Sixteen years ago, after picking up the gauntlet my husband threw down ( “Stop kvetching about wanting to be a published writer; sit down and write a book” ), I began my first mystery and followed the conventional wisdom: Write what you know.
In my case, that was Orthodox Judaism. Like my parents, Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States when I was a toddler, I have been Orthodox throughout my life. I observe laws and enjoy rituals that are second nature to me but may appear exotic and restrictive to most, and I grapple with the challenges of balancing my faith and my career. I wanted to share my world with readers–Jewish and non-Jewish; those who identify with Orthodox Judaism or may be familiar with it; others who know little or nothing about it and may have misconceptions based on stereotypes in books or in film. I wanted to write about my world within the framework of a mystery, because mysteries have been my passion for as long as I can remember.
The mystery that I sat down to write, which I called The Get, deals with an Orthodox Jewish woman whose controlling husband won’t give her a get, the Jewish divorce without which she can never remarry. I sent the unagented manuscript to several publishing houses and received enough rejection letters to paper a small room. Most of the letters complimented my writing and the story and contained variations of the same phrase: The book was tough to sell “in this crowded marketplace.” With each rejection I wondered whether the marketplace was tougher because of the subject matter. Was my mystery, as the stand-up comedian Jackie Mason says in one of his routines, too Jewish?
That concern was probably at the back of my mind when I wrote my suspense novel, Where’s Mommy Now?. No Jewish themes, no Jewish characters, not a blintz or lox-and-bagel in sight. (Well, there was a psychologist whom I subconsciously named for my guidance counselor at the Jewish women’s college I attended. I didn’t realize it until a friend pointed it out years later.) My agent sold the book. Several weeks after it was published, an Avon editor phoned to tell me she loved Where’s Mommy and wanted to know whether I had written anything else. “Anything else” was The Get, which Avon published as Till Death Do Us Part.
G-d or my agent didn’t want me to have a swelled head, and a few weeks after I received the contract for Till Death, my agent forwarded a rejection letter from another publisher. That editor loved the book, too, but wondered whether there was a large enough readership for a story about an Orthodox Jewish woman whose husband won’t give her a Jewish divorce.
So I was back to worrying, which I do well. Maybe that explains why in Nowhere To Run, the suspense novel I wrote after Till Death, there are no Jewish characters. And why in the first Jessie Drake mystery, Fair Game, Jessie, my LAPD homicide detective, isn’t Jewish.
I was playing it safe.
As it turned out, Jessie was Jewish. She just didn’t know it. Neither did I, until the second book in the series, Angel of Death. I learned only a chapter or so before Jessie that her abusive mother, Frances, was Jewish, and that Frances’s parents, desperate to save her from the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Nazis who had invaded Poland, had left her for safekeeping with Polish gentiles in whose home the cycle of abuse began. In spite of Frances’s warning that there is nothing romantic about being Jewish-or possibly because of it–Jessie is intent on exploring her newly discovered heritage, and in the next three books she takes the reader with her on her spiritual journey.
But Jessie is an outsider, an observer, part of the larger, non-Jewish world. In a way I was still playing it safe. Then along came Molly Blume, a true crime writer and freelance tabloid journalist who writes a weekly Crime Sheet column. Molly was probably in my head for a long time, waiting for me to be comfortable enough to let her out. She is Orthodox Jewish, as are her parents and six siblings and most of the people she knows. And though she strayed from Orthodox observance for a few years, and her skirts and sleeves are shorter than Orthodox law dictates, in Blues in the Night she becomes romantically involved with the high school hunk who dumped her–and is now a rabbi. (“I don’t date rabbis,” she tells her mother in the opening chapter, but this rabbi won’t take no for an answer.) In constructing Molly’s background, I wanted to give her a wholesome family life and spiritual values to buffer the grimness of the victims and crimes she reads about and sometimes investigates. I also gave her a widowed grandmother, Bubbie G, a Holocaust survivor who shares Molly’s love of mysteries and imparts Yiddish humor and wisdom that Molly passes on to the reader. Some of these Yiddish jokes and proverbs come from my memory and from family members. Some come from books that I’ve added to my collection. One of my favorites is “Der emess is a kricher.” Truth is a slowpoke.
I think that applies to my life as well.
When I began writing mysteries, like Jessie’s mother, I was hiding my identity, though not as dramatically. I recall the first time I was invited to a dinner hosted by a group for which I was speaking. I ordered a fruit plate-“No cottage cheese, please, no dressing.” When the event organizers inquired about my choice, I told them I was on a special diet. I was reluctant to reveal that I kept kosher. I felt uncomfortable. I had lived a highly sheltered life for over forty years. I was the daughter of Holocaust survivors who had learned to be cautious about their faith and observance.
Two years, two books, and several mystery conventions later, I no longer felt uncomfortable telling people that I keep kosher, or explaining to bookstore owners that I couldn’t do events on Friday nights or Saturdays or certain Jewish holidays because I observe the Sabbath. I came out of the Orthodox Jewish closet, and I have been treated with great respect, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity.
There are challenges in balancing faith and career. I wasn’t able to attend a mystery convention in Toronto last year because it fell on Sukkot, and I won’t be going to the convention in Baltimore next year because it will take place on Rosh Hashanah. When I do attend weekend conventions, I have to make arrangements for kosher food, a refrigerator, a low floor. I have to figure out how to work around the electronic door keys, and to determine, with a rabbi’s advice, which Shabbat panels I can and can’t attend. But those are the mechanics of observance. The true challenge is sustaining the spirit of Shabbat in an environment that is antithetical to the meaning of the day. And while I’ve missed conventions and promotional opportunities because of my religious observance and have felt some disappointment, ultimately those missed opportunities ground me. I tend to be compulsive about my career, and I need a reminder now and then that being a writer is part of my identity, but not all of it, that life is about setting priorities, making choices.
I also face challenges in writing about Orthodox Judaism. How do I impart tradition without overwhelming plot and character? How much do I assume that my reader knows about Judaism? How much Yiddish or Hebrew should I include?
How do I allow my protagonist to be true to the religious principles that govern her daily activities and shape her views about people and life without making her so removed that readers won’t identify with her? A police detective who is contemplating keeping the Sabbath? (I learned that there’s an organization of Shabbat-observant police in New York.) “A thirty-four-year-old virgin?” my non-observant Jewish agent asked with skepticism when she read the proposal for my legal thriller. An engaged couple who aren’t intimate? (One reviewer said: “Readers who can overcome their skepticism will be surprised and charmed by the restraint in Orthodox Jewish dating. Apparently, the couple don’t and won’t-until they will say ‘I do.’ )
The good news, for me, is that the editor who worried that there wouldn’t be a readership for a mystery about an Orthodox Jewish protagonist was wrong. I receive countless letters and e-mails from Jewish and non-Jewish readers around the world who are fascinated by Jessie’s journey and want to know where she’s headed, readers who identify with Molly and enjoy spending time with her and learning about Jewish traditions.
I’m gratified, but not surprised. Readers, I have found, are eager to explore different cultures and different worlds.
Hollywood can take a lesson.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.