Every section of my latest novel, Atomic Anna, begins with an epigraph from Pirkei Avot. This is because the text has challenged me for years.
I first encountered Pirkei Avot—an ancient collection of Jewish ethical teachings— the year after I graduated from Harvard. I had won a fellowship to study in Israel for a year, and there I attended a weekly seminar on Jewish philosophy. Pirkei Avot was one of our first assigned texts and I was excited to dig in.
I cracked the spine and saw Pirkei Avot starts with a warning: “Be patient in judgment.” I wasn’t prepared for that. The last thing I wanted to be was patient. I was nervous and scared for my future, trying to figure out how I’d fit into the world. I tried to read slowly, to be patient, but I couldn’t. The text asked question after question and offered very few answers. Finishing it was a slog.
When I showed up at the seminar, my dislike grew; the professor suggested the point of the text was to pose questions without easy answers. We had to be patient and think through the ideas, be willing to change our minds. There was that word, again — patience. The idea was infuriating, and yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it or the questions posed in the text.
Nor can I stop now.
In the same way I wrestled (and still wrestle) with the ethical questions from Pirkei Avot, the characters in Atomic Anna wrestle, too. While the novel is about love, science, and Jewish life in the Soviet Union and America, it is also about war and the deadliest weapon ever imagined. My characters wrestle with the ethical dilemmas around fighting and how far is too far to push.
The narrative begins at Chernobyl, in Ukraine, the site of the worst accident in history. This isn’t by chance: I want to point to the death and destruction all that power wreaked. Should the power plant have ever been built? It’s a question inspired by Pirkei Avot.
Like my characters, I’ve wrestled with the apparent contradiction of needing to press forward while also being patient.
Atomic Anna follows a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter who work together to stop the Chernobyl disaster and save their family by building a time machine. Anna is a nuclear scientist. Molly is a comic artist. And Raisa is a mathematician. On the surface, these three Jewish women are brilliant and polished, but underneath they are flawed and wounded by their past mistakes. They think they can heal by fixing the past, but as they get closer to their goal of finishing the time machine, they realize they are building the most deadly and horrific weapon imaginable. A time machine would be worse even than a nuclear weapon because it would enable them to go back and erase lives, entire generations, and historical trajectories without anyone knowing. Who are they to decide how to use this power?
This question leads directly to another question from Pirkei Avot that my characters face: “If not now, when?” Anna, Molly, and Raisa have a fierce love for one another and for their work, and they want to time travel quickly to fix everything. But the science required to build a time machine takes decades to develop. My characters have to be patient even as they push. There it is again — patience.
Like my characters, I’ve wrestled with the apparent contradiction of needing to press forward while also being patient. Publishing a book is a perfect example of something that requires this struggle. Even when I write with urgency, it takes years to see my words printed on the page . So how can we reconcile the two, and simultaneously push and wait?
There’s an old Hasidic tale about Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol that I think helps us find a way. The tale is short. It recounts that while the Rabbi was on his deathbed, surrounded by students and loved ones, he was crying and inconsolable. When they asked him why he was so upset, he replied, “When I get to Heaven, I will not be asked ‘Why weren’t you like Moses?’, or ‘Why weren’t you like Abraham?’ They will ask, ‘Why weren’t you like Zusha?’”
This story teaches us that the gift we all have is free will. It’s easy to float through day-to-day life checking off the boxes of things to do: brush our teeth, pay our rent, make sure our children make it to school. We can live going through these motions without ever really being awake — without asking ourselves: Why weren’t you like you today? Or, said another way, just because I can live this way, does it mean I should? The answer only comes when we open our eyes and take a long, hard look in the mirror. We must both push to find ourselves and be patient while we search. This is life.
And so this is what I force my characters to do in Atomic Anna—to look into the mirror. Holding the power of a time machine, standing in the shadow of the Chernobyl disaster, my three protagonists must confront their own choices and power and understand they can’t set a course forward for anyone but themselves. They don’t have the right to choose for others. But this realization is hard, and they struggle with it. We all would and do.
Now that Putin has invaded Ukraine and seized the Chernobyl compound, an actual doomed power source, I can only hope he’ll see the wreckage as an example of the same — that just because he can take it, doesn’t mean he should. There is a better way forward.
After all these years, questions from Pirkei Avot still haunt me. But instead of disliking the text, it has become one of my favorites. I now love the fact that I don’t have answers. Questions are the point. For me and for my characters, that patience and pause, the willingness to question and change means everything as we take our next step forward.
Rachel’s debut novel is A Bend In The Stars. It has been named a New York Times Summer Reading Selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. It is also a Boston Globe Bestseller. Rachel’s second novel, Atomic Anna, is forthcoming from Grand Central (2022). Rachel is a prolific writer and reviewer for the LA Review of Books, the Tel Aviv Review of Books and DeadDarlings. She is an Honorary Research Associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and a graduate of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator. She is also the founder of Debut Spotlight and the Debut Editor at A Mighty Blaze. In a former life, she was a hedge fund manager and a spin instructor. She has degrees from Harvard in Business, and Literature and Philosophy. She lives in Brookline, MA.