Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Naomi's Song-Sydney Taylor Honor Book for Teen Readers

Naomi's Song

Written by: Selma Kritzer Silverberg
Recommended Ages: 12 and up

I am thrilled to be participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. I had the privilege of interviewing Judy Vida, daughter of the late Selma Kritzer Silverberg who wrote the book Naomi's Song. This Sydney Taylor Honor book in the Teen Reader's category, details the life of the lesser-known Naomi in the Book of Ruth. It's a gripping story of Naomi's rise from abused orphan, to her loving marriage to Elimelek, to her days as a destitute widow, and on to her well-known relationship with her daughter-in-law Ruth. It's biblical fiction at its best, with strong female characters that you don't soon forget.

Judy, the story behind the writing of Naomi’s Song is so interesting. Please tell us how your mother came to write it, and how it ultimately came to be discovered so many years later?

Mother had written Naomi’s Song with the intention of presenting it to me for my sixteenth birthday in 1959, but it took her nine more years to complete it. In the 1960s there was not a big market for biblical fiction for teenage girls and she could not find a publisher so it lay on her bookshelf untouched.

In 1984 she made photocopies of the hand-typed manuscript for each of her five granddaughters and wrote the dedication, ending with this sentence: “Naomi was a female of little note in ancient Israel. Hence, to win a place for herself, she evolved necessary convictions and courage -- qualities I wish for my five beautiful granddaughters.”

The manuscript was not thought of again for twenty years, until Mother’s curious hospice aide discovered it on her shelf, read it, and enthused about it to me. At that point I reread it, and was struck by the power of the biblical story and the quality of the research and writing. Mother died at age 96 in April 2005, twenty-one years after she wrote the dedication and almost forty years after her original draft of the book.

What followed in bringing this book to life Mother would have credited to God’s handiwork. She was a profoundly committed Jew and enjoyed a personal relationship with God that sustained her during her entire life. She always talked things over with God, prayed to God when she needed help, and gave thanks often to her “Gracious Lord”.

After her death, the family observed the traditional one-week mourning period. Many friends came to support us in our loss. We reminisced about her and took the opportunity to share the joy of knowing her with them. We talked about her love of writing, and how she had self-published a children’s book about the Shaker people who lived in Cleveland in the mid-1800s. The booklet was later reprinted and distributed by the Shaker Historical Museum.
I also mentioned the unpublished Naomi’s Song manuscript. One night after everyone else had left, our friend Rabbi Jeffrey Schein, a Jewish educator, asked if he could read it. His response was very positive and at his suggestion I submitted the manuscript to the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). To me, it seemed like divine intervention when JPS offered to publish the book.

The book is such a richly detailed account of life during the biblical times of Naomi and Ruth. Your mother really brought the time and the people alive for the reader. Do you know how she researched the life of the ancient Israelites? What sources she drew upon?

I was a young teenager at the time, and not too aware of my mother’s activities. But I do know she was an accomplished researcher and spent countless hours in libraries, both public and synagogue. I remember her going often to consult with Mr. Frank, the original owner of Cleveland’s Jewish book store. He was extremely knowledgeable about current and historical publications in her areas of interest.

She also counted a number of Rabbis and Jewish educators among her friends. I’m sure they were resources for her. She had always had an interest in the details of life in biblical times, which is apparent in the picture she is able to present of what it was like to be living then. She was excited about biblical flora, fauna, eating and cooking utensils, methods of healing, etc. She kept a large poster of the flowers of Israel on her wall.

Naomi is depicted as a very independent, strong-minded woman in a time when men were in charge of virtually everything. Naomi’s Song was originally written in the late 1950’s-the very dawn of the women’s movement. Would you consider your mother an early feminist? Did she have some of the similar traits as Naomi?

Yes, I would consider her an early feminist. She was quiet about it, but she was determined to develop her own character and pursue her own interests even within the confines of a traditional 1950’s family role. It never occurred to her that there was anything she could not accomplish. She had long wanted to return to college to earn an elementary education degree. At the age of 44 she started toward that goal, taking only 1 course each semester, and completed her degree at the age of 58. Like Naomi she identified tasks and goals then persevered to complete them.

Do you have early memories of learning about the Story of Ruth and Naomi as a child?

We learned the story of Ruth as just one of the many bible stories Mother would tell us throughout the year. The book of Ruth had a special place through its attachment to the major spring holiday of Shavuot. Mother celebrated all the Jewish holidays in engaging and stimulating ways so that we were imbued with a sense of the essence and traditions of each. I had always known the importance of the Ruth story through its elevation to a level of pilgrimage festival association. These are the three harvest festivals: Shavuot, Pesach and Sukkot. Each of the three has an associated book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes for Sukkot, Song of Songs for Pesach and Ruth for Shavuot.

One of the things that I particularly liked in the book were the relationships between the female characters: Naomi and her mother-in-law Malkah, Naomi and her first real friend (the very independent Kezia) and of course, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth. How much did the friendships between these women parallel your mother’s relationships with friends/family in her life?

I think the relationships in the book were somewhat idealized; they were my mother’s vision of what close, reciprocal relationships could be. She was one of four sisters and those relationships were the loving, and respectful connections that we see in Naomi’s Song. She also had a few close independent women friends who were resources for her, but more often she deferred to my father’s choice of men friends and then she did her best to develop cordial relationships with their wives. After my father’s death she was able to expand her circle to include more “Kezias” in her life.

She was naturally a friendly and caring woman- famous for learning the family details of every cab driver or repairman she ever met. She was compassionate to everyone and this endeared her to family and friend alike. Like Malkah, Naomi’s mother-in-law, in the book, Mother understood that family relationships are complex and require respect and understanding on everyone’s part. I very much see my mother in the character of Malkah, And Malkah was my maternal grandmother’s name

What have been your children’s (grandchildren’s) reactions to their grandmother’s book?

They think it's wonderful!

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to say about your mother or Naomi’s Song?

During the process of shepherding Naomi’s Song through publication, I discovered aspects of my mother I had not consciously known. She was a powerful force who impacted many lives, but in her own immediate family her voice was secondary to her husband’s. This was her choice -- a “good” wife needed to put her husband in the limelight while she remained in the background. Her voice should not be too strong.

But in her original written dedication to Naomi’s Song she tells us “ Naomi was a female of little note in ancient Israel. Hence, to win a place for herself, she evolved necessary convictions and courage...” Mother’s convictions came through clearly in many ways: her creative home celebrations, her tradition of a nightly bedtime Jewish prayer, her advocacy of positive thinking, and her volunteerism.

After my father’s death her public “voice” became stronger. She moved to Florida and began writing monthly letters to her children, whom she called her “kinderleben” (beloved children). Relatives and close friends heard about these letters and asked to be included in the “kinderleben” mailings until she was photocopying and mailing close to fifty letters a month.
In those letters she had free rein to teach, moralize, address injustices, and detail her many current interests. She shared with us her convictions, her courage, and her curiosity. She urged us to go into politics to shape the world around us. Always, her compassion and understanding shone through, and all of us felt enlightened and inspired by her teachings and writings.
The publication of Naomi’s Song brought to fruition her lifelong goals of teaching, Bible storytelling, and empowering girls to have that “necessary conviction and courage”. For me, the discovery of her manuscript opened a vista to the fully empowered woman that she quietly was -- and that she wrote about in Naomi’s Song.



Anonymous said...

What an amazing journey this story has traveled. I am moved especially by the original inscription. What a powerful and loving wish from the family matriarch. Thank you for sharing this story!!

Phyllis Sommer said...

I definitely got chills when I read this story. What a wonderful legacy she left! Thanks so much for this delightful interview.