Rena Blumenthal is the author of the new novel The Book of Israela. She is a freelance rabbi, and she is based in New Paltz, New York.
Q: You write that you came up with the idea for The Book of Israela in 2000. How long did it take to write the novel?
A: The first draft of the book was written in 2000, during my first year of rabbinical school, as the final project for a year-long class in Biblical Civilization. That draft, which was the length of a novella, took six weeks to write.
I didn’t look at the manuscript again until four years later, when I was working at Vassar College and had my summers off. Starting in 2004, I spent two to three weeks every summer expanding the manuscript. In the winter of 2013-2014, I had a three-month sabbatical in Israel, and I did much of the research for the setting at that time.
So in the end, it did take quite a few years to get from first to final draft!
Q: Why did you decide to tell the story from the perspective of a psychologist, Dr. Kobi Benami?
A: I worked as a psychologist, in New York City and Jerusalem, for about 15 years prior to attending rabbinical school, so I’m familiar with the work and with mental health clinics. I’m very interested in the mechanisms by which people change their lives.
Therapy and spiritual exploration are both powerful tools for human growth, yet they operate quite differently. Having this surreal, Biblically-based story told from the perspective of a secular, Israeli psychologist allowed me to indirectly explore that issue.
Q: The novel is set in Jerusalem in 2002. How important is setting to you in your work?
A: The book opens at the end of March 2002 - the most violent month of the second intifada (Palestinian uprising). The Jerusalem setting was essential given the Biblical allegory that animates the novel, but the intifada also forms a crucial backdrop to the story.
Kobi is deeply defended against the traumas of his own family, not to mention the national traumas that have fueled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To transform his life, he must awaken to suffering. I think that the extreme violence of that historical moment provides added context and resonance to Kobi’s personal challenge.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?
A: The book is thematically ambitious. Kobi’s new patient, Israela, embodies the story of ancient Israel: she is married to a mysterious, God-like figure, and is being stalked by an array of odd characters reminiscent of the Biblical prophets.
This central allegory raises questions about Biblical literalism, the depiction of God in Western religious traditions, and the deeply imbedded problem of religious sexism.
But Kobi’s personal story also raises questions about the impact of inherited trauma and the possibilities of spiritual transformation in this very secular age.
I hope people come away from the book with some new insights about how we uncritically employ words like “God,” “religion,” and “secularity”; but I also hope that people can identify with Kobi and his personal struggle to lead a more responsible and compassionate life.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m quite busy as a freelance rabbi: service-leading, teaching, officiating at life-cycle events, and organizational consulting. I have not yet embarked on a new writing project; I’m still absorbing the surreal fact that The Book of Israela - which has been gestating on my computer for over 18 years - is finally born and kicking!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’ve been delighted by the kinds of conversations the book engenders. I have begun to do readings and meet with book clubs, and people are raising all the “big questions” I had imagined: about our relationship to sacred texts, notions of the divine, the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the religious-secular tensions within modern Jewish identity, and the nature of personal transformation.
I am eager to meet with more book clubs and do more community readings - I very much enjoy facilitating these kinds of in-depth discussions!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb