Rebecca Klempner is one of the wonderful people I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know via the Internet, where I frequently read her essays and reviews and “converse” with her via email and social media. Several months ago, she announced that she’d be publishing a book of short stories for younger readers. As soon as Sliding Doors and Other Stories was available, I purchased a copy for my Kindle. It took me a little while to focus on reading them, but I’m happy to say that I have finally done so. And as part of the wonderful #Readukkah initiative from the Association of Jewish Libraries, I’m proud to share this Q&A with the author just as we prepare the kindle this year’s first Hanukkah candles. (I suspect that I am bending the #Readukkah rules somewhat by presenting a Q&A instead of a review, but I hope that I’ll be forgiven for so doing.)
Sliding Doors and Other Stories comprises 17 short stories (and one essay). In a note to readers, the author explains that she wrote the stories in this collection “for several of the magazines that serve the Orthodox community.” Elsewhere, she has indicated that the target readership for this book is likely between 11 and 16 years of age.
Rebecca Klempner is an wife, mother, and writer living in Los Angeles. Born in Baltimore, she grew up in Columbia, Maryland; Israel; and Las Vegas, Nevada. She attended St. Mary’s College of Maryland and American University, where she obtained a master’s degree in applied anthropology. In 1998, she headed to Los Angeles for a stint in Teach for America. She remained there and taught for five years before becoming a stay-at-home mother. In 2005, she sold her first picture book: A Dozen Daisies for Raizy was published in 2008 by Hachai. Subsequently, she’s written for many magazines – print and online – including Mishpacha, Ami, Hamodia, Binah, Tablet, and The Jewish Home.
Please welcome Rebecca Klempner!
Erika Dreifus (ED): My guess is that there are some challenges inherent in writing YA stories, and some challenges embedded in writing for an Orthodox readership, and some challenges that apply in both cases. True? Can you tell us a bit about something you might have found difficult as you crafted any of the stories in the book—and how you worked your way through it?
Rebecca Klempner (RK): You’re right about YA books, and the editorial policies of Hareidi magazines – particularly those for kids and teens – are far, far tighter even than those of your average kidlit and YA publisher. Not only do the characters have to abstain from foul language and the like, but because the magazines want to appeal to the widest range of readers, they tend to stick by stricter standards than even many Hareidi parents feel is necessary. For example, I once wrote a story the referred to a book that is on the reading list of many English-speaking Hareidi high schools. The book is a classic. However, the editor had me insert the name of a book that I’d made up, because they didn’t want to give the appearance that they had endorsed this particular, secular book. Most of these issues can be remedied by substitutions, and these don’t generally affect the story’s integrity.
When the editor objected to something that happened in one of my stories that did actually affect the storytelling—for example, a teen looked something up on the internet with a trusted adult around but without parental supervision, or if a teenage girl spoke at length with a non-related teenage boy to convey important information—the editor would always send back the story with a description of the problem. The wackiest thing I had to deal with was about a dog. Many Orthodox Jews, particularly Hassidim, don’t approve of keeping non-kosher animals as pets, and the title story in the collection (“Sliding Doors”) originally had a subplot about the mother—who is afraid of another break-in after an attempted robbery—wanting to adopt a dog. The editors in that case and the others let me figure out how to solve it myself. (We made her consider buying a dog, but giving up the idea in the end.) Usually, a little time wracking my brain for an answer and some Heavenly assistance works, but occasionally I’ve asked a colleague for help.
ED: You’ve told me about feedback you’ve received from young readers and from teachers. Can you please share with us a sampling of the more memorable/gratifying—or maybe even surprising?—responses?
RK: Several of the stories are about a teen with Asperger’s Syndrome, Mendel, and those have gotten raves from readers on the Autism Spectrum, as well as their parents, teachers, and therapists. Similarly, many people came up to me also after “Forgetting Miri” came out to share their stories of family struggles with Alzheimer’s.
When I pick up my children at school and other students rush to tell me how much they liked a recent story, that’s particularly fun. One of the kids down the street is friends with my two eldest kids, and he’ll tell me when he loves a story…but also when he’s disappointed!
ED: If I’m understanding correctly, the stories in this book weren’t written with an overarching book project in mind. Over how long a period did you write these stories, when did you realize that you might, in fact, have a book on your hands, and why did you opt for self-publishing?
