As some of you may know, I was asked to participate in a Twitter chat on being a member of a minority religion in America the other week. As some of you may also know, that chat kinda got cluttered by people confusing what it means to be in a minority religion with “Not everyone in my vicinity is religiously or atheistically like me.”
Since chatting in a public sphere didn’t really work, we decided to take it to a private one, which, frankly, is a pretty massive expression of what being in a minority religion is in America; being insular and being able to practice in peace tend to go hand in hand. I asked the chat’s original participants, as well as some new ones, to join me in a discussion, and voila.
As a note, although LDS/Mormons are Christian, we did ask an author of that faith to participate, as media representation there has historically been pretty horrible, and they face plenty of bigotry both within their greater religion and without. So, before you chime in with “But they’re Christian and they were allowed to participate,” just hit that X in the upper right hand corner.
More technical notes – a few things have been explained via green text in brackets that were not part of the original chat, for those who may be less informed on those religious details. Any errors in that text are mine alone. This chat was conductive via private FB group, so a couple of things have been shifted around for ease of comprehension and less relevant portions of the chat have been trimmed, because, well, it’s already really long.
And now, onward to the participants, who each shared his or her affiliation:
- Meagan Rivers – Hi! So I am involved in Santería, aka La Regla de Ochá.
- Me (Dahlia Adler) – Modern Orthodox Judaism
- Kaye – Sunni Muslim from the Hanafi madhab (school of thought)
- Rick Lipman – My affiliation right now is sort of somewhere between Reform and non-denominational Judaism, since I am ethnically and culturally Jewish but not halakhically. It’s a huge part of my life and identity, though, and I was in the process of converting Reform to be More Official~ but it didn’t feel right, and once the grad school thing is over and done with I will probably convert to Conservative.
- KK Hendin – Orthodox Judaism
- Heidi Schulz – I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly known as Mormon.
- Katherine Locke – Reform Judaism
- Aisha Saeed – Muslim
And now, to the conversations!
Q: So, everyone here writes MG, YA, and/or NA – what were your childhood years like from a religious perspective?
Dahlia: I went to Jewish schools my entire life, up until seminary in Jerusalem the year between high school and college. My family is all Modern Orthodox Judaism as well, and so were all my friends, so it was really my whole world. There were definitely parts of it I didn’t appreciate – not being able to watch Saturday morning cartoons because of Sabbath observance sucked – but my father worked really long hours every night, and I definitely learned to appreciate that Sabbath (aka Shabbos, when we don’t work) meant I’d see a lot of him for 24 hours, no matter what.
Katherine: I went to JCC preschool, but was pretty areligious for most of my younger years. We celebrated Hanukkah and Passover and went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also went to Easter Mass with my mom’s family (My mom was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school, my dad is Jewish). Neither of my parents are particularly religious. Religion wasn’t a part of my Judaism until I was 10 and started at Hebrew School and Sunday School (at the synagogue. Jewish Sunday School. This confuses lots of people). I had my Bat Mitzvah. I had a HUGE falling out with religion/God after September 11th. So during HS, I was culturally Jewish but not particularly religious until I went to college. College and onwards has been a steady trajectory back toward the religious aspects of that identity.
Kaye: The local Islamic school in our area didn’t start until around 2003. I’ve been homeschooled all of my life, for non-religious reasons, and have attended classes in memorization and other areas of faith at the local masjids.
KK: I went to Jewish schools from nursery to high school, and then two years after high school, too. Kindergarten and on were in all-girls schools. I live in a predominantly Orthodox neighborhood, so being Orthodox wasn’t so odd for me.
Meagan: I didn’t know much of anything, sadly. I only connected with it a few years ago. I was really afraid of religion as a child.
Dahlia: Meagan, what made you connect with it later?
Meagan: I started doing my own research and learning on my own terms. When I started keeping altars in my home, that’s when I really started to connect. I needed something physical to remind me of it all.
Kaye: Meagan, I forgot to tell you, but I loved your post explaining your connection and how it makes you feel.
Meagan: Thank you!! That post was incredibly hard to write so I am so glad it’s been so well received.
Rick: Confusing, in a word. Like Katherine, my mother was a lapsed Catholic and my father is Jewish. I was baptized, went to JCC camps, celebrated Christmakkah before The OC made it a thing, went to church regularly, and did Passover at my grandmother’s. My mom was intent on my attending services at church with her regularly not because she was religious (neither of my parents are) but because she thought it was important to try to raise me with SOMETHING, and my dad was like “ok u can do that”. Eventually I entered my raging agnostic phase, and by high school I was like “I don’t know what I believe in but it’s not this and also they kicked me out of Sunday School for asking too many questions, so I’m going to sleep in from now on.”
Dahlia: RICK LIPMAN = THE ORIGINAL SETH COHEN. THIS MAKES SO MUCH SENSE.
Katherine: Rick, I was kicked out of confirmation class for my political views on abortion! We should totally swap stories haha.
