From a speech given by Ursula Dubosarsky at the recent Sydney Jewish Writer's Festival, held in May 2006.
How did a non-Jewish writer come to write two novels about a Jewish family, The First Book of Samuel and its sequel, Theodora's Gift? I never set out to write a novel about a Jewish family or indeed with a Jewish theme. I never really set out to write anything, that's not the way I work. But looking back I can trace the sometimes twisted flights of steps that led me to write these books.
The trail begins with my perhaps perversely pursued interest in ancient languages, beginning at school where I learned Latin, continuing at university, where I studied more Latin and took up Classical Greek--with no great distinction, I hasten to add, but plenty of affection. After I graduated I got a job in Canberra in the public service. Feeling bored in the evenings, I was looking for something to do and saw an advertisement for beginners' classes in biblical Hebrew. Now people who do Latin and Greek frequently turn to Hebrew next, and then Sanskrit and so on through the ancient languages. So I enrolled.
The class was taught by an Israeli man of European origin called George Stem, who was also a public servant. We met once a week, and three nights of the month we did biblical Hebrew, and then on the fourth week modern Hebrew. It was a very enjoyable class and I remember the other people in the class well--probably all united by a certain eccentricity in studying biblical Hebrew after a hard day's work at the clerical desk. Some of my fellow students were Jewish but several like myself were not.
Eventually a girl of my age turned up to the class, Louise Katz, who also became a writer. She'd just returned from Israel where she'd been staying on her uncle's kibbutz. Her modern Hebrew was a bit advanced for us but we'd go and have a drink afterwards where she'd tell me all about life on a kibbutz, and compared to dull old Canberra it all sounded wonderful.
She laid particular emphasis, I remember, on the endless availability of white cheese and honey in a glass and soda water on tap. Admittedly she mentioned a few other alarming details, like getting up at five o'clock to pick grapefruit in the dark, and sharing a room with three strangers who didn't speak the same language--but these I was sure were exaggerations. Louise was also pretty convincing on the theme that learning Hebrew at night in Canberra was a dead loss, whereas if I went to a kibbutz with an ulpan, a state-sponsored system where you learnt the language several hours a day, it would all take off. Forthwith I decided to leave my job, and go to Israel to live on a kibbutz.
I should say that really I knew nothing about Israel. It may be hard for Jewish people here to understand how a reasonably well-educated twenty-two-year-old Australian girl could know almost nothing about Israel, but there it is, and I don't think I was unusual. In any case, ignorance of Israel was just one of a million ignorances, if that's any consolation.
BEFORE I LEFT AUSTRALIA, I managed to make contact through the consulate here with a kibbutz in northern Israel, Kibbutz Mizra, who were willing to take me in and enrol me in their ulpan. So there I turned up, on a rather cold January day, with my little bag, ready for my adventure. I soon discovered that everything Louise had told me about the kibbutz was true--the flowing white cheese and honey, the fountain of soda water, as well as the five o'clock starts in the tractor and the small bedroom crowded with strangers from every country on earth, it seemed. I was both charmed and appalled. I joined the ulpan, four hours of language class a day, either before or after the fruit picking, or dishwashing or weeding or laundry folding and in the way of things grew used to it. I more than grew used it, actually, I loved it, and I loved Israel, the mythic landscape, the constant noise of history, the terrible comedy and courage of daily life. I ended by staying a year, and I probably would have stayed forever if I could have.
After I competed the beginners' Hebrew class, I moved up to the next level. In this class there were only five students: me, a girl from Brazil, a Swiss girl, a Moroccan boy and a girl from Chile. Our teacher was a man in his early sixties, Yehuda Artzi, to whom I dedicated The First Book of Samuel. Yehuda had spent his childhood in Munich, where his grandfather was a rabbi. He was an only child--his parents were divorced, and he was brought up by his mother, his grandfather and his mother's second husband. He was sent at the age of sixteen with a youth group to Palestine in the late 1930s, after his stepfather was briefly arrested at work, and had lived at Kibbutz Mizra essentially ever since, where he married and had four children. He did not see his family in Germany again.
Yehuda was a published poet in Israel and a gifted teacher. He spoke no English in the class, only Hebrew, and the occasional word in German as a concession for the Swiss girl. He used no textbooks, but had his own system worked out over many years for teaching Hebrew, and it was staggering how much we learnt in such a short time. His method was precise and rigorous, with fairly demanding homework requirements, but also involved the telling of stories in Hebrew using that day's vocab list.
These were stories told with the clarity and urgency of a natural storyteller, of his childhood, his family, the beginning of the kibbutz, the devastating silence from Europe when the letters from his mother simply stopped coming, the slow realisation of that universal bereavement, the war of independence, the various dramas and tragedies of the growing kibbutz and the new state. He sang to us as well, Yiddish songs of his childhood and youth. Although he had been raised in a religiously observant household, he was himself an atheist and he spoke of his reasons for that.
We developed a close friendship of a kind, Yehuda and I, in that short time, despite obvious differences. He told me he thought I was destined to be a writer. He based this belief on the daily sentences we had to write in Hebrew for homework, ten sentences a day, using words from the new vocab list. It was a lesson for me in how much subtlety, humour and humanity it is indeed possible to express with essentially very few words and very little language, which I'm sure has affected me as a writer for children.
I met my Argentinian husband on the kibbutz, and when we came back to Australia Yehuda and I continued our friendship in letters, writing to each other, in cursive Hebrew, at least once a month. I've kept all these letters, meticulously neat on thin kibbutz paper. But after about four years there were no more letters, until after several months' silence I received one in English from his daughter-in-law, telling me Yehuda had died, at the age of sixty-four. As his daughter-in-law put it rather grimly, "his long life of over work and self-indulgence finally took its toll".