RK: Most of the stories appeared over a year, but the first story appeared a few years previous to the others. I kept getting requests for certain stories from teachers who wanted to share them with their students, or young readers approached me to say they had just discovered my work—did I have older stories to share with them? The problem is, magazines are flimsy and people throw them away. Printing things out or sharing them electronically piecemeal became a drag. Handing people a book means it will last longer and they can use it again and again. Most publishers, even secular ones, hesitate to publish short story collections. Previously published material can be hard to sell, too. The real turning point came when I saw an article about how to publish for free (or close to it). I was between projects, so I thought, “Why not try this? There’s nothing to lose.”
ED: Although we’ve never met face-to-face, we are (I think!) good friends (RK: Yes! I love your insights and humor and kindness!), and you very tactfully advised me ahead of time that this book might be outside my usual reading territory. Notably, you mentioned that the book includes “no explanation of Jewish terms,” meaning that there no translations of phrases that are commonplace in Orthodox/Hareidi circles, but likely a lot less familiar to me.
And you were right about that—there was a lot I didn’t know! I look at this as a plus—I’m always talking about the diversity of Jewish experience and literature, and reading this reminded me of that diversity. For anyone who might want to get to know the Hareidi JewLit world better, are there certain authors, publishers, social media accounts, newsletters, etc. that you’d recommend?
RK: There are several very accomplished Hareidi writers, but many of them write primarily for magazines: Henye Meyer, Bracha Rosman, Yael Mermelstein, Libby Lazewnik, Libi Astaire, Rhona Lewis, Riva Pomerantz (I’m sure I’m missing people). Libi writes mysteries and self-publishes, for the most part. Henye Meyer’s novels are published by Orthodox publishers—the best is called This is America! and follows a family from the shtetl to turn of the last century New York. Of Hareidi writers, I think she, Yael Mermelstein, and Rhona Lewis have the most literary style and would appeal to a wide audience. There’s also a writer named Meir Uri Gottesman—some of his novels have this marvelous magic realism that really appeals to me.
The Hareidi publishers include Artscroll, Feldheim, Menucha Publishers, Israel Bookshop Publications, and Judaica Press. For kids, there’s Hachai. There are some more “modern” publishers who do sometimes publish the books of Hareidi writers – Mosaic, Koren, and Gefen come to mind. Only Koren and Israel Bookshop seem to have a real noticeable social media presence. Fiction or creative non-fiction seem to be sidelines for most of these publishers. Other than Hachai, which specializes in picture books, the Orthodox publishers focus more on liturgy, religious texts, and books about character improvement or religious inspiration. They frankly make less money on genuine literature, so they invest less in that end of the business.
Outside of books published by those companies, I’d recommend the works of Ruchama King Feuerman, Rochelle Krich‘s “Molly Blume” novels (although many her characters are a bit more modern, you learn a lot), and Risa Miller‘s My Before and After Life. I also have to say that even though he is not Orthodox, all Barry Deutsch‘s graphic novels are well-researched and show pretty authentic Hareidi experiences, from a Hassidishe perspective, even if they are fantasy. (Many Hareidi readers wouldn’t read them because of the trolls and the magic…but my kids love the first two and are excited about reading the newly-released third book.)
Social media and websites? Most of the Orthodox ones are for teaching Torah or devoted to working on character traits. I love Sarah Shapiro’s essays and Sara Yocheved Rigler’s articles on Aish.com—they’re written in a more literary style even though they are about living a Jewish life. Judy Gruen (her work is largely on Aish and on her blog) and Mordechai Schmutter (who has columns in both The Jewish Press and Inyan, but also occasionally shares reprints on Aish.com) write humor and are just plain funny (Judy is more Modern Orthodox even though we attend the same synagogue).
RK: I think the biggest beef that any Orthodox person has—particularly if we are in the center or to the right—is that nearly every representation of us in literature or media is an outsider perspective, usually based often on stereotypes. These aren’t individuals, but caricatures. Even when not basing characters on stereotypes, the author often projects their own concerns on the characters, based on mainstream American mores, rather than seeing things through a genuine Orthodox POV. They also tend to lump every variety of Hareidi together with Hassidim, who compose maybe half the community.
Hareidi people sometimes steer clear of their non-Hareidi neighbors not just because we’re “insular” – whatever that means – but because the rest of the world judges us harshly. When readers pick up a novel with “pseudo-Ultra-Orthodox” characters and assume that’s reality, it just reinforces that divide.
ED: Thank you so much, Rebecca! Readers, you can take a peek at Sliding Doors and Other Stories right here.