Why We Write Jewish Historical Fiction
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.
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.
Stephanie 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.