She gripped my hand in the doorway of the church, following the Good Friday service, “I’ve never really liked Jews.”
I had just finished decrying present-day harassment of Jews in the Ukraine and noted that we are kidding ourselves if we thought we would treat Jesus better now than he was treated then. We prayed. We grieved. I again felt the chasm between the religion of my heart (Christianity) and the religion of my blood and my ancestors (Judaism). Always the tension between betrayal and the realities for anyone of Jewish ancestry or culture, here I was, being told by a parishioner I love deeply something that amounted to, “I’ve never cared for an entire race of people [to which you belong through your mother and her parents and your grandparents].”
Gripping her hand in that doorway, I looked her in the eye and said, “Do you know any Jews?”
“No,” she admitted.
“Well, now you do.”
This story comes to mind as I watch the turmoil around Kate Breslin’s For Such a Time (Bethany House, 2014). Nominated for a 2015 RITA, For Such a Time tells the story of a blonde, blue-eyed Jewish woman who is rescued from a firing squad by a Nazi commandant and becomes his secretary. She hatches a plot to save people from the trains to Auschwitz and her uncle, Morty, foils a plan that would have killed the commandant. The commandant pressures her to kisses and into an engagement. And, in the way of magical realism, a Bible continues to appear unexpectedly and she learns to find some consolation in the New Testament, instead of in the Hebrew Scriptures of her childhood. All ends as most romances do with a happily ever after with our lovely Jewess marrying the Nazi commandant, who helped Jews escape the camp in question. Presumably, they raise lovely blonde Christian children.
I think I need to wash my hands after typing that. The to-do over this book is that many, many people- Jews and non-Jews- believe that romance between a Jewish prisoner and a Nazi commander violates any spirit of consent. In the portions of the book when Stella/Hadassah wrestles with her feelings about Aric, I was reminded of the guilt rape survivors sometimes feel when their bodies responded to the act of violation in a different way than their heads and spirits were. No matter how humane the Nazi in question was made to seem- he had the power to kill her or those she loved at any time.
This retelling of Esther misses a critical piece of the story. We never hear that Ahasuerus and Esther had a great love story because she was property, a girl more beautiful than the others who were culled from the countryside to see who would please the king. She made the best of a bad situation and, in so doing, saved her people.
For Such a Time is not the same thing. It is what I will call “supercessionism porn”, wherein the ultimate happily-ever-after for a Jew would certainly be to become a Christian. Breslin and her publisher, Bethany House, have received criticism for the book on the grounds that it violates consent at best and allows for a kind of truth of the Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism at worst. These criticisms have generated their own backlash to the backlash, with such authors as Anne Rice arguing that speaking against For Such a Time is a kind of censorship.
If one must write a romance about the Holocaust, one could write about the impossibility of one occurring between Jews in a ghetto, in a camp, or in the Russian front. One could write about two German non-Jews, who fall in love as members of the Resistance. One could write about a French, British, or American soldier or nurse rescuing non-Jews from a concentration camp (they were there) and falling in love through the healing process. Some of those stories could adequately include an aspect of Christian faith that would satisfy the audience of an inspirational novel. Any of the scenarios and a number of others allow for an equality in the relationship that would never, never be the reality between a Jewish woman and a Nazi camp commandant.
What it means to live as a Jew in modern America is to have complex feelings about history, about G-d, about Israel, and about one’s own practice. It also means, at a certain level, a wariness. No country has ever allowed us to stay, unharmed, permanently. We cannot take anything for granted. You never know when someone will say to you, “I’ve never liked Jews”. And you can’t always be sure what will follow that statement.
Arguing that anyone can write anything about anyone at any time, or else it is censorship, is the publishing equivalent of #AllLivesMatter.
Would a book about a Yazidi woman “falling in love” with her ISIS rapist be nominated for romance awards?
Would we hope for a movie based on a relationship between a police officer employed by Bull Connor and a young black woman?
Would ratings soar for a novel about a Cherokee teenager being “wooed” by the soldier escorting her family along the Trail of Tears?
Some stories belong to the people who lived them, the people who still grieve them, the people in whose bones they rest. Leave the Holocaust and its survivors alone. They’re not there as easy emotional background for your novel. If you aren’t sure, ask a Jew.
If you didn’t know any, now you do.