I was so pleased to be asked to interview Eric Kimmel for the Sydney Taylor awards blog tour. (thanks, Heidi!)
This is probably one of my longest blog posts. I usually try to keep them short because I am aware that modern attention span is nil, but everything he said was so interesting, I couldn’t think of what to cut! Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
You often pick old Jewish folktales to reframe and retell. You’ve retold Hershel of Ostropol, and now the Golem. How do you select which stories to work with with? What in an old folktale speaks to you?
It’s really very simple. It has to be a story that I want to tell. I’ve loved Jewish stories since I was in elementary school. I’m one of the few kids in the world who liked going to Hebrew school. My school was a very fine one, well-known in New York: The East Midwood Jewish Center. I owe a great debt to my teachers and our fine library. That’s where I discovered Hyman Goldin’s The Book of Legends, a three volume collection of midrashim and aggadot. Here’s where I came across a translation of Chaim Bloch’s novella, The Golem, which is where the golem legend comes from. There was also a little book in Hebrew with amazing illustrations called Ashmodai Melekh Ha’Shaydim (Ashmodai, King of the Demons). It’s the midrash of the Shamir, the mysterious creature that Solomon used to build the Temple without iron implements. I loved the picture of Ashmodai in this book. He’s covered with green scales and he has clawed feet. Ashmodai shows up in my own work as the King of the Goblins in Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. I believe that’s where I acquired a fascination with Jewish demons. Our Dark Side Lantsloyt, if you will.
And then there’s my grandma. I had an Old Country, Galician grandma who lived with us till she died. She knew endless stories; some true, some legendary, some Jewish, some Ukrainian. You might say I learned Jewish stories from the source.
When I’m looking for a story to tell or retell, I have to start with one I love. I want to write the sort of book I would have wanted to read when I was a kid. I look for the kind of story I can imagine my grandma telling me; one I can fit into her style which included a lot of humor and irony. That’s why I like Chelm stories and Hershele Ostropolier so much.
If I can tell the story, I can write it. The more I want to tell it, the better I can write it. Everything comes down to the told story. And I’m the storyteller.
The original Golem legend features the Golem as a kind of bodyguard, who protects the Jewish community from their oppressors. But in “The Golem’s Latkes” , the Jews seem to be very comfortable, and the main character even dines with the emperor. The Golem is more of a helper/servant. Why did you choose to change the theme of the Golem?
The Golem legend is a lot less of a legend than most people think. There are no 16th century sources linking the Maharal, Judah Loew of Prague, with any kind of golem. The one 16th century rabbi reputed to have made a golem is Elijah of Chelm (of all places!). The “legend” is the concoction of a Czech writer, Chaim Bloch, a contemporary of Kafka, who combined Goethe’s poem of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling) with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the Jewish milieu of the Prague Ghetto. Our “legend” if you can call it that, is a bit less than one hundred years old. But what a story! It’s the Jewish Frankenstein.
It’s a mistake to assume that Jewish life was unadulterated misery. It might be, but that depended on where you lived and when. During the time of Emperor Rudolph II, the Jews of Prague were fairly comfortable. Their lives were certainly more secure than if they lived in Spain, France, or most of the German States. Emperor Rudolph is a fascinating individual. He was a true Renaissance man, devoted to the arts, science, and occult studies. Today we’d call him a seeker after knowledge. As such, he enjoyed the company of other well-educated thinkers, no matter what their background. As the foremost kabbalist of his age, the Maharal was an honored guest at the imperial court. The emperor himself was only a nominal Christian. He kept the Catholic Church at arm’s length and had little use for the Protestants who were beginning to cause trouble in his realm. Rudolph would have been happier as a university professor. Jews were not persecuted under his reign.
So you see, my version is a lot closer to fact than the “traditional” one.
How I came up with my version makes an interesting tale in itself. Margery Cuyler, my editor at Marshall Cavendish, suggested I write a version of the Golem story for their new imprint, Shofar Books. I told her I wasn’t really interested. The story had been done many times. To my mind, the definitive version will always be David Wisniewski’s. It’s sheer genius. David and I were together for a weekend in San Francisco. He showed me the mechanicals. Astonishing work! What a loss! David was such an amazing artist and writer.
I told Margery I couldn’t do anything equal to David’s work and it would be foolish to try. “So tell the story another way. Try a different angle,” Margery suggested. She pushes her writers in new directions. That’s why she’s such a great editor to work with. I thought about that. There’s a sorcerer’s apprentice element in the Golem story when Rabbi Judah warns a servant not to use the Golem for ordinary tasks. I decided to focus on that. Hanukkah stories are always popular. (Don’t I know!) How about turning the Golem tale into a Hanukkah story by having the Golem make…latkes??!! The rest was easy.
