Letter from the Lecture Circuit: Homecoming, by the Book
The author set out to write a story about characters she loved. The literary award the novel won brought her more connections than she had ever imagined.
April 2006: A woman walks into an Illinois synagogue carrying a Dunkin Donuts coffee. Suddenly, she sees, charging at her with the power of the Chicago Bears defense, five or six beautifully dressed ladies.
“Nooooooo!” they cry, “get that outside before the rabbi sees it!” The woman dimly understands, as the ladies sweep her to the stoop, that she’s done something wrong.
“What is it?” she asks.
“That,” one of her hosts replies, pointing at the cup of coffee.
The woman is confused. She’s the speaker at the synagogue’s Pesah luncheon, and she can’t think, let alone talk, without coffee. She surrenders it nonetheless.
After the luncheon, the woman calls her agent to report that the event went splendidly. “Except one thing,” she says, and describes the coffee incident. “What did I do?”
Her French Jewish agent answers tartly, “Your coffee was not kosher [for Passover], Madame.”
The woman in this story was me. That’s how ignorant I was of Jewish custom when my novel, Those Who Save Us, won the Harold U. Ribalow Prize for Jewish fiction and catapulted me, unprepared, into a community half-mine by blood—but from which I had been disconnected for decades.
I never expected to win the ribalow, hadassah magazine’s award for Jewish fiction. For one thing, Those Who Save Us (Harcourt) is about Germans: a mother making terrible sacrifices during World War II to protect herself and her half-Jewish daughter; then the daughter, 50 years later, figuring out what her mother did.
Also, though I had grand delusions—picturing what scene from the movie would be shown at the Oscars, practicing my Oprahinterview—I wrote the novel for a humbler reason: because I had to. I was in love with my characters and their stories, and my fondest dream was that somehow, someday, somebody would actually read it.
Miraculously, many somebodies have. In October 2007, Those Who Save Us jumped onto The New York Times paperback best-seller list, where it has since enjoyed a steady tenancy; on its initial appearance, my agent purred, “All my colleagues want to know how my author got her book onto the list three years after its release in paperback. What is the secret?”
The secret is fantastic readers, so many of them Hadassah, Jewish community center and synagogue sisterhood members. These readers, thanks to the Ribalow, found and saved Those Who Save Us. These readers—primarily women—are the machers. They’ve passed the novel from hand to hand, mother to daughter, book club to book club. And I couldn’t be more grateful.
When you write a book, you hope you’re giving something to the world. But you don’t anticipate how your book might give back to you. The effect of winning the Ribalow was a startling and beautiful gift—reconnection to the Jewish community.
I wasn’t raised jewish. I wasn’t raised, well, anything. My mom is a nonpracticing Lutheran; my dad’s Jewish family observed by not buying German cars. “Religion is the cause of history’s worst persecutions,” my dad loved to proclaim. In third grade, proud of being bi-religious, I marched home and announced, “Dad, we played with a dreidl today.” My dad smiled. “That’s great, Cookie,” he said. “What’s a dreidl?”
My Jewish education came from my dad’s parents, and it consisted of a) food, my grandmother’s rugelach and halla, and b) more food—the lox, tongue and kosher pickles my grandfather and his lawyer buddies ate, kvetching meanwhile about the fatal danger such salty fare posed to their blood pressure. From my grandfather, I also learned about Jewish philanthropies, such as the Jewish Society for the Deaf, and many extremely useful words: shmuck, shlemiel, shnorr, shvitz and shtupp.
That was the sum of my Judaism. Decades later, my dad and his parents gone, I felt remarkably unqualified, even frightened, to reenter the Jewish world as my novel’s ambassador, especially being part-German. What gave me the chutzpa to do it was that the Jewish world had opened its arms to me once before.
In the 1990s, my mom and I traveled to Germany to research her background; during that trip, the idea for Those Who Save Us was born. On our return, I began reading about the Holocaust: survivor testimonies, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, even a cheery little book called Who’s Who in Nazi Germany. When, in 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation called for interviewers, my mom encouraged me to apply. I wasn’t sure I should, having no survivors in my family, but she was right. I auditioned and received the profound honor of interviewing Jewish survivors.
