by Elise Coop­er

The Angel of Loss­es, Stephanie Feldman’s debut nov­el, weaves togeth­er his­to­ry and Jew­ish folk­lore into a mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional fam­i­ly saga. At the heart of the sto­ry is the rela­tion­ship between two sis­ters, Mar­jorie and Hol­ly. Mar­jorie, who is on a quest to find the mean­ing behind her grandfather’s fairy tales, must also come to grips with her own resent­ment toward her mar­ried sis­ter and her new­found fam­i­ly. The novel’s uni­ver­sal themes are fam­i­ly and loss, exile and redemp­tion. Elise Coop­er inter­viewed Stephanie Feld­man for the Jew­ish Book Council.

Elise Coop­er: Where did you get the idea for the story?

Stephanie Feld­man: I first got the idea in col­lege while study­ing eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Goth­ic nov­els. I want­ed to write some­thing sim­i­lar: a tale with mys­te­ri­ous fig­ures, ghosts, and fam­i­ly secrets that also tack­les the issues of iden­ti­ty and social oblig­a­tion. I made it my own by set­ting it in the con­tem­po­rary U.S., and rewrit­ing the Wan­der­ing Jew, a com­mon Goth­ic char­ac­ter, using Jew­ish tra­di­tion. Through my research I learned that the Wan­der­ing Jew was based on a Chris­t­ian leg­end: a Roman who taunt­ed Jesus as he car­ried the cross and is con­demned to immor­tal­i­ty, forced to wan­der the earth until Jesus returns. This leg­end def­i­nite­ly had anti-Semit­ic incar­na­tions. Because I want­ed to take that fig­ure back I incor­po­rat­ed the sto­ry with Jew­ish tradition.

EC: Were you exposed to Jew­ish mys­ti­cism and reli­gion as a child?

SF: No. I grew up as a Reform Jew. We cel­e­brat­ed the hol­i­days but were not par­tic­u­lar­ly obser­vant. I went to Philadel­phia pub­lic schools where I was one of the only Jew­ish chil­dren in my class. I felt my duty was to be the rep­re­sen­ta­tive of those who are Jew­ish. Then I went to Barnard Col­lege, which has a very large Ortho­dox Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion. I made friends who were very reli­gious and real­ized I did not know some of the words spo­ken or the cus­toms prac­ticed. Sud­den­ly I thought maybe I am not as Jew­ish as I thought I was.“This was about the time I start­ed think­ing about writ­ing this book. I real­ized I want­ed to explore Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, includ­ing my own.

EC: Is that why you com­pare and con­trast sec­u­lar and reli­gious Jews in the book?

SF: I want­ed to explore with the char­ac­ters what they thought of each other’s Jew­ish­ness. There is this gulf between the char­ac­ters and how they see the world. They are not will­ing to see where each oth­er comes from. The sto­ry has them explor­ing the need to be more open-mind­ed and accept­ing of each other’s beliefs; although the book nev­er comes to a res­o­lu­tion on what makes some­body Jewish. 

EC: Why did you write the Holo­caust scenes?

SF: In my fam­i­ly the Holo­caust was always part of our Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. What I think all Jews have in com­mon is that shared his­to­ry, which I incor­po­rat­ed into the sto­ry. For Grand­pa Eli, fairy tales are a way of telling a his­to­ry that he is unable to com­mu­ni­cate, or con­front head-on.

EC: Did you do a lot of research for the book?

SF: I did­n’t have any favorite folk­tales com­ing in, but the ones that struck me the most, and which you’ll see in the book, describe holy men who attempt­ed to force the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah and Par­adise. These men love G‑d so much they’re will­ing to destroy His laws for the chance to be clos­er to Him. I am very inter­est­ed in learn­ing about group loy­al­ty and its rela­tion­ship to social con­struc­tion. Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is par­tic­u­lar­ly thorny because it is a reli­gion, tra­di­tion, and there is the Jew­ish nation of Israel.

EC: Since the sis­ters’ rela­tion­ship is so impor­tant through­out the book, please describe the inter­ac­tion between Hol­ly and Mar­jorie, and between Cha­va, Holly’s reli­gious iden­ti­ty, and Marjorie.

SF: Mar­jorie loves Hol­ly fierce­ly but is also furi­ous with her, although most of her anger is a mask for her own hurt and sad­ness. She feels aban­doned by Hol­ly, who made the choice to leave her sis­ter behind. Mar­jorie resents Nathan, Holly’s hus­band, because she blames him for tak­ing Hol­ly away, and every inter­ac­tion between them becomes a bat­tle. Mar­jorie has a force­ful per­son­al­i­ty. She is self-right­eous, dri­ven, not very for­giv­ing, and sin­gle-mind­ed. Hol­ly is the nice sis­ter, the for­giv­ing one who is eas­i­est to get along with. It took time for me to put Mar­jorie’s feel­ings and judg­ments aside and see Hol­ly as she sees her­self. After Hol­ly becomes Cha­va she is more like Mar­jorie; both are very stubborn. 

EC: Is this a book about exile?

SF: The Angel of Loss­es has a yearn­ing for what exists and can­not be left behind. There is the feel­ing of exile, and the desire to have a reunion with G‑d. This book’s theme is about exile: Hol­ly exiled Mar­jorie, and Mar­jorie exiled her­self as she left her home and fam­i­ly where she grew up. The exile theme also comes into play with­in the mys­ti­cism por­tions of the book. Exile is a key Jew­ish con­cept: the Exile from the Gar­den of Eden, exile from G‑d, and from a phys­i­cal home­land. To be exiled is to have a sense of loss, which Mar­jorie, Hol­ly, Nathan, and Eli all expe­ri­ence and must come to grips with­in their own way.

EC: What does the White Rebbe represent?

SF: He is not based on any par­tic­u­lar rab­bi. He is a fair­ly mod­ern per­son who is strug­gling with what it means to be his father’s son and a mem­ber of the Tribe, and with what he owes his loved ones and what he owes him­self. As Mar­jorie learns more about the White Rebbe and her grand­fa­ther she comes to see her own life as anoth­er ver­sion of their stories.

EC: What do you want the read­ers to get out of the book?

SF: I hope they enjoy the sto­ry. I want them to think about their own iden­ti­ty. A family’s his­to­ry should be passed down to each gen­er­a­tion. This fam­i­ly is like many oth­er fam­i­lies whose mem­bers love each oth­er but make a lot of mis­takes inter­act­ing and under­stand­ing each oth­er. They are strug­gling as a unit with loy­al­ty, duty, when to sac­ri­fice for one anoth­er, and when to speak up. Unty­ing those knot­ty rela­tion­ships was intense, and I was grate­ful to escape into fairy tales some­times, into the leg­ends I created.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q & A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure of inter­view­ing best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.

Relat­ed Content:

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A’s for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press. She has had the plea­sure to inter­view best­selling authors from many dif­fer­ent genres.