Got this one via e-mail and thought it was a good one to answer publicly. The question was:
I understand you want to write about American Judaism and its issues. But why choose a rabbi? If you want readers to see themselves in your book, why didn’t you choose a typical American Jew to be the hero?
There are three primary reasons I chose a rabbi as the protagonist.
One is that a rabbi character has more authority within the fictional construct. The possibly controversial opinions of the average person could be summarily dismissed easily enough. But if they’re espoused from the bima, or as part of a response to the board, it opens up possibilities for argument and debate and criticism and praise. In other words, CONFLICT, which is always good in novels.
Two is that a rabbi character provides a vehicle to explain Judaism to those unfamiliar with it, without being condescending or boring to those who are well-versed in Judaism. I don’t write for a Jewish-only audience for a reason: knowledge is the antidote to ignorance and fear, and I believe, ultimately part of the answer to hate.
I’ve received dozens of e-mail messages and letters from readers who tell me that they’re not Jewish, knew next to nothing about Judaism except that their churches taught that it’s obsolete, and after reading this they had a new perspective, a new respect, and they wanted to learn more.
And in one notable case, that she’d been toying with the idea of converting for years, and reading this led her to call the local rabbi and set up a meeting. She said reading my book helped her get over her fear of rabbis, that she hadn’t really seen them as human beings with families and foibles. They were just authority figures. (I did warn her that she wouldn’t be meeting with David, him being a fictional character and all, and not to expect him when she met with a rabbi. She understood and I gather the meeting went well.)
From average American Jews I’ve received e-mail and letters and other feedback that they identified with one or more characters, that they learned something they didn’t know about Judaism, that what had been boring or too complex in Hebrew school seemed more interesting in the novel and they decided to take a Talmud class or join a Torah study or read more Jewish books.
Three and perhaps most important for me as a writer is that a rabbi character allowed me to explore all aspects of Jewish life, as well as the issues that affect us as a larger human community. In Destined to Choose, I was able to explore the lessons learned – or not – from Tisha b’Av, the effect of the Shoah on today’s kids, work-life balance, and the need for reconciliation in a society that frequently writes off relationships like so much bad debt.
In As in Days of Old, I’ve been able to explore hate crimes, the struggles of singles in the Jewish community, the power of confrontation and apology, Jewish self-image, and the effects of in-fighting between various Jewish movements.
Book 3 (untitled) will explore domestic violence in the Jewish community, racism, and the importance of Israel to the American Jewish community.
I can show meetings with congregants and the issues they bring in with them. I can show friendships with other rabbis that transcend the inter-movement politics. I can demonstrate some scholarly research. I’m not sure I could have done all that with a representative character of the typical American Jew.
It does mean I have to do my homework. A lot of homework. I’m not to the point yet where I can churn out a book a year because it typically takes two years to research a book. I hope as my knowledge and skill progress (and with my kids in school), and with the encouragement and support of readers, I’ll be able to finish books faster.
Thanks for the question!