As a child, I remember during the High Holidays when the lights would go off and the adults would begin chanting Hallelujah, a word that I knew was one of praise, though the melody was one of lamentation. The sanctuary of our Reconstructionist synagogue felt huge and near-haunted.
Then we, the children, would enter the darkness in a line, wrapped in paper chains and holding little lanterns, the only lights in the room other than the Eternal Light glowing above us all. I felt like a flickering star. I felt powerful and purposeful. Together, we would make the room beautiful and alive.
I imagine that mine is a relatable story for some: growing up with perhaps a taste of what beauty Judaism can offer, that sense of purpose and power and community that so fed me once a year as a child — yet also feeling like there should be more.
Eventually I did learn that what I was looking for was hidden, yet present all along. For me, one of the main pathways towards understanding what it was that so moved me while the adults were chanting (and what has helped me understand my place in the complex, vibrant and mournful community of my ancestors), comes from reading stories.
I didn’t have a bubbe who told me of the Old Country. Even so, as an Ashkenazi Jew, my childhood was peppered with fragments from the places that came before. The word “shtetl.” The word “pogrom.” The tidbit that my great grandfather had snuck out of Russia in the back of a hay wagon. The word “Holocaust.” Older words. Like “diaspora.” Like “exodus.” I could grasp that there was a story here, but I didn’t really understand how it related to me. I’m reminded of the so-called wicked child in the Passover seder who asks “What does this mean for you?” rather than “What does this mean for us?”
The truth is that, of course, my ancestors have always lived in my bones — my difficulties in feeling safe, yet also my creativity and awareness, and the way my soul resonated with the power of the Hallelujah ceremony — and resonates still with the power of ceremony. But I never saw this clearly until I started reading stories that put the lives of my ancestors into focus, from their day-to-day lives to the extremes of their experiences; from historical fiction to more imaginative historical fantasy.
I never entirely connected with what came before me until I met characters who lived and died where my ancestors lived and died. Our ancestors who put weight in their dreams, who counted time by the changing of the moon, who knew the transformative power of words and the healing abilities of plants. In GennaRose Nethercott’s recent book Thistlefoot, the animate house of Baba Yaga says, “Our descendents are born yearning and they do not know why, for they have forgotten.”
Stories help us know what it is that we yearn for. They help us to remember a true part of ourselves that is our inheritance.
From One Foot in America by Yuri Suhl, I can envision my great grandparents crossing the ocean, from a place that was home, from a place that was dangerous, to the Lower East Side where, though the streets were not gold, you still might just make it.
In The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel, a midwife in a shtetl provides a tea of fennel seed, nettles, raspberry leaf, motherwort and oats. When I read this, I felt thoroughly nestled into my community of ancestors. All these plants grow around me, they are plants that I either collect from the wild or cultivate myself, plants I drink daily. Now, drinking my tea feels like a ritual of remembrance, both for the people and also for the plants and land that nurtured them.
From Maggie Anton’s well-researched Rav Hisda’s Daughter series, I can imagine a woman ancestor of my own engaging in the skills of protective magic. Learning how spells and amulets shaped existence in the centuries and centuries of lives that carried me into life feels like an invitation, like I am honoring them by bringing this type of knowing into the present. To dig a root from deep in the forest, wrap it in silver wire and wear it around my neck. To bury a bowl beneath the front door step. To sing Hallelujah in the dark amongst the stars.
I have endless gratitude for those who have told the stories and those who are telling the stories. Those who are digging them out of archives, those who are passing on the stories they’ve been told, those who are listening so deeply that the stories unfold from within them — all those who are calling the stories of the past into the present, so that we can better hear the truth that resides in our own bones.
Organized by the time period in which the story takes place
The Red Tent by Anita Diamont
Book of V by Anna Solomon
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
Rav Hisda’s Daughter series by Maggie Anton
Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
The Physician by Noah Gordon
Rashi’s Daughters series by Maggie Anton
Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler
“Among the Thorns” (from Burning Girls and Other Stories) by Veronica Schanoes
The Golem and the Jinni series by Helene Wecker
The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel
The Singing Fire by Lilian Nattel
Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories by Sholem Aleichem
The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner
Tales of Old Sarajevo by Isak Samokoovlija
Day After Night by Anita Diamant
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
His Hundred Years, A Tale by Shalach Manot
Girl at the Edge of Sky by Lilian Nattel
One Foot in America by Yuri Suhl
“Burning Girls” (from Burning Girls and Other Stories) by Veronica Schanoes
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan
The Book of Esther by Emily Barton
Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Monsters, Demons, and Other Mythical Creatures in Jewish Lore, My Jewish Learning
On how creative work helps make sense of the everyday, The Creative Independent