I also asked her some questions to tie in with the launch of my latest book, The Secret Diary of a Jewish Housewife, and her answers make for some very interesting reading.
As I was nearing my 40th birthday, I cast about for what I would do with the rest of my professional life. I was working a demanding consulting job at the time. I was very good at it but it was also clear to me that 30 years down the line, having success in that job or a similar one would not be what I would look back on as a fulfilling and meaningful life.
I have always been good at writing but I can’t spin a yarn like my grandfather used to, so I never conceived of myself as writer. Then, also before my 40th birthday, I took that first trip to Liberec, my grandparents’ former hometown in the Czech Republic, a location that figures prominently in Jumping Over Shadows. I sensed so many undercurrents on that trip that I felt I had to do something with that, so I took an online travel writing class.
That class was pivotal to my career as a writer—the teacher admonished us to “wake up and write”—the best writing advice I ever got, and even though I worked a full-time job and had three little kids, I started getting up at five in the morning to write. Once I made that commitment, my writing took off. I also discovered that you didn’t have to spin a yarn, that literary nonfiction was a thing. Lastly, I met one of my best writing friends in that class—we went on to found our own online group that is still going strong.
2) Why did you want to write ‘Jumping over Shadows’.
First of all, it is the story of an impossible love that succeeded, and thus a universal story despite its unique circumstances. A lot of people fall in love with the “wrong” person, and I wanted to share our story and show that it can work out if you have the courage to stick to your heart and if the two of you really share the same values. But it is not only a story about a romantic love that works out, it is also about the love the families around us had to offer up despite their misgivings.
Secondly, I am very conscious of the fact that the past influences the present, that memories we inherited and that are not our own, shape our lives. The more we understand where these memories came from, the more meaning we find in our own lives.
3) What was the hardest part of writing the book, and why.
Writing my own love story! How do you do that without being soppy? It is, in general, surprisingly hard to write about something happy.
4) Did your husband Harry read the book? If yes, what did he think?
Yes, of course he read it. I never send anything out that features him or another family member without him being okay with it. I made all the changes he wanted me to, which were minor. He’s a very private person, so he’s not thrilled about our story being out there, and he insists that it’s my book and he does not want to be a spokesperson for it.
However, he also enjoys reading the story again and again and finds it “interesting.” In general I have found that people like being featured in your writing as long as you do them justice and as long as they understand that it’s your version of events. Being written about is a validation most people welcome.
The most consistent feedback has been that people find the book hard to put down. That is the greatest compliment because there’s nothing worse for a book than to be boring.
Thankfully I have not had overtly negative feedback yet, although I do get the feeling that some readers are not on board with some of the choices I made, such as going all the way with an Orthodox conversion, but that’s their privilege. Every reader has a right to his or her opinion.
6) The issue of intermarriage is a very sensitive one. Were you scared to tackle such a big subject in such a personal way?
I wasn’t scared but I was reluctant to write about my conversion because it is not an issue for me. I converted and I never looked back. I usually write about things I am grappling with—such as my binationality—because I write to understand. It wasn’t until my MFA professor advised that the past was only interesting in as far as it resonated in the present, that I realized my great-aunt’s story would come to life so much more if it were juxtaposed with my own story, if I gave homage to fact that history was repeating itself some 60 years later.
I also think it is important to recognize that if intermarriage brings converts into the Jewish community, it can be immensely enriching. The story of Ruth in the Bible is, of course, the classic example but I happen to know many couples, where one partner converted, and all are wonderful contributors to the community.
I feel that, in the Jewish press, intermarriage is always talked about as a negative thing. I actually don’t see our marriage as “intermarriage” because I converted, but there are, obviously always legacy challenges from that, for example, that a huge part of our extended family is not Jewish and doesn’t care about our Jewish lives.
7) Given your background and experiences, what would you do if one of your own children came to you and told you they were in a serious relationship with a non-Jew?
I would hope that they would decide to have a Jewish family. My husband and I are the best example that you don’t have to marry a Jew to accomplish that. I hope that we succeeded in giving our children what his parents gave him—an unequivocal Jewish identity and a strong sense of belonging to something meaningful and larger than himself, a treasure of a heritage worth passing on.
8 a) see 7)
8 b) Decide, before you get married, who you are going to be as a couple, if you want to have children: Jewish or not. And then do it the proper way. Kids need a clear direction of where they belong.
9) Tell me a little bit about ‘Annette Gendler, the Jewish housewife’ - how do you spend your time, how do you connect to Judaism etc?
Judaism is very much a religion of the home and the woman of the house sets the tone for that. I know this is an oddly traditional homemaker response from someone who has been a working mother all her life, but I have observed this so many times that I really believe this: the mother makes the home, whether she is a stay-at-home mom or not.
Creating a Jewish home is really important—and making it fun for the kids. Over the years, I developed traditions that my kids now insist upon, even as young adults. My IDF-veteran daughter, for example, still wants to go apple-picking for Rosh Hashana. I always went all out for Chanukah—something my husband doesn’t relate to because in Germany, where he grew up, Chanukah wasn’t a big deal. I bring out my box of Chanukah decorations; I bake cut-out dreidel cookies with the kids despite the mess; I make latkes and even made my own sufganiyot once.
We also, for many years, built a sukkah—it is, in my opinion, the Jewish version of the Christmas tree—the kids have warm memories of decorating the Sukkah. This is the key—creating warm memories of being a Jew and celebrating Jewish customs that the kids will carry in their hearts and out into the world. My daughter decorated her dorm room in Boston for Chanukah, and my IDF combat soldier son, who was on guard duty in the Golan over Pesach, nevertheless managed to light two little candles and eat some matzah in his outpost hut on Seder night.
10) Complete this sentence: The biggest secret of a Jewish housewife is….
…that Judaism happens at home.
12) What’s your next project?
I have a children’s story based on something that happened to my mother-in-law when she was a hidden child in France. It takes place in the village of the “Briosne,” which shows up in Jumping Over Shadows. I would like to get that published.
13) Where can readers learn more about you and your books?
On my blog and website at www.annettegendler.com. Sign up for my newsletter there and I’ll keep you in the loop. Plus you’ll get a bonus chapter that I cut from Jumping Over Shadows.