I wanted to let my readers of Jewish Rantings know that Diana agreed (enthusiastically) to give us a visit soon on Jewish Rantings. You will have to stop by frequently. As she is so busy right now on her book tour. This month is also Jewish Book Month when all the Synagogues, and Jewish Community Centers have Jewish Book Festivals. I am sure that will keep her very busy.
Remember to visit Blog Talk Radio on November 20th to listen to the radio broadcast.
You can also send in your questions to Jennifer Hart before the broadcast.
The article below is from the Jewish Week. It was written Oct 30th.
Spechler’s novel is set during the second intifada. “I wanted to explore the feelings we get as Jews, upon hearing about a suicide bombing,” she says.
by Sandee Brawarsky
Jewish Week Book Critic
Diane Spechler had the title of her first novel long before she knew how the story would turn out. She was delving into themes of guilt, atonement, faith and redemption, and knew that the lines from the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, “who by fire,” would be fitting. Some have asked the 29-year-old author if the title was inspired by Leonard Cohen’s song of the same name, but it’s more likely that he drew from the same source she did.
“Who By Fire” (Harper Perennial) is a compelling and original novel, told in three alternating voices: a sister, brother and their mother, whose storylines are entangled. It’s a tale of the complex pull of family, with a chain of incidents set off in
Israel and America when the characters assume they know what’s best for one another.
The disappearance of the youngest child, Alena, 13 years earlier haunts the characters’ lives. The father has left them, the mother grieves as she fosters guilt and blame, the older sister uses sex to numb her pain and confusion, and the son goes through a series of obsessions, ultimately finding solace and meaning in Orthodox Judaism. To the horror of his mother and dismay of his sister, he drops out of college and moves to Jerusalem to enroll in an Orthodox yeshiva.
Set in 2002, during the second intifada, the novel opens as Bits is on a flight to Israel to rescue her brother. Ellie, the mother, is drawn to a charismatic man who convinces her that her son has been brainwashed and, as she gets more involved with him, “her heart is constricting like a question mark.” And Ash, now known as Asher, is at peace, happier than he’s ever been, as he’s learning in a yeshiva for young men who’ve grown up religious along with ba’alei teshuvah, newly religious young men like himself.
Spechler, in well-crafted prose, manages to make all three quite likeable. She captures the daily drama of their lives, the humor too, as they take actions unknown to one another. Each one, and particularly Ash in his yeshiva, has deeply-felt conversations about faith, God and observance.
Toward the end, all three reflect on what happens “when you try to rescue someone.” As Bits realizes, “you find out you’re the one who needs rescuing.” Her mother notes, “You can forget your priorities; you can even forget your children. You forget all about the person you’re rescuing.” And Ash thinks, “This is what happens when you try to rescue someone. There is embarrassing, ineffectual melodrama, like a fire truck blaring sirens, speeding toward a cat in a tree.”
Ultimately, the novel takes a hopeful turn and, as Spechler points out in an interview in a Manhattan cafe, ends with the word “light.” While Alena’s disappearance is always present, this is not a dark tale. The author says she is grateful that she has no such tragedy in her own family’s story, but says the themes and emotions of the novel are indeed autobiographical.
Spechler, who grew up in Newton, Mass., graduated from the University of Colorado and spent a semester at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After completing a graduate writing program in Montana, she lived in Texas, Wyoming, California, Rhode Island and Michigan, before moving to New York City, where she now lives in the East Village. She has attended writers’ workshops, taught writing to yeshiva girls and fashion students, and tended bar, all while writing.
“In everything I do,” she says, “I make writing the centerpiece.”
The novel has its origins in a story Spechler wrote while in graduate school, as part of her thesis. That story was about a sister in America and brother in Israel, written from the sister’s perspective.
“I wanted to explore the feelings we get as Jews, upon hearing about a suicide bombing. You can’t explain how bad it feels, and, at the same time, there’s a disconnect.”
She kept thinking about the story, as it was so unresolved and disturbing, and wondered about the brother’s side of the story and about the family she had created. At a writer’s colony in Minnesota, she began writing from his perspective, and realized that this was a long piece rather than a short story. Later on, she added the mother’s perspective too.
Spechler grew up with weekly Shabbat dinners, Jewish summer camps, attendance at a Reform synagogue and a high school summer in Israel — “one of those trips where a bunch of American teenagers in the same T-shirts ride around on a bus.” She says that the Orthodox yeshiva world was one she didn’t know existed.
While at Hebrew University, she first learned about Orthodox Judaism and “flirted big time with becoming more Orthodox.”
“When I was there, I was swept up in that,” she recalls, explaining that she studied with a learning partner a couple of times per week, began keeping kosher and said morning prayers.
She says that some of the appeal was that the world of Orthodox Judaism seemed a tight community, and that you couldn’t possibly understand it unless you were in it — just as one can’t really understand the inner workings of any family unless one is part of it.
“When I got home, a lot of it faded. I thought — and I still think — that if you really believe in it, then how could you not to do everything according to letter of the law? My struggle is that I have too many questions to live a life that screams, ‘I have answers.’ I have many more questions than answers.”
Some passages read like overheard conversations between religious and secular Jews, and Spechler admits that those are drawn from conversations with herself. As she explains, “I was at war with myself. I was on both sides of the fence for a very long time.”
When asked if she still struggles, she answers, “Yes and no. I think I was really searching for a long time. The novel gave me a context to be acceptably obsessive with the questions, to explore them to the core. I take on obsessions all the time when I’m writing and when I finish the project, I unburden myself of the obsession. Now, I’m more at peace with having questions that don’t have answers.”
She did a lot of research in her quest to get the details just right. In 2004, she returned to Israel and spent time in the few yeshivas that welcomed her presence. One yeshiva student became her correspondent and supplied answers to her many questions, and she also learned a lot from the Web site AskMoses.com.
“I’m writing about issues that really concern me, about the conflict between secular and religious Jews,” she says. “I feel like an observer of the way people practice Judaism. I don’t have a judgment. I’m not trying to make point.”
In what might be a coincidence, after she had been working on the novel for a year, she learned that her own brother had decided, while in Israel for a summer before law school, to become an Orthodox Jew. She points out that her brother, who only knew vaguely what she was working on, is nothing like Ash. He is now back in Austin, Texas, where he continues to lead an observant life.
“The happiest feedback I’ve gotten,” she says, “is from people who are not Jewish or don’t know anything about Israel or Judaism, who tell me that this book makes them want to go to Israel. That feels like a great accomplishment.” n *