better and more inspiring country for white Americans too. 

Let us move from a shehecheyanu for reaching this inaugural week, to a yihi ratzon for racial justice:

May it be God’s will. 

Dreams and Stories: Parshat Vayeishev

December 14, 2020

This past weekend it was my turn to deliver the D’var Torah (commentary on Torah, like a sermon) at Temple Sinai’s Zoom Shabbat service. The weekly Torah portion covered Genesis 37:1−40:23. Here’s what I wrote.

This week we begin the saga of Joseph, whose brothers bitterly called him “the master of dreams.” This will be a drash about dreams and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. 

But this week also happens to be Chanukah, which gives us the opportunity to compare two very different set of brothers in Jewish history. 

The Maccabees were five brothers—sons of a Jewish priest—who with their father led a revolt against the Greek rulers of Judaea in the second century BCE; the success of their revolt is commemorated by Chanukah. We don’t have details about how those Maccabee brothers got along with each other. But to win a guerrilla war against such a powerful establishment they would have had to work together very well, to communicate with each other—in short to be unified.  

Joseph and his 11 brothers are a different matter. 

Rather than standing behind his father, one son, Reuben, sleeps with his father’s concubine. The sons identify themselves in factions based on their four different mothers—for instance, one verse tells us how Joseph worked as a helper “to the sons of his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.” And the brothers are in conflict with Joseph from the very start of the story, partly due to Jacob favoring Joseph.

“And when [Joseph’s] brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”

The brothers hate Joseph so much they decide to kill him—then with a slight change in plans sell him into slavery—and lie to their father about his fate.

Given a choice, of course we would all want our children to be Maccabee siblings rather than Joseph’s siblings. 

So this is another way to think about the Chanukah miracle—not just the oil burning miraculously for eight days, not just feisty farmers miraculously defeating an imperial power—but five siblings who miraculously manage to respect each other and work together and learn from each other. 

In the unhappier story of Joseph, one of the things that turns his brothers against him are two dreams that he recounts to them—one where they’re all gathering wheat, and the brothers’ sheaves bow down to Joseph’s sheaves, and the other where the sun, moon, and eleven stars bow down to him. 

“His brothers answered, ‘Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?’ And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.”

Dreams are perplexing. From the beginning of humankind, we’ve been mystified and terrified and inspired by dreams, and have struggled to understand where they come from and what they mean. 

One of the oldest ways of making sense of dreams is to view them as direct messages from a supernatural being. We see that earlier in the Torah, when we are told that God came to King Abimelech in a dream and ordered him not to marry Sarah. 

Another approach is to view dreams as portents of the future—not as direct as Abimelech’s “phone call” from God, but something that, if interpreted properly, lets you know in advance what will happen. Joseph does this kind of interpreting in Egypt when he says that Pharoah’s dream of seven fat cows followed by seven gaunt cows is a prediction of good harvests followed by famine. 

More than a century ago, Freud suggested that dreams are the upwelling of uncomfortable or taboo thoughts that we shut out from our conscious minds. 

Neuroscientists today would give us an explanation based on brain circuitry. Our Aunt Sadie might say bad dreams are a result of too many latkes and sufganiot. The Talmud suggests that a dream is 1/60th of a prophecy…. and these are just some of the different ways that people have to tried make sense of the phenomenon of dreaming. 

I’d like to go in a slightly different direction. Let’s set aside the biological or mystical reasons Joseph had those dreams, and not worry about whether they came from God or from a latke overdose. 

Let’s think about Joseph’s dreams as stories. And let’s look at the function that those dreams—or stories—played within his already-conflicted family.

Here we have a family riven by power inequity. As the late-in-life child of Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel, Joseph came into the world with an advantage over his brothers. He was Jacob’s favorite from the start, even though the others were older. Jacob showed his favoritism with the gift of that famous, beautiful, many-colored coat. You might say Joseph was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. You might say he was born with privilege.

His brothers didn’t like that. Joseph must surely have been aware of their resentment.

And so—here we are getting away from text and into speculation, but bear with me—perhaps these stories of the sheaves and the stars were intended to justify his privilege

Perhaps Joseph shared those dreams of the bowing sheaves and stars to explain why he deserved his special status within the family:

“See? Dad was right to give me that coat—Dad is right to single me out—because I’m special! These dreams say so, and dreams don’t lie!” 

Even if Joseph didn’t intend it that way, that could easily have been the message that his brothers took from those dreams. 

The dreams were stories that filled a function—rightly or wrongly—of justifying Joseph’s status as the privileged, favorite child. 

The dreams provided a rationale for injustice in the small, intimate world of Jacob’s family.

Similarly, societies create stories to rationalize their injustices. This can happen through scientific and historic myth-making—for instance, when 19th century white male scientists claimed that women and black people were naturally inferior because they supposedly had smaller skull sizes. 

Today we live in a society that, like Joseph’s family, is riven by power inequity. Whatever metric you choose—money, housing, healthy food, good medical care, job options, a sense of physical safety, connections to people who run our institutions—some people have a lot and others have very little. 

The people who have a lot often tell stories that explain why they deserve it. Like Joseph’s dream, their stories paint their privilege as part of the natural order—logical, unarguable, even just.

“I came up with a better idea.” “I’m smarter than those other guys.” “I worked my butt off, and they’re just plain lazy.” “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.” 

Parts of those stories may be true. But there’s usually more to it than that.

