Tama­ra Faith Berger’s lat­est nov­el, Queen Solomon, is a dark com­ing-of-age sto­ry that fol­lows a dis­turbed teenage nar­ra­tor dur­ing the sum­mer his fam­i­ly hosts an Ethiopi­an Jew­ish girl from Israel, and the endur­ing influ­ence that sum­mer has on him. It’s a chal­leng­ing book that tack­les, among oth­er issues, racism in the Jew­ish dias­po­ra, the lega­cy of Israel’s aliyah oper­a­tions, and the flu­id­i­ty of victimhood.

Berg­er talked to the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil about the impact that learn­ing about Ethiopi­an Jews had on her as a pre-teen, the tra­di­tion of crass Jew­ish comics, and what she hopes read­ers will take away from the book.

Natal­ie Afla­lo: Do you con­sid­er the books you write to be Jew­ish books”?

Tama­ra Faith Berg­er: Queen Solomon is my first seri­ous­ly Jew­ish book. There is maybe a Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty that I tapped into in my pre­vi­ous books, but Queen Solomon is the first book where I’m deal­ing with Jew­ish top­ics, Jew­ish themes, Jew­ish mar­gin­a­lia … I think it’s because I’d nev­er real­ly allowed myself to ful­ly go into every­thing I want­ed to say about Jew­ish­ness before.

I see the Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty in my books as being some­what in the tra­di­tion of the crass, male com­ic— like Lenny Bruce, and maybe also kind of Philip Roth-ian, this sort of urge and desire to say every­thing and get it all out. And I know that there’s a female tra­di­tion of this as well: Sarah Sil­ver­man, Lena Dun­ham, Amy Schumer … I think it’s just Jew­ish in gen­er­al: this com­ic, crass tendency.

NA: How did you come up with the premise for Queen Solomon?

TFB: I first heard about Ethiopi­an Jews when I was in about grade sev­en or eight, when Oper­a­tion Moses had recent­ly hap­pened. A girl in my class did a pre­sen­ta­tion on the Falashas, as they were called back then. I think that just the aware­ness that Black Jews exist­ed made a huge impres­sion on me as a twelve-year-old. It prob­a­bly appealed to my pre-teen sen­si­bil­i­ty — this sort of roman­ti­cism, in a way, of Jews being in Ethiopia and being res­cued” by Israel. In the pic­tures I remem­ber peo­ple all garbed in white, leav­ing the plane, and kiss­ing the tar­mac … It real­ly made a strong impres­sion on me because I grew up in a very par­tic­u­lar class of Jew­ish peo­ple — very mono­cul­ture, very Ashke­naz. My expe­ri­ence of Judaism was not mul­ti­cul­tur­al or multiethnic.

My inter­est in Oper­a­tion Solomon was rekin­dled when I start­ed read­ing about what has been hap­pen­ing in Israel over the last ten or so years in terms of non-Jew­ish African refugees.

NA: Can you talk about writ­ing the dia­logue between the narrator’s par­ents? They have these real­ly oppos­ing ideas about Israelthe father is very defen­sive of Israel, of Jews, of the IDF, and the moth­er has a much more crit­i­cal approach.

TFB: Once I start­ed, those were prob­a­bly some of the most fun things to write in the book, because it’s crazy how oppos­ing views are about Israel in any giv­en Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. I mean, it’s exag­ger­at­ed in my book, but I’ve heard all of it. There is a comedic ele­ment to the Israel com­men­tary that goes on with­in the fam­i­ly which aims to get at the uncom­fort­able truth of just how irrec­on­cil­able the sides seem to be.

NA: The nar­ra­tor of Queen Solomon is real­ly inter­est­ed in the writ­ings of Ka-Tzetnik 135633, and wants to write his master’s the­sis about his work. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of Ka-Tzetnik to you? Read­ing about his work I def­i­nite­ly see some par­al­lels to your writ­ing: intends to shock, depicts per­verse sex­u­al­i­ty, etc.