Heidi: I didn’t feel all that different than most other kids when I was younger. I do remember certain revelations, like being shocked to find out that other people didn’t consider us Christians even though we identify that way, or when I realized that other Christians didn’t use both the Bible and the Book of Mormon like we do.
There were a few kids that weren’t allowed to have me over because their parents didn’t like my church.
And I remember being at at birthday party and hearing some kids say, “Good thing no Mormons are here. They don’t celebrate birthdays.” (We do.) I was so scared to tell them that I was and they were wrong, but I had been taught that I always needed to be a good example and stand for my faith. I don’t remember what they said, but I remember feeling like I just HAD to set them straight or I would be doing something wrong.
Aisha: Growing up Muslim was hard. I was in 5th grade when the Iraq War started [the first one] and people asked me to explain Saddam Hussein’s stance… they asked if he was my uncle, etc. I would get asked if I had a pet camel. I got called a rag-head. Asked if I bathed in sand. It wasn’t innocent questions because it all culminated in severe bullying. So for me it was a tough struggle and because my family were immigrants they didn’t realize how bad it was and that me crying when it was time to go to school wasn’t normal so I had no one to really help me out.
Q: Has anything about your religion made the publishing world particularly tough?
Kaye: In what way? I mean, I’ve gotten used to gagging every time I see a book announcement in Publishers Lunch that goes along the lines of, “[Implied] Muslim kid turns out to be with The Bad Guys. [Implied] Other Muslim kid seeks to help them turn back to good.”
Dahlia: Haha well, that counts, Kaye. I imagine it can be tough when considering who you trust with your work to consider agents and editors who acquire that sort of thing.
KK: Besides the “Frum girls don’t go into publishing” nonsense I got as a kid? Um. Almost every signing is Friday night or Shabbos.
Dahlia: For me it’s the obvious thing I talk about constantly – SO MANY BOOKISH EVENTS, including diversity ones, on Shabbos. I’ve had to say no to participating in so many events, and missed so many fantastic ones as a spectator, because they’re on Friday nights or Saturdays. (I can’t travel, handle money, or write on those days.) I did get to go to one this year, though, because it was in my hometown. I stayed at my parents’, a friend staying with me walked the two miles to the event [riding in a car/public transportation is forbidden], I pre-signed books [as is writing], and I hid anytime someone walked by trying to get everyone to sign their tote bags. It was an adventure.
Katherine: Eh. This is where I shuffle my feet and say no, not really. Perks of Being a Reformed Jewish Wallflower?
Kaye: That does sound like an adventure, Dahlia. And hugs, KK. I get that in a way, too – “Why do you want to work in publishing??” Also, yes, one aspect is definitely wondering which agents and editors are going to be good or accept that. One prominent agent that works with WNDB and I met last year at the panel was selling one of those problematic titles. So I was like, “There it goes.”
Meagan: I don’t think so. There aren’t that many rules involved in Santería that would keep me from anything, unless I was formally initiated, which I can’t be.
Dahlia: Meagan, what would theoretically make you able to be formally initiated? I’m definitely a Santeria novice! *preorders your book*
Meagan: Well, I started the process about a year or so ago and in the beginning you have to consult the Orishas, who are the equivalent of saints to most religions. I was crowned Oyá, meaning that Orisha is my mother saint basically. But the person who was sitting with me told me I can’t go further. The Orishas said no, at least not for now.
Aisha: The only tough thing is I have some events in June during Ramadan so it’s fasting time. The events are important to me and I’m grateful for them but then baby care falls on my hubby while I’m away and with 16 hour fasts it’s just rough. Nothing to be done about that though!
Kaye: Aww, Aisha. Hugs. That is going to be rough, I know. I had to say no to some events last year because they were so close to Iftar time or else at a point during the day when I was wiped out.
Heidi: There are always events on Sundays. Sometimes I’ll do one, if I feel like it’s really important and I can’t schedule it on another day, but I’d rather not. I avoid that as often as I can. I won’t attend anyone else’s events on a Sunday though and that sometimes sucks. Especially if they are coming in from out of town. I often feel torn. Maybe it would be easier if I didn’t make exceptions for myself. If I said, Sunday is my sabbath, period. I probably need to do that, but I’m weak!
I’m also a bit of a literary prude. I don’t feel comfortable with a lot of swearing or descriptive sex. But I want to read and promote my friends’ books. It’s a balancing act that I haven’t quite mastered.
Aisha: I can relate to that but from a writing POV. Like, I don’t mind reading swearing and sex scenes in books at all but I don’t like writing sex in my books. That doesn’t mean I’m against it in YA or in books in general just to be clear, but since my characters usually have at least one MC who is Muslim it just doesn’t feel comfortable to me. That doesn’t mean Muslim teens don’t have sex of course but it just makes me uncomfortable personally to write about. There’s a story I’m writing where it’s an Afghan refugee and his relationship with a girl he works with, and its hard because the story seems to want to go towards them becoming intimate and yet it’s not something I wanted to do so I’m considering making them friends and platonic. It’s a tough line to balance personally with wanting to write in a way that is true to me but also how the story wants to be written.
