Jblog Book Club

A place for discussing interesting books, including those on Judaism, parenting, and general fiction and non-fiction.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Interview with author of Seven Blessings

From the premier issue of Kallah Magazine fall 2005.

Interview between Kallah Magazine’s editor, Ariella Brown, and Ruchama King Feuerman, author of the book, Seven Blessings.

AB: Your book is published by St. Martin's Press. Did you have a secular audience in mind in writing your book?

RKF: Yes, the audience I had in mind was secular Jews. It was an artistic and spiritual challenge – could I make the religious world -- my world -- accessible and compelling to unaffiliated Jews. For a religious novelist, it’s a gossamer thin line, what to reveal, what to conceal, what’s the fine balance between reverence and irreverence, the artist and the yid. I wanted real flesh and blood characters, both lovable and hateful characters with a yetzer hara and a yetzer tov, the complexity that is our due. Much of the secular fiction I’d read about religious Jews only knew how to capture the yetzer hara.

AB: Why did you select people hovering about middle age as your central characters?

RKF: As people get older, the need to take stock intensifies. A younger person can always change the channel. A single 39-year-old is more likely to face his or her character issues.

AB: I saw one review of your book describe your artist character as "arrogant." Do you find the adjective apt for him? In my reading, I thought your portrayal was more sympathetic to that character. I found him to be a victim of always seeing himself from the outside in both his choice of yeshiva and of women, but you seem to hold out some hope for him.

RKF: I initially hated Binyamin, the artist, with his incessant demand for physical perfection in a wife. Then I realized I had made him into a stick figure. I had to keep writing until I arrived at a point of connection and could give him the dimensions he deserved. He’s arrogant and he is a victim – of his own shtick. It’s not so much that he feels an outsider, but that he needs a beautiful woman or the right yeshiva as a prop to his fragile self. I was surprised by how many women I knew liked him, though more found him comic and contemptible.

AB: When the matchmakers (who are predominantly women) collude to blacklist a particularly inflexible character, are you playing out a fantasy of female power over the male who usually gets to hold the cards in the shidduch business, or is there a real basis for this episode?

RKF: Yes, there is a basis. An old roommate told me about a guy who kept turning away great young women, always citing some minor reason. Finally, the matchmaker came up with someone who met his entire list of qualifications. They dated, he agreed she fit the bill, and yet he still said no. At that point the matchmaker contacted all the other matchmakers in his circle, and together they refused to set him up. After a few months, he called the young woman he’d rejected, they dated some more, and got married. I never forgot that story. It may have taken place somewhere in Canada, but I can’t vouch for it.

AB: Does the book suggest there is a redemptive power to lingerie?

RKF: For my character Beth who tends to be constipated and overly-analytical, there is something redemptive and liberating about her buying lingerie. It’s no accident that soon after she meets her mate.

As an aside, I found it sad and hilarious how many secular people were shocked to discover that religious women wear lingerie. What should we wear, sackcloth?

AB: In a wedding scene, the bride's choice to position herself with the women in her life implies that sisterhood is more central than the marriage bond. What is your view on this?

RKF: I didn’t intend it that way. In the final scene, Beth walks toward the chuppah, holding all the women’s hands who literally had a hand in her life. She calls out: “You’re all getting married with me.” As one, the women walk forward. I was trying to convey that Beth, who fears she’ll lose her identity when she marries, is reassuring or strengthening herself by taking all her experiences and friendships and relationships with her into marriage. It’s not a disintegration but an incorporation of different aspects of her self. I also wanted to suggest that every wedding contains the hopes of the people who yearn to get married, and a chance for the already wedded to get married again to their spouses on a deeper, more vital level. Hence all the poignancy at a wedding, the yearning and the joy. Every bride’s chuppah is our chuppah too.

But you bring up a great point. We all know women who feel more bound to their gender (girlfriends, mother, sister) than to their own spouse. Marriage may be seen as a betrayal of other ties. Love is always an act of rebellion, and then we try to take it back. We’re always going back and forth between sister/parent/friend/spouse/Gd.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Welcome to Heavenly Heights

"Welcome to Heavenly Heights" is my most recent foray into my massive collection of J-fiction. This freshman novel by Rise Miller concentrates on Building 4 in a West Bank settlement called, what else? Heavenly Heights.

While there are a myriad of characters...so many that sometimes it's really hard to remember who is doing what and who is married to whom, in my opinion...her central character is Tovah who during the first few chapters, moves from her comfortably middle class neighborhood in New Jersey to an apartment in Building 4 in Heavenly Heights.

Overall, the novel draws a very vivid picture, although sometimes with some fuzzy edges, of what life in Israel is like for a new olah like Tovah. Her struggles with learning Hebrew and then actually using it in daily life are well portrayed as is the material struggle - going from a land of plenty and availability to one where things aren't so plentiful and sometimes not even accessible.

The family settles into an apartment filled with other olim - all with varying degrees of issues and baggage. All come from America where they are used to open space and their OWN space and having to live so closely together in Building 4 causes some ruffled feathers although the author tends to gloss over this...assuming it's a given, I think.

I found her transitions to be difficult and as noted on amazon.com, sometimes her timeline changes are awkward and hard to follow. Her characters seem to be immaturely developed and warranting of longer forays into their stories and issues which Tovah, her main character, sometimes, at best, is merely an observer.

Miller talks about the families, a few of the children and the building manager in depth but true to the title, we never really get "out" of Heavenly Heights...and there is no discussion about WHERE Heavenly Heights IS and how that relates to the experiences of the olim and how they feel about their new lives.

Still, I enjoyed the book and felt after I read it that I had a better idea of what it is like to be an olah. I learned some new words ("spongia") and despite all of the tension, I did enjoy the relationships (however underdeveloped) between the women of Building 4.

I would recommend this book but prepare to be left feeling a little disappointed.