YEHUDA IS THE INSPIRATION for the figure of Samuel's grandfather Elias in The First Book of Samuel. But although I was very moved and affected by his death, and indeed his life, I never consciously thought in terms of "putting" him into a book. The book came, like all my books, in a way that seems at least natural and unplanned. When my daughter was about five or six, I happened to be reading to her from a children's Bible, the story of the childhood of Samuel at the beginning of the first book of Samuel.
Now this story had always been a particular favourite of mine as a child, I think probably because it's about the only Bible story with a child in it. I used to go to a Congregational Sunday school--it had a rather melancholy atmosphere--just me and the minister's son, a very pale boy named Paul, in a class taught by the minister's wife in a cold church hall. But I liked it, and I remember on the wall a dark blue and gold painting of the boy Samuel at night in the temple with Eli, when he hears the voice of God calling him, that was undoubtedly unsettling and impressive.
Years later I read the story to my daughter as a piece of nostalgia, I suppose. But then I found myself utterly engaged by it, the whole of what film people call the "backstory" to Samuel's life--Elkanah and his two wives, one of whom has so many children and the other who has no children and is sad and miserable and refuses to eat. Then of course the miraculous conception of the beloved child Samuel. It still seems odd to me how real and close the dilemmas of this ancient family struck me, so distant in time and culture from anything I might have experienced. Why was it so compelling?
I decided I wanted to write about them, but as if this family was living not in Israel thousands of years ago, but in Sydney in the 1990s. That's how it began. Even then I did not at once think it would be a story of a Jewish family. But as I began with the name of the father, Elkanah, I realised with such a typically Jewish name it needed to be a Jewish family. I'd come across the name Elkanah in Israel of course, and in particular remembered a conversation I'd listened to where some people were discussing a man named Elkanah who they all agreed was an ebullient, extraordinary, difficult, charismatic and exasperating person. I never saw or met this fellow, but these associations with the name were so strong that's how the personality of my Elkanah rose up before me--backed up, I must say, by the personality of the biblical Elkanah, who memorably replies, when Hannah tells him she is sad because she has no children: "What do you want children for? Aren't I as good as ten children?" And I'll just add here that my Elkanah is an opera singer, simply because at the time I met an opera singer at a children's birthday party, and I decided that this would be a perfect profession for him.
The book essentially follows the biblical story, although the readers need not know this and I'm sure in most cases don't. Elkanah has two wives, Pearl, with lots of children (my Elkanah is actually divorced from Pearl, as I felt two wives at once even in our modern age might be pushing things a bit) and Hannah with none and so on. The only idea I had as to the direction of the story was that at the climax Samuel would be in a darkened room with an old man very dear to him, and would have some kind of perhaps religious vision, as happens in the Bible. Still at this stage my friend Yehuda had not entered my writing mind, but he crept in by himself, with the creation of the grandfather character, Elias. And this character brought with him, again very naturally, soberly and indeed inevitably, the experience and consciousness of the Holocaust.
In terms of the portrait of family relationships in this novel and its sequel Theodora's Gift, because my husband is Jewish, I suppose I've had a fairly close and uncontrived exposure to certain kinds of Jewish family life both in Israel and Argentina. But additionally I'm gratefully aware that the books were very influenced by my own observation of Jewish families with whom we are friends, and who over the years have so generously invited my family to their homes on many occasions and for many moving family events. I don't believe any of these friends would recognise themselves at all in any of the characters in the novel and that is because they are not in it, as the characters are inventions, but I think they would recognise other things--moments, moods, details.
THE FIRST BOOK OF SAMUEL was very successful, one of my most successful, and is taught in many schools, Jewish and non-Jewish, in about Year 7 or 8. I get quite a lot of letters from children, teachers, parents and other readers about the book and the clearly deep emotions it can evoke. It's beautiful to have these responses, I think particularly because I was not aware of the power of the story as I was writing it. Something that seems to touch people is the relationship between the grandfather and the grandson, one from the old world, and the other so much from the new, and the bond between them that is both painful and enormously enriching.
Over the years letter writers also often mentioned Theodora, Samuel's half-sister, the compulsive diary keeper, and would say, could you write another book about Theodora? We want to know what happens to Theodora. I'm probably not a natural sequel writer, so I didn't take it seriously but after a while and more letters I started to think perhaps I should, there is something unfinished here. So I sat down and began to write Theodora's Gift. I was quite anxious about it though. Could I recapture the voice of the first book? Could I find a story for Theodora that was as powerful?
It was a difficult book to write, but I am so glad I did. I think I did recapture the voice, but it's ten years later and I'm a different person, and it's a different world we live in, so it has changed too. There was a mystical element in The First Book of Samuel but I think Theodora's Gift is probably more mystical--mystical and mysterious.
I did get stuck in the middle of it. There seemed to be so many strands, so many elements I wanted to fit in, I felt it was getting lost somewhere. I needed some strong, deep guiding story, as I'd had in The First Book of Samuel, but I couldn't find it anywhere. Then, miraculously, in casual conversation with my brother-in-law, he happened to mention the marvellous terrifying story from the biblical book of Daniel, of Belshazzar's Feast, the apparition of the moving finger writing messages on the wall in the middle of a riotous feast. I knew that this was what I had been looking for. As indeed it was. With a kind of subconscious knowledge of that story binding all the elements together, I was able to get on and finish it.
So that is some sort of explanation of how I came to write these two books of contemporary Jewish Australian family life. In the back of my mind I have a thought of a third book, about that third child, and that third childhood not in Australia but in Munich. But that is a mighty task and I'm not at all sure how I would set about writing it. But hopefully in the next ten or even twenty years, should I live that long, I'll think of a way to finish this trilogy, a final tribute to a terrible time and a most remarkable generation.