I don’t know who was more nervous during my first pre-interview, me or the survivor. The Polish rabbi’s daughter, opening her door to me, a squinty blond girl, asked, “You’re Jewish?” “Um,” I said, awash with the guilty-imposter feeling. “Half?” I told her the dreidl story, and she sighed over my dad’s response. “Come,” she said, and showed me her grandfather’s talis, which had survived his murder by the Nazis. She took the talis from its glass case and I held it, reverently. In every survivor’s home, I learned something about Judaism. And while recalling their horrific memories, their concern was for my welfare: “You’re too skinny,” they said. “Eat.”
So i knew about jewish generosity from the survivors who welcomed me into their homes. But once my work ended, I lost the connection to my Jewish half. Until Those Who Save Us won the Ribalow. Then I started speaking at Jewish venues from coast to coast. And I started learning more about the culture—and myself.
I learned that the women of Seattle Hadassah cook you fabulous dinners and take you shopping at Macy’s.
I learned to love the sound of the prayer before breaking bread.
I met a female rabbi for the first time and quizzed her about her upcoming bachelorette party.
I joined Chicago Hadassah onstage at a Passover luncheon; when an audience member asked, “Are you a member?” I said, “I am now!”
I learned that at every Hadassah event I’ll be asked, “Are you single?” When I reply I have a boyfriend, the next question is, “Is he Jewish?” And when I admit he isn’t, the answer is, “Feh!” and I get to see many photographs of handsome and accomplished Jewish sons.
At a sisterhood signing, I saw a woman who, with her beautiful smile, coiled hair and polished-stone necklace, so resembled my Jewish grandma, I choked up. She touched my cheek to make me feel better.
And at a Massachusetts book club, I confessed to my lifelong sense of not belonging, neither among my mom’s German-Norwegian folks because I am half-Jewish nor my dad’s Jewish people because I’m part German. “The Nazis would’ve called me aMischling,” I said. “Half-breed.”
“We know how you feel,” said one woman; many of the ladies there were also half-and-half. We discussed how strange it was to straddle worlds; how our Jewish grandparents had shed Orthodoxy and substituted culture for observance. Like mine, these women’s families revered opera, ballet, philanthropy and art. Jewish food stood in for religion. We laughed like crazy when we discovered we all had kasha instead of Stove Top stuffing for Thanksgiving.
Yet, the most resonant and challenging moments of reconnection for me stemmed from a question I was asked in the summer of 2006 on Nantucket. I had been imported to speak following an Oneg Shabbat. Since there’s no synagogue on the island, we gathered in a 19th-century church basement. There was no air conditioning; the gentlemen, my boyfriend among them, shvitzed bravely and without complaining in suit jackets and yarmulkes.
I talked about Those Who Save Us, its genesis, my background. Then a sweet-faced woman asked, “How did writing your novel bring you closer to Judaism?”
The following moments were a speaker’s nightmare. I froze. My boyfriend nodded, sweat rolling down his temples. Tell the truth, he meant.
I wanted to say, “I’m now an observant Jew.” But the right answer is always the true one. So I said, “I consider myself spiritual, if not religious. When you’re not taught religion in childhood, you take longer to find adult belief. It’s an intensely personal journey, and I’m about a 14th of the way along.”
The listeners nodded. I heard my dad saying, “Mazel tov, Cookie.”
Fall 2006, the Berkshires: I had just been asked the same question at a Jewish federation event, had given the same answer and was happily signing books when a lovely septuagenarian woman smiled down at me.
“Mazel tov on your success and on what you said about your Judaism,” she said, beaming. “Listen: It’s not what you do one day a week that counts. It’s how you act all seven.”
“Thank you,” I said, tears coming to my eyes. “Thank you so much.”
She squeezed my hand, and I felt I had come home.
Jenna Blum’s novel is still on The New York Times best-seller list. Her Web site is www.jennablum.com.