Thursday, February 18, 2010
Good for the Jews -- A Purim Tale
"Good for the Jews is a smart, funny, sexy novel set in Madison, Wisconsin, during the Bush administration. Part mystery and part stranger-comes-to town story, Good for the Jews is loosely based on the biblical book of Esther. Like Esther, Debra Spark's characters deal with anti-Semitism and the way that powerful men—and the women who love them—negotiate bureaucracies."
-- University of Michigan Press
Colby College professor and award-winning author Debra Spark's newest novel is Good for the Jews. With Purim approaching, I thought you might like to learn a little more about this unique story and its relationship with the megillah. Debra was kind enough to do an email interview with me - enjoy her answers below, and be sure to check out her extremely funky website.
Debra, what got you interested in exploring and retelling the story of Esther?
Several years ago, in preparation for taking my son to his first Purim service, I reread the Book of Esther. It turned out that I entirely misremembered the end of the story. In fact, I think I never knew the true end of the story. What I remembered: At story's end, Haman is vanquished, hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, and all's well that ends well. In fact: after Haman dies, the Jews are given permission to continue fighting, and they got out and kill thousands. Revenge? Or self-defense? The Book of Esther doesn't really say. Since I happened to be rereading Esther, just as the United States was going into Iraq, the ending discomfitted me. In going into Iraq, wasn't the United States--the victims on 9/11--becoming victimizers? I wanted to write my novel in order to explore my own discomfort. But I also liked the idea of a retelling, because the Book of Esther has so much going for it in terms of humor, the relationship between the sexes, palace intrigue and so on. I liked having the scaffolding of a much beloved story--and beloved for good reason--on which to hang my tale.
Why did you set your retelling of The Book of Esther in Madison, Wisconsin?
I wanted to set my book in a left wing town, since I wanted to explore the so-called anti-Semitism of the left. I happen to have lived in Madison for two years when I was in my twenties, so that was that.
The title of the book is the catchphrase "good for the Jews." Can you explain a bit about what the phrase means, what it implies?
People of my parents' generation, and perhaps my own, are used to things being couched in terms of whether it is or is not "good for the Jews." The implication (usually) is that anything that gives non-Jews a reason not to think well of the Jews is suspect. It's bad for the Jews. And visa versa.
At the end of the book Ellen, the Esther character, wonders if Biblical stories are "good for the Jews." Do you think they are or aren't?
Well, I think I thought that the Book of Esther, if read in a certain light, could be bad for the Jews, and, in fact, when I looked into it, it turned out that, through the centuries, plenty of anti-Semites have used the ending of that book as evidence of the bloodthirstiness of the Jews. Throughout the Bible, of course, Jews don't behave necessarily well. Neither does God, for that matter. So you can see, in a weird way, how the Bible might not be "good for the Jews," not the best public relations kit! But, of course, that's just one angle into the Bible and not, perhaps, the most fair one, but the one that I thought my character would be brought to by the events of the novel.
Ironically, the Haman character instigates diversity training in the school where he is principal. Mose (the Mordichai character) says that minorities don't need diversity training. Do you think that's true?
Hmm ... I'm not sure I'd say that exactly, even though he does. That said, I find the notion of diversity training a little peculiar. I suppose you could be trained into having an awareness of class and race that you didn't have before being "trained," but I am doubtful.
In some of your interviews you talk about the tension between being seen as a victim versus a victimizer and how sometimes the same people can be both. Can you talk a little about that, and about how that works into the book?
I heard the Israeli novelist David Grossman say (somewhere? I can't remember where) that the Middle Eastern situation would never be solved until both sides admitted they had been victims and victimizers. I couldn't agree more, and I think it is both sides tendency to claim only victim status that has led to the perpetual stalemate in the region. No one thinks of themselves, of course, as the bad guy, so I'm interested in how bad things happen, when everyone imagines themselves an innocent. That was part of what I wanted to look at in the book, and I hoped one way to do that would be to make all of the characters have their reasons for thinking as they did. Even if you (as a reader) couldn't assent to what they were doing, it would be believable that they thought what they were doing was right.
As a reader who was already familiar with the story of Esther, I found the parallels in your book very intriguing, but I wonder what the reading experience would be like for someone who did not bring that background knowledge with them. Have you heard any reactions from such readers, and was their reading experience different in any significant way?
Well, I think Jews tend to know the story, but non-Jews don't, so I don't think it matters if you know the story or not. I hope it doesn't matter! When I first sent the novel to friends to read, no one recognized the story beneath the story, save for a Jewish friend (the writer Marjorie Sandor) who figured it out about 3/4s of the way through. I loved that she "got" it. Back when it was time to write "ad copy" for my book, I didn't think I should describe the book as a retelling of the Esther story, but I got sort of stumped when I went to give a short explanation of the book, so I fell back on that. (In some ways, knowing that it is a retelling of the Esther story ruins things, after all, because it might mean that you can see things coming.) I don't think I'd expect anyone to get the various parallels, even as I put them in. I did a lot of reading on The Book of Esther while I was writing, so a few things I put in there were completely obscure, but just fun for me to put in. But I still haven't answered your question. I haven't heard anyone tell me that the book didn't work for the, because they don't know the Book of Esther, but I imagine they wouldn't tell me if this was, indeed, the case.
If you were going to dress up for Purim, what would you dress as? :^)
Oh, Esther! But that's only because my husband made me an Esther face puppet years ago,and I love it. He made a Haman one, too. But I don't like to be the bad guy! It seems that kids don't go as the story's characters as much as they used to. My son is determined to go to this year's Purim service as a Ninja. Oy!
Thanks very much, Debra!