Women of the Book: Musings on Books by Orthodox Women Writers

Bridge Across Broken Time by Vera Schwarcz

Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory

Yale University Press, 1998. 232 pages. Nominated for National Jewish Book Award.

Bridge Across Broken Time, is an academic, yet poetic, personal essay on experiences of catastrophic loss. Born in Cluj, Transylvania to parents who were Holocaust survivors, Schwarcz and her family eventually moved to the US. She worked in Chinese studies and was one of the first Americans to live and study on the China mainland in 1979. Currently she is the Chair of the History Department and Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University.

Using the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Jewish Holocaust as her clinical cross cultural field, Schwarcz explores the interaction between remembrance and loss. “You can not bring back what is lost, you can only mark the place where absence reigns…through memory something endures.”

In an exploration that is personal, historical, and of clinical import, she analyzes the meaning of memory and its use in the process of healing.  Schwarz contends: “To remain alive is to be subject to the grinding force of memory.  Day and night the millstone turns, shaping the soul and softening the heart. To some, this going around and around the same subject may seem like emotional paralysis. But there is also something freeing about this attachment to remembrance. One day, one hour, one child, keeps cutting through to the present. All other days take shape around this circle of emptiness. In the end this may be memory’s main achievement: to loosen the flow of grief.”

Memory matters, she concludes. The Chinese and Jewish cultures are guardians of remembrance. “They seek to infuse the present with the light of the past.” Memory being, “the cord that attaches hope to despair.”

(reviewed by Esther Heller)

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Real Imagination

An Interview with Risa Miller (first appeared in Binah Magazine)

By Esther Heller

It was never Risa Miller’s intention to be a Bridge-Between-Cultures. She didn’t plan to represent Orthodoxy in the Secular World, or to become embroiled in the middle of a debate on Free Speech versus Defamation in the Arts. She didn’t expect to make a political statement on the Settlement Issue or the Failed Aliyah Experience. Risa wrote her award winning, critically acclaimed novel Welcome to Heavenly Heights to “tame and craft” something that came from deep within her.

Risa’s writing emerges in a specific, evolved way. She doesn’t write in a diary, rather the personal issues of her life are embedded so deeply in her fiction, that usually she herself doesn’t see many of the connections.

As an undergraduate at Goucher College in Baltimore, Risa majored in English. She came from a traditional home, where her brother at age 15 had become chozer btshuva. The year was 1965 and this was an unusual occurrence then.

“I was a frum Jew, waiting to happen,” Risa comments during a visit to Israel. While still in college, she met her husband, Hershel and they became religiously observant together, gathering their inspiration from Rabbi David Gottleib who ultimately lead them to the Grand Rabbi Levi Y. Horowitz, The Bostoner Rebbe, Shlita, After they both graduated, Hershel with his degree in philosophy from John Hopkins University, they moved to Boston and joined the Bostoner community there. Risa noticed that the Rebbe encouraged women to develop their creative and intellectual talents.

She didn’t feel at all prepared for motherhood. The first baby she ever held was her own.  Like other mothers, she worried about her children. Her imagination was so powerful however, that it often put her in a panic. Risa calls it “real imagination” and she contends that it is the real power behind fiction. “Anxiety takes on imagination. My pecakle of anxiety fuels my writing,” she explains.

The Millers busied themselves with the child rearing challenge: “The humbling experience of raising children exactly the way you weren’t raised,” comments Risa. The family moved to Israel with the intention of making aliyah. After two years of living in Har Nof, they returned to the States to visit family and take care of the aliyah paper work. Suddenly Hershel became stricken with back pain so debilitating that he was bedridden for a year. They were forced to drop their plans to return to Israel.

Although Risa adapted and adjusted, to this day she feels regret and refers to her two years in Israel as her failed aliyah. “We came to live in Israel and I felt totally at home. Every time I’m here to visit it breaks my heart. We still have boxes we haven’t unpacked from the time we lived in Israel.”

As they settled back into Boston and reentered everyday life, she found that a character kept popping into her head. She decided to take a writing course to figure out what to do with this character. The timing providentially coincided with her youngest child being ready to start nursery school.

In class she began work on her novel. She established the setting of “Heavenly Heights” as an exurb of Jerusalem, over the Green Line. “It’s not based on any real place,” she emphasizes. “Through writing, I could be in Israel anytime I wanted. I guess you could say that my goal was to recreate the punch I felt from the loss of not making aliyah. I had to work it out of my system.”

How did you find time to write?

“To write you have to either stay up late or get up early- you can’t burn the candles at both ends. I got up at 4am, wrote until 6:30, and then got my kids off to school. Then I took care of the house. I always took care that my writing did not interfere with the functioning of my household.”

She enrolled in the MFA program at Emerson College, which turned out to be “the cutting edge of artistic hip culture in all of Boston.” Risa, in her thirties at the time, sat in class with her sheitel and long sleeves, most of the students were the age of her own children; even the professors were younger than her.