TFB: I found House of Dolls, Ka-Tzetnik’s most famous book, at a garage sale. The book was a sen­sa­tion when it first came out in 1955. It was the first Holo­caust nov­el and was mar­ket­ed as based on the diary of a girl (Ka-Tzetnik’s sis­ter) who had been forced into pros­ti­tu­tion in Auschwitz. The book was thought of simul­ta­ne­ous­ly as a nov­el and as tes­ti­mo­ny.” Some­how this ten­sion co-exist­ed with­out con­flict until much more recent­ly. As I describe in Queen Solomon, House of Dolls has this very tit­il­lat­ing cov­er of a woman rip­ping open her prison shirt and show­ing the num­ber tat­tooed on her chest along with the name Feld Hure,” which means field whore.” It’s a very shock­ing image on pur­pose. It’s meant to sell. But iron­i­cal­ly, House of Dolls is hard to read because it’s not very tit­il­lat­ing! It’s about the Nazis tak­ing over a Pol­ish city, it’s about a way of life being destroyed, it’s about being tak­en to a con­cen­tra­tion camp in a cat­tle car, it’s about los­ing your fam­i­ly mem­bers, with a lit­tle bit about being a sex­u­al slave in Auschwitz and a female Nazi guard. It’s a real­ly sad, dense book of pulp. Any­way, I am fas­ci­nat­ed by the blurred-genre phe­nom­e­non of House of Dolls and the biog­ra­phy of Ka-Tzetnik. I actu­al­ly think his best book is his last one, Shiv­it­ti: A Vision, which I also talk about in Queen Solomon. It’s basi­cal­ly about him doing LSD ther­a­py in Ams­ter­dam in the 70s to try to cure his PTSD (which was called Con­cen­tra­tion Camp Syn­drome). The book is a pow­er­ful, sick­ly, total­ly unique doc­u­ment of Ka-Tzetnik’s treat­ment and his hallucinations.

I relate to a lot of dif­fer­ent things in Ka-Tzetnik’s books, espe­cial­ly this deep desire to tell about trau­ma, which ends up as this sort of slip­pery slope or slip­pery feel­ing between fact and fic­tion, between plea­sure and pain, between telling every­thing that you know, and becom­ing a her­mit — feel­ing mute, and shut­ting it up and shut­ting it all away.

NA: That slip­per­i­ness can be real­ly con­tro­ver­sial when think­ing about the Holo­caust, right? 

TFB: Yes, it’s a real­ly con­tro­ver­sial thing to talk about the notion of what is truth and what is fic­tion as it relates to the Holo­caust. But there actu­al­ly is a lit­er­ary tra­di­tion among Holo­caust sur­vivors who were artists — and Ka-tzetnik was a writer before he was at Auschwitz — mak­ing some kind of fic­tion about their expe­ri­ence. It’s per­haps a small and mar­gin­al con­tin­gent who under­stand that fic­tion and fic­tion­al­iz­ing is a fer­tile place to deal with trau­ma. I’m inter­est­ed in the idea of trau­ma­tized people/​survivors writ­ing fic­tion and trans­gress­ing notions of what’s true,” what’s real.” I mean, we’re still con­stant­ly ask­ing writ­ers, trau­ma­tized or not, about what’s real and what’s not real in their work; the ques­tion is not new. As it relates to trag­ic his­tor­i­cal events, it’s a chal­lenge — it’s chal­leng­ing of the read­er, most­ly, but I don’t think there’s any­thing wrong with chal­leng­ing readers.

NA: Through­out the book, you explore the idea of Jews as vic­tims and as sav­iors, as well as per­pe­tra­tors or abusers. Can you talk about that?

TFB: I’m actu­al­ly read­ing this book right now about anx­i­ety in the nov­els of Philip Roth, and your ques­tion is basi­cal­ly this guy’s the­sis. He argues that, the­mat­i­cal­ly, so much of Roth’s oeu­vre is about this dual or com­pet­ing anx­i­ety between being a vic­tim and being a per­pe­tra­tor, and he calls this a very Jew­ish anx­i­ety. Obvi­ous­ly there’s a huge his­to­ry of Jews being vic­tims, and a lot more recent­ly there’s this anx­i­ety about whether you’re a Jew­ish perpetrator.

I’m explor­ing this slip­pery con­tin­u­um of the (notably) white, male sav­ior slash anti-sav­ior — some­one who caus­es harm and at the same time is try­ing to do good in the world. It’s a real­ly intense con­flict that seems to shoot between the past and the present, and I think that I feel it psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, too. I mean, I know that I am impli­cat­ed in this real­ly twist­ed sys­tem of Jew­ish per­pe­tra­tion on one side and acknowl­edg­ing the his­to­ry of Jew­ish vic­tim­iza­tion, on the other.

NA: What do you hope Jew­ish peo­ple who read this book will take away from it?

TFB: Jew­ish peo­ple will have to tell me what they take away from it. But I think in gen­er­al, it’s a provo­ca­tion to open, to see more, to see the inequities hap­pen­ing in front of our faces.