JBC’s Nat Bern­stein recent­ly sat down with Joshua Max Feld­man to dis­cuss his debut nov­el, The Book of Jon­ah, which will be pub­lished on Feb­ru­ary 4th by Hen­ry Holt and Co. Check back next week to hear more from Joshua Max Feld­man for the Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Nat Bern­stein: What about Jon­ah and/​or his sto­ry in the Hebrew Bible stood out to you enough to inspire a new novel? 

Joshua Max Feld­man: Ever since I first read the Bib­li­cal Book of Jon­ah, which was prob­a­bly third grade in Hebrew school, it’s been a book that’s real­ly fas­ci­nat­ed me, and the more I returned to it as an adult it’s fas­ci­nat­ed me. There’s some­thing about it that stands out to me as being very hon­est in its por­tray­al of the rela­tion­ship between Jo­nah and God: some­thing very hon­est, some­thing very fun­ny, some­thing very human. In Jonah’s deci­sion to resist God’s com­mands I see a relat­able rela­tion­ship to the Divine — and one I think a lot of mod­ern peo­ple can relate to. If you can imag­ine your­self in the Bib­li­cal Jonah’s posi­tion — going about your busi­ness, hav­ing an ordi­nary day, and then all of a sud­den God is giv­ing orders — I think a lot of peo­ple would do just what the Bib­li­cal Jon­ah does: run scream­ing in the oth­er direc­tion. So I found some­thing about that real­ly intrigu­ing, in the con­text of the Bible, and it was some­thing I want­ed to play with more — and the more I played with it, the more it grew. 

NB: I’m curi­ous about the open­ing encounter with the stereo­typ­i­cal­ly orac­u­lar Hasidic man in the sub­way sta­tion. What is cru­cial about his mes­sage, and why did you feel that his role need­ed to be cast as a Jew­ish caricature? 

JMF: Well, I hope he ris­es a lit­tle bit above car­i­ca­ture: I didn’t want him to be so — you use the word orac­u­lar,” and I under­stand why. I want­ed him to be a lit­tle slip­pery, I want­ed him to have one leg in that tra­di­tion­al, stereo­typ­i­cal, Oh, here’s a guy who’s so wise and so educat­ed, and he thinks he has all the answers,” but anoth­er leg in some­thing that maybe Jon­ah doesn’t real­ly trust. There’s some­thing about him that seems a lit­tle off. That moment was actu­al­ly inspired by a real inci­dent: I was walk­ing down the street and a Hasidic Jew came up to me and start­ed talk­ing, and we had this con­ver­sa­tion, and I would flip back and forth between, Wow, this guy real­ly has some insight­ful things to say,” and, Wow, this guy might just be com­plete­ly nuts.” So I want­ed to cast a lit­tle bit of ambi­gu­i­ty. Some­times it can be hard to tell whether what you’re hear­ing is a voice of wis­dom, and some­times it can be hard to tell whether the voice you’re hear­ing is divine­ly inspired or just some­thing you mis­un­der­stood because you, you know, had a weird drug expe­ri­ence or what­ev­er it might be. 

NB: Is there a Bel­ly of the Whale” moment for this Jon­ah, and when would that be? 

JMF: For me, the image of the whale — or, you know, being swal­lowed by the giant fish — presents an image of being com­plete­ly ensnared in cir­cum­stance, com­plete­ly trapped in what’s hap­pen­ing around you, and for me that comes when Jonah’s in Ams­ter­dam, toward the very end of that sec­tion. What is inter­est­ing to me about moments like that — and one of the rea­sons the image of being swal­lowed by the fish is so reso­nant with peo­ple — is that it’s some­thing peo­ple can iden­ti­fy with: we’ve all had that moment of feel­ing com­plete­ly over­come and com­plete­ly over­whelmed by circumstance.Those are the moments when we’re real­ly capa­ble of chang­ing our path, when we’re real­ly capa­ble of chang­ing as peo­ple, and that’s what I tried to show hap­pen­ing with Jon­ah. When he reach­es rock-bot­tom in Ams­ter­dam, then he’s able to say, Ok, I’m going to try to look at this in a dif­fer­ent way; I’m going to try to address what’s hap­pen­ing to me in a new way,” when he wasn’t capa­ble of that before. 

NB: You only real­ly get inside the heads of Jew­ish char­ac­ters in this book — Jon­ah, Judith, and even, briefly, Zoey — but not any­one out­side of The Tribe. Was that intentional? 

