By Julie Zuckerman
Next month I turn 50. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it much. The predominant emotion I’m feeling is gratitude for the many blessing in my life, including the most recent – the publication of my debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah (Press 53). But the round number 50 also serves to remind me that I’ve now lived more than half my life in Israel.
Like many American Jews who grew up “affiliated” (meaning: connected to a synagogue or other Jewish communal institution), I’d spent time in Israel on a teen program, and then for a semester during college and another two-year stint before graduate school. And while I have a deep affinity for my native New England, I boarded a plane at the age of 25 to move here permanently. From my first visit until today, Israel has always felt like home. The sights and scenes and smells and feeling of belonging are as familiar to me as the rooms in my parents’ house.
Despite this, most of my stories, including those in The Book of Jeremiah, are set in the United States. This isn’t because I’ve got my eye on a “target audience” of American readers or publications (as I was recently asked at a reading). The settings and values and history lessons imbued in my childhood are simply the most ingrained. It sounds strange, but it’s easier for me to get into the mind of an 82-year-old American man than it is for me to get into the mind of a native-born Israeli woman my own age.
I don’t think this is due to homesickness. My “immigrant” experience, as it were, has been overwhelmingly positive, and the only difficult thing about it is that my husband and I are 6,000 miles away from our families. Parents, sisters, in-laws, sisters-in-law, cousins – they come to visit, and we go back every summer, and between email and FaceTime and Skype we could speak every day – but that 11-hour flight to cross the ocean is a reminder that there is still a wide, physical gulf.
The Book of Jeremiah focuses not only on Jeremiah himself, but on the entire Gerstler clan. They experience loss, sorrow, anger and other troubles, but as they orbit each other, there is also considerable love, forgiveness and acceptance. This wasn’t conscious to me as I wrote the individual stories, but now, having read (and reread) the work, it’s clear that this is a novel about a family. In retrospect, I was writing to bridge gaps, both physical and temporal.
I love genealogy and family history. As a kid, I’d make elaborate family trees and capture tidbits I’d hear from my mother on little scraps of paper: “He was tall and had a sense of humor” or “Her three children were very bright.” Thus, it’s not surprising that one of the benefits of writing fiction, for me, is a chance to know more about the worlds of my grandparents and other relatives who are no longer alive.
Rikki and Abe Gerstler, Jeremiah’s parents, are Jewish immigrants who’ve made their way to America from Poland in the 1920s, as my own grandparents did. As a young man, my grandfather supported himself and several other members of his family by selling butter and eggs during the Depression. Later, he opened and ran a few liquor stores in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Abe Gerstler does the same. The first story in the book, “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm,” takes place in 1938 and is told from Rikki’s point of view. My beloved Grandma Pearl passed away when I was 13, and though I cannot imagine her behaving in some of the ways that Rikki does, they share several cultural traits. I tried to bring to life the sights and smells of my grandmother’s kitchen and the family gathering around her Passover table.
In the story, Jeremiah is 11, mischievous and a bit sneaky, the smart kid who is exasperates his teachers and parents. As far as I know, my father and uncles were well-behaved children, but how would my grandmother have disciplined them if they’d been like Jeremiah? There’s no doubt in my mind that she would have worried over her sons becoming “no-goodniks,” as Rikki does. Jeremiah’s behavior stems, in part, from middle child syndrome; he correctly senses that when Rikki compares her children, Jeremiah’s studious, obedient older brother comes out on top.
As with real-life families, patterns repeat themselves in the Gerstler family. Jeremiah makes the same parenting error with his own children. Other stories in the book explore fraught relationships between parents and children, between husbands and wives, and questions of whether you can truly know another person. The characters behave badly. Even Molly, Jeremiah’s even-keeled, forgiving wife, has moments when she cracks. In one story, she turns against someone she’s usually in the position of protecting. At other times, on what should be happy occasions, Jeremiah teeters on the edge of acceptable conduct because he’s anxious over an upcoming transition. And yet the underlying tone within the Gerstler family is one of forgiveness and acceptance. Despite the strife and tension within families, the message that I hope shines through is that we should all try to be more forgiving, even with – or especially with – our most difficult family members. One of the most gratifying things I’ve experienced since the book came out is hearing from readers – including those who aren’t Jewish – telling me they can see their own family within Jeremiah’s story.
The idea for this essay was sparked by a question I received from one of my oldest and closest friends here in Israel at my local book launch. You’ve lived here for half your life, she said, yet you chose to set the book in America. Was that difficult, she asked, and do I feel I still have a good enough grasp on America to write about it?
The easy answer I gave that night was that the final story in the book takes place in 2008, long before the Trump era, and as such I didn’t have to address the upside-down world in which we’ve found ourselves since November 9, 2016. The real answer goes a bit deeper. Many of the stories are set against a backdrop of what was happening in America at the time – World War II, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and so on. But since family is at the core of the book, it makes perfect sense that I’ve set it in the place where my own family has lived for so long, though I no longer do.
A native of Connecticut, Julie Zuckerman lives in Modiin, Israel, with her husband and four children. Her debut short story collection, The Book of Jeremiah, was the runner-up for the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She holds a BA in political science from Barnard College at Columbia University and an MA in international relations from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She began writing in 2008 and has since published over two dozen stories, many of which can be found online. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including The SFWP Quarterly, The MacGuffin, Salt Hill, Sixfold, The Coil, Ellipsis, MoonPark Review, Crab Orchard Review and others.