Dahlia: That’s a big part of why I don’t want to write Jewish characters, Aisha. I feel a responsibility to take certain things into account that as an author I don’t want coloring my story. I’m terrible at deviating from how a story wants to be written, for better or for worse, and I’d rather just avoid that struggle entirely.
Aisha: That’s a good point, Dahlia. It would be a lot easier if the characters weren’t Muslim. Like you said, just writing about ones own faith or people in the faith, I feel it comes with a heavy responsibility.
Heidi: (I just want to clarify that I am glad there are all kinds of books for all kinds of readers. I’m not against any kind of content in YA, even if I choose not to read every kind.)
Q: From a cultural, communal perspective, what’s your favorite thing about your religion?
Katherine: Two things. We’re always watching out for each other. You, KK, and I all have very different faith traditions despite being part of the same religion, and we’re still reaching out and sharing common traditions, common experiences, protecting each other when it comes to hurts.
Second thing. Food. Everything is beige.
Kaye: A friend on Twitter actually said this first, but I love the optimism inherent in Islam, and the quiet devotion to God. Even when you see something pretty, or something that makes you happy, you praise God.
I also love the communal aspects of holidays, and especially Hajj, the pilgrimage. When I went in 2012, it was like the United Nations. I made friends with three sisters from Kyrgyzstan. If we ever get to Egypt again, we have some people there who made sure we have their address. We bumped into some Japanese Muslims who were super welcoming and friendly. It was so heartening that, even though a lot of people didn’t know English at all, the greeting was universal and a smile was always understood.
KK: What Katie said :) (PS potato kugel is being made as I type.) Jewish Geography has saved me more times than I can count. Plus also I would probably not be a sane human being without Shabbos (Sabbath).
Dahlia: Kaye, I love that. I think the idea of the Hajj is so, so cool, and the idea of making friends with people along the way is such a beautiful one and so exactly the kind of thing I think religion is about. I’m actually surprised there aren’t any YAs about a Hajj, because that pretty much sounds like the best road trip story possible.
[at this point the rest of us gently bullied Kaye into writing this book for about an hour, so let’s just move past that]
Dahlia: My favorite thing is sort of a combination of all these things – the way it sort of crosses boundaries, and how someone in your religion anywhere in the world is like family. It really struck me when I was traveling on my honeymoon how every kosher restaurant or synagogue felt like a Jewish Embassy. Even though the first stop on our trip was Prague, and I’m half-Czech, the city itself didn’t feel like “home,” but the Jewish sites did, and that was amazing to me. Ditto in Istanbul.
Katherine: Dahlia, that happened to me when I was in Ukraine, Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. I felt extremely like an outsider except for when we went to visit Jewish sites. Even in places where there isn’t a Jewish community anymore, like Novi Pazar in southern Serbia near Kosovo, it was such a flood of *home* to step into Jewish spaces. to see Hebrew on stone.
Heidi: I love my religion’s commitment to family, how our history—while relatively recent—is important to us, and how I can walk into any church building, anywhere in the world, and instantly feel at home.
Aisha: For me it’s what you touched on once, Dahlia, it’s the community. I have a lot issues with my local community (off the record) but at the end of the day they’re there for you too.
Meagan: for me, it’s the mythology and the stories of the orishas. and i love finding out who different santeros are crowned under and how they fit into their lives. because for me, it was like “oh wow, duh.” and for some others, it’s not like that.
Q: Without stepping too much on stuff you’ve already said, what are some common misconceptions about your religion?
Kaye: Muslims are this monolithic bunch of war-mongering, women-hating, outsider-loathing beasts that are living in some backwards, barbarian time period. Oh, and did I mention Muslims hate women?
Dahlia: One I think is a misconception about any religion that’s heavily law based is that we accept it all without thought or exception, and all think exactly the same way. Which…is not a thing that happens. We grow up thinking about these things so much, and we’re human beings: I’m capable of having the thought “Well, there’s a verse that seems to be anti-homosexuality, but…I’m not anti-homosexuality, and I’m not okay with calling it an abomination.” Yes, I see the words; no, I don’t have to accept them. Yes, I can still accept other words. I don’t know why people make it so very all-or-nothing as if that’s how life is, especially when the world’s majority religion was founded on the principle of “Let’s prioritize the things that matter to humanity and stop keeping the laws that get in the way.” Judaism isn’t prioritizing laws over kindness; it’s thinking you can do both. And I like to think I do. When I’m not being a bitch.
KK: What both of y’all said. Judaism isn’t an all or nothing religion. You are actually physically incapable of keeping all 613 mitzvot. Nobody is asking you to. Including God.
Kaye: So this lady came to my school a few months ago and I had to attend her lecture for a class, and she started tugging out the Islamophobia – Muslims are backwards, Muslims need to calm down, Muslims follow every outdated law, etc. I raised my hand and seriously told her a thing. My professor was proud.
