Tamar Hodes shares her thoughts about her new book.
I first had the idea of writing a novel called Mixed many years ago, when I attended a talk at Menorah Synagogue, where I was a member. The session was entitled Mixed Marriages and I assumed that it would focus on partnerships, like my own, of different faiths but the speaker started by saying that all marriages were, in her opinion, mixed. Both partners may be Jewish but disagree on how they want to live and practise their religion, or raise their children.
The two sisters in my novel have different ideas about how to live and, in particular, express their Jewish identity. Ruth, who is an accountant, lives in north London, has a Jewish husband Simon and sends her three children Leah, David and Abby to a Jewish school. They are very involved with their synagogue, in the fictional Goldwell Hill and all their friends are Jewish. They hope that their children will marry within the faith and value their heritage, passing it on to the next generation.
Miriam, a teacher, has a non-Jewish husband, Chris and her children, Hannah and Daniel, go to a school where they are the only Jewish pupils. Miriam’s best friend is Muslim Mehreen who completely understands how Miriam feels: both women want to retain their religious identities but also live in the world at large. Their interfaith friendship is at the heart of the novel.
There is frequent tension between the sisters and much of it is about their different ways of being Jewish. Miriam feels that Ruth is edging her out of her Judaism and suspects that she sees Miriam as a lesser Jew. Ruth feels that Miriam made certain choices and that he should take the consequences of those rather than blame others for her decisions. Something dramatic happens in the novel which threatens to divide the family, much to the dismay of Harold and Evelyn, Ruth and Miriam’s delightful parents. Whether the rift is healed, you will have to read the novel to find out!
Then there is Uncle Gerald who wants nothing to do with any religion, seeing it as the cause of wars and division throughout history.
So there is the range of characters in the novel and their different views of their Jewish identity.
No research was necessary for this novel! I feel that I know these characters inside out. I was brought up in north London from the age of five (after living in Israel, Greece and South Africa) and attended Henrietta Barnett School where 40% of the girls, at that time, were Jewish. My parents, Aubrey and Rhoda, were culturally and socially Jewish, but not religious. They had met on a kibbutz in Israel and both spoke fluent Hebrew. We had little family in this country but were part of an ex-South African arty Jewish community who always came together for Pesach, Chanukah and Rosh Hashanah. I have very happy memories of lit candles, sweet wine, delicious food and great conversations including arguments about which tunes to sing at Passover. So involved was I with this tight-knit community that, when I went to train as a teacher at Homerton College in Cambridge, I assumed that everyone would be an ex-South African arty Jewish type and was rather surprised to discover that they were not!
So I know what it is like to live a Jewish life but I have also lived in the Midlands and Hampshire where there are few Jews and it is very hard to find challah or gefilte fish let alone Jews. This is why I am genuinely not critical of Ruth, Miriam or Gerald. I understand all their viewpoints and have sympathy for them. I was once told that all fiction is about good versus evil and that is generally true but not in my novel. No characters are demonised. They are all just trying to find their way.
Not that they are the only characters in this novel. There is also Israel, the psychiatrist who grows giant vegetables; Shlossy who dresses like a man, smokes a pipe and insults everyone in Yiddish, and Morris, who hides his discomfort about his sexuality beneath Jewish jokes, leading into them with ‘So…’. Evelyn is a terrible cook and but she and her husband always have enough undercooked chicken to go round and will find a place at the table for any guest even if he/she has to sit on a fold-up garden chair and have the table legs between their knees.
Because the theme of the novel is the various ways that we can be Jewish, the structure had to be mixed too. Taking its theme from a challah, the novel has three plaited strands: the narrative, character chapters and funny takes on much-loved Jewish recipes, such as the one for chopped herring: Get some herring. Chop it. Fumigate the house.
The tone is mixed, too. Some of it is funny (hopefully); other parts serious and it may even be profound. The novel is supposed to be a metaphor for Judaism itself: being Jewish is joyful, painful and often complex. To be Jewish in a non-Jewish world is not always easy. You have to explain who you are and sometimes defend who you are. I was asked by a fellow student whether I blew a ram’s horn and I had to answer that no, personally I didn’t! There is sometimes antisemitism and sometimes ignorance, like the teacher who wished my son a happy day on Yom Kippur. One can feel like an outsider in a secular, historically Christian society, with your nose pressed against the glass, looking in.
But being an outsider can be useful as a writer. In the same way that we might have to step back to see a painting clearly, it is quite helpful to stand back from the world and view it from afar as well as from inside. Writers are both distanced and involved; maverick but also at the centre. Much of my writing has been concerned with our position in the world, identity and belonging. My short stories in my collection The Watercress Wife and Other Stories, broadcast on Radio 4, and published in anthologies such as A Treasury of Jewish Stories and Salt’s Best British Stories 2015 have been preoccupied by these issues, which affect all minorities: do you join in and assimilate or live apart from others or find a compromise? What are the consequences of these choices?
In my novel Raffy’s Shapes (Accent Press, 2006) my eponymous heroine is a painter who lives a reclusive life by a lake. In my novel The Water and the Wine (Hookline Books, 2018), now a paperback, ebook, audiobook and published in Italian as Un Amore a Hydra, I explore the lives of the artists and writers who formed a bohemian community on the Greek island of Hydra in the sixties. I lived there as a child with my writer father and painter mother but more importantly, so did Leonard Cohen and his lover and muse Marianne Ihlen, the central characters in my novel. These people left mainstream society in order to focus on creativity and community and that is another of the themes that interest me: do you conform or find an alternative? Do you take the safe route or the risky one? Do you live at the centre of society or on the fringes of it?
I like fiction which asks questions, explores difficult issues and maybe even provides answers. Writing is a strange paradoxical activity: you write on your own but hope that you are communicating with others; it can come easily and it can be a struggle; in a sense, you are every character and in a sense, you are none of them, and you are at the centre and at the margins of the world, at the same time.
All you can hope is that, when you send your novel out into the world, readers may enjoy it, be moved by it or even be changed by it.
Tamar Hodes’ books, Mixed, Raffy’s Shapes, The Watercress Wife and Other Stories and The Water and the Wine are all available on Amazon.