How different does this novel on Jewish history read post-Oct. 7?

Janice Weizman's new novel, 'Our Little Histories,' traces three branches of a Jewish family – American, Israeli and Eastern European – from 2015 back to the Pale of Settlement. In an interview she says that even though it was published on the eve of October 7, it still has a lot to say on our present moment.

When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he reportedly said, “So, you’re the little lady who started this great war.” Later, the civil rights leader Frederick Douglass wrote of the novel: “Its effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.” Considering almost a decade came between the novel’s publication and the American Civil War, today we must have a different idea of “instantaneous.” Today, video clips from Hamas’ GoPros, viewed around the world in near real time, and the hot takes on those clips by social-media influencers seem more likely to make and shape a war than a 384-page novel.

 

What’s a novelist to do? Art is a way to participate in the great exchange of ideas: but what if your art takes years, and the exchange now unfolds in minutes? In his book Stolen Focus, Johann Hari spotlights a study that strongly suggests the more information a society has to consume, the less time it will spend on any given topic. This acceleration in our public discourse has been underway for well over a century. Analyzing books published between 1900 and 2004, the study found topics faded from the discourse ever more quickly, and that this pattern continues today on Twitter, except instead of topics “trending” for perhaps years, we’re now talking hours. In the time it takes to read a novel—never mind write one—an idea can spread to all corners, be judged, sustain a backlash against that judgement, and be deemed exhausted. Any more attention to it might come across as beating a dead horse. Is that idiom still tolerable? Even our language is changing ever more quickly. It’s a tough gig for novelists today, even in the best of times. And now, for most Jewish novelists, is not the best of times.

 

No matter how fast or slow a culture is evolving, there come days that divide our lives into a “before and after.” For many Jewish novelists, October 7th is such a day. It is such a day not only because of the slaughter, rape, torture, and kidnapping that took place; but also because of how this orgy of violence was greeted by too many fellow writers and scholars with either eerie silence, deliberate disregard, or on occasion even applause. Suddenly, the novels some of us were writing on October 6th felt irrelevant or downright inane. Others found themselves releasing novels into a world very different than the one that they had written them for. Many of us wanted to dedicate our skills to meeting this moment, but what is our skill? A novelist tries to capture and communicate the nuanced, multi-faceted, contradictory experience of life in a way that only several hundred pages can do. And the war was happening now. The videos and posts glorifying Osama bin Laden and Hamas paragliders were going viral now. The need to reach readers and voters and your best friend was now.

 

On September 6th, days after I arrived from New York City to live in Tel Aviv for the year, I participated in the launch of Janice Weizman’s moving novel Our Little Histories. At once compact and sweeping, the novel begins in 2015 and traces three Jewish families, backwards through time, until we reach their common ancestor in the Pale of the Settlement. One branch of the family thrives in America, another in Israel, and a third never leaves the old country. Since Weizman’s novel exploring Jewish history was published on the eve of October 7th, I thought she was in a unique position to speak to what it means to be a novelist at this critical time. I sent her a couple of questions; her answers are below.

 

At the Tel Aviv launch for Our Little Histories, you said: “Writing is a form of thinking.” Could you elaborate on this? What did you want to mull over when you set out to write your novel? Was its poignant structure, in which the novel works backwards in time, an immediate result of your writing/thinking process or did that structure emerge in a later draft?

 

Like most of my work, Our Little Histories began as a thought experiment. I was thinking about the community of Jews that I come from, people with a long history in Eastern Europe, and how detached we are from that history. I envisioned us, the descendants of those people, as a tree whose roots are invisible but reaching far underground, feeding and supporting the tree, and this novel was an attempt to make those roots visible. Even before I wrote the book, I saw it as moving backwards in time, starting today and receding into the lives of our parents and grandparents, and then moving even farther back, to their parents and grandparents. What I hoped to do was to offer the reader a perspective that draws a line between us today, and our ancestors who lived their lives in the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe.

 

When I said that writing is a form of thinking, I meant that writing a work of fiction involves constant mental vigilance. This thinking involves formulating a complex mixture of plot, character, setting and theme that work together to build a story. It also involves keeping an eye on how these elements are coming together, zeroing in on a scene and then zeroing out in order to see how it works with the whole. Ideally, the writer ought to be conscious of what they want the reader to come away with.