I mean, one of our leading scholars (at least, one of my favorites) wrote an article last week about how this argument that Muslims follow every outdated law is…not true? Islamic laws are constantly abrogated depending on the situation. There are some things that were crossed out, were no longer appropriate, were even just meant for one situation.
Rick: There are a lot of things that bug me – a particular strain of anti-Semitism I’ve encountered often lately has been this weird attempt to try to just flat-out deny Jewish history and identity. Claiming we’re all descended from Khazars or European converts is the new Protocols of the Elders of Zion, apparently.
Also, the thing that bothers me to no end – TO NO END – is when people are talking about the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, and really Jews/Muslims as a whole, this attempt to pit us against one another and the dismissive handwave of “Well, Those People have been fighting with each other for thousands of years.”
Like… no? Crack a history book? If you told me I had to go back to medieval times and pick between living in the Islamic world or Christian Europe, like, that shit ain’t even a QUESTION. But anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are very, very often two sides of the same coin, tossed by the same people, and each of them is used to feed the other.
And like, as someone who has a very, very close friend who is an Arab Muslim and has had many Arab friends whom I love dearly, I get offended on BOTH our behalves. Mama takes that shit personally.
Heidi: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people ask how many wives my dad had. (The answer is two, but only one at a time.) People still tend to equate LDS people with polygamy even though it hasn’t been a part of the mainstream church since 1880—my great-great grandfather was the leader of the church at the time and wrote the manifesto ending it.
People also assume I’m either dissatisfied or oppressed because currently only men hold the priesthood. I’m neither, tbh.
And people don’t understand the diet restrictions. Yes, it’s weird that we don’t drink coffee but most religions do have dietary restrictions. It’s not that hard to avoid coffee and alcohol. We’ll always have our ice-cream!
KK: *agrees with everything Rick said* Those are the same people who forget about Sephardic Jews, who, HELLO, lived in Muslim countries for hundreds of years.
Dahlia: Rick, you don’t even know how much I’m loving you right now. Someone recently RTed a quote by Arthur Koestler on Twitter (nothing to do with his Khazar thesis on Judaism, but just the sight of his name makes me bristle) and it just made me snap, even with no malicious intent. And SO MUCH YES re: Jews/Muslims. We have SO MUCH IN COMMON, and in so much of history we played together so. Much. Better. than any of us did with Christians. Just shut it.
Rick: Even just seeing the word “Khazar” makes me want to punch people in the family jewels like EVERY PIECE OF WRITTEN DOCUMENTATION, ORAL HISTORY, SCHOLARLY ARTICLE, AND GENETIC TEST DEBUNKS YOUR STUPID RACIST BULLSHIT THEORY PLEASE DROP DEAD FOREVER NOW
KK: Also, because obvs: we don’t have horns. We don’t have sex with a sheet in the middle. We don’t sit around all day and pray piously. My brothers are not mama’s boys who never pick up a finger to work. Women are not just babymakers. Etc, etc, etc, etc.
[insert some Lena Dunham ranting from the Jews]
Heidi: KK, weirdly, Mormons get the horns thing too. Like, even now. I don’t understand how ignorant and backwards people have to be to think other humans have horns. It’s terrifying, actually.
When I was about ten, my next door neighbor’s grandma cornered me on my driveway and asked if, as a Mormon, I believed that if she were to cut off my arm, God would make it grow back. I ran in the house, but yelled at her through the screen door that she had us confused with starfish. I have no idea where that idea came from, but I hear those weird theories from time to time.
Aisha: I nearly snorted out my water at this, Heidi. What sort of question was that for her to ask!!
I think the biggest misconception is that all Muslims practice the faith the same way. We are not a monolith and it bothers me when people presume I’m less faithful because I don’t cover my head. Or other such assumptions on outward appearance to judge what’s within.
Aisha: Heidi, Just out of curiosity did you ever watch Big Love? How did you feel about it? I watched a few seasons and I always wondered how people belonging to the faiths depicted felt about it. It felt sensationalized and I wondered if it was upsetting to the LDS community.
Heidi: I didn’t watch it, mainly because the entire premise was wrong. If I remember correctly, the family was being presented as mainstream LDS but we don’t practice polygamy and haven’t since the late 1800s. Polygamy is kind of a sore spot for many of us because it’s often one of the first things people ask about when they learn our religion.
Meagan: there are some misconceptions about santeria that involve magic and satanism. a lot of people attribute any kind of african-derived religion with omG satan because it’s not something they’re familiar with. and they assume that any of the magic or spells involved is “black” (or bad) magic.
i’ve gotten guff from well-meaning pagans and wiccans especially who believe that their rules apply to my religion. they have rules about “do no harm” and that is THEIR religion and what they do. it has nothing to do with santeria. so if i say to someone “i did a Xango ritual to get rid of the bad person in my life,” they might:
1.) jump to the conclusion that it’s dark bad evil awful magic
2.) tell me that it’s Against The Rules.
in reality, most of the spells and rituals that are performed are for the personal benefit of the person doing them. to open doors to them, to bring in money, to bring in love. we aren’t just sitting around trying to cast darkness on people who look at us wrong.
