She gripped my hand in the doorway of the church, following the Good Friday service, “I’ve never really liked Jews.”
I had just finished a sermon in which I decried present-day harassment of Jews in the Ukraine and noted that we are kidding ourselves if we thought we would treat Jesus better now than he was treated then.
We prayed. We grieved. I again felt the chasm between Christianity, the religion of my heart, and Judaism, the religion of my blood and of my ancestors.
Here I was, being told by a parishioner I love deeply something that amounted to, “I’ve never cared for an entire race of people to which you belong through your mother and her parents and your grandparents.”
Gripping her hand in that doorway, I looked her in the eye and said, “Do you know any Jews?”
“No,” she admitted.
“Well, now you do.”
This story comes to mind as I watched the turmoil last month around Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time. Nominated for a 2015 RITA Award, the romance novel, published by Bethany House last year, tells the story of a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman who is rescued from a firing squad by a Nazi commandant and becomes his secretary.
She hatches a plot to save people from the trains to Auschwitz and her uncle, Morty, foils a plan that would have killed the commandant. The commandant pressures her to kisses and into an engagement. And, in the way of magical realism, a Bible appears and she learns to find some consolation in the New Testament—instead of in the Hebrew Scriptures of her childhood.
All ends with a happily ever after as our lovely Jewess marries the Nazi commandant, who helps Jews escape the camp in question. Presumably, they raise lovely blond Christian children.
I think I need to wash my hands after typing that.
The to-do over this book is that many, many people—Jews and non-Jews—believe that romance between a Jewish prisoner and a Nazi commander violates any spirit of consent. In the portions of the book when Stella/Hadassah wrestles with her feelings about Aric, I was reminded of the guilt rape survivors sometimes feel when their bodies responded to the act of violation in a different way than their heads and spirits were. No matter how humane the Nazi in question was made to seem—he had the power to kill her or those she loved at any time.
This retelling of Esther misses a critical piece of the story. We never hear that Ahasuerus and Esther had a great love story because she was property, a girl more beautiful than the others who were culled from the countryside to see who would please the king. She made the best of a bad situation and, in so doing, saved her people.
For Such a Time is not the same thing. It is “supersessionism porn,” wherein the ultimate happily-ever-after for a Jew would certainly be to become a Christian. Breslin and her publisher, Bethany House, have received criticism for the book on the grounds that it violates consent at best and allows for a kind of truth of the Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism at worst.
Author and blogger Sarah Wendell wrote a letter to the board of directors of Romance Writers of America (RWA) decrying the nomination of the book for RITA Awards in two categories. Wendell, who is Jewish, worries that celebrating such a horrific work
creates an environment where writers of faiths other than Christianity, not just Jewish writers, feel unwelcome. It certainly had that effect on me, because I don’t understand exactly how so many judges agreed that a book so offensive and insensitive was worthy of the RWA’s highest honor. But clearly enough did so, and the result for me as an RWA member is a feeling of distrust and pain, and concern that my reaction and feelings may not be heard.
Wendell also published the letter on her tumblr account, which led to a swell of reaction against the author, the publisher, and RWA. With a proliferation of one-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, as well as criticisms of the five-star reviews that swooned over the Nazi protagonist and wondered if, perhaps, history had not been a little too hard on those poor, misguided thugs in jackboots.
These criticisms have generated their own backlash to the backlash, with such authors as Anne Rice arguing that speaking against For Such a Time is a kind of censorship. The Guardian quoted Rice from her own Facebook page,
I think all this is dangerous. I think we have to stand up for the freedom of fiction writers to write what they want to write, no matter how offensive it might be to someone else. We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored … internet campaigns to destroy authors accused of inappropriate subject matter or attitudes are dangerous to us all.
In an email to the Guardian, Rice noted that she had not yet read For Such a Time.
A Jewish friend of mine remarked recently that the general attitude of history toward Jews could be bumperstickered as “If the pogrom didn’t kill you….” Arguing that anyone can write anything about anyone at any time, or else it is censorship, is the publishing equivalent of #AllLivesMatter. There seems to be a public sentiment that Jews are everywhere—yet there lots of people in the United States who do not know a single Jew. Furthermore, there is hardly a significant number of religious or even semi-secular Jews in the public eye in films, books, and television shows.
We are being edited out, one conversion narrative, one Holocaust denial, one romantic Nazi, one anti-Semitic slur at a time.
What it means to live as a Jew in modern America is to have complex feelings about history, about G-d, about Israel, and about one’s own practice. It also means, at a certain level, a wariness. No country has ever allowed us to stay, unharmed, permanently. We cannot take anything for granted. You never know when someone will say to you, “I’ve never liked Jews.” And you can’t always be sure what will follow that statement.
Would a book about a Yazidi woman “falling in love” with her ISIS rapist be nominated for romance awards?
Would we hope for a movie based on a relationship between a police officer employed by Bull Connor and a young black woman?
Would ratings soar for a novel about a Cherokee teenager being “wooed” by the soldier escorting her family along the Trail of Tears?
Some stories belong to the people who lived them, the people who still grieve them, the people in whose bones they rest. Leave the Holocaust and its survivors alone. They’re not there as easy emotional background for your novel. If you aren’t sure, ask a Jew.
If you didn’t know any, now you do.