Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Simone Zelitch

Parsha Va-eira 

Listen to her story “The Miracle of the Oil” on NPR

Simone Zelitch, 37, was born in Philadelphia in 1973.  She started writing seriously as a teenager, and at fifteen, she won a scholarship to a state-sponsored program for young artists at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. She attended Wesleyan University where she wrote an early draft of her first book, The Confessions of Jack Straw (1991), a novel that combines original folk-tales with the story of a medieval peasant revolt. The novel won a Hopwood Award, and was published by Black Heron Press. After receiving her MFA at University of Michigan, she taught Creative Writing at Southern Illinois University.   

 In the early 1990s, Zelitch joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Hungary, which she already knew would be the setting of a novel-in-progress about a Holocaust survivor and her gentile daughter-in-law. Posted at the University of Veszprem in western Hungary for two years, she taught teachers-in-training, including former teachers of Russian, who were being retrained to teach English and whose toughness and indelible sense of humor helped shape the voice and attitude of the Hungarian characters in Louisa. A grant from the University of the Arts Venture Fund allowed her to make a final research trip to Hungary and Israel in 1998. She completed the novel (2000) with the help  Pennsylvania Council for the Arts. Zelitch read her story The Miracle of the Oil  a fable of inner conflict and the challenges of tolerance on a NPR broadcast, 11/7/2007. Her stories are in The Lost Tribe Anthology and the Hannukah Lights anthology.  Recent honors include a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts grant in Fiction, and residencies at the Edward Albee Barn and I-Park. She has taught in Michigan, Illinois, and at the University of Pennsylvania. Zelitich is working on a novel about Blacks, Jews and the Civil Rights movement.

She is currently an instructor at Community College of Philadelphia, where she co-directs the college’s Poets and Writer’s Series and coordinates a faculty and staff fiction writing circle ( Zelitch lives in a century-old house in Mount Airy with her partner, Doug Buchholz, his daughter, Jane and Jane’s American Girl dolls Addie, Molly, and Kit.

INTERVIEW – October 13, 2000 by writer Martha Hostetter. “Author Simone Zelitch has a yen for weaving fiction around history — her first book, Confession of Jack Straw, was about the English Peasant Revolt of 1381, and in her novel, Louisa, she puts her own spin on the Bible’s Book of Ruth. Find out what inspired her biblical twist, what happened when she went on site to research, the Biblical protagonist of her next novel, and much more in this interview, masterminded.”

TBR: “What led you to the Book of Ruth, which is a big part of the novel, Louisa?” 

SZ: Back in the ’70s, I went to a pluralistic Jewish high school where a critical reading of the bible was built into my education. One particularly hip and soulful teacher — a rabbinical student in a fringed vest — encouraged us to write our own versions of the story of Moses. In some ways, this sort of invention is built into the Jewish tradition. The Torah is, traditionally, a sacred text, but it’s also a jumble of family dysfunction, tangled interpersonal relationships, and contradictions, and for thousands of years, people have been trying to make sense of it one way or another. 

When I began to write Louisa, I didn’t know I was going to rewrite the Book of Ruth. Like many writers, I began with a character rather than a story, the character of Nora. Yet when I began to piece together Nora’s relationship with Louisa, the story of Ruth came back to me, because it seemed, in essence, a story about the power of devotion. When I began to see certain connections, I went back to the text of Book of Ruth and a central question rose: Why did Ruth cleave to Naomi? In fact, what ties two people (in this particular case, not unimportantly, two women) together? Louisa is, foremost, about its characters, but by making use of the deceptively simple story of Ruth and Naomi, I was able to try to unravel that question. To be honest, I’ve scoured my notes, trying to figure out when I first hit on using Book of Ruth, and I haven’t found a particular moment when I made that choice. In some ways, the story, like many stories from the bible, is embedded.  For that, I am grateful.


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