Heidi: Meagan, I’m sorry you have to deal with that. How frustrating! (By the way, I loved your blog post.)
I wonder, if in a way, we can all relate to having someone outside our religion telling us we are doing it wrong. That seems to be a common thread.
Aisha: Meagan and Heidi, I get that too, that I don’t know my own faith properly but they do. Honestly the conversation we were having on twitter that prompted Dahlia to create this secret group had a lot of that going on. I remember Sona Charaipotra [Sona, sadly, was unable to join us for this chat, but did have some really excellent things to say about the intersection of her race and religion, and in particular how her skin color makes people assume she’s more religious than she is] was talking about some experiences and how she felt her faith and relationship with it was complicated and others just talking over her about their own mainstream faith experience. Perhaps it was being done so they could say they related to her but it came across as taking over. I don’t know why that is the case. It’s frustrating to say the least.
Heidi: My wedding cake was made by a Christian woman who had a small, home-based business. It was so good, I started having her make birthday cakes for my family. Several years after working with her she told me, “I used to refuse to make cakes for Mormons and Jews because they aren’t saved and are going to hell, but then I realized I could use this as a chance to get to know them and one day witness to them, in the hopes of saving their souls.” She then proceeded to tell me all the ways my religion was wrong (getting many things wrong herself) and fervently plea for me to change my ways.
I mean, I guess her intentions were good. She honestly believed my very soul was a stake, but she wasn’t willing to listen or learn from me. And she wasn’t able to consider that she might be wrong. It was a very frustrating experience.
(I would have just left, but she was holding my cake hostage. It was a really good cake.)
And I already mentioned this on twitter, after our chat, but when I was a teen, I took my little brother to the state fair. He was nine. There was a booth giving out free coloring books, and he walked over to get one. Before giving it, the women in the booth asked him some religious questions. When he told them he was LDS, the told him he was going to hell and refused to give him a coloring book.
I can’t understand that kind of cruelty. Like, even if they believed that was true, how is that helping anyone? At least the cake lady tried to “save me.”
The amount of times I’ve casually been told I’m going to hell in my life is astounding.
Q: Is your religion something you’d like to write about someday, if you haven’t already?
KK: Religion *and* religious affiliation. I’m working on two books now that involve Orthodox Jews, and I have a future one that involves an unaffiliated Jew. It is both terrifying and also awesome.
Katherine: Both magicballoonbook and Sad Book have Jewish MCs. MBB’s character is a Conservative Jewish character though I wish I had shown that a little more. Sad Book’s Jewish character is more culturally Jewish because she grew up in a Communist country. The next historical YA series I want to write also has a Jewish MC (pre Holocaust so yay, I’ll get to play without that looming overhead). My YA contemporary has a MC raised in a Jewish family (mixed identity, he’s a foster kid) but he’s not the narrator. Basically the balletbooks are the only ones without Jewish MCs and Aly was in my first drafts :P
Meagan: I’m writing one now in which a character’s grandma was in the religion. It involves some old Mexican folk magic and hoodoo as well, but it’s slow going because it’s scary to write this stuff and feel like people are going to mock it. And because I’m white and don’t want to pretend like I’m some huge authority.
Dahlia: It’s such a tricky thing, I think, to write Orthodox Judaism in kid lit, because by design, it’s so insular. A fish out of water story doesn’t really fly, because we basically pack in tightly with other fish. We live among other Jews; a lot of our laws require certain communal aspects. So either you kinda bend over backward for an unlikely scenario, or you write a book where basically everyone’s Orthodox Jewish and then it feels weirdly unmarketable.
KK: *looks at WIPs* Yup. One book has the LI’s dad and stepfamily Orthodox (happened after LI was born), the other has an Orthodox MC & a Muslim MC and that may be too diverse for publishing but I hope not.
Kaye: I have…a lot of Muslim girl characters lining up to be written right now. I used to be apprehensive of writing Muslim girl characters, as I’ve explained/ranted about before, and then last year I went through this period where I was like, “PEOPLE WILL WONDER WHY THIS GIRL IS PUSHING MUSLIM GIRLS ALL THE TIME.”
But at the same time, I just love aspects of my faith, I love the girls I know in my faith and how strong and diverse and varying we can be in our passions, and I just want to show that. In times of doubt, I think of some great YA authors who had a large consensus of stories that pushed forward their ethnicity or marginalized background. If anything, I want to be able to help the narrative be whole and balanced in the way I can, and encourage others to add their voices, too.
Katherine: I worry about that ALL THE TIME, that if ALL of my main characters are Jewish, then I am That Author Who Writes The Jewish Historical Books. And I worry, a lot, that publishers will think my audience is limited because I write Jewish MCs (and almost all girls. Because fuck yeah girls.). But honestly, I can’t imagine writing these books without my girls being Jewish so…I’ll have to handle however that’s received. Also, I’ve swallowed a lot of non-religious/areligious/Christian MCs. ;) People will survive a couple of Jewish MCs.