 

If you were working on Our Little Histories today, only months after it went to print, would you write anything differently? Would you have felt it necessary to take the story beyond 2015 to include the tragedies of 2023? Or do you feel your novel made enough room for the current situation? Can a novelist, despite the time it takes to write a novel, meet a moment, if he or she is writing observantly enough, by predicting and foreshowing it?

 

That’s a very hard question to answer. A novel can only reflect the mindset and parameters of the author at the moment of its composition. Having said that, wider subterranean concerns, fears, and prejudices are always informing the author’s psyche, and they are also present in the work, if only between the lines of the story. Our Little Histories follows the long evolution of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. The people in those communities were impoverished, persecuted shtetl dwellers, but their descendants went on to become modern and prosperous citizens of the world. Some did this through immigration. Others took up Zionism. What drove this evolution was the dream of living in an environment free of antisemitism, and free of fear. The events of October 7th have taken us back to this dream, and caused us to ponder, as our ancestors did, the question of how to ensure that Jews can live in prosperity and safety. And they have called up questions of history and destiny that many of us believed had been resolved.

 

Novels are very good at exposing the “blind spots” of a given era, and I think these come across very clearly in Our Little Histories. For example, in the chapter that takes place in Vilna in 1939, Gabriel, who is a teacher at a secular Jewish high school, can’t possibly envision what’s coming. He sees what’s happening in Germany, and he’s worried, but when his cousin in Palestine begs him to join her, an act that we know could save his life, he refuses. So what the book is showing is the impossibility of seeing the future, despite hints of what is coming. And that sort of selective vision, which is common to all of us, is at work in the chapter that unfolds in 2015.

 

But to answer your original question, the book reflects a slow process of disengagement between North American and Israeli Jews, in which each generation has grown increasingly estranged from our common roots. The events of Oct. 7th are forcing us do redefine that relationship, and if I were writing the book today, I would want to add a chapter which somehow reflects that.

 

Whether or not you would have changed anything in Our Little Histories, do you think your readers will experience the story differently? Do the recent events make your chapters and characters resonate differently? If you imagined a particular reader while writing Our Little Histories, is that reader different now from the one you now imagine picking it up?

 

Absolutely. October 7th has added a new and devastating chapter to Jewish history, and I think we’ve only begun to process it. Your question is interesting because while the Arab-Israeli conflict almost doesn’t figure in the book (which goes to show you how far under the radar it was, for me and many others) questions about the complex relationship between Jews and the wider world is very much there as a subtext. And yes, I think my imagined reader has changed. She’s still the same person, except that now she’s reading in the aftermath of a pogrom—something she thought was purely a thing of the past.

 

October 7th overturned and disrupted our understanding of what it means to be a Jew today. It instigated a process of deep and painful questioning, a process of re-examining the choices our ancestors had, and the choices they made. In a very strange way, it takes us back to the reasons they made those choices, and the reasons they had to make them. I think the novel very much addresses those issues.

 

Even under the best of circumstances, a novel is released into a world different than the one it was started in. How long did it take you to write Our Little Histories? Given how long it takes to write a novel as opposed to how quickly our culture now evolves, and given that the novel is no longer one of the only ways to experience another’s reality, what do you think is the role of the novel today? Do you think the novel can deliver something that other story mediums cannot?

 

Reading a novel involves effort in a way that watching a movie or hearing a podcast doesn’t. You need to focus, to be patient, and also to actively engage with it, whether that means liking what you’re reading or hating it. Zadie Smith once compared reading a novel to playing a musical piece, because everyone reads in their own way, and meets the work from a different place. In other words, being engrossed in a novel is an experience that both demands and rewards like no other art form.

 

It took me about 10 years to write the novel, partly because each chapter is like a new book – new setting, new characters, new issues. Some of those chapters required a lot of research to get the details and voices in place. And then I needed to make them come together to form a coherent whole. I wanted readers to be able to hold all these stories together in their mind, to see the full trajectories of what has taken us from then to now.

 

How do you think a novelist working today can best use their skills in a critical moment like this? Do you feel any frustration that your medium does now allow you to join the conversation as quickly and as virally as a TikTok video? Or do you, perhaps, feel that you have met the moment by preemptively writing a book about Jewish survival?

 

Novels and TikTok are two very different means of communication. Each has a very different type of power, and each meets its public in a different way, encountering different expectations. The novel’s power lies in its ability to command a very specific kind of attention. TikTok also commands attention, but that attention is often upstaged very quickly. And then what are you left with?

