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Authentic Jewish Voice?

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This is a fascinating discussion to me.  I remember reading Sarah Darer Littman's CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC, which is about a Jewish girl, and thinking that the Catholicism presented felt off somehow, probably in the sense of not being particularly modern.  It felt like I was reading about the Catholic practice of my childhood, not of current Catholic children. BUT then I realized that the protagonist and her friend lived in a completely different area of the country from where I live. My diocese is far more liberal in some ways that those in the Northeast and that was probably what was being reflected.  That realization allowed me to enjoy the book, which is actually quite good.  But the differences between my own experience and what was presented in the book did draw me out for a bit.  I don't think you can completely control that.

Like Mara, I'm going to indulge in airing my non-related pet peeve:  Whenever I see actors making the sign of the cross, I can tell when they're not actually Catholic because even though they're doing it technically correctly, it is too studied, not natural.  For lack of a better way to explain it, there's a fluidity that people develop who make the sign of the Cross every day since childhood that actors don't seem to see to emulate.
#31 - June 30, 2011, 08:40 AM
VAMPIRINA BALLERINA series (Disney-Hyperion)
SUNNY'S TOW TRUCK SAVES THE DAY (Abrams)
GROUNDHUG DAY (Disney-Hyperion, 2017)
among others

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Another idea on how to write an authentic 'other' (than oneself)-

Find a person, a real living person, who is a spitting image of your character. You could bring this person to life in your story and have an authentic feel to them.
Since you mentioned not knowing many Jews (Jewish children?) this is a hard one to pull. But you could approach it this way.
#32 - June 30, 2011, 09:05 AM
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Yeah, I've been pulled out of stories because they felt off to me, too. My family moved to the South when I was nine and I spend the rest of my growing-up there. So when I picked up a much-lauded (in NY) book about a girl in the South that used "y'all" all wrong (it has grammar, people! You can't just dump it in anywhere for flavor) and seemed to almost have a noble savage attitude about Southerners (um, we use technology just as much as y'all do in NYC), I had a very hard time liking or even seeing the rest of the story.

I think you maybe need to figure out what to be asking. You will need to know more that what actually ends up in the book so you can put it in the proper context, depending on the tone and point of the book. Some questions you might ask yourself are:

What beliefs or practices will influence my characters' everyday choices?
What beliefs or practices will change the defaults from non-Jewish characters? (like maybe they have a birthday party on Sunday, not Saturday--or whatever)
What beliefs or practices will influence my characters' outlook on life? (Are they more direct than their more Puritan-cultured neighbors? Are they more cynical or more hopeful in certain situations than someone outside the culture would be? Etc.)
What beliefs or practices help form a bond between the kids and the parents/grandparents in the story? (Is the Friday night Shabbat meal--sorry for possible incorrect terminology, I'm not Jewish--a particular bond with their grandparents because that's when their particular families get together and they get more attention? That's an individual family dynamic--but one that could possibly be influenced by cultural practices and beliefs.)
What beliefs or practices might give your characters an unexpected edge in the plot?
What beliefs or practices might throw obstacles in the way of your characters regarding plot? (Maybe they want to track a thief but it's Friday night and they HAVE HAVE HAVE to go home and have no chance of sneaking out. Etc.)

I think writing culture is like an iceberg. Only a bit of it might show in the text--but to get that 10% right, you've got to understand the 90% that's underwater.
#33 - June 30, 2011, 09:23 AM

Thanks so much everyone! I really understand now, and know better what I need to research. I'll also see about having someone who is Jewish check my story for me.
#34 - June 30, 2011, 09:29 AM

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I'm a Reform Jew with Ashkenazi roots, and I second just about everything that's been said.

As for the language stuff, though, generally nobody speaks Hebrew unless they're in Israeli, they're Israeli, or they're praying. The Yiddish of the Sephardim is called Ladino, and it's a mix of Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew. However, it's not as widely used as Yiddish, and like Yiddish, very few people speak it fluently anymore, at least in the United States.
#35 - June 30, 2011, 01:35 PM

I went to Hebrew school (and Hebrew high school and a Jewish overnight camp), had a bar-mitzvah, don't mix milk and meat, have no idea what ham tastes like, belong to a synagogue and sometimes attend services, fast on Yom Kippur, avoid bread (and corn, rice, and peanuts) on Passover, took Hebrew and Yiddish language classes in college, spent a couple months in Israel--and I still don't feel entirely qualified to write about the three Jewish characters in my current WIP! One is Orthodox, strictly kosher, and shomer shabbos, one lives on a kibbutz, and one is from a converso family in South America.  Their experiences are so different from my own and from each other that I just know I'm missing all kinds of important details.
#36 - June 30, 2011, 11:27 PM
« Last Edit: June 30, 2011, 11:32 PM by tem2 »
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Here's a recent NYT article about the PJ Library, featuring a non-Jewish author/illustrator asked to write a picture book about Jewish summer camp:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/25/us/25beliefs.html?_r=1
#37 - July 01, 2011, 07:47 AM
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I wanted to suggest that it would probably be helpful to you to read a great many Jewish children's books, particularly first person middle grade.  The Association of Jewish Libraries website has lists of award-winning books with Jewish content, and the middle grade Sydney Taylor award books might be a good place to start.  You could also take a look at Lois Lowry's Anastacia Krupnik books for a protagonist in the "happens to be Jewish" category.  To read about ultra-Orthodox teens, Pearl Abraham's "Romance Reader" might be interesting.  This is not a children's book, but could be helpful.

