Jewish Education and Biblical Fiction with Esther Goldenberg

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Esther Goldenberg. Photo Courtesy.

Esther Goldenberg spent a decade in the education field before she moved to Israel, where she spent several years working on her biblical fiction book series, the Desert Songs Trilogy. Goldenberg always enjoyed writing, but she began working on this series when she felt the story come to her and pour out of her mind onto paper. Now, Goldenberg’s first book in the trilogy, “The Scrolls of Deborah,” is out, with two more on the way.

Can you tell me about your experience as an educator before moving to Israel?

I spent about 10 years as an elementary school teacher at what was then called the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, as well as about 10 years as a private bar mitzvah teacher. I prepared and helped their families prepare as well for the bar mitzvah milestone. My mom was an educator and I learned from her by example about teaching, and my first job out of college was teaching Hebrew school. Even after graduating college, I really liked teaching. I wanted to make school as enjoyable as possible because my own experience as a student was not so fun. I wanted to make it interesting as well and I was drawn to the Jewish content. So, I spent some time teaching some of the secular curriculum as well as some of the Hebrew and Judaic curriculum. But I really enjoyed being in the environment where the rhythm of the year is according to the Jewish calendar and we could explore our heritage in school as well as outside of school.

Can you tell me about your time living in Israel?

The experience was wonderful. I was living in a small community in the north. And it really was a community where people there know each other, care about each other, interact with each other. Part of this is because it’s a very small community and part of it is just the personality there. So, I loved living in the community, and I loved living in the nature and the land of Israel. And I loved speaking Hebrew every day … it was really a wonderful, enriching, powerful, positive experience. I was actually [in Israel] writing the books in the Desert Songs Trilogy.

Can you tell me about your inspiration for writing and how you got the idea for your books?

As far as I can remember, I always have loved them [the stories in the Torah]. And so even though I’m not a very frequent shul goer, I’ve just always enjoyed the stories and the teachings from the Torah and they’ve been things that I’ve thought about. They haven’t been something that I really was pursuing other than in my professional work as a bar and bat mitzvah tutor. I would explore the stories and the lessons more deeply with my students. But it kind of came as a surprise to me when I started writing these novels, because it all started with what I can only describe as like a download or an understanding or almost a vision of Joseph’s death. At that moment, the story just started pouring out of me. I mean, I just sat and wrote, and it was like I almost couldn’t write fast enough, because the story was just coming. Now, that being said, it did take me about six months to write the draft of that book. That book is called “Seventeen Spoons,” and it’s the second book in the trilogy. While I was writing “Seventeen Spoons,” I got to know the character, Deborah, but I only got to know her a little bit. She’s a minor character in “Seventeen Spoons.” She’s Rebecca’s nursemaid, and she’s there when Joseph comes to Canaan and meets Isaac and Rebecca and Paul. I really was intrigued by her and wanted to get to know her better. And at that point, I started writing “The Scrolls of Deborah,” so that I could get to know Deborah better. And it’s the first book in the series because chronologically.

Your books are listed as giving a feminist Jewish perspective on the biblical era. What is the importance of telling that story to a wider audience?

One of the things that I love about Bible stories in general is the fact that there are so many parts that are unwritten. So, if you just take for example Abraham, in the Torah he’s born and then the next thing that happens is that he’s married. So, there’s a large gap there. And it’s just one illustration of the fact that there are so many untold stories that are in the Bible, but they’re not there. And so many of those stories are the untold stories of the women. And through Deborah’s eyes the reader gets to see what the women were doing in this time. How were the women relating to each other? How are they relating to the men? How are they relating to the land? How are they in connection with God, themselves and together as a group? To be able to just see this time period and these groups of people through the lens of the women, I think, offers up the opportunity to expand your experience of the Bible.

How does your Jewish identity influence your life and work?

I would say I feel a very strong connection to both my Jewish identity and my Jewish heritage, the heritage being the years and years and years of millennia of stories, as well as customs that have been passed down. So, this Jewish tradition, which is really multiple Jewish traditions, of course, has been passed down to me for generations, and I find that incredibly curious and I respect it a lot. Something that has lasted that long is very intriguing. So, to have the Torah as a part of my heritage, and to have these traditions and these holidays as part of my heritage really influences me in terms of the yearly cycle of rituals, as well as being fodder for my imagination and curiosity.

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