Meagan: Katherine, what made you change Aly later on?
Katherine: I felt like if I was going to have a Jewish character, I should actually include aspects of Judaism and it wasn’t in the book (nor did I feel like there was room for religious angst in that book. There was angst enough). It was cut pretty early, prior to subbing/querying it.
Kaye: That’s a good attitude to have, Katherine. I’m going to adopt that. Also, I think I’m making up for a childhood where I wanted to see Muslim girls in all the genre things? So.
Heidi: I’ve thought about writing about the Mormon trail, specifically the exodus from Missouri after the governor issued an extermination order (all Mormons must leave the state or be killed), but it’s just a sort of vague, future idea.
Dahlia: That sounds cool, Heidi! (Not the extermination order, but the book idea, obviously.) I’m one of those jerks who knew nothing about Mormons until Big Love, so I would so, so welcome a book like that as a great window. It’s actually interesting to me how little Mormon kid lit there is considering how many Mormon MG and YA authors there are.
Heidi: Well, there are LDS publishers and bookstores, so I think most people that want to write about the religion publish there. But I’d love to see something mainstream, if done well.
Dahlia: Ah, good point! I think specialty/niche/religious publishers get overlooked a lot in the diversity discussion, because what we’re all really fighting for is to be included in the mainstream.
Heidi: Our twitter chat last week led to an epiphany for me. It’s the whole, “if done well” part. I’d be wary about someone outside my faith writing from an LDS’s character’s perspective. Would they put in the effort to do it well? It could be done, but it would take a lot of research and talking to LDS people. Thinking about it makes me feel a little protective.
It made me better understand other marginalized people feeling that way about just anyone writing their experiences.
Q, from Kaye: I’m just tossing out this question, because I was wondering for myself: Does anyone ever worry, when they are writing about their faith, that they are not doing justice to it? For ages, I worried over writing about Islam because my family and my experience are unique, in the way that any other Muslim’s interpretation and personal practices are unique, and I didn’t want to offend other Muslims by implying that my understanding was the only one.
Aisha: I think because of that same worry I write about Muslims but not about Islam. So my characters might pray or wear head covering or not eat pork but I don’t get into deeper aspects because I just don’t feel comfortable especially since people can disagree on some aspects, etc. That being said, Alif the Unseen is a great book to read if you want to see how to write about faith and do it justice!
Meagan: YES. i worry about that so much that’s probably the #1 reason i’ve hesitated to incorporate both the folk magic/hoodoo stuff i do, AND the santeria involved stuff. because i’m just some baby in this world and i still don’t know what’s what. i don’t want to speak over people or misrepresent something because of the way i’ve been taught.
KK: Alllllllllll the time. Because there are so many differences, even within Ashkenaz Orthodox Jews. My family may do one thing and so I’ll write something based on that, and it would be completely weird for someone else. Not to mention the levels of observance, even within the same group.
Q: What’s your association with how your religion is depicted in the media, and in kids’ books in general? Are there books you’ve seen do it really well? Books that stand out as harmful?
Katherine: I don’t actually know if any standout as harmful, but there are very few books where Reform Jews interact with Judaism beyond Hanukkah or the Holocaust. Really, books with Jews of any denomination not about the Holocaust are few and far between.
Dahlia: Definitely true, Katherine. I see the occasional one in YA and it’s nice when they pop up – The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider and obviously Like No Other by Una LaMarche. I think it’d be cool to see more observant Jews, but I like seeing them at all. The one portrayal I personally had really mixed feelings about was in Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins. I love that Josh was Jewish and that Sukkoth, which is a big holiday for us but virtually unknown to the rest of the world, got a shoutout. But knowing how much we struggle at secular schools and jobs with the perception that our holidays are sorta “made up,” the propagation of the idea that people use Sukkoth as a way to get out of class made me wince HARD. When I was in college, some teachers actually required notes from the Orthodox rabbi at the Hillel that Sukkoth was a real holiday, and it really brought me back to that and how Othering it was.
Katherine: Yeah, exactly. We had to have notes EVERY single time and EVERY time a teacher would say, “You know I still expect you to have the homework done. Call a friend and find out what it is.” Like I was lying on my couch and watching Country Music Television all day. (I was really into country music in HS, okay.)
Kaye: Well, I think I’ve spoken on this before, but when it comes to my faith being depicted in the media…it’s never fair, it’s never true and it’s never balanced out. Harmful titles…my mind is currently a blank. I think I covered the titles that I think do it really well in the FSYALit guest post.
Dahlia: Kaye, I love that post heart emoticon And I didn’t know the MC of Scarlett was Somalian; I don’t think I’ve seen that anywhere except for side characters in Sister Mischief by Laura Goode! Now I’m extra looking forward.