Basha, the servant girl, is my favorite character. She does not intend to do any more work than she has absolutely has to, and she’s smart enough to get away with it. Think of Jack Benny with Eddie Anderson playing Rochester. Aaron Jasinski got her just right. She’s a real kewpie doll.
Have you ever had the illustrations for one of your stories surprise you and take the story to a place you didn’t expect?
It happens many times. Trina Hyman’s illustrations for Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins were way and beyond anything I could have ever imagined. Giora Carmi’s Bubba Brayna in The Chanukkah Guest looks just like my grandma, who loved bears. She’s really the old lady in the story. Giora never meet her and I never showed him a picture. How did that happen?
I choked the first time I saw the illustrations for The Golem’s Latkes. Aaron wrote the magic word EMET on the golem’s forehead in Roman letters. Gevalt! I called Margery in a panic. Why weren’t they in Hebrew?
“You never said they should be,” Margery replied.
She’s right. I never did. I ASSumed (if you know that old saying.) “But now it won’t make any sense for the rabbi to rub out the first letter. Yes, you’d be left with MET, but it’s not the same.
“But that’s not part of this story,” Margery said. “Trust me. Everything will be fine.”
I was sure the Jewish reviewers would skin me alive. But they didn’t. And the book won the National Jewish Book Award and was a notable for the Sydney Taylor Award. So I guess Margery was right. It worked out okay. But I sure had some nervous moments.
I wonder what made Aaron decide to go Roman rather than Hebrew. I’ll have to ask him. He handled the rest of the illustrations just right, especially his Golem. The Golem looks like Gumby. Not threatening at all, which is exactly how I envisioned him. I love his wry smile at the end when he thinks about making hamantaschen. Is the Golem as dumb as everybody thinks he is? Maybe not. Could there be a wry sense of humor lurking inside that clay head?
Every book has a story of it’s own as to how it actually came to be published and on the shelves. What is the story of how these two books were published?
I already told you the story of The Golem’s Latkes. Joseph and the Sabbath Fish wasn’t really my idea either. I was approached by the PJ Library to write a new version of Marilyn Hirsch’s Joseph Who Loved The Sabbath, which is itself based on a legend from the Talmud. I never met Marilyn, but I’ve long admired her work. She died too young and she left no will. All her books are in a kind of limbo. No one knows who controls the rights. Until there’s a clear answer to that question, it’s impossible for her books to be reprinted. That’s a loss in itself.
The PJ Library has been very good to me, so I certainly wanted to help them out. Again, the question was what could I add to the story that hadn’t already been done. I decided to focus on redemption. In the original story, finding the jewel in the fish is Joseph’s reward for observing Shabbat with diligence and joy. The neighbor is lost at sea. In my version, I created the character of Judah, Joseph’s skeptical neighbor, who is attached to possessions. He returns, having lost everything. Yet through that experience he has learned what is really important. That’s when his redemption and restoration begin. The focus of my version isn’t so much what happens with Joseph as what happens with Judah.
I have a little statue of St. Francis above my desk. My friends Val, Bill, and Noelle brought him back from Italy. St. Francis teaches us not to get too tied down to “stuff.” Don’t be a hoarder. Don’t hang on to it. Give it away. In the end, stuff really isn’t what’s important. I like to think I got a boost from St. Francis while I was working on Joseph and the Sabbath Fish.
I’m sure you’ve read the books to children. Are there any specific reactions from kids to the book that you would like to share with us?
I had a lot of fun this fall sharing the story with children at the Portland Jewish Academy here in Portland and at the Davis Academy in Atlanta, just before Hanukkah. The children had no problem getting into the story. What they especially liked was the refrain “Peel…Chop…Mix…Fry.” They really got into it. They liked yelling out the pounding rhythm and wanted to keep doing it long after I was ready to move on. So, being a storyteller, I let them have fun and when the enthusiasm dipped slightly, I moved the story ahead.
But I learned something. They liked that part, so build it in the next time I tell the story.
They also liked the ending. A couple of kids yelled out, “Oh, no!” with the idea of having the Golem make hamantaschen. They knew the story was going to start all over again. And that’s the point!
Could we get the Golem a job at the 2nd Avenue Deli, turning out corned beef and pastrami sandwiches? Now that’s my kind of story!