August 26, 2009
Rabbi-Novelist Mines Ancient Treasure
Of all the prophets, Jeremiah has always been the personal favorite of Rabbi Zoë Klein. So in a series of two fictional works, the prolific pulpit rabbi and fiction writer did him a favor: She gave him a lover.
“He’s a brooder; he’s the most autobiographical of the prophets, and there’s something so desperately lonely and sad about him that I wanted to reach back in time and comfort him somehow,” said Klein, 38, senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. “I wanted to provide someone who is just mad about him and loves him as a man, not as a prophet.”
Faith and the healing property of love are themes Klein explores in her recently released novel, “Drawing in the Dust,” which follows fictional archaeologist Page Brookstone as she unearths a startling ancient treasure that challenges traditional theological beliefs in Israel and beyond.
Brookstone, a Catholic American excavating at Mount Megiddo, has spent her life hiding underground from personal demons and is haunted by the early death of her father. But when she begins a dig beneath an Arab couple’s home and discovers Jeremiah’s grave — his remains clasped in the arms of a mysterious woman — Brookstone begins to confront her fears and embrace love’s ability to transcend time.
The mysterious woman turns out to be Anatiya, a fictional contemporary of Jeremiah that Klein created for her first book, “The Scroll of Anatiya,” published earlier this year. Anatiya, who is mute, falls in love with the prophet after hearing him preach and spends her life longing for a man too consumed by holy work to return her devotion. One of the artifacts Brookstone finds near Jeremiah’s tomb in “Drawing in the Dust” is Anatiya’s scroll, whose 52 chapters, written in the poetic style of an ancient text, mirror the events narrated in the Book of Jeremiah.
Klein said she wrote “Drawing in the Dust,” in part, to shed light on the scroll that she had so painstakingly fleshed out.
“I wrote ‘The Scroll of Anatiya’ and then I kind of naively waited for it to be discovered,” she said with a laugh. “In a way, I invented the character of Page to discover the scroll that I had written, that I had wanted so much to be discovered. But then the story of Page also developed into its own very personal and meaningful journey.”
The characters in Klein’s novels each speak to basic aspects of Klein’s own life. She admires Anatiya’s singular mission to love another through every thought and action. She relates to Brookstone’s status as a documenter of others’ lives; just as the archaeologist digs through the remnants of ancient civilizations, celebrating their triumphs yet never taking part, Klein is also removed from the sacred rituals and milestones of her congregants in her role as officiator.
Even Jeremiah’s isolated position as a messenger of God’s word is something with which Klein can sometimes identify as the head of one of L.A.’s largest Reform synagogues.
“You’re a person who is delivering a message, bringing comfort, creating sacred moments, and there are times when I crave to be appreciated as a person instead of a provider,” she said.
That’s not to say Klein doesn’t consider it “an honor” to lead the heavily tikkun olam-focused congregation at Temple Isaiah — and to be one of just a few female senior rabbis in Southern California. “When people talk about tikkun olam, we often focus on the brokenness of the world, and I think I try to focus on the process of making whole,” she said. “I want to bring wholeness to people in a way that they are challenged and given the tools to fix what is broken out there. There are so few people who ever have the opportunity to apply their vision to others like I do.”
Klein, who was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1998, culled that vision from a colorful past that included four years at an Episcopalian high school while growing up in Connecticut. She pursued the rabbinate after graduating from Brandeis University, craving immersion in her Jewish faith, and today shares the profession with her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Klein, who is executive director of CLUE Los Angeles (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).
A husband, two novels, three young children and a congregation of 1,100 families — the equation is formidable enough to make one’s head spin. But Klein said she’s able to balance her many responsibilities harmoniously.
“A lot of people ask me how hard it must be: ‘You must be so busy — how do you do it?’” she said. “I believe that my writing is, in many ways, my soul work, and my rabbinate is like my field work for the writing.”
Klein is currently in the process of editing a book for young adults called “Whish,” and is also working on another idea for a novel. In between, she sometimes offers writing workshops to rabbinical students and congregants.
The author, who does not shy away from racy material in her work, said one tool she brings to every class is a paper shredder. She often has students warm up by instructing them to describe, in language poetic or crass, the most passionate experience of their lives — and then immediately feed it to the shredder.
“I think a lot of people, when they write, are so afraid of the page that they shy away from really expressing their heart. Good writing comes when you’re not editing as you write,” she said. “There are times when I write something and I think, ‘What would happen if my grandmother reads it, or how would my congregation look at me?’ But once you start doing that, you’re not being true to your story anymore.”
Some of those scenes in “Drawing in the Dust” deal with Brookstone’s controversial attraction to an ultra-Orthodox colleague, Mortichai. But Klein sees the relationship as illustrative of a larger theme — the potential for unity among Israel’s richly multi-cultural milieu.
“To me, the most beautiful concept in Judaism is oneness,” she said. “And love is, ultimately, the glue.”
Rabbi Zoë Klein