And What I’m Writing Instead
Like so many others, the events of October 7th devastated me. The news grew more and more dreadful as the days, weeks, and now months moved on. Instead of writing, I found myself obsessively on social media, doomscrolling, looking for comfort from among my Jewish friends, growing more and more disheartened by the ignorant words and actions of those who truly do not understand the situation but think they do.
So I was paralyzed. I couldn’t write. It was hard to promote my new book as well. As I mentioned in a recent book talk and in a blog post, it just all seemed trivial right now in the face of this existential threat.
Besides, several organizations postponed my talks, claiming their members were not in the right frame of mind, disrupting my book tour. And I have had to tailor my remarks for those who kept our original date, to encompass the darkness and pain we are all feeling. It’s difficult. Especially when quite a few people told me that, having read the first chapter of BABYLON, they better understood the violence and cruelty of October 7th. That probably should have made me proud. Instead, it depressed me.
I had been so excited to write my next book, a kind of tell-all of the true story of the Maccabees. The pre-war protests in Israel were fodder for this novel, which told how Israel in 167 BCE was so divided between the devout Jews, who were not allowed to keep the customs integral to their faith, and the progressive Hellenist Jews who wanted to “get with the times” and accept Greek culture to take part in what they perceived as a fresh, new world. The divisions were so great that an actual civil war between the Jews broke out.
But the more I struggled to move forward, the less enthused I grew. Especially as I saw many references on wartime social media to the Maccabees. They were the scrappy heroes who stood up against prejudice; they were the small, fierce army who defeated the mighty Seleucids. The IDF are like the Maccabees, Israelis and Jews are saying. We’ll have our own Hannukah miracle – maybe not by Hannukah, but when we prevail.
So how could I keep writing the unvarnished truth about the Maccabees in the face of our genuine need for heroes? How could I point out their savage cruelty to their own people simply because the Hellenists wanted to adopt Greek ways? Write about how divided the country was – again, so similar to the struggles taking place in Israel before the war? Who would want such a book right now?
Who would want to write it?
So I needed a new project. One I could adopt wholeheartedly. And as I considered and discarded multiple ideas, I considered going back to my first love, William Shakespeare, whom I’d featured in a verse novel that had not a speck of Judaism in it – and an idea took hold.
My Jewish friends and I, many of whom I meet only on Facebook or Instagram, have felt wretched about the virulent rise of antisemitism in the world. Devastated by the silence we’ve encountered from those we had thought of as our friends and allies. Horrified when witnessing the violence and ugly graffiti and vicious name calling we’ve suddenly been exposed to.
And we all thought – independently and then in concert – who would hide us if we needed to be hidden? What is our Plan B?
I shared a short piece on Facebook only with those Jewish friends, feeling too vulnerable to take it to a wider audience. I talked about a discussion I had with a Presbyterian minister recently. She felt she had to push off an interfaith event we had planned around BABYLON in November, because despite her own support of Israel and the Jews, she was encountering very different views in her own congregation. It wasn’t the right time for an event that was supposed to unify us, she said.
I agreed with her – reluctantly – and happened to mention how so many of us were concerned that no one would hide us if we ever needed to find a safe harbor. And I was touched when she looked at me and said, “If that happens – God forbid – you just call me.”
Thinking about that, as I’ve done so often since we met, something clicked inside me. And I thought – there were supposed to be no Jews at all in England during Shakespeare’s time, not since the 1200s when they were exiled from the land. (There actually were some, in fact, but that just adds depth to my story.) With Henry VIII’s change to Anglicanism, there was also no Inquisition. Would London, then, not be the perfect place for a Converso (a forcibly converted Jew) to find refuge if he or she were threatened by the Inquisition in, say, Portugal?
And if such a person hid in plain sight at the Globe Theatre, could he (or she) not be an ideal source for our Master Shakespeare to utilize, to learn more about Jews when he writes The Merchant of Venice?
So that’s what I’m researching and writing now. I’ve probably revealed more than I should – I don’t like sharing this much this early. A lot can and undoubtedly will change before I have a completed novel. But considering my own fears and my need for a literary refuge right now, this is a project I can fully embrace.