No one would accuse Stephanie Feldman of taking the easy way out with her debut novel, The Angel of Losses.
Among the weighty topics she tackles in her tale of the difficult and disparate roads to reconciliation is the identity crises caused by a character’s conversion to Judaism.
In fact, the Northeast Philadelphia native, who now lives in Fort Washington, has had firsthand experience with this kind of self-questioning.
“Some of the conflict you see in the book is conflict I experienced myself,” she says. “I’ve always had a very strong sense of Jewish identity, closer to Reform than anything else. I went to a high school” — Masterman in Center City, a magnet public school with relatively few Jews — “where I felt very Jewish, especially compared to college, where I suddenly found myself in a community of Orthodox students” in her dormitory at Barnard College.
Feldman recalls a Shabbat dinner she went to during her freshman year with a group of Orthodox students who had an entirely different definition of what it means to be Jewish.
“I didn’t know anything — the customs, the Yiddish words — I felt very out of place,” she says. “It was surprising to me, because I had never before been in a situation where I was less Jewish, but I felt like I didn’t belong in the Jewish community there.”
That moment had such an impact on her that it shows up again in a pivotal scene in the book, where Holly, the character who converts to Judaism, attends her first Shabbat dinner.
Feldman, who frequents the Conservative Beth Tikvah B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim with her husband and young son, says many of the ideas and themes in her book germinated in college. “It just took a long time to process and write them. Coming through that time of having to re-evaluate my own Jewish identity and the change that I experienced is what made the book.”
It was a Gothic literature class at Barnard where Feldman first learned about the Wandering Jew, another character featured in her novel. The story of this solitary figure cursed by Jesus to walk the Earth for eternity as punishment for mocking him during his carrying of the cross has been around for centuries, told by cultures across Europe as a cautionary tale of what happens to those who choose to reject Christianity.
Compared to the myriad of anti-Semitic tropes on display today, the Wandering Jew can seem almost benign at first glance. But to Feldman, it is one of the earliest demonizations of Jews.
“There are German tracts from the 15th and 16th centuries that you really don’t want to see,” she says. “And even just taking a figure that is frightening and unearthly and ‘the Other’ and calling it a Jew is not the friendliest thing.
“When I found out that it wasn’t Jewish, that it was an anti-Semitic creation, I really wanted to take that figure back.”
To do that, she needed to create a believable mythology almost out of whole cloth. Over two years of research, she found a reference to a White Rebbe in a Polish folk tale. Appropriating the name, she created a mythology of Solomon, the White Rebbe — her original version of the Wandering Jew.
Solomon’s peregrinations spanned continents and centuries, from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the Venetian Ghetto in the 18th century to the Vilna ghetto during World War II to present-day New York. He crossed oceans of water and time to escape the titular seraph and to see if Marjorie, the book’s protagonist and the sister of Holly, can help end his journeying.
For a book so suffused with religious and mythological aspects of Judaism, The Angel of Losses begins from a distinctly non-Jewish point of origin. Marjorie and Holly — now known as Chava — come from a Christian family. But both seem to have been drawn to Judaism — Holly by converting to marry her college boyfriend, Nathan, and Marjorie by choosing the Wandering Jew as her master’s thesis. As the book progresses through a swirl of magical realism, love stories, academic sleuthing and family secrets, the sisters’ attraction to Judaism becomes ever more clear.
To drive the narrative forward, the 31-year-old Feldman, who worked in publishing and at the American Council of Learned Societies before devoting herself to writing full-time, has created a book within a book. Or, more precisely, a set of self-contained stories within the book. The four tales of the White Rebbe, which Marjorie had long thought were Old World bedtime stories concocted by her grandfather, turn out to be not just a chronology of the Wandering Jew, but a guide she can use to save her sister and her newborn nephew from the fatal ravages of a genetic disease.
Feldman is well aware that The Angel of Losses is a dense, complex tale. “It used to be far more intricate,” she admits, “but my editor helped me focus on core characters and relationships and keep the mythologies in line.”
Despite her novel’s focus on fictitious Chasidic sects and the creation of her own version of the Wandering Jew, Feldman emphasizes that at its heart, The Angel of Losses is about a subject that transcends religion.
“Even though it does have a very dense mythology, I think that the family story is what people connect to first,” she says.
There are plenty of familial threads to pick up within the book: the fractured relationship between Marjorie and Holly/Chava; the struggle between Marjorie and her Chasidic in-laws; a posthumous battle of wills with her grandfather in her dreams; and the crucible that tempers everyone when Chava’s infant son is diagnosed. Between Marjorie’s personal life, academic life and the supernatural forces dogging her, Feldman has given her main character a lifetime’s worth of issues to confront.
But Feldman says there was never a question of giving Marjorie a clear path to enlightenment and resolution.
“You can’t do that in fiction or it will get boring — you have to torment your characters!” she exclaims, a sentiment that is echoed by Grandpa Eli in one of Marjorie’s premonitory dreams:
“You can’t stop loss,” he tells her. “It’s the other side of life. It’s what the world is built on. And that’s all I wanted for us: to be of this world.”