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Guest Post: Sally Wiener Grotta shares her journey as an accidental biblical student

Sally Wiener Grotta (she/her) is an award-winning writer, photographer and speaker whose numerous books include: Of Being Women, a collection of feminist science fiction stories (NobleFusion Press, 2023) and Daughters of Eve, a collection of essays that mines the tales of biblical Matriarchs to explore modern lives and concerns (Bayit Publishing, 2024). Her experience as a globetrotting journalist covering a wide diversity of cultures flavors her stories and presentations with sense of wonder, appreciation for human potential and common sense. Sally is a member of The Authors Guild, SFWA, and the Association of Jewish Libraries.

How could these biblical stories be used as a filter to better understand the nature of modern women's experiences?

My Journey as an Accidental Biblical Student

I'm an accidental Bible student. If you had told me 20 years ago that I would eventually become so immersed in the stories of the women of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) that they would change the way I look at our world and would push me into an entirely new career direction, I would have laughed.

Don't get me wrong. I'm proud of my Jewish heritage, and I have respect for all people of faith. At its best, the Abrahamic tradition, which includes Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, is one that honors kindness, justice, equitable human rights, and all the other values that I revere as the foundation for a thriving society. But, for me, Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Leah, and the other biblical women were ancient archetypes who seemed to have no relevance to my modern life.

The change in my perspective had nothing to do with any sudden spiritual awakening. It grew over the years, starting with one of my rare visits to a Sabbath morning service where the idea for a new novel took hold of my imagination.

I belong to a small rural temple where I enjoy being part of a vibrant community. I treasure my occasionalattendance at services for the restorative connection to my heritage and the sense of being welcomed home. Memories wash over me whenever I walk into a synagogue. The songs transport me to when my father would ask me to sing some of his favorites as we made our way home from High Holiday services. The words of certain prayers evoke conversations with my mother, the rationalist, who treasured how our deep roots in law and thoughtfulness have shaped who we can yet become. And, of course, I love the smiles and hugs that greet me, as I catch up with friends and friends-to-be.

On one such Saturday morning nearly two decades ago, I was sitting in a pew, listening to our small congregation discuss the week's Torah portion. I wish I could remember which parsha it was. But my mind suddenly went into creative mode, drowning out everything else around me, as the following thoughts tumbled through my mind:

  • When people gather to discuss the Bible – just as when they discuss any book, movie or play – what they are really talking about is themselves: their fears, concerns, histories, and so forth.
  • What a great literary device!
  • I'll put six very different fictional women into a Torah discussion group and watch the sparks fly.
  • I need to write this novel.
  • Whoa! What do I know about the Torah?

Being a secular humanist, raised by Jews who were proud of their heritage but not religious, I had never studied Judaism's sacred texts beyond whatever cursory glances I was given during Sunday school or holiday celebrations. My family's synagogue membership hadn't been a religious choice. Instead, it was an act of solidarity and support (in the wake of the Holocaust), a way to educate me and my sister about our heritage, and an opportunity to socialize with other Jews. In other words, I didn't have the necessary underpinnings to write this novel.

But the idea wouldn't let me go. So, I mentioned it to my rabbi, Peg Kershenbaum, and explained my concerns about the research that it would require. Without blinking an eye, she decided then and there to form a women's Torah study group. Over the years since, I've enjoyed the challenges and interactions of our monthly study group, but I continued to be intimidated by the idea of writing the novel.

Not that I sat still. In that time, my work continued, producing a range of stories, essays, and books, both nonfiction and fiction. But that novel about the women's study group, whose title I knew from the beginning – Women of a New Moon – was always there, in the back of my mind, nagging at me.

Then about four years ago, just before the Covid lockdown, while listening to my friends in our study group discuss the story of Ruth and Naomi, I realized it was now or never. Once again, I mentioned the idea to Rabbi Peg, and she suggested that I might want my fictional study group to focus on the women of the Bible. That was when everything fell into place. As a result, I spent most of the years of Covid isolation alone with my dog Shayna and the women of the Tanahk.

The more I researched the women of the Tanakh, the more fascinated I became. In terms of word count, their stories occupy a miniscule portion of the Bible, and the depictions of them are mere sketches with little detail. And yet, interpretations of these stories have established the foundation of the female experience throughout history wherever Judaism, Islam, or Christianity took hold. In many cases, the embellished stories became ossified traditions that defined and often limited women's roles, rights, and responsibilities. That's why I've periodically railed against these stories throughout my life. But now, I was looking at both the original biblical stories and many of the interpretations with fresh eyes – and fresh questions.

With my novel in mind, I asked at every turn how these biblical stories could be used as a filter to better understand the nature of modern women's experiences. But it was more than a creative project that required research. It became a very personal quest. Remember, there I was, sitting in Covid isolation, me and Shayna. The world beyond our yard was becoming increasingly confounding. And I wondered what life would be like once I returned to society, and how I would fit into it.

So, in the quiet moments, when not working on my novel, I found myself writing essays exploring the relevance of those biblical stories to my life. That's when Rabbi Peg stepped forward once more. Via email, she connected me with the folks at Bayit, a creative incubator cum small publishing house. Soon, I was in dialog with true biblical scholars who happened to be my editors, and my research reached a new level of exploration.

The resulting book – Daughters of Eve – which Bayit published this past February, contains concerns and questions I had ached to discuss with others during all those months of isolation. "Why, how, if, when?" About who we are today, who we might become tomorrow, and how our shared heritage has and continues to influence the shape of our world. That's why the book is formatted as a discussion workbook and journaling guide. Through the essays and discussion questions, I explore women who have become for me more than matriarchs. They were flesh-and-blood individuals whose stories can inspire our search for answers, just as they continue to inspire my work on my new novel (which is now finally nearing completion). More than that, my hope is that the process of discussing their stories – and sharing our own – will help us create new connections so that we may reach through the generations and across the miles. We can learn so much from one another's viewpoints and interpretations. 

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Wednesday, 22 May 2024

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