Author Rena Rossner didn’t want to compose a “Jewish” book. In fact, the Orthodox Jewish writer initially set her debut novel, “The Sisters of the Winter Wood,” in a random forest town in 19th century French Christendom. It was her third outing as an author — her first two unpublished novels were “very Israel, very Jewish” — and she didn’t want to make the same mistake.
“My previous two works didn’t sell,” said Rossner, whose day job is a booming career as a literary agent with the Jerusalem-based Deborah Harris Agency. Those books were poetic adult literary fiction and while they made it to advanced stages of the publishing world, neither saw the final lap to the press.
Sitting in her Ma’ale Adumim Judean desert home, the mother of five says she decided to “take a total departure” from her previous attempts and write a Young Adult fantasy retelling of Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” poem — devoid of poetry and Jewish content.
As in Rossetti’s poem, at the core of “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” are two very different sisters who must come to terms with each other to save themselves and each other. The older sister, Liba, is dependable, large and dark-haired, taking after her serious scholar father. The younger, Laya, takes after their mother and is light and lithe — clearly all too eager to stretch her wings according to her stream-of-consciousness thoughts written in verse.
But after Rossner finished her novel, instead of celebrating its birth, it kept her up at night. “I turned to my husband and said, ‘My book doesn’t have a soul!’ He said, ‘Go back to sleep,'” she laughs. “But I said, ‘I think I need to put Yiddish into it.'”
As a literary agent, Rossner is highly aware of the current market for “own voice” narratives in the publishing world. Harking back to the write what you know adage, the trend is now to “tell your own family’s story, a story you have the authority to tell,” says Rossner.
“I’m fifth generation American. I didn’t know anybody in my family that had an accent. So what is my story?” asked the 39-year-old who moved to Israel from Miami Beach.
To reseed her novel with her “own voice,” she searched for her family’s own roots and the towns they emigrated to the United States from. She came upon a great uncle who had fled the small mixed Jewish-Romanian-Ukranian town of Dubossary after the Jews there had organized themselves to fend off a pogrom in 1903. The frustrated rioters moved on to the next shtetl, which became the notorious Kishinev pogrom. (The Jewish defense force was tragically not effective against the Nazis in 1940.)
“There’s a lot of talk about how so many Jewish stories are Holocaust stories and we need to tell other stories. There are so many tales of Jewish resistance, and here is a tale of Jewish resistance that my family was part of,” says Rossner, acknowledging that the town’s ultimate demise at the hands of the Nazis cannot be ignored.
Rossner says she read the town’s Yizkor book, a collection of post-Holocaust reminiscences, in which a poem mentioned “orchards and vineyards and melons and berries and apples and pears” — all themes found in the Rossetti poem. “When I read that poem I said, ‘That’s my setting; it echoes ‘Goblin Market.'”
“I chose to tell a story that was not about Jewish death, but Jewish life. Because so many of our stories end up being tragedy stories and I don’t think we deserve that,” says Rossner.
The addition of Yiddish and Dubossary shtetl backdrop to the Rossetti story were the missing ingredients to Rossner’s retelling. Remarkably, Rossner has seamlessly stitched a world of goblins and magic swans onto shtetl scenes as prosaic as the kosher butcher’s shop and the town market place.
In writing her very Jewish story, Rossner has effectively penned a universal tale of conflicted sisterly love, transitioning teens, modernity versus tradition, when to satisfy hungers and when to sacrifice for duty. The result is a magical “Fiddler on the Roof” — complete with malevolent lurking anti-Semitism.
The tight-knit family lives on the banks of a flowing stream in the outskirts of Dubossary’s dark forest. They are comfortably in their own bubble, which pops one night when an unknown Hasidic uncle begs the father to reconcile with their father before his death. The girls are left alone, with new-found powers and no guidance to use them.
The girls abruptly find out that their father is the reluctant heir to the Berre Rebbe, head of a nobel dynasty of shape-shifting Hasidic bears. Their mother, who converted to Judaism for their father, is shunned both by his family and the local townsfolk who question her piety. It turns out she actually hails from a bevy of Ukrainian swans.
Even in weaving in these fantastical familial facts to the Rossetti tale, Rossner looks to Jewish roots for inspiration, quoting from the Hasidic tale of the “Shpoler Zeiyde,” who would dance in bearskin to save another Jew.
“When you talk about Jewish fantasy as a concept, it doesn’t exist,” says Rossner. Although there are many Jewish writers in fantasy and science fiction world, “but I never saw myself — an Orthodox Jewish girl — on the pages of a fantasy novel.”
“You can point with one finger to the Jewish fantasy novels out there,” says Rossner. “I would love to see myself as leading the charge [for more], because there is so much magic in our tradition, so much myth… I think that our kids deserve these stories and I’ve tried to tell it with a lot of respect… It’s something I feel I have a right to write, because I am Orthodox, but I don’t think only Orthodox people could write these,” she says.
Although she started out writing a Young Adult novel, in the end her book was sold at auction between Adult houses. Interestingly, the Rossetti poem is likewise tough to classify as children’s or adult literature. It’s a hybrid market that needs to amplified and bridged, says Rossner, wearing her book agent hat, as readers are increasingly exploring what exactly does an “adult” novel mean and rejecting that they be filled with adultery, violence and sex.
Already ahead of its late-September release, “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” is a cross-over success story: a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, featured in Kirkus, and appearing on as many Young Adult lists as Adult.
“That’s exactly where I want to be and I’m so happy that’s where I ended up,” says Rossner, “although it’s not where I originally set out to be.”
She was launched by her publisher Redhook (part of the Hachette Book Group) as a featured book in its fall line-up, alongside with six other authors including Sally Fields at an event earlier this year. At the swank cocktail party for sales reps and publishing staff, Rossner says she was approached by several who had read her book who said, “My grandmother was from Poland and your story is her story. My grandmother is from Italy, and your story is her story.”
“And it was so gratifying because that was what I was hoping for and trying to do in sort of looking towards a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ paradigm, because I think that is the universal,” says Rossner.
Rossner’s shtetl, however, in which the language, food and touchstone places and experiences are all Jewish, is also a magical universe. But the mix of the supernatural with Judaism is not a foreign concept, says Rossner, although widely forgotten. She says there are many reasons why mainstream Judaism has lost touch with the fantastical — much of it is comes from Hasidic sects, Kabbalistic how-to instruction manuals or spell books, or from banned or esoteric tomes not available in translation.
“We have this model that God removed prophesy from the Jewish people at a certain point… but it’s there! It’s just not become a part of our popular Jewish culture in a way that it’s become a part of popular Christian culture or other religions. But it’s there if you look for it,” says Rossner.
People used to read their fortunes in the light of the post-Shabbat havdala candle reflected on their finger nails, she says, “And nobody knows that!” Same for the “Jewish scholar witches” of Safed.
Her next book, which is already under contract, will also explore the overlap of Judaism and magic — and there’s a whole trove of more Jewish inspiration ready to be explored.
“It’s not that much of a jump from having a man dance in a bear cloak to saying he turns into a bear,” she says. “All we need with Judaism as the root, is to take that leap, because it’s all there.”