Okay. So the ongoing discussions on the novel For Such A Time’s nomination for two RITA awards are pretty upsetting. I’ll state right off that I am IN NO WAY the target audience for this book, for the inspirational genre. So take my comments with that grain of salt.
(Content warning for discussion of WWII atrocities, antisemitism, microaggressions toward non-Christians)
Let me start by saying that growing up with a mix of Jewish and Christian influences (due to a mother who, like the heroine, converted for her HEA), Purim was always my favorite holiday. Esther’s story, which For Such A Time references heavily, spoke to me personally on a level that was at least somewhat influenced by my family’s conflicts on religion and spirituality, and the budding realization that I had no intention of choosing either.
I felt what Esther felt confronting her husband, when I envisioned telling my dad that I had absolutely no intention of believing in his god. She was the alternate ending I dreamed for myself when I ultimately caved to my dad’s desire to see me confirmed in a faith I felt absolutely no kinship with.
I felt the same kinship with her, and hoped that I might have the same outcome eventually, when my mom rejected that my atheism was anything real, and lashed out at me to get me to return to the lord. I felt the same empathy for Esther when I considered coming out to my family as a sex worker, knowing that it went against everything they believed in, and everything I had been taught to. Esther’s story is universal in many ways: the underdog standing up to authority with nothing but the strength of their minds and words, and winning.
My faith’s been through many permutations, looking for a reason why I couldn’t accept any of the spiritualities I was offered, and it eventually settled where I am now. Identifying with the cultural practices of my mom’s heritage, but not the spiritual ones. But in between, I saw a lot of ugly wars, from my mom’s efforts to find homeschool textbooks that weren’t actively antisemitic, to my family’s wars over how to distribute family time over Passover/Easter, and my dad’s family’s convenient superiority: to his eyes, we could have family time with her family any other time. But Easter was the actual holiday, so he wasn’t going to even consider not celebrating it with his family. I saw my mom chased out of my dad’s family’s church by well-meaning people aiming to “convert” her, because no matter how converted she was, it would never be enough. My dad hid her under his coat, as they stuffed cards of scripture into her pockets and told her “Jesus loved her.” She never forgave his family for telling their congregation she wasn’t like them, for not taking her conversion as sincere, and not simply letting her worship as she chose.
I grew up asking my pastor why my Christian uncle, who was a horrible, narcissistic person who stole from his family and used people indiscriminately, was going to heaven, while my aunts and uncles, overbearingly loving people who worked their asses off to support the community around them, were destined for hell, because they celebrated Passover as Jesus did, not as those in his faith do.
And as I got older, and listened to all of the Christians around me, very solid in their faith, the more some very squicky patterns started to emerge. My man’s family still talks, when my Jewish heritage comes up, about my people’s “strength”, and how fascinated they are by WWII, by how very much my people have endured, as though they were a BDSM Dom bragging about how his sub never uses the safe word. Not a part of a religion that has practiced antisemitism for centuries, and whose rhetoric was a large part of the fuel laid on the pyre of the Holocaust.
The truth of the matter is, yes, the Jewish people were strong and resilient to survive the Holocaust. As anyone targeted similarly would be, and is. From First Nations’ people on reservations, to Sandra Bland. Those who’ve survived any genocide or injustice bear this same strength. Those who’ve died bore it too. But Jewish people’s fortitude is perceived almost fetishistically by a lot of conservative Christians. It’s both emblematic of G-d’s power to make people suffer and the power of suffering for your god, and the “blessing” bestowed to his “chosen” people, reaffirming Christian superiority for having subsumed the “chosen people” label from the other Abrahamic religions. And this suffering-with-a-purpose narrative is toxic. Look at Mother Theresa’s relationship with poverty.
Point is, when someone converts, even in a genre like Inspirational that’s ultimately creating an imagination of the true path to g-d, it’s a hugely fraught thing, and something that leaves them, and their family with a lot of gray areas and fissures. In the context of Nazi Germany, that context is even more fraught. Add to that that the treatment of Judaism doesn’t actually resemble Judaism so much as “proto-Christians”, to steal Laura Curtis’ term… And in this sense, it’s hard to feel that that the heroine’s acceptance of the Bible, New Testament and all even could be done respectfully, given the power dynamics the setting dictates between the hero and heroine, and the parameters that the story is designed to affirm the Christian reader‘s faith, not the Jewish heroine Hadassah’s.
Romance is all about the simple but ludicrous idea that everyone deserves to be happy and fulfilled. But narratives like this that play into existing narratives that have spurred genocides, about how you have to believe to be happy… well, that squicks me the fuck out.
Narratives about how to show diversity are crucial to this, to uphold that tenant of the genre. Whether because a character is Jewish, black, disabled, mentally ill, they deserve happiness. But putting tags on that happiness like conversion, or having the “right” description to present only a certain kind of character, well, it’s downright shit. And having a Jewish character survive the Holocaust by assimilating and learning to love the New Testament… that’s an awful lesson to teach.
On some level, it doesn’t surprise me that those evaluating books for the RITAs, and those editing and producing this book didn’t flag it as problematic. It’s difficult to understand the ways this plays into Jewish people’s lives and histories without having publicly identified as Jewish, and watched the reactions. Even my partner found himself blindsided to it. The first time that adoring “all the things your people’ve lived through” speech came up– immediately after a different comment about someone in her social circle “obviously needing to go to church more” to fix that person’s perceived flaws– on the way home, he turned to me and said “That was creepy. Do people always do that to you?”
Ummm, yes. Yes, they do. But when talking about events as devastating as the Holocaust, it’s easier for us to speak of it in extraordinary terms, rendering Nazis cartoonish monsters, not real people who had been subjected to a deadly combination of economic circumstances, religious teachings, and a host of other things. And rendering Jews superhuman pain bearers, rather than dismantling the religious ideology that led to them being so victimized, and examining other ideologies and power structures that, even now, set up others for the exact same victimization.
By making Jews superhumanly strong and resilient, we make those who hurt them stronger yet, all without considering the power in ourselves and our ideologies to perpetuate that cycle. And the idea that the proper venue to tell this romantic story is in the Inspirational genre- in which Hadassah’s faith is inherently inferior, something to be shed and reformed before she can see her HEA… you can’t tell me that idea isn’t an act of aggression, imprinted with the ghosts of a million forced conversions and indignities.