 

TikTok can be, potentially, a fascinating way to key into what is happening right now. But in TikTok, you don’t meet yourself in the same way that you can in a novel. You don’t really interact in any deep way with what’s in front of you. So I suppose you can say that the novel requires much more effort, but also rewards that effort more profoundly and fully.

 

Novelists offer a way to think about current events in terms of people caught up in situations, and then turn that into a story. Are stories able to shape our understanding of the world? I think the answer is yes. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which you mention is a great example, but think about more modern books, like The Corrections, or American Psycho, or The Human Stain. They bring us into a sort of dialogue with our times, enabling us to see a little better, and a little farther.

 

I believe that Our Little Histories has a lot to say to the present moment. Over the years I was writing it, I imagined it would appeal to people who are interested in digging back into Jewish history/genealogy, but now I think it might be the sort of book that people read for clues: how did we get here, how did we cope with adversity in the past, and how do the qualities that defined the Jewish people in the past play out today?

 

Do you fear a novel that looks sympathetically at Jewish survival in the State of Israel might be met with antagonism? If so, did you have this fear when you started writing the novel or is it new?

 

Just the opposite. I think that the evolution and existence of Zionism are radical historical events that need to be examined and understood. Even if you think Zionism is wrong or misguided or problematic, you still need to understand how and why it developed. And no matter how the Jewish story is going to unfold in the future, novels that engage with the phenomenon of modern-day Israel will be essential.

 

If anything, the work of novelists is to bring ambivalence and difficulty to the fore of our perception, to explore the meaning of how history unfolds. As a writer, I don’t see the appeal of pandering to the opinions of others. Writers don’t necessarily need to be popular.

 

Do you think you would have written this novel any differently had you done so in Hebrew instead of English? If its first readers were likely to be Israelis instead of English-speakers?

 

That’s a really interesting question. Considering it now, I think that if I were writing with Israeli readers in mind, I would have brought out certain elements of Zionist history and thought more strongly—if only because that is particularly relevant for Israeli readers.

 

There is a chapter that takes place on a kibbutz in Israel in the early 1940s. In order to write it, I researched the archives of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, which is about 10 minutes from where I live. I also read original works that deal with development of the kibbutz, like Assaf Inbari’s Home, and The Tank, Moshe Mosenson’s Letters from the Desert, and Amos Oz’s Elsewhere, Perhaps. I was aware that I needed to present the kibbutz and its history in a way that could enable non-Israeli readers to understand the background and the relationships between the members – things that an Israeli reader would be familiar with. Likewise, the chapter that is set in Tel Aviv in 1968 depicts the atmosphere of the city in a way that would be obvious to an Israeli reader, but necessary for anyone who has never been there.

 

But ultimately, the book deals with the idea that the Ashkenazi communities of Eastern Europe experienced a three-way split. This is enacted in the three central chapters that converge around the era of the Holocaust—there is Nat in Chicago in 1938, Gabriel in Vilna in 1939, and Tamar at the kibbutz in the early 1940s. They don’t know each other well—after all they’re just second cousins, but their experiences are all rooted in the same place, the same history.  And that key point would have been the same, even if I were writing in Hebrew.

 

Have you started a new novel? And if so, has the horror of October 7th and its aftermath affected the project you were working on?

 

We’re all in the process of assimilating the events of Oct. 7th into our psyche and worldview, and there is so much about this moment that feels both very new and very old. I get the sense that it has led many of us to reconnect (or in some cases, connect for the first time) with the complex legacies we’ve been handed. I’m certain that living through these times and this trauma will inform many future novels that address what it means to be a Jew in the twenty-first century.

 

I’ve just completed a first draft of a new novel which I began about two years ago. Recent events don’t figure in it at all, but it does relate to the BDS [Boycott, Diversification, and Sanctions] phenomenon in the arts in a wider sense—that is, the whole question of art and power, and the ways in which art poses a threat to prevailing hegemonies.

 

Philip Roth was once asked if the novel will survive into the future, and he basically said that it will, but as a sort of niche activity—I believe he compared it to Latin poetry. But I’m a lot more optimistic. Novels are a going concern—we see that by the excitement and interest that continues to exist around the Nobel prize, the Pulitzer, and yes, even the Jewish National Book awards. And I feel fortunate to live in a world where there’s room for both novels and TikTok.

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