You might say Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum has done it all—she was born and raised in New York, where she studied modern dance and choreography. She studied religion and philosophy at New York University and international relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and then worked at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles before returning to school to study law. As a lawyer, she litigated constitutional cases related to church-state issues in California. She left law to produce cultural programs for a cable television network. After her first child was born, she took a creative writing class which sparked her interest in writing. A story of her uncle’s return to his father’s hometown in Poland in the 1970s followed by a trip to Poland with her in-laws in the mid-1990s, inspired her to write her first novel, A Day of Small Beginnings.
In preparation for my interview with Rosenbaum, I read A Day of Small Beginnings and found myself not wanting to put it down—the rich plotline and the depth of the characters drew me in. After talking with her and learning more about where the story came from, the book has even more meaning. Here are some excerpts from our phone interview, where we talked about her inspiration for the novel, how she choreographed this story, and how her book was selected for Spertus’s One Book | One Community initiative:
JUF News: What led you to write this book?
Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum: My background is fairly similar to the one of the family in the book. I come from a long line of atheists and socialists and people who have absolutely no use whatsoever for religion...I came from this non-religious home and the story itself came from something that happened to my uncle. In the 1970s he was invited to Poland by Warsaw University. [Poland] was under communism at that time and he was asked if he wanted to have a car and driver to take him anywhere in Poland. And he told them that he’d like to go to [the town his father was born]…He was embarrassed and didn’t want them to know he was Jewish…On the way he realized he didn’t know what he was going to do when he got there, because all he knew was the name of the city—his father had never told him anything about the place he was born. Something about that story disturbed me. That in one generation, our entire family history was gone. And in some ways it’s a very American story. Because most of us—almost all of us—are immigrants, and that past is gone for most of us. So the question that arose to me was what if someone was still back there in that town that we came from and could tell us something.
It had begun as a story of a man who returned to his father’s home town, but because I married into a family of Polish Jews, they were all Holocaust survivors, they knew Poland…I have no knowledge of my own family, but I have a lot of knowledge about my in-laws’ family. Going to Poland with my in-laws, which I did in 1995, really informed a lot of the story as well. We went back to their hometown and we met people who they recognized and went into homes. The things that I saw during that trip are embedded all over this novel, including the cemetery which opens the book, with its crows and no gravestones.
You’ve described writing fiction feels like “a choreography with words.” Can you explain that?
I guess what I said about dance and choreography is that there is a shape to writing as there is to choreography and to dance. All these things that you learn throughout your life, all kinds of skills that you learn, they tend to feed one another and to pop up in different parts of your life and to inform your work. For me dance, and having to think of [what a dance is about and] how do I express that in movement, was the same process as writing a book. And frankly, when I worked in Jewish television, we used to create pieces, [and] that too is the same process. It almost doesn’t matter what the media, you have a sensibility about what you’re looking for and how to create an art.
The book is so rich, touching on issues of Jewish faith, identity, family history, culture, political and social change, and also issues of fate and destiny. Do you consider this a Jewish book?
It is overtly a Jewish book because it’s a story about a Jewish family returning to its roots. But I have a wonderful writing group, and most of them are not Jewish, and it was very interesting to me to hear their response...The response that I had from non-Jews was this book really had a much more universal appeal. It has a very specific Jewish story, but it has a universal message: this is an American story—we all come from somewhere else, we’re a nation of immigrants. And the question of who are we if we don’t know where we came from is central to this novel, and being able to wrestle with that question is something that I think people all over can identify with…It tells that tale of going back to the Old World and reconnecting with what we’ve lost and realizing that there’s great beauty and depth in it.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
First of all, the relationship between Poles and Jews. We’ve seen an awful lot of movies and books that have sort of demonized Poles. It’s a very difficult relationship that has existed—it’s a thousand year old relationship. Certainly during the war things were brought to a head and the fact that the concentration camps were located there, that so many Jews died there in Poland. That was something that interested me because today there seems to be a change going on in Poland. Exploring that in the novel through Polish and Jewish characters meeting each other, the younger generation as well as the older generation speaking about how things were and how things are. I hope that people would take away that this is a highly complex relationship…It’s not so black and white and that was something I wanted to show in the novel…
And the second is… I have gone through a long road with the question of faith. I think what I wanted to show in the novel was that religion and faith is a question worth wrestling with. That it is not, as my grandfather used to call it, ‘stupidstition,’ and I put that into the mouth of the character, but there’s something worthwhile here and something that bears looking at and there’s deep wisdom here. That is something I would want people to take away from this book as well because it does wrestle with this question that many of us have, what is faith for us today?
Where did the character of Friedl come from?
She was very important to me because she represents, I hope, something that we don’t see so much in Jewish fiction. Women have been portrayed as shrews and as fools a lot in Jewish literature, especially traditional Jewish literature, and I wanted a woman who was a scholar, I didn’t want a yiddishe mama, I wanted someone who had actually turned her back on being a traditional wife and mother. Someone who lives with her own regrets, who was more of a complex person…She came in a sort of mystical kind of way. When we were in [Poland in] the real town that I base Zokof on, we met a man who lived in the town and he showed us a lot of things that he had saved, he was the repository of all things Jewish in the town. We were about to leave and he told us wait, I have one more thing I want to show you. He brought us a piece of a gravestone and showed it to us in a rather dramatic way. I looked at this piece of a gravestone—we had just been to a cemetery and there were no gravestones there---and we know that these gravestones were taken and made into roads and pushed into walls and used for sidewalks...He told us this is the last gravestone in this town and I looked at it and could read it enough to see that it was a woman’s gravestone and that is basically where Friedl came from. It changed the whole nature of the story.
How did you get connected to Spertus’s one book program?
I’m so honored. It came like a bolt out of the blue this summer. They got in touch with me and just said they were doing this program and they had chosen my book to be that one book to inaugurate their program. What I think is remarkable about it, is that it’s wonderful when people get together with their book groups and talk, because talking with a group always opens a book up. But this program…they’ve done a marvelous resource guide, most book groups don’t have the resources to do the research behind the book, so they’re going so much deeper into the background behind this book and they’re giving it to everyone, they’re connecting book groups to one another and they’re putting on all these marvelous events (see p. 26) All of it makes reading this book so much richer and it’s a real treat. It’s a real gift.
Visit www.spertus.edu for the complete resource guide.