The Koret Diaries



Rachel Kadish, winner of the 2004 Koret Young Writer on Jewish Themes Award, has just moved from Boston to Palo Alto, California. Kadish has offered to post diary entries of her Koret-funded tenure on the West Coast. Watch this space for future entries.

Yesterday I biked onto campus past fountains and palm trees, under a cloudless sky. Entering the library, I commented to someone that it was a glorious day. The response was a tolerant smile. I suppose when every day is perfect, it is kind of dumb to mention it. I couldn’t care less. This place is paradise—Disney World for academics. It ought to be appreciated.

The thing that most astonishes me about this quarter at Stanford is that the Koret Foundation truly wants me to concentrate on my writing. There’s no other agenda, no requirement to teach. When we were planning for my arrival, Stephanie Singer at the Koret Foundation actually asked me to describe my ideal writing residency. (Nobody ever asked me this before.) So I went ahead and described the plan that I knew would be most productive. While I love teaching, I do enough of it already—I’m currently teaching long-distance for Lesley’s MFA program. And I’ve got a toddler. So I said I’d rather not teach if I didn’t need to. I said I wanted to give readings in the community, have time to work on my own projects (including a novel I’m currently revising) and—if possible—sit in on some Jewish Studies classes. I write so much about Jewish themes… yet I’m relying heavily on my childhood Jewish education—Solomon Schechter from ages 5 to 12. It’s time I did some new learning.

When I write, I like to alternate between several projects, working on whichever feels most alive—beginning the research for a future project while finishing up another one. Right now I’m editing my new novel, which is titled Love [sic] and is sort of an existential romantic comedy. Love [sic] is a book about love, and how a thinking (and thinking, and re-thinking) woman finds it and metabolizes it and struggles with it and nearly loses it and learns how much work happiness really takes. The narrator is an American Literature professor. She’s Jewish, but her Jewish roots are utterly atrophied (in childhood she was puzzled by her superstitious grandmother’s repeated invocation of the name of an Irishman, “Ken O’Hara”; only as an adult does she retrospectively decipher her grandmother’s bulwark against the evil eye—keyn ayin ha-roh.

As I prepared for this latest revision of the novel, I realized I needed to get better acquainted with my narrator’s chosen specialty. So I made myself read through the Norton Anthology of American Literature—five volumes, each with over 1,000 small-print pages. I did skim and skip a fair bit, but I also read an enormous amount, and it was delightful. (Along the way I also got a refresher course in some fun literary trivia: Did you know that Christopher Columbus eventually went mad? That some Thomas Paine admirer exhumed his bones years ago in order to re-bury him in England… but the project ran out of steam and now no one knows where poor Paine’s bones are? That H.D. and Ezra Pound were once engaged? That Lew Welch, American beatnik poet who had a day job in advertising, wrote the most famous four words by an American poet: “Raid Kills Bugs Dead”?)

While I revise Love [sic], there’s another project I’m starting to research—just the first inklings of what might eventually become another novel.

When I start a book, I don’t have any idea where it’s going. All I have is a set of feelings about a couple characters, a few images, and maybe a few phrases. (For me, that mystery is part of the fun, part of what drives me to write and keeps the story honest—I write to find out who these characters are, what they think and do, what happens to them.) I know that the piece I want to write is historical. Set, in fact, in a Jewish community in Medieval or Renaissance Europe. (Why am I so focused on such a distant period of history? This past year the political situation and all the attendant fears about terrorism, world events, etc., prompted me to speculate about other times in which people felt powerless and the world seemed to close like a trap.)

Conceiving a project set so far back in history makes me quite nervous, because of the prodigious amount of research and thinking I’ll need to do before I can write even one line. But that’s the time period I’m drawn to right now. Lots of projects never get off the ground, so who knows whether this one will. But I keep daydreaming about three particular characters and keep pricking up my ears at certain subjects, so I’m going to pursue this one for a bit and see where it goes.

I’m sitting in on two classes relevant to this future project. One class is on Renaissance Jewish history, the other on medieval notions of poverty and charity in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s odd and delightful to be sitting on the student side of the classroom again, thirteen years after my own college graduation. My approach, of course, is a bit different from my fellow students’. An example: at the first meeting of one of my classes this week, the professor was discussing the medieval practice of giving charity for the redemption of captives. Apparently it used to be commonplace—and in fact an accepted part of the local economy—for bandits to take travelers captive. The captives were not harmed, but were ransomed. Back at the captives’ home-town church, there would be a collection pot where the rich would donate money for ransom—thus guaranteeing themselves a place in heaven through good works. The relatives of a captive would hire someone—often a friar—to go negotiate for the prisoner’s release.

It’s my fellow students’ job to understand the religious, historical, political and economic dynamics at work in that whole situation…and I’m interested in those aspects too. But my job as a fiction writer is also to think about that collection pot—what was it made of? What sound did money make when it was dropped in? And the man who dropped the money, what was he wearing? And how did he speak? And what did he and his family eat for breakfast, dream about, yearn for?

It’s going to be an interesting couple of months. Love [sic] is due out from Houghton Mifflin next year, and I need to finish the revision this autumn. So as soon as I can get over admiring the palm trees I’m going to need to kick things into gear. I have a key to a sunlit carrel in Green Library, plenty of support from the Jewish Studies and Creative Writing folks here, and a chance to speculate about coins clinking into clay pots in Medieval Italian churches. I feel blessed to be here.