Yael Levy on writing, Orthodox Judaism, and mixing the two together…
What inspired you to write novels?
I was writing freelance articles for City Lights, The Jerusalem Post weekend magazine – when my editor asked me for an article on how Orthodox Jews date. I realized I couldn’t do the topic justice in one article. What I had to write was a book. It took four years to write the first draft of Brooklyn Love when my kids were asleep early in the morning and late at night, another four years to learn how to rewrite and polish my craft, and six years to learn about the business.
Are any of your characters based on anyone you know?
OMG! Though the books are fiction, the characters and stories are based on the community I grew up in. There were many people and true events that inspired the creations of my characters…but more on a communal sense: no one character is modeled after anyone specific. I knew I did a good job of recreating my community when a friend of mine mentioned she saw Hindy (a fictional character in Brooklyn Love) on a train and wished there were more people like her in the world. (There are! They just tend to be modest and go under the radar;-)
You were also an ex-pat in Israel. How did that experience influence your writing?
Though I moved to an Orthodox community in Israel—the cultural nuances were very different than Brooklyn. I felt very alienated and was able to take a step back and compare and contrast the New York experience to the life I was living in Israel. The flip side to feeling lonely for what I knew—was experiencing the wholeness and lack of neuroticism living as a Jew in a Jewish country. It was nothing like I’ve ever experienced before or since. It made me think that historically, all great Jewish communities outside of Israel eventually wane—if not disappear completely. While currently vibrant…New York Jewry will probably go the way of every other community in the Diaspora, and I felt compelled to commemorate the experience of a certain culture at a specific time and place.
You thank your father for his stories, told during Shabbat meals. What were those stories like?
Wow. That question could get me in a lot of trouble! My father retired as an auditor for the State of New York, so I’m not at liberty to share those stories (while we didn’t hear names or specific details, the experience of seeing the world through an auditor’s perspective certainly influences my work, especially Starstruck, a light romantic romp with a touch of mystery).
I loved to hear his stories about growing up Orthodox in Williamsburg with his four brothers during WW2 – it was another world! Or his haunting recollections of Holocaust survivors moving into Williamsburg after the war. Or his hilarious stories about dealing with nudniks. Though the best stories always revolved around how he fell in love with and married my mother. The Shabbat table can be an incredible forum for imparting life lessons and values to the next generation in a really fun and loving way.
Are the messages you learned at your family dinner table the same you’re hoping to share in your books?
Ideally, I’d like readers to come to understand Orthodox Jews not as the “others” as portrayed in misled headlines – but as people with much of the same yearnings, dreams and feelings as everybody else!
I also feel it important to note that while certain similarities exist across observant Judaism, every Orthodox community is different. I didn’t for instance portray Hassidic or modern-Orthodox communities because the dynamics, especially pertaining to dating and marriage, would be expressed very differently than the community described in Brooklyn Love.
Orthodox Judaism is often all lumped together in the media – but the observances and cultural nuances could be as varied as, say an Amish lifestyle might be from a Catholic or Southern Baptist.
What’s the biggest misunderstanding of the Orthodox culture?
That everybody in the community is either dancing the hora all day or praying;-) We live our lives like the rest of the world, and the only time I’ve seen the hora was at a wedding. Some rules and cultural mores are different, but the point of them is to work on trying to reach our spiritual potentials and behave…which is really hard, for most people, most of the time! (Kind of like a mandatory P-90x for the soul.) There are Orthodox Jews who have tremendous difficulty balancing the demands and temptations of the tradition with the “outside world” so they retreat and live in their own bubbles. While that is not an ideal way to live because the insularity can lead to social problems and definitely leads to misunderstandings, it is important to understand that they are just trying to survive like everybody else.