Tag Archives: Jewish Studies

Becoming a Writer of Jewish Fiction

Can a novel be taught as history? Author Sharon Hart-Green shares her experience as a writer of Jewish fiction, and argues that fiction readers not only acquire factual knowledge, but emotional affinity. Here’s why her poignant new novel belongs in classrooms this fall.


I must admit that before writing Come Back for Me, I felt a sense of trepidation about writing a Holocaust novel. Since neither my parents nor grandparents are Holocaust survivors, I did not believe that I had the “right” to do so. At the same time, I was caught between two opposing pulls: the feeling of obligation to somehow give voice to those who were brutally murdered, and the knowledge that no book could ever do justice to what they suffered. How could I possibly resolve what seemed to be an impossible dilemma?

I believe that I was able to negotiate a solution to this impasse by taking what I would call an “indirect” approach:  writing about the lingering effects of the Holocaust on two generations of Jewish families, rather than trying to write directly about the Holocaust itself. Since I had grown up in a neighbourhood full of Holocaust survivors and their children, I felt well equipped to undertake this task. This allowed me to explore the event through the experiences of those who survived as well as how it affected their offspring. History, after all, is composed of many layers of experience, and if I could approach it from this indirect angle, then perhaps I would be able to unearth some truths about it that could not be otherwise revealed.

Indeed, one of the most effective ways to teach about history is through fiction. Why? Because fiction beckons the reader to enter another person’s life – to “live” that life on an emotional level – even if only for a short while. That is not to underestimate the value of learning from history books as well; to be sure, reading about the rise and fall of great leaders and analyzing the causes and effects of historical change is vital. However, historians rarely tell stories about ordinary people. Fiction has the unique ability to draw a reader into the personal life of everyday individuals. In fact, this might be the best way for readers to learn most deeply about a historical period. When reading about characters from other eras, they not only acquire factual knowledge, but also emotional affinity.

Yet teaching about the Holocaust through the use of fiction is a particularly complex matter, partly because the enormity of the Holocaust itself makes it a difficult subject to convey in any form. How can any of us fathom that it was only seventy-five years ago that a regime arose which attempted to systematically murder every man, woman, and child of Jewish descent in all of Europe? The victim toll alone is so massive that most people who read statistics like “six million” can barely grasp what that means.

However, I think that if a work of Holocaust fiction is written with historical accuracy, it can serve as an invaluable resource for teaching about this dark period, especially in schools. By this I mean that a writer of fiction must be absolutely unwavering in representing the brutal facts of this event before taking on this task. I say this because some novelists in recent years have tried to commercialize the Holocaust, and in doing so, misrepresent it, sometimes in grossly distorted ways. For example, there have been some novels that inject elements of romance into their storylines in order to make their plots more exciting. (The Tatooist of Auschwitz is only one such example.) What does this convey to the reader? It gives the impression that the Holocaust “wasn’t all that bad,” which of course is not only a contemptible distortion of history but it also trivializes the suffering of the victims.

I hope that writers continue to write fiction about the Holocaust – about the factors leading up to it, the people who were destroyed by it, and the world that allowed it to happen. My main hope however is that they do so with caution and with a deep sense of duty to represent it with accuracy. It is the least we as writers can offer as a gesture of respect to those who perished.


Sharon Hart-Green has taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the University of Toronto. Her short stories, poems, translations, and articles have appeared in a number of publications. Come Back for Me is her first novel.

Author Footnotes with Edward Goldberg

Edward Goldberg is the author of Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis, and the recently released A Jew at the Medici Court: The Letters of Benedetto Blanis.

Ciao, tutti!

A Jew at the Medici Court: The Letters of Benedetto Blanis Hebreo (1615-1621) is now coming off the press—only a few months after Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis. (A major thumbs-up to the UTP for their quick follow-through on this companion volume!)

In Jews and Magic, I tell the astonishing story of the rise and fall of Benedetto Blanis, a Jewish businessman and aspiring magus in the Florentine Ghetto in the early seventeenth century. In A Jew at the Medici Court, I share the essential “documents in the case”- two hundred letters from Benedetto Blanis to his great patron, Don Giovanni dei Medici.

For me, the Blanis Letters were the discovery of a lifetime-the largest body of surviving correspondence from any Jew in Early Modern Europe. This writer takes us inside his fraudulent business deals, his desperate schemes for a grand career at the Medici Court, his violent conflicts with other Jews and his perilous trafficking in banned books (including alchemy, astrology and Kabbalah). We can follow his reckless course to its inevitable conclusion-a clash with the Inquisition, then many years in the Bargello prison.

“How on earth did you make this amazing discovery?” is the first question that I am usually asked. Basically, I found the Blanis letters buried under three million others—in Florence, in the archive of the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany.  Day by day, over the course of several centuries, masses of letters arrived at the Medici Court. They were read, processed and then filed away. Seldom to be seen again…

Two hundred letters amidst three million? “Needles” and “haystacks” probably come to mind! But in archival terms, most of these letters are exactly where they ought to be—once we master the intricacies of daily life at the Medici Court and know where to look.

I have been working my way through the Medici Granducal Archive for nearly forty years and I thought that I had seen it all, when it comes to bizarre flukes of history and the extravagances of human behavior. But then I met Benedetto Blanis—and my view of the past will never be the same!

I hope that you will read Benedetto’s letters—now in print for the very first time—and tell me what you think. We have only begun to penetrate the dark recesses of this man’s life, in a strange and often terrifying world.

A presto,

Ed G.

For more on Benedetto Blanis, be sure to visit the author’s website: EdwardGoldberg.net.

Author Footnotes with Edward Goldberg

Edward Goldberg discusses his new book, Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis, now available from UTP.

Ciao, tutti!

Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis is coming off the press – now as we speak – after many years and many adventures.

It all began with a breathtaking discovery in the Medici Granducal Archive. I found a cache of two hundred letters from Benedetto Blanis (a Jew in the Florentine Ghetto) to his great patron Don Giovanni dei Medici (the illegitimate son of  Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany). This is the largest  body of surviving correspondence from any Jew in early modern Europe.

Now that publication is drawing near, friends and colleagues are asking me a lot of questions: “What was the biggest challenge that you faced along the way?” “What was the biggest surprise?” And so on…

No one, however, asks me the most essential question of all: “If you knew what you were getting into, back at the beginning, would you have had the nerve to jump in and get started?!”

The Blanis project occupied me for five years – four more than I expected – and at the end, I had two books rather than one (both produced by the University of Toronto Press): Jews and Magic, a narrative account of  Benedetto’s tumultuous life, and A Jew at the Medici Court: The Letters of Benedetto Blanis Hebreo, 1615-1621, a forthcoming critical edition of these essential documents.

Week after week, Benedetto wrote his Medici confidant, telling his astonishing story in his own words. He recorded his secret intrigues at the Florentine Court, his illicit business deals, his commerce in banned books, his skirmishes with the Inquistion and his adventures in the occult – including astrology, alchemy, and Kabbalah.

For thirty years, I had been working my way through the Medici Granducal Archive and imagining myself behind the scenes in granducal Florence. Then suddenly, I found the ultimate inside source – a brilliant but reckless individual who put everything on paper, a compulsive risk-taker in an unimaginably dangerous world.

From the moment of impact, Benedetto pretty much took over my life – so the question of forging ahead (or not) never arose!

You can learn the whole story at: www.edwardgoldberg.net.

Edward Goldberg
Florence, Italy