Thursday’s Work-in-Progress: How to Tell a True War Story

As many of you know, the big reveal has happened: The commissioned story that I’ve mentioned several times on the blog over the past few months is out in the world, and I’ve been shouting the news from the virtual mountaintops. The story is titled “Fidelis,” and I am so proud to say that it is part of this year’s Hanukkah Lights broadcast on National Public Radio. (Local air dates and times vary, but my story–as well as the others featured this year–can be accessed at the link I’ve given you.)

Of course, my first “thank-you” must go to the series producer, who contacted me during the summer with the stunning invitation to write something for the broadcast. When he cited something that he particularly appreciated about Quiet Americans–about the way he perceived the stories making the past resonant in the present–I knew that I was going to write a piece of historical fiction. He was a pleasure to work with. And his one revision request improved the story immeasurably.

Beyond that, and the word count, the only “limitation” was that the story had to “pertain to the Hanukkah season.” When I realized that this December would mark the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor (remember, I’m an historian by training), I knew that I was one step closer to finding a story to tell.

I owe a great deal of thanks to Rabbi Lisa S. Greene, who helped guide me to extremely useful background resources on Hanukkah. And I am immeasurably grateful to three readers of early drafts for their constructive critiques: B.J. Epstein, Natalie Wexler, and my mom!

Most important–and hopefully without giving too much away–I’m grateful to the military veterans–including chaplains–who have given us all so much.

Please go listen to the story. And then come back here to find out which books and other resources helped me write it.

  • The Hanukkah Anthology, by Philip Goodman. Recommended by Rabbi Lisa Greene, this book reprints Zelda Popkin’s Hanukkah-focused pages in GI Holy Days: Jewish Holidays and Festival Observances Among the Armed Forces Throughout the World (1944). Popkin cites Chaplain Jacob Philip Rudin’s own account of some miraculous moments with a group of Marines a few weeks after the Battle of Tarawa, and that is the basis for the story’s closing scene.
  • G.I. Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation, by Deborah Dash Moore. I reviewed this impressive book several years ago for I returned to it as I worked on this story. It helped me picture much of Jack’s sensibility at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack.
  • “WWII Combat Camerman: ‘The World Had to Know,'” by Tom Bowman, and Utmost Savagery: The Three Days at Tarawa, by Joseph H. Alexander. Provided essential historical background on Tarawa, including film and photographs.
  • Battle Cry, by Leon Uris (1953). Before Exodus, Uris (who was a Jewish Marine in World War II and fought at Tarawa) published this novel. I’m glad that I read it; I’m not sure I would have picked it up had I not been working on this assignment.
  • Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York, by Thomas Kessner. Excellent biography with meticulous footnotes that led me straight to The New York Times‘s archive (access to which is one superb benefit of a newspaper subscription). Especially helpful: the newspaper’s coverage of local rabbis’ sermons after Pearl Harbor. (I didn’t invent any of the sermon text in “Fidelis.”) And the contemporary weather reports.
  • One final shoutout: It wasn’t a direct source, but my visit to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History last February was deeply inspiring. And on the very day last month that Susan Stamberg recorded “Fidelis” (she did a magnificent job, by the way), the NMAJMH posted an item about Tarawa, from its Stanley Spierer collection, on Facebook.

3 thoughts on “Thursday’s Work-in-Progress: How to Tell a True War Story

  1. Very interesting … I had a feeling that the rabbi’s sermon was lifted from reality! And several years ago I heard Deborah Dash Moore speak about her research for the Jewish GI book. Thanks for giving us a peek into the background for the story. You managed to find a way to make history enrich the story without weighing it down.

  2. BJ Epstein says:

    You’re welcome, Erika. I’d be glad to critique anytime.
    More importantly, many congratulations to you on yet another wonderful achievement!

    Best wishes,

  3. Erika Dreifus says:

    Thank you both–again!

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