Tag Archives: Jewish woman writer

Dear Myla Goldberg,

The False Friend

The False Friend

Thank you for your stunning novel, The False Friend.  I read it while I was in a neck brace recovering from cervical fractures and craving distraction from my initial failure to sleep very long sitting up. The delayed reaction of thirty-one-year-old Celia to her part in the death of her childhood friend Djuna back in the eighties drew me in at once. Djuna and Celia, leaders of their clique of five eleven-year-old girls, mercilessly criticize and/or exclude the other three

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

until the afternoon when Djuna disappears. On the way home from school, all five girls take a forbidden road bordered by a woods, a forest primeval right out of Grimm. In the heat of one of her stormy fights with Celia, Djuna stomps off the road into the thicket. Infuriated, Celia follows while the others wait. Celia returns alone. Djuna is never seen again. Has Djuna gotten into a stranger’s brown car as all the girls, including Celia, attest to the police and parents at the time? Or has she fallen down an abandoned well where Celia left her to die as Celia insists after a kind of epiphany two decades later?

Celia’s shocking revelation took me right back to my own long ago girlhood. Were any surprises lurking there? Had I, like Celia and Djuna, once been

Mean Girls

Mean Girls

what today we think of as a “mean girl?” Had I been a victim of mean girls? Had I been part of a close but volatile best friendship like Celia and Djuna’s when I was eleven? I honestly don’t recall ever picking on another kid, but I do recall being ridiculed one endless summer in sleepover camp. The very first night when I stripped down to my undershirt, I learned that my busty bra-wearing bunkmates had no compassion for late bloomers. They taunted me mercilessly. Somehow, I survived even though, in addition to being flat chested, I was neither pretty nor athletic nor adventuresome like Celia. These traits made her a leader in spite of her mean streak. By eleven I had friends, but none close enough to fight with. Besides, my parents fought so much that I became a chronic peace maker.

Peace Maker

Peace Maker

Like many of my classmates at a Passaic High School reunion I once attended, Celia has changed. As an adult it is her kindness and generosity that make it so hard for her loved ones to believe she might have ever harbored a mean let alone murderous impulse. So at thirty-one, her efforts to confirm her new insight into her role in Djuna’s death drive her to reexamine her relationship with not only her childhood friends, but also with Huck, her boyfriend of ten years, her parents and her brother. Inevitably these efforts change her relationship with her adult self and with those she loves. When she dares to face the implications and repercussions of her actions, even belatedly, she can better appreciate and understand who she has become and that may free her to change. Some of us turn to therapists to help us develop fresh insights into ourselves and bring about changes, but Celia does it pretty much alone in one harrowing week, and your account of it is filled with the suspense of a good mystery or adventure story.

Your novel is so rewarding not only because your story of a woman at a turning point in her life is inherently interesting but because you are a superb writer, reconfiguring

No Bully Zone

No Bully Zone

potent archetypes, themes, and settings to keep us pasted to each page. Like that earlier little girl in the woods en route to grandma’s, Celia and her girlfriends are both vulnerable and powerful, their eleven-year-old bodies suddenly playing host to hormones their tween brains have yet to understand. Without once using the word “bully,” you shed light on that age-old archetype too, making readers see it as complex and often subconscious behavior that it is possible to outgrow. I so appreciate your avoidance of psychobabble!

Instead, your prose approaches the poetic, making us experience with Celia the busy urban intersection where, looking at the curb, she has her revelation: “Downtown Chicago streamed around Celia in a blur of wingtips and pumps.” When you want to make clear the appeal Djuna and Celia had for the girls who sought them out, you tell us: “At any given moment Djuna and Celia were a party the others were desperate to attend, or a traffic accident too spectacular to avoid.” Your novel includes many lengthy descriptive passages detailing Celia’s hometown and the house where she grew up and where her folks still live. Had you not described these so brilliantly that they somehow conjure up the reader’s origins as well, many editors would have insisted that you shorten them. But that would have been a travesty. Celia’s relationship with her past is rooted in remembering and these specifics help her and your readers to understand what she recalls. Your use of description as a memory aid will inspire me as I tackle my next book.

Thank you for another superb novel!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear Bel Kaufman,

Dear Bel Kaufman,

Happy birthday! I just read The New York Times article celebrating you and your work and announcing that you are now officially one hundred years young! Thank you for being my muse and mentor for most of my career as a teacher and writer. This is not the first time I’ve thanked you for inspiring me. Your insightful and moving novel Up the Down Staircase was the subject of an entire chapter in my memoir, Going by the Book. There I thanked you for the novel that helped me through my difficult early years teaching high school English.

You may not remember, but when Going by the Book came out in 1994, you learned about it and invited me to tea at the Mark Hotel. I recall getting off the subway and changing from sneakers to heels on the street so as to be worthy of the hotel and my hostess. You were witty and kind, asking me about my own writing and sharing anecdotes about your Russian childhood, your immigrant experiences, your career as an inspirational speaker, and your ballroom dancing.

I left the Mark more inspired than ever and returned to my classroom and my newest writing project, a mystery series featuring a community college English prof as a menopausal amateur sleuth. This character was as yet unnamed, so I decided to name her after the protagonist of Up the Down Staircase, Elizabeth Barrett. I christened her Sibyl Barrett.  I thought of her as a kind of seer, a person equipped to see through fakery to identify killers. But only her mother calls her Sibyl. To the rest of us, she is Bel, my tribute to you, the writer of a book that made millions of Americans flies on the graffitied walls of the urban classroom. Who will ever forget those fraught memos from the principal and the heartfelt, if misspelled, notes in Miss Barrett’s suggestion box? I included excerpts from administrative emails and student essays in all my Bel Barrett mysteries to enable my readers to join her in the community college classroom.  

  Articles about you never fail to mention your kinship with Sholom Aleichem, the source

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of the stories that became Fiddler on the Roof.  He, too, was a great story teller. But I was no stranger to great Jewish story tellers who were men. You, a Jewish woman who wrote a tell-it-like- it–is but make it go down easy novel about a crucially important topic, public education in America, were the role model I didn’t even know I needed. Thanks for your good work. I wish I could take the course you’re teaching on Jewish humor at Hunter.  I bet it’s terrific.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Humorous fiction, Immigrant story, Jewish fiction