Monday, January 16, 2023

Q&A with Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz and Erica Wovsaniker





Rabbi Leah Rachel Berkowitz and Erica Wovsaniker are the authors of the new children's book Maybe It Happened This Way: Bible Stories Reimagined. Berkowitz's other books include the picture book The World Needs Beautiful Things. She is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. Wovsaniker is a religious school teacher at Congregation or Shalom in Vernon Hills, Illinois.


Q: What inspired you both to write this book, and how did you collaborate on the project?


A: When we were in college together, now over 20 years ago, we bonded over our love of writing, as well as a budding interest in feminism and midrash. Though our paths diverged after college–Leah became a rabbi all up and down the East Coast and Erica became Chicagoland’s favorite religious school teacher–we kept in close touch and encouraged each other in our learning and our writing.


We discovered we were having the same problem: the materials we were using to teach the Bible to young people were limited. Many of them told only the most simplistic version of the story in the most pedantic language. Many of them didn’t cover anything past Genesis and Exodus. There wasn’t much for students–or teachers–who wanted to go deeper.


We needed to not only teach our students the Torah stories; we needed to teach them the concept of midrash. The young people for whom we wrote this book - roughly 9- to 13-year-olds - are becoming exactly the kind of rigorous, skeptical, investigative thinkers that we prize in Judaism.


But too often, they come to us thinking that this skepticism, these questions they have about the stories they know, puts a gulf between them and Judaism. We want to show them that, in fact, doubt and questioning of these holy texts is also holy. It was done by our ancient rabbis, and it can be done by us as well.


Fortunately, we’ve had some help from cultural zeitgeists. Since we’ve graduated college, children’s literature has had an explosion in quality and popularity. Relatedly, the concept of “fan fiction” has become ubiquitous among young people as well.


For any of your readers who don’t know, “fan fiction” is the practice of using a popular story or series - originally and most famously, Star Trek, and probably most prolifically, the Harry Potter universe - to create your own stories involving those characters and/or settings. Frequently, fan fiction seeks to explain logical holes in the original texts, or further develop the characters and their motivations, particularly the characters who are not as central in the original.


So, given its popularity, we can now explain to the children that midrash is biblical fan fiction, and that, just like fan fiction, anyone can do it! (Also, just like fan fiction, the better you know the canon - and yes, fan fiction communities use the term “canon” to refer to the original/official texts - the more interesting and respected your midrash will be.) (Unlike in fan fiction, very little midrash that we have available to us is devoted to creating romantic pairs that don’t exist in canon, but that’s a relatively small detail.)


Given this environment, in which our students were voracious and passionate readers, and very familiar with the idea of playing around with the stories they love, how could we resist the urge to translate that to their Jewish learning?


Each of us had encounters with at least one student who might have liked a book like the one we were imagining: a deeper dive into the stories of the Torah, lifting up the stories of women and lesser known characters, and rooted in the Jewish values we are teaching in the classroom. And also fun to read!


Erica had been teaching Tanakh to fourth-sixth graders for many years, and found herself writing her own material to cover the topics - stories, plays, and other pieces - in order to engage her students. Leah had spent years writing midrash about women in the Bible and children’s stories about lesser known characters.


In December 2019, Leah came to visit Erica on her way home from a Jewish conference, and we realized there were big overlaps in what we were each trying to do. We decided to try to put our heads together and make this happen. We sketched out some ideas on the couch while Erica’s two children popped in and out. That was actually the only time we were in the same room while we were working on the book! The rest of it was all FaceTime and GoogleDocs!


We pitched the book to Behrman House in February of 2020, and we were really blessed that they were excited about the project and open to our approaching the stories in our own way. The timing of the pitch meant that this project became our joint “pandemic baby,” something we had to put together between Erica homeschooling her two children and tutoring b’nai mitzvah on Zoom and Leah running her congregation from a laptop in her dining room.


Behrman House paired us with a fantastic editor, Leslie Kimmelman, who helped us get the book over the finish line, as neither of us had ever done a writing project this big before.


Q: How did you choose the stories to retell, and were there some stories you opted not to include for various reasons?


A: We started with the stories that were most interesting to us, which usually meant there was a perspective that we hadn’t heard, or an interesting character that didn’t get a lot of coverage. We wanted to lift up the stories of women and lesser known characters, and also to spend some time wrestling with the stories that puzzled us the most.


We tried our best to include stories from each book of the Torah, and not to lean too heavily on Genesis and Exodus stories, though we certainly wrote a lot of those! This means that there might be a few things you’ll be surprised we left out.


Erica was particularly keen, for instance, to write something about the binding of Isaac. It’s a story that most Jewish children hear at High Holidays services, and it’s an intensely disturbing one. But it’s also one that’s been revisited time and time again. We wanted room to tell stories the kids may not have heard before. (There was also some debate about whether the kids are old enough to take apart that story. Erica feels that they are, and may return to the story another day.)


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It was the title and theme of the introductory chapter, which is about the many Jewish stories of creation and the scientific one, to show that each story serves a different purpose. But it made sense as a way to encompass what we were doing with all of these stories - to present one possible way of interpreting the stories that exist in our Torah, and to emphasize there are other possibilities, too.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “This spirited collection will make the Jewish people’s beginnings tangible to today’s readers.” What do you think of that description, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: We LOVE that description! The most exciting thing about the response to this book is that readers (and reviewers) really seem to “get” what we were trying to do.


We had three goals for this project: engage readers with the Torah stories (both the ones they already know and the ones they may not know), present the stories to young people in a way that teaches Jewish values, and to give readers “permission” to be creative with the stories of the Torah.


Q: What are you working on now?


Leah: I’m finishing up edits on a picture book that should hopefully come out in time for Sukkot next year. I’m also going to be one of the contributors for the Reform movement’s Ten Minutes of Torah in the spring, so I’ll be spending a lot of time with the book of Numbers, where some of my favorite lesser known characters live!


Ricki: I have a lot of projects in my head, some Jewish and some not, some kid-related and some not. My main focus is that I am in the research phase for my next project, which will be a middle-grade adventure book featuring Jewish folklore.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: As you can see, we’re pretty thorough. But if you’d like to keep in touch, you can follow Leah on social media @rabbilrb, and 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb 

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