She hadn’t planned on writing a literary novel about Orthodox people for a general American audience, however it evolved from her experience at Emerson. Risa discovered that the students lacked knowledge in understanding other cultures. This forced her to clarify the religious details of her novel so that a general audience would be able to understand and appreciate them.

Writing a novel, is hard work, she had to sweat it out, yet sometimes there were moments when it flowed easily, word by word. She was driving her car on the highway when the prologue to her novel suddenly came to her; she had to say it to herself over and over until she could safely pull over at a gas station and write it down.

Prologue

One thousand B.C.E., King David, sweet singer of Israel, bought the heart of Jerusalem from Aravnah the Jebusite. He paid six hundred shekels.

Three thousand years late his descendants were still protecting the investment, building settlements, facts on the ground, making demographic rings high and wide as the mountain range. Heavenly Heights was the settlement closest to the stars, the crown of the Judean ridge.

After two years of courses and a third year to finish her theses (which was a earlier draft of the novel), she completed her MFA degree. Risa didn’t know that her writing mentor Elinor Lipman nominated her for the lucrative Pen New England Discovery Award. Risa was both excited and surprised to hear that she had won.

Meanwhile, her agent was shopping her novel, and Risa felt a great deal of frustration and discouragement during that time. What frustrated her most was not that the novel wasn’t yet published, but that it was so important to her.  Why couldn’t she just accept her disappointment and go on? This perceived spiritual lack upset her more than the reality of her situation. She wondered where G-d wanted her to put her life’s energy.

It wasn’t until several years later, that she understood why it had been so important to her get her novel published. The Bostoner Rebbe asked her to do some editing work on his speech for the celebration of the seven and a half year Mishna learning cycle. She read his words on the bracha of being able to finish something. “It was like having dough that I hadn’t baked yet into bread,” she explained. “Seeing something to completion is a bracha in itself.”

The book was accepted by St. Martin’s Press. “After the book was published, I felt self conscious, I felt that I had revealed another side of me to the public,” says Risa.

“It’s a known fact that books about Israel don’t sell,” she states. Yet her book had so much distinguished approbation; (i.e. book jacket blurbs from high level people in the literary world.) as well as the Pen Award, that it couldn’t be ignored. “My book slipped under the radar screen,” Risa comments. ‘Ruchama King (author of Seven Blessings) and I are practically the only ones in North America that have.”

Author and literary critic, Wendy Shalit writes: Never before have we had a novelist like Risa Miller, who is the winner of a PEN award and also a disciple of the Bostoner Rebbe. For the first time, we have books that capture the complexity of the Orthodox world, and do it well…Miller may well have been the first woman to accept the PEN Discovery Award in a sheitel. (Wendy Shalit, “The New York Times Book Review”)

Which type of Jewish themes typically sells within mainstream American publishing?

“Negative Jewish themes and negative depictions of religious Jews. They like Jewish writers who have some sort of negative experience with frum Jews and write about it anthropologically. I’ve worried that the only look at Torah Judaism many people get is from fiction fueled by personal invective. I won’t turn my back on the One Who endowed me with talent.”

“I write about frum people who don’t have problems with being frum. My characters have human issues. Health, their kids, their goals in life.

Risa was invited to participate in a joint Hadassah International and Brandies University program in Palm Beach that featured Jewish authors. “During the sessions these philanthropic, committed women plied me with questions on what it was like to be Orthodox and whether it fettered my imagination.”

When they made the popular assumption that Orthodox writers are restricted in what they are permitted to write about, to their determent as writers, Risa asked the women to suppose they themselves were writers. Would any of them write publicly about all aspects of their parents, children, husbands? The women demurred; of course they wouldn’t write everything about their personal lives. Then they understood the point that it is natural, and not criminal, to edit imaginative material for personal, emotional or moral reasons.

Risa has come full circle. She teaches fiction writing at Emerson College, where she once was a student.

Has the book changed your life?

“It was a huge accomplishment, but in the context of my family life, it was just a side bar.

I don’t have a full-blown identity as someone who wrote that book. In my everyday life and to my family, there is no difference.”

There has been a great change in her professional identity, however. She has become a writer-in- residence, travels, and has been on book tours. Although her children have grown older and don’t live at home anymore, she’s discovered that older kids need a lot of time on the phone. It’s actually harder now to find time to write. When they were younger, it was easier to set hours based around their school schedules.  “I’m an attentive mother, it’s hard for my grown children to hear that I’m writing now,” she says.

Risa is at work on a new novel. It’s about three adult sisters in Boston whose father and stepmother go on a Roots Tour and end up in Israel. The father begins the process of becoming religious. The sisters feel compelled to relate to what their father is experiencing, but are held back by their own situations; their husbands and their non religious life styles.

“It’s about seeing and knowing the truth,” says Risa. “It takes a lot for people not just to see, but also to follow through. It’s about the courage to change.”

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