Most of us in this Zoom service benefit from some kind of privilege. You don’t have to be Bill Gates or live in a mansion to benefit from privilege. We can be powerful in one facet of our lives, yet vulnerable in other facets. 

For instance, as a white person I feel a sense of physical safety around police officers that many people of color wouldn’t feel. That’s privilege. Yet as a woman, I feel vulnerable walking past a construction site of cat-calling men. Powerful in one area; not so powerful in the other. 

As a child, I grew up with immense class and race privilege that I took for granted. I never noticed it because it seemed so normal to me. I had a father who earned enough money that my mother could stay home and give us huge amounts of attention. A public school that was wealthy enough to have an orchestra and lend us violins to take home! Streets that were safe and stores that welcomed our teenage browsing, even if we didn’t buy anything. Relatives who were lawyers and doctors and so made the question for me not IF I would go to college but WHERE I would go to college….

Put that all together, and I grew up with a sense that the world valued me and was safe for me. A belief that I could go out into that world and use my voice and take risks and succeed.  

That all seemed as natural as air to me, just as Jacob’s preferential love must have seemed as natural as air to Joseph.

And yet so many people don’t have all or even a part of that.

In telling the story of our own successes, honesty requires us to acknowledge our privilege—the places where we’ve benefitted from an uneven playing field. 

Jewish ethics then requires us to seek ways to even out that playing field. 

I invite you to take a minute now to think about your own life. In what ways, are you privileged? 

Have you benefited from advantages of economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation? From being part of a religious or ethnic majority? From birth order? From other kinds of privilege? 

Now consider the stories that you use to explain your own successes—to yourself, and also to others.  How honest are your stories? Do they acknowledge the role of privilege as well as personal initiative? Do your stories provide room for other people to succeed too? 

Do your stories build other people up or tear them down?

Imagine, for a moment, if Joseph had dreamed a different dream and told his brothers a different story. Say it was a story that instead of aggrandizing his own success, showed how he was connected with his brothers. That acknowledged his privilege, but showed how he could use it to elevate all of them. Perhaps:

I dreamed that twelve sheaves of wheat stood in a circle, side by side. One sheaf was taller since those stalks had received a lot more water. Its height attracted the notice of the king’s steward, who bought all twelve sheaves for a very high price and had them milled into flour for the most exquisite cakes—cakes whose recipes have been passed down through 4000 years of history.

With such a story, Joseph might not have ended up in a pit. He and his siblings might have been a family of Maccabees after all. 

Shabbat shalom.

Postcards to Georgia

November 16, 2020

Thank you for volunteering to write postcards to Georgia voters in this all-important run-off Senate election! Here are some tips for successful interactions with potential voters:

1. Address your recipient by their full name—for instance, “Dear Jane Doe.” Do not say “Ms. Doe.” Do not say “Miss Doe.” Especially do not say “Dear Peaches.”

2. Choose a generic postcard image that will appeal to all sorts of people. Pictures of kittens, American flags, or the Statue of Liberty are all good. Kittens waving American flags at the Statue of Liberty are even better. Pictures of Gone With The Wind, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, or that great Architectural Digest cover photo of your weekend home on Turks and Caicos will not work as well.

3. Include a sentence about why this election is important to YOU. Write from the heart. We repeat, write from the heart. Do NOT write from the spleen. Or the gut, the fist, the kishkes, the middle finger, or the naughty bits. Do not write, “It’s time for Mitch McConnell’s turtle face to suffer unbearable humiliation and burn in the eviscerating, pustulant, everlasting fires of Hell.”

4. No need to mention how you lost your virginity to REM in your boyfriend’s parents’ minivan.

5. Likewise, don’t reference Midnight Train to GeorgiaGeorgia on My Mind, or Sweet Georgia Brown. Georgians are sick of that sh-t.

6. Do not take sides on Nene Leakes versus Sheree Whitfield. You are not writing to them about important stuff like Real Housewives of Atlanta, just about the future of the U.S. Senate.

7. Keep in mind that not all Atlantans work for the CDC. Please do not ask for behind-the-rope-line VIP access to the Covid vaccine.

8. No threats and no bribes. No marriage proposals, Harry & David fruit boxes, bitcoin, or offers to give them a kidney. 

9. Do not ask if they know anyone with an AirB&B who could lodge you, switch their utility bills to your name, and register you to vote by December 7th.

10. Don’t try to sound southern. Your idea of southern dialect probably sounds like the misbegotten love child of William Faulkner and The Beverly Hillbillies. Y’all hear me, sugar?

11. Keep focused. When writing hundreds of postcards, it’s easy to zone out and slip into automatic pilot. You are NOT asking them to vote for Sara Gideon! Repeat to yourself: Not Sara Gideon. Not Sara Gideon.

12. Maintain an upbeat tone. Sound like a friend. That doesn’t mean you need to share how you were on anti-depressants from November 8, 2016 through November 7, 2020, even your emotional support dog was on anti-depressants, and your therapist moving to Canada didn’t help.

13. Remind them that an important holy day is coming in December. Not Christmas, not Chanukah, not Kwanzaa—December 14th, the start of early voting! The rest of the country—heck, the rest of the world—is deeply envious of Georgia and its local political consultants, TV stations, printers, and mail houses who will have a busy and happy holiday season. Don’t let us down. Voting is a muscle. Exercise it! Drop and give us twenty! Pump that ballot! Five laps around the county courthouse! 

14. End on a friendly note by signing the postcard with your first name. But not Sherman. Come to think of it, not even Herman.

Y’all hear me now, sugar? Write those postcards!