The fact that you don't actually know a single Jew, and your question about how being Jewish would affect voice, makes me think that it might be extremely challenging for you to create your characters.  (Not impossible, just very difficult.)  I am wondering if there is a reason that these characters have to be Jews? 
#38 - July 12, 2011, 10:44 AM
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This is a fascinating discussion to me.  I remember reading Sarah Darer Littman's CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC, which is about a Jewish girl, and thinking that the Catholicism presented felt off somehow, probably in the sense of not being particularly modern.  It felt like I was reading about the Catholic practice of my childhood, not of current Catholic children.

I'm half-way through this book and I actually went back to the beginning and skimmed because I wasn't sure if it was historical fiction or contemporary. There are some subtleties that make Catholics think 1959. Maybe the key would be to have a couple of people who practice the faith (that you're writing about) beta read for you.
#39 - July 12, 2011, 10:58 AM

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At the NESCBWI Conference this past spring, PB writer Richard Michelson gave an amazing talk on writing outside your own cultural identity.  Some of what he talked about is here in this essay--I highly recommend it: http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/856/stompin-at-the-savoy/
#40 - July 12, 2011, 12:15 PM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)
www.marissadoyle.com
www.nineteenteen.com

Take a look at Dara Horn's novels. :) She has a PHD in Hebrew studies.
#41 - July 27, 2011, 10:31 PM

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You might want to read Judy Blume's Are You There, God?  It's Me, Margaret.  The Jewish Grandma is very authentic, as are some of Margaret's Jewish friends.  I'm half Jewish, my Jewish grandmother spoke Yiddish for terms of endearment, "Shana velta, shana punim," disparaging comments, "He's a schmuck," or exclamations, "Got in Himmel."  She was American born, but these expressions came down through the generations.  She also had tremendous work ethic, an entrepeneur whose smarts and integrity built a successful business.  She made sure her children and grandchildren went to college (she graduated the eighth grade,) and played cards (Maj Jong) with a tight circle of friends.  She never nagged, often told us we were the eyes in her head.

There are many subtleties of culture, faith and values.  Perhaps conduct some informal interviews, attend a barmitzvah, etc.  Olmue made an excellent suggestion about having a Jewish reader check your draft.  Best wishes!
#42 - October 09, 2011, 10:22 AM
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Love Judy Blume, but bear in mind, that book is over forty years old! Margaret herself would be the grandmother today.
#43 - October 09, 2011, 03:26 PM
AROUND AMERICA TO WIN THE VOTE
ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY ADDIE
MESMERIZED
GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY!
THE GRUDGE KEEPER
more at mararockliff.com

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Yes, but somehow it's never truly out of date.  (Okay, maybe the Teenage Softies part, but the feelings and attitudes are timeless.)   :)
#44 - October 09, 2011, 03:50 PM
« Last Edit: October 09, 2011, 03:53 PM by ButterflyGirl »
Ten Clever Ninjas (Clear Fork, 2019)
Butterfly Girl (Clear Fork, 2019)
Survivor Mountain (Hurn Publications, 2022)

Twitter: @kidlitSarah

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Conservative Jews do not have a unique voice any more than Catholics and Protestants do.  If you give your characters unique voices it could end up sounding anti-Semitic without you intending it to sound that way.  The main thing that unites us Jews is that we celebrate the same holidays.  They are full of quirky child-friendly customs.   If you put in something about kids dressing up in costumes for Purim or hiding the Afikomen on Passover it will be clear that your characters identify with being Jewish. 
#45 - October 09, 2011, 04:42 PM

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Love Judy Blume, but bear in mind, that book is over forty years old! Margaret herself would be the grandmother today.

Mara! This statement is shocking! I could never think of Margaret as anything but one of the PRE-TEEN Sensations! <g>

We must,
we must,
we must
not let Margaret rust
(Ouch!)

<g>
#46 - October 10, 2011, 02:16 AM

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Sephardi Jews are rarely Conservative.  They tend to be Orthodox or non-observant.  Conservative Judaism was started by Ashkenazi Jews and it hasn't really taken root among Sephardi Jews.  When non-observant Sephardi Jews attend high holiday services or hold burial sevices it's more often Orthodox.
#47 - October 10, 2011, 05:02 AM

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WriterRoss, if there were a like button here, I would have hit it for your comment :-)
#48 - October 10, 2011, 06:40 AM

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WriterRoss, if there were a like button here, I would have hit it for your comment :-)

Like Noted, Like Accepted. {}
#49 - October 11, 2011, 01:50 AM

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