Kaye: Thank you, Dahlia! Jenn DM’d me earlier to clarify that Scarlett is biracial: half-Somalian, half-Egyptian. But it is still awesome and that side of her heritage is the one that is being the most emphasized. I also saw that Steve Brezenoff has written a MG book with a Somalian hijaabi on the front? I really want to find that.
KK: Mainstream publishing does not really have any Orthodox characters. The ones I’ve seen are Ultra Orthodox, which I’m not, and 98% of the time hate their religion, which I don’t. So like Dahlia said, any small positive mention of Judaism makes me really happy.
Meagan: As far as I know, there are no books in kid lit about or involving Santería. Sadly. Media loves to vilify it though. I learned a long time ago to steer clear of any news stories or anything. They always involve murder cases and “satanism.”
OH and the only thing anyone will ever say is something from that awful Sublime song.
Rick: I have seen books that I definitely did not feel were… necessary, strictly speaking. There’s the infamous one Dahlia has heard me rant about often (Hitler’s niece falling in love with a Jewish boy in late-1930s Germany, subtitled FUCK THAT NOISE) but I also remember seeing a book years back about an Israeli girl who survived a suicide attack and developed superpowers or some shit , and it was… very obviously written by somebody who should not have been writing about that subject matter, to put it kindly.
Mostly, I see books where characters are tangentially Jewish in a passing reference, but it never really impacts their character or background or informs anything about them. I call this Felicity Smoak Syndrome.
Dahlia: OMG, Rick, I know which book you’re talking about w/the suicide attack (OK, wait, I think we may have talked about on GChat at the time and that’s why). Yeah, that’s one of those where I read the blurb and my brain was just one big NOPE NOPE NOPE gif. And as for that other one I have indeed heard you rant about, that’s literally the only YA that’s ever triggered me badly enough to DNF it in the first chapter. I could not read about a Jew being beaten to death during the Holocaust in that detail knowing my grandfather watched his brother die the same way.
Rick: Yes, I am certain we have talked about suicide!superpower book, because how could we not, tbqh.
And yeah, I just. That book makes me pretty angry that it even got published, which may or may not be a fair reaction. Like, that’s the story you really needed to tell? Of all the things, that’s what you thought was missing in YA? Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you HAD to roll into that one?
KK: I’m still just… no, y’all. No. When I was in Israel (2009-11) there were suicide bombs. I went to school with girls who lived through the Intafada, and the stories they told would give you nightmares. I just…I don’t even know.
To quote a friend of mine, “You left the house in the morning to go to school and you never knew if it was the last time you were going to see your family.” I have all the feelings, too.
Kaye: Rick, I feel like I know the title you’re talking about with Hitler’s niece. Is that the one that came out last year?
Rick: Yep. Prisoner of Night and Fog, I think it’s called, which I had blocked from my mind but had to look up again last week to mortify other people with.
Kaye: YES, I READ THAT ONE. Even as a non-Jewish reader, I…didn’t know what to say about it. It felt very…blargh.
Q: Five sensory images relating to your religion: GO.
Katherine: Oh fuck. This is hard. um. Lit candles, for sure. Fried food.
Dahlia: I am such a cliche because the first one that comes to mind is potato kugel, but…it’s delicious, and I don’t understand why everyone in the world isn’t eating it.
Katherine: I have a really deep emotional attachment to the Amidah [the holiest prayer included in each of the services]. Can that count? Okay. Thanks :P
Dahlia: Oh, lit candles is definitely good – I think people definitely have that image because of Chanukah, but we also light two candles for Shabbos every Friday night. (Some people light more – an extra one per kid.)
KK: My family does that. My mom lights ten candles every Friday night.
The smell of challah. The stones of the Kotel. Um… This is hard. (POTATO KUGEL FOR LIFE.)
Meagan: Ooo, I love this one.
The smell of clay pots. I know that’s a weird one, but it has a real smell.
The sound of rumbling thunder from Oyá and Xango, the Orishas of storms.
The visual of flickering candles in a dimly lit room.
The scent of tobacco smoke. Cigars and cigarillos are used a LOT.
The feeling of tiny beads between my fingers, too. Seed beads and other small beads.
Katherine: The Shabbat candles stick out in my head the most, actually, because the girls lit the candles in JCC preschool so it was one of the first ‘religious’ things I did. (There’s an adorable photo somewhere of me learning this. I’ll try to dig it up this weekend at my parents’ house!)
Kaye: Hmm. The warm blend of pakora (vegetable fritters) being mashed into crunchy, oil-fried rice for a snack blend to break fast in Ramadan (courtesy of my Bengali aunts); the strong smell of different perfumes in the women’s section; the sight of bright silks and dresses at Eid prayer; the sea of backs lowered in prayer, with one or two lone children either hopping on their parent’s backs or else tapping them; and the soft sensation of lifting a prayer rug off the stack we keep on the bookshelf.
Meagan: I like that candles are almost always a cross over.
