"Baalei teshuvah and geirim are hypersensitive to hypocrisy. If you’re going to work with them, be sure your actions and your mouth are on the same page"
Book: Who is Like Your People?
Author: Henye Meyer
Publisher: Menucha Publishers
The book in two lines
This is the story of Ovadya, an early 12th century Norman convert to Judaism, brought to life in a novel. His personal journey is explored against the backdrop of various Jewish communities of his time.
The author in three lines
I was born in Phoenixville, PA, and spent most of my youth in the local Carnegie Public Library. I now live in Manchester, England, have a large family ka”h, an old house, and a big garden. I laugh a lot and enjoy historical research. My many novels have been a staple of Jewish libraries for almost forty years.
How did you encounter Ovadya and decide to write his story?
In 1984, in the process of researching my novel The Exiles of Crocodile Island, I came across Professor Goitein’s book A Mediterranean Society, and in it, found an excerpt from Ovadya’s autobiography. His personality leapt off the pages. I wrote to Professor Goitein, and he sent me some unpublished material he had about him. However, I don’t just write stories. I need a message. I had to wait until I knew what message I wanted to convey in this novel. Writing this book took 35 years. I went at it in fits and starts, and I wrote a number of other novels in the intervening years, not to mention raising a family, but it was always looking at me accusingly.
The strangest feedback you ever got?
A novel I wrote was given a two-star review on Amazon, and the entire review read “Not what I expected” — which says more about the reader than about the book!
What was the hardest part to write?
Ovadya’s dreams. I had to make them make sense in the context of the story, and he didn’t bother to explain some of them.
Any surprises along the way?
I was surprised that the publishers accepted it. Ovadya encounters some injustices and wrongs within the Torah community he has chosen, and my book doesn’t whitewash them. During the final year of writing, the professor who created a website about Ovadya brought to my attention a newly-discovered reference relating to a letter written by Ovadya’s rav, Rav Baruch, to him about choosing a wife. I really hadn’t expected to have confirmation of Ovadya’s continuing ties to this rav, so it was reassuring to know I was on the right track.
I also hadn’t anticipated developing the guts to interpret material myself, even when the “experts” had different views. This was in part due to encouragement from the academics, but also from a realization that sometimes they were just making educated guesses, and I could, too.
What do you feel should be required reading for every human?
That’s not my business to dictate. That said, I’d recommend a quality adult dictionary. Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik ztz”l learned his erudite English from reading a few pages of a dictionary every day.
Which character did you have the most trouble with?
This time, I had less trouble with my characters than usual — after all, over thirty-five years you get to know them.
The superpower you’d want most?
What do you snack on when you write?
If I snacked, I’d be the size of an elephant. I drink one mug of black decaf coffee per session.
What changes did you make after your first draft?
I’m not even sure there was a first draft. I kept starting and restarting, writing scenes which were clear to me, skipping around in the story, deleting, and rewriting.
Interesting experiences while researching this book?
My visit to Oppido, where Ovadya’s Catholic noble family lived in their ancestral castle, was unforgettable. Unexpectedly, the locals befriended me and showed me all I could want to see in the area.
I hit some dead ends in my research when I was trying to find a description of Iraqi Jewish wedding customs, and though there may be Iraqi Jews around who could have told me, I never found any. I had to give up on a wedding scene.
Your writing space?
I used to have a little corner at the end of a blind hallway, but when that had to be turned into a wet room during my convalescence from a severe illness, I ended up writing in part of the main entrance hall where every bit of my mess is on show, the sun shines in my eyes, and there’s a horrible draft from a window high above me.
What motivated you to continue when things got challenging?
Guilt. So many people had helped me and been so gracious that I couldn’t let them down, though I wasn’t sure they’d like the book. Some of them died before I finished.
What was the best money you spent as a writer?
Probably the writing class I took while I lived in Boston. I had a few children, and I was expecting and nauseous for most of it, but it was a good course. The teacher’s advice on one of my submissions was that I write out a brief personality sketch of each character, because I clearly didn’t have a grasp of them. I don’t do it, but I bear it in mind, and I’ve found that a poor grasp of a character can be the reason a book or plot isn’t working as it should.
Is there anything you can’t write?
I can’t write non-fiction, even though I’ve tried. For me, it’s fiction only — and opinion columns. Boy, can I write opinion columns.
An early experience when you learned the power of writing?
Some years ago, I had a dropout son. Although I acknowledge that this often happens due to rebelliousness, I also felt that he’d been mishandled by the schools and the community, because in those days there was absolutely no framework for such boys. If they didn’t fit into the increasingly rigid school regime, they had nowhere to go but the street. I felt I should bring the situation to public attention, and I wrote a short piece for the U.K.’s Jewish Tribune. The editor at the time published it with an editorial comment above explaining that he believed the situation was unique, but in deference to the mother’s strong feelings, he let it through. Well, it was like tossing a match into a haystack. Letters poured in, and for weeks they filled two pages of the newspaper. Of course, it didn’t help my son, but at least people became aware that there was a problem that needed attention. I still kvell quietly when I think of those weeks of letters. Power!
Whose writings have been an integral part of your journey?
The works of Rosemary Sutcliff, Nevil Shute, Rudyard Kipling. And also, Alcott, Austen, Bronte, Buchan, Crispin, G. Durrell, Hemingway, Heyer, Innes, D W Jones, Lofting, Lyon, Mauldin, Mayne, Pratchett, Sayers, Shakespeare, Tarkington, Turner, and Webster, et al.
What messages would you like readers to walk away with after reading this novel?
- Everybody needs a rav, and everybody needs to obey what their rav says.
- If you’re following daas Torah, it doesn’t matter what other people are doing.
- Think for yourself. Just because people claim something obscure is Deeply Meaningful doesn’t make it so.
- The frum community may be wonderful, but it isn’t perfect. Don’t close your eyes to its faults. Do something about them. (And don’t expect thanks.)
- Baalei teshuvah and geirim are hypersensitive to hypocrisy. If you’re going to work with them, be sure your actions and your mouth are on the same page.
I don’t reread my own novels, aside from Adrenalin Rush. I like rereading that, because I enjoy the funny lines. There’s enough serious stuff going on that it’s worth reading something light.
I’m still in touch with an Italian family who became my friendly tour guides on my visit to Oppido. And on my way back, I met explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 752)
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