Updated: Nov. 16
It’s a chilly Friday morning, and Evonne Marzouk is preparing to lead a creative writing class with Berman Hebrew Academy’s 10th and 11th graders. As she sets out pencils, worksheets and business cards, she bubbles with excitement talking about the publication of her first novel, “The Prophetess.”
“I had this really strong desire to write a book that would explore this question: Is it true that God really stopped talking to people?” she says, referring to the belief that God stopped speaking through prophets after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
“The Prophetess,” aimed at 13-to-18-year-old readers, explores the premise that God now communicates with prophets in secret.
“If we did have prophets who were out, I think the world would be a very different place,” Marzouk, 42, says.
“The Prophetess” focuses on 17-year-old Rachel, who had a secular upbringing. But everything changes after her Orthodox grandfather dies and leaves her a prayer book with a message that sets her on a personal journey to become more in touch with her Jewish identity.
Rachel becomes more observant and needs to navigate her new beliefs with her secular family and friends.
Part of Rachel’s story comes from Marzouk’s own life. While growing up in Philadelphia, Marzouk attended an unaffiliated synagogue. She began exploring Judaism more deeply when she began attending BBYO meetings. But it was the death of her grandfather when she was 17 that inspired the beginning of her novel.
“He had passed unexpectedly in his sleep. Nobody knew it was going to happen,” she says. “But it was the week after the mother of a friend of mine died of breast cancer, and that was expected, but tragic. And so [the experience] left me in a place of questioning and wanting to understand more about the world [and] my purpose. Like, what is life really all about?”
Her mother’s death seven years ago allowed her to understand death and grief in a new way. She wanted to include her mother’s and grandfather’s deaths in her writing, a process that took 20 years.
During those two decades, Marzouk founded Canfei Nesharim, an organization that takes a Torah-based approach to environmentalism. She also worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, got married and became a mother. It wasn’t a life that left a lot of room for writing.
A few years ago, she got a writing coach who set her on the course to finishing her book. All she needed was four hours a week in front of the computer and to resist the temptation to edit as she wrote.
“My first draft was 700 pages and really bad,” she says.
The first draft included a detailed recollection of Rachel’s childhood, which she dropped in favor of adding tidbits of information throughout the novel. And she changed the perspective, making Rachel the narrator instead of using the third person.
It “made a huge difference,” in how the characters were perceived.
Overall, she says, the novel has remained true to her original intention. She hopes that the book will be perceived as inspirational, the kind of book she read when she was trying to figure out her life, and make it one that reflects her identity.
“I read books like ‘The Celestine Prophecy’ and ‘The Alchemist.’ I read ‘Siddhartha’ and certain inspirational fiction like this, but I’m from a Jewish tradition. And I feel like, well, if those books were inspiring to me, there’s no reason that a Jewish book couldn’t be inspiring to someone who’s not Jewish,” she explains.
And she hopes that teenage Jews, like those who are about to file into the classroom, will see themselves reflected in her book.
She says, “It’s for young adult Jews who really like to read and would like something where they’re able to see characters that look familiar to them that are dealing with challenges that they recognize.”