Posts Tagged ‘Jewish fiction’

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.

The Seder Table: A Short Story

March 29, 2015

A few weeks ago, I had a short story about Passover published in the J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for Northern California. Because this is Passover week, I figured I’d share it with you here. One of my goals when I set out to write it was to fit the tight 800-word limit of the J’s fiction section. Happy Passover!

The Seder Table

By Ilana DeBare

Normally she would be thrilled to have the twins flying home at the last minute for seder, but this year Robin wanted to bar the door. She reached for the big silver platter that had been in her family since the 1800s and attacked it with her square of chamois like a siege army. She didn’t want Jen and Maia leaving school, a vicious reminder of all that was wrong, like her friends’ solicitous phone calls asking if they could make the matzah balls this year, or the fatigue that set in around noon, or the goddamned bald head in the mirror.

Robin set the big silver platter aside, shiny as a new morning, and reached for the ceramic seder plate. It was a junky piece of kitsch, but it was her kitsch. She’d bought it in the Old City on her junior year abroad and used it every Passover since then. It had been through ramshackle seders on the living room floor in group households when she was single, seders that careened on fast-forward when everyone had squirming toddlers, decades of seders in which friends arrived with new husbands and then no husbands and then second husbands.

Robin was wiping down the plate when her cell rang. Dan. Checking in on her, no doubt. Which was sweet and considerate and loving and made her even more furious.

“Everything’s fine,” she answered curtly. “I’m doing the platters.”

“Well, hi-it’s-nice-to-hear-from-you too.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve just got my hands full. I can’t talk now.”

“No prob. How are you feeling?”

“Fine.”

“Tired?”

“No.”

“Do you want–”

“I said I was fine. Look, sweetie, just get the girls at the airport, okay?”

When she reached to return the phone to her purse, a wave of exhaustion nearly brought her to her knees. Pacing. She had learned to pace herself in this new, hopefully-temporary metabolism. In past years, she tore through seder preparations in three intense days. Now, like a taffy pull without the sweetness, Robin had stretched those three days of work into a week. She had graciously agreed to let friends make the desserts and the charoset; she had even condescended to order the gefilte fish from a deli. All she had to do today – all – was polish the silver and glassware. Of course she could handle that.

After a nap.

It was four in the afternoon when Robin woke. She had never been a napper, and she planned on rejoining the ranks of the joyously, obliviously non-napping sometime soon. This round of chemo was working. The doctors were uniformly encouraging. Next Passover she would make the gefilte fish again. To hell with “next year in Jerusalem”; next year in normalcy would be just fine with her.

Robin reached for some crystal wine glasses that had belonged to her mother. Like everything else, they were dusty. She grasped multiple stems in each hand, like squawking chickens held upside-down by their feet, and padded toward the sink. And then it happened – who knew why, just a click of the front door like any other day, Dan arriving with the girls, but it spooked her and she twitched and the flock of crystal chickens flew out of her hands and smashed on the floor.

My mother’s crystal; what will she say? she thought, and then She can’t say anything, she’s been dead for 15 years, and then At least it wasn’t my seder plate and then Oh God, why do they have to see me this way because tears were running down her face and she had slumped onto the floor amidst the shattered glass.

“Mom!” called Jen, and they were suddenly around her, hugging her, so eager to make it all right. But it would not be all right, Robin knew, even if the chemo worked and her hair grew back and the gefilte fish swam back to her stove. If not this, it would be something else – the stroke that took her mother, the “female problems” that took her grandmother. It felt like only yesterday that she was triumphantly bargaining a few shekels off the price of an already-dirt-cheap seder plate, yesterday that she was inhaling sweet talcum powder from plump baby bodies. But the girls were grown; their childhood was gone; her own youth was even longer gone; and now her mother’s crystal was gone too. It was just a matter of time until all that remained of their cherished lives would be brittle heirlooms on someone else’s seder table.

Robin reached one arm around each girl. “Careful,” she managed to say. “The glass. Don’t cut yourself.” But what she was thinking was: We are always leaving Egypt, Pharoah’s chariots are always at our heels, and there will never be enough time for the matzah to rise.        

J “First Edition” – a new source for Jewish fiction & poetry

June 2, 2012

Consider this a birth announcement, of a literary sort —

J, the weekly Jewish newspaper for the Bay Area, has just launched a new monthly literary section!

The first week of each month, J will feature original poetry and fiction by northern California Jewish writers, as well as book reviews. The inaugural “First Edition” section came out this week, with a poem by Elizabeth Rosner called “Sixty-five Years Past Liberation” and an excerpt from Ellen Ullman’s novel By Blood.

Poetry submissions are being edited by Joan Gelfand, a terrific Bay Area poet and teacher and a former editor at Zeek. Fiction submissions are being edited by… yours truly.

Incorporating fiction and poetry into the J is something I’d been thinking about ever since I joined J’s board two years ago. When Sue Fishkoff came on board as J’s new Editor last fall, she turned out to have similar ideas… The goal is to inspire readers with Jewish-themed poetry and fiction, showcase the best new works by Jewish writers, and nurture an active Bay Area Jewish writing community.

It’s a win-win for everyone. J gets to reach out to readers who may identify culturally as Jewish but aren’t part of the “organized” Jewish community; while goodness knows writers are in need of places to showcase their work in this era of dwindling bookstores; and readers get good stuff to read.

Want to follow the section every month? You can sign up for a free weekly email from the J, which will include a link to the online literary pieces. Click here for the e-newsletter.

Or subscribe to the print paper. Support local Jewish journalism and writing! J offers a free four-week trial subscription to people in the Bay Area; click here.

Know anyone who might have work to submit? Contributors must identify as Jewish and live in northern California. Work can be previously unpublished, soon-to-be-published or recently published. Fiction submissions must include some kind of Jewish content — characters, or setting, or themes etc. For fiction, we’re seeking very short excerpts of 750-800 words for the print edition and a longer version of up to 2,500 words for our web site. Send poetry submissions to poetry@jweekly.com, and fiction to prose@jweekly.com.