JMF: No, that’s a great obser­va­tion. I didn’t think about that. I guess it’s no sur­prise that the two main pro­tag­o­nists are Jew­ish, because that’s how I asso­ciate with the Book out of which they came to be. I didn’t think about not hav­ing a chap­ter in Sylvia’s head, for instance, but part of the rea­son Zoey has her own mini-chap­ter is because I loved the char­ac­ter, and I want­ed to explore her a lit­tle more. So I wasn’t inten­tion­al­ly leav­ing any­one out: it’s just where the sto­ry took me. 

NB: It felt like in that one mini-chap­ter you men­tion, Zoey final­ly got some sort of jus­tice from the book — we get to see at least one scene from her per­spec­tive. I real­ly appre­ci­at­ed that.

JMF: I’m glad! As a writer, when you have a char­ac­ter you’re fond of, you often decide that you want them to find jus­tice, too.

NB: You men­tioned that the two main pro­tag­o­nists, Jon­ah and Judith, grew up with strong Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, but Judaism means some­thing very dif­fer­ent to each of them: Jonah’s knee-jerk def­i­n­i­tion of his Jew­ish­ness is I feel guilty on Yom Kip­pur”; Judith, before los­ing faith, finds some­thing spir­i­tu­al and inher­ent­ly Jew­ish in schol­ar­ship of any kind. Were you pos­ing two dif­fer­ent par­a­digms of Jew­ish identity?

JMF: Cer­tain­ly with Jon­ah I want­ed to show the high­ly-sec­u­lar-but-still-strong­ly-Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, which real­ly exists for Jews of my gen­er­a­tion and even for my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion, too — and actu­al­ly, now that I think about it, for gen­er­a­tions before that. There is an idea in Judaism that is pret­ty unique among reli­gions, which is that you can be strong­ly part of your reli­gion with­out real­ly prac­tic­ing any of the reli­gious com­po­nents of it as such. Jon­ah doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think of him­self as less Jew­ish” because he doesn’t go to synagogue.

And with Judith, her family’s not super devout, but she’s cer­tain­ly more inter­est­ed in the specifics of the reli­gious prac­tice than Jon­ah is, and cer­tain­ly sees it as more of a spir­i­tu­al enter­prise than Jon­ah does.

NB: It’s only men­tioned once, but Jonah’s moth­er is not Jew­ish. Why is this a nec­es­sary facet of his char­ac­ter, when it’s bare­ly explored?

JMF: That’s an inter­est­ing ques­tion. I want­ed him to have a cer­tain am­bivalence with regard to reli­gion: at the start of the book, he’s in a place of Well, I could take it or leave it,” but by the end of the book reli­gion is some­thing that he’s forced to engage with, and he’s think­ing much more seri­ous­ly about reli­gious questions.

NB: Is the Age of Tech­nol­o­gy an age of sin, or is it more com­pli­cat­ed than that?

JMF: I think it’s not as sim­ple as yes or no — I doubt you were look­ing for a yes or no answer, any­way. Mod­ern life presents a huge new ar­ray of chal­lenges to any reli­gion, and to the way we relate to the world. I believe reli­gion needs to find ways to answer those ques­tions, the ques­tions that are raised by mod­ern life — which are real­ly unique to any peri­od of his­to­ry, because tech­nol­o­gy has advanced so quick­ly over the last even ten or fif­teen years. I think peo­ple do feel a cer­tain bewilder­ment as they look around the world, and I think faith has a lot to offer in that context.

NB: What’s next for you?

JMF: I am going to enjoy this peri­od of the ramp-up to the book com­ing out. It was a long jour­ney writ­ing the book, and I’m thrilled to be answer­ing ques­tions about it and shar­ing it with peo­ple. I am work­ing on a new nov­el — I’m not ready to talk about it yet — but I’m feel­ing good, and this whole process has been a won­der­ful one for me. As a writer, every book starts out in a very soli­tary place, and if you’re lucky enough to have peo­ple pay atten­tion to it, it feels real­ly great.

Joshua Max Feld­man is a writer of fic­tion and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Mass­a­chu­setts, he grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and has lived in Eng­land, Switzer­land, and New York City. The Book of Jon­ah is his first nov­el. Read more about him here.

Nat Bern­stein is the for­mer Man­ag­er of Dig­i­tal Con­tent & Media, JBC Net­work Coor­di­na­tor, and Con­tribut­ing Edi­tor at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and a grad­u­ate of Hamp­shire College.