On May 3rd and 4th, JWWS–the Jewish Women’s Writers’ Summit–will be taking place. JWWS is an online two-day event for frum women interested in all things writing, reading, publishing and networking. The seminar is now in its 10th year, its second online.
It includes presentations by leading names in the industry (see the schedule here), ways to book a private time with different publishers (see that here ), tons of inspiration, writing tips, networking, and valuable information. And this year I’m also presenting!
Come join this incredible event with me. You will get so much out of this unique writers’ summit–I know I will. And I’d love to see your face on my Zoom on May 3rd!
As human beings, all of us make mistakes. Today’s post–my first in a long while and possibly my most important ever–is about some errors I’ve made and how I’m going to do my best to fix them.
Let’s rewind to 11 months ago. Along with BLM protests, many communities started reckoning with our past and present racist thoughts and actions. Among those communities was the writing community.
As I’ve mentioned before on this blog and elsewhere, racism is something I abhor. One of the goals of my writing career has been to reflect a more diverse Orthodox Jewish world, one which is not exclusively filled with White Ashkenazim who function independently of non-Jews. Unfortunately, that’s the mistaken impression a reader might get by reading many Jewish books. This problem leaves non-White and non-Ashkenazi Jews feeling cut out of the community. Moreover, a literary landscape in which every character is either Jewish or wants to be suggests that isolation and insularity are positive attributes, which is–in my opinion–far from the case. Even Haredi Jews interact with secular and non-Jewish people, and we all need each other.
I have been far from alone on this mission. Several Jewish publishers have moved towards more inclusive illustrations (notably Apples & Honey and Koren), some have published books by Jews of Color, and a few of these titles have received book awards in the past few years. When a Black Jewish author self-published a picture book with a Black Jewish protagonist about a year and a half ago, the book was embraced by librarians, teachers, and readers; ditto regarding a novel by a Black Jewish author the previous year.
In last spring and summer’s tumult, I decided I wanted to contribute more. I offered my editing and writing coaching advice free for Jews of Color. And I started investigating what types of latent racism penetrates books.
This is where my apology comes in: In one of my books, not long into my reading and listening, I stumbled onto a realization: I had employed a racist stereotype in Adina at Her Best.
The stereotype is “the White Savior,” although it’s a bit complicated by the fact that the “White” person in this case–Adina herself–is a functionally White Mizrachi Jew. Nonetheless, readers witness a White girl rescuing a Black character (I’m not going to tell more in order to avoid spoilers) on page. There are a few other issues with the text, but this is my main offense.
I have to take responsibility. *I* wrote that book, I and no other. I did it with good intentions. I wrote it at least a year before I had heard of anyone employing a sensitivity reader for any character who wasn’t the main one (for example, I’d heard of it in the case where a non-deaf person wrote a story centering on a deaf protagonist…but not for a book in which one character is deaf and it’s not part of the primary plot). I wrote the book with the best information I had at the time I wrote the book. However, that doesn’t mean that the material won’t offend some readers or reinforce a racist stereotype for others (that Black people require rescuing by White ones).
People are still reading Adina at Her Best, and now that the book’s out there, there’s little I can do other than feel ashamed and to do better next time (pay a sensitivity reader! promote books about People of Color which are about People of Color!). At least, that’s how I felt till recently.
There’s a chance that the book may be included in a program which involves a reprint of the book. If it goes through, the organization asked me if I was willing to implement the suggestions of a sensitivity reader while preparing the new edition. To this I responded, “Yes!” with enthusiasm. If the deal is finalized, there will be a new edition of Adina, one which will include all the valuable content…and none of the rubbish.
Do I think Adina at Her Best is a bad book? No. Do I think it’s current edition has been influenced by my own latent racism? Yes. I’m praying (literally, praying) that the opportunity I’m alluding to comes to fruition and that it will allow me to rectify those errors to better serve my readers and the community as a whole.
What should people who have read Adina at Her Best or who own copies of it do?
Be cognizant of its shortcomings. It’s by me, a functionally White person, and like anyone else who grew up in the U.S., I have biases I’m not even aware of regarding race.
Read other Jewish books with People of Color as characters, whether those characters are Jewish or non-Jewish.
Demand that Jewish publishers print more such books.
Better yet, read and promote books by People of Color, from their perspectives–this goes for Jewish books and secular ones.
What if you were considering buying and reading Adina at Her Best with a loved one? I think you should read the above and if you still want to read the book, make the mishandling of race part of the conversation with your young reader. Discuss how Black people and White people interact in the book, and feel free to tell them that I (the author) think I got this particular detail wrong.
I’d love to hear from other White (or functionally White) people, especially authors, how have you changed your perspective on race in the last year or so? In what ways have you changed your behavior going forward to be more sensitive to the needs of non-White members of our society? And if you are a Person of Color, in what ways would you like to see White authors improve?
I’m hoping those of you who celebrate Rosh Hashanah enjoyed yourselves. We enjoyed the holiday here, even though it definitely was different than in previous years.
Those of you who know me in person or via social media may know that I’m a sucker for good puns, so the custom of Simanim Ilsa, eating symbolic foods often based on puns involving their names, is always fun for me at dinner on Rosh Hashanah. This year, almost everything I served the entire holiday had to do with the simanim. We ate traditional favorites like apples and honey, dates, and fish, but we also ate things like asparagus (so we’d be spared any harsh decrees), celery salad (for a raise in salary), olives (so we’ll all live though 5781), and chicken with mushroom sauce (so next year we’ll all have much more room–currently, we live in a very small space for a family our size). My kids helped a bunch with the cooking (my youngest thought of the pun for olives), and we got the year off to a sweet start.
I haven’t really been looking for writing gigs the last couple months, because dealing with my family has been absorbing a lot of my time and energy, but every once in a while, an editor will reach out to me, and that’s how I ended up in Jew in the City twice in quick succession. The topic I chose for Yom Kippur is affliction and the half-joking comments I’ve heard widely for months along the lines of “Can’t they just cancel all fasts this year because we’ve been afflicted enough?” The jokes *are* funny, but there’s a deeper way to look at them, and I hope I framed my thoughts clearly in that piece. Click here to read that new article on Jew in the City.
I’m hoping that as things settle down, I can get back to writing some fiction. It probably won’t happen till after Sukkot, and not long after that will be NaNoWriMo. Hmmm…
Readers of The Jewish Journal and followers of the Accidental Talmudist will find me this week in their “Table for Five” feature. This week’s topic is the first mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah, where we are told that there’s not just one Rosh Hashanah, but four!
It’s always tricky to participate in this kind of event, since you don’t know the approach other participants are going to take to the topic (and I for sure don’t want to repeat what someone else says), but it looks like I managed fine this time. If you want to see my response to the prompt, you can find it here. Print edition is due out tomorrow.
I really did end up writing barely a word during the summer, but the moment that my kids resumed school, I got hit up for some pieces by editors who know me. The first one to run went up on Jew in the City last night. Click here for the link.