Kaye: Oh, this is a bonus, but WEDDINGS are the best sensory overloads ever. African-American Muslim weddings, Desi weddings (of which I’ve seen a bit more), Moroccan weddings – which are A NIGHTMARE for so many reason, even if they are gorgeous…
Dahlia: OMG, yes WEDDINGS. Upbeat music with trumpets always reminds me of the band playing the groom in to see the bride.
KK: WEDDINGS OMG. SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF WEDDINGS. I’ve been to Ashkenaz (mainly Polish/Russian/Lithuanian descent) weddings, Persian weddings, Syrian weddings, Bukharian (from Uzbekistan) weddings, Israeli weddings, Hasidic weddings (so many kinds)… all Orthodox. All crazy.
Meagan: Ohh I have to add one. Or just. THIS IMAGE. It is absolutely burned into my mind. I think Santería, this IS the image. It is the 7 African powers and it carries so much power with it and says so much about the history of it all.
KK: Dahlia, in my community, there’s slow music played when the groom first sees the bride.
The sound of the entire synagogue praying together on Yom Kippur. Shofar blowing. Kaddish. Blessing food before eating. The feel of a wig. Velvet of yarmulkas.
Fire: my friend sent me this picture last night. Bonfire for Lag BaOmer [Wikipedia link mine] by the Kotel (western wall)
Dahlia: I’m sad I’ve only been to Ashkenazi Jewish weddings; the only Persian friend I’m still really in touch with married my Ashkenazi friend and their wedding had no Persian-ness. And I would loooooove to go to a Bukharian wedding, or even just engagement party. My best friend’s brother married a Bukharian girl and the outfits everyone’s wearing in the pictures are so colorful and gorgeous.
Katherine: I’ve only been to super reform weddings actually. I wasn’t able to get out to my (hippie version of Orthodox) cousin’s wedding in Denver. The other weddings I’ve seen were all on my mom’s side so Catholic, Quakerish, and Methodistish.
Dahlia: Various songs are big ones for me. The two we sing before Friday night dinner, especially – “Shalom Aleichem” (lit. “Peace be upon you,” but used to mean “welcome”) and “Eishet Chayil (“Woman of Valor,” which is directly from Proverbs), which is something men sing to their wives, though often you just kinda join in because why not.
KK: SONGS! “HaMalach HaGoel,” which is one of the prayers we say before going to sleep. “Ani Ma’amin,” one of the 13 principles of faith formulated by the Rambam (famous commentator on Torah).
[Video insert of “HaMalach HaGoel” mine, in case anyone’s curious what it sounds like. This particular video is a performance in memory of a close family friend]
Aisha: Sensory: the adhan, call to prayer. Samosas with mint chutney after a day of fasting. Red and gold lanterns lit with tea candles. Soft stitched prayer rugs. Water against the skin as I do my ablution for prayer.
Heidi: White clothing. My husband and I were married in an LDS temple and our guests dressed all in white.
Listening to the children sing. Every year one service is the children’s service and they share what they have learned in their Primary classes (ages 3-11) that year. They talk too close to the microphone, sing too loud, pick their noses, and say the most wonderful (and sometimes hilarious) things. It’s my favorite service.
Every church building I’ve ever been in has smelled exactly the same. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there.
The taste of sacrament bread.
Casseroles—nearly every serious illness or difficulty I’ve ever had has been met with someone at my door, bringing dinner. In fact, someone brought my family dinner, out of the blue, last year when I was on a super tight deadline for The Pirate Code.
Q: What depictions of your religion are you still waiting with bated breath to see?
Kaye: I still want to see…so many things. I listed a bit on the WWC mod wishlist, but I want to see a lot more diversity within Islam, because it is a diverse faith. I want to see more stories involved with peace and fun, instead of constant struggles over hijaab or facing Islamophobia – although, I do want to see more accurate depictions of Islamophobia, too, because so many people seem to think it’s all in our heads!
KK: ANYTHING. I mean, really. Anything well researched. Please please please.
Kaye: What KK said. I feel that so much.
Meagan: Anything that does involve OMG HUMAN SACRIFICE or killing goats or anything. Basically ANY representation.
Katherine: I’d super like to see a MG with a Bar/Bat/B’nai Miztvah because that basically sucked up all of my time, social life, energy, and thought in seventh grade. It was a huge part of my life and I never see that reflected anywhere.
Heidi: You know, this question actually makes me sad because I have so rarely seen anything about LDS people that wasn’t there specifically to make fun of us. I can only think about what I’d like to see less of.
KK: Jolene Perry has a few LDS books, I think. She writes them as Jolene Betty Perry. I think there are three.
Heidi: Really? I’m going to have to look for those. I should qualify that the worst of it is on TV. I don’t think LDS people are mentioned much at all in books, unless it’s a book about LDS history. Mette Harrison’s adult thriller The Bishop’s Wife is a recent exception.
Rick: p much any that doesn’t suck tbqh
lmao i just saw KK said the exact same thing first
KK: great minds, Lipman. Great minds.
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