It was a writing class prompt that brought author Julie Zuckerman to Jeremiah Gerstler, the 82-year-old, cantankerous protagonist of her debut novel-in-stories, “The Book of Jeremiah” (Press 53, 2019).
“My writing teacher said, ‘Write about someone who is definitely not you,'” said Zuckerman, who celebrated her book with a recent launch party in Modiin, the central Israel city where she has lived for the last 21 years.
Gerstler is definitely not Zuckerman. Originally from Trumbull, Connecticut, she has lived in Israel for the last 24 years working in high-tech marketing, is married and is a 49-year-old mother of four.
But Jeremiah Gerstler, a sometimes grumpy, sensitive Jewish political scientist who spends much of his career teaching at a university in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, will be as familiar a character to many readers as he was to Zuckerman, who partially took his voice from her father-in-law, a “menschy leader with a crusty, cantankerous external side.”
Jeremiah Gerstler is awkward and endearing, with a lifelong struggle to be known, revered, and recognized for what he has accomplished in his many years.
His life story is related not chronologically, but rather in 13 separate but seamlessly woven short stories, beginning with him as a smart, mischievous child living in his immigrant parents’ home, continuing with his experiences as a soldier in Europe during World War II, then on to his long marriage, fatherhood and finally, to the time after his wife dies.
“My first idea of him was as an older man already, so I had an end point in mind,” said Zuckerman. “I wanted to show a different side of him, as a kid, in his youth, highlighting his insecurities.”
We first meet him when he is 11 and dressed for Purim as a shohet, a ritual slaughterer, down to the live chicken he carries under his arm to synagogue for the reading of the Book of Esther.
One of the book’s final episodes takes place in 1999, in the story “The Dutiful Daughter,” when Jeremiah, his wife and their adult daughter take a trip to Israel, Zuckerman’s only use of her adopted homeland in the book.
He’s the kind of American Jew who was raised by Jewishly affiliated, religious immigrant parents but was secular throughout his adult life. He is also deeply affected, personally and professionally, by the world events that unfold around him, particularly World War II, the civil war battles of the 1960s and the results of the Vietnam War.
It took Zuckerman five years to write “The Book of Jeremiah,” which included many early mornings of writing and editing before heading to work and the rest of her day. Some of the stories were printed in literary journals prior to being published together in the book, a process that Zuckerman said helped move her toward publication.
It was a project she came to when she needed something to occupy her mind in between familial tasks. But it’s a skill that harks back to an earlier time in her life, when she was the editor-in-chief of The Columbia Daily Spectator newspaper while a student at Barnard College and a budding journalist.
“Writing gives me the opportunity to stretch the creative part of my brain; I love the exercise of dreaming up characters and situations, stringing one word after another on the page, and seeing everything come together as a story that resonates as true,” said Zuckerman. “Through writing, I’m able to get in touch with my innermost thoughts. This often happens after a story is complete; when I look back at why I chose to write a scene in a particular way or develop a certain theme, I’m uncovering new things about my world and myself.”