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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the January 25, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
(Jewish) American Girl, Circa 1914
For most of her life, Robin Levinson didn’t have even the slightest interest in writing a novel. Sure, she had her adolescent poetry phase – but she says that ended when a college poetry class "tore me to shreds." And from age eight until she got married, she "compulsively" kept a detailed journal (it included, for example, the whisker of a cat she loved). She made daily entries and, if she missed a day, compensated with an extra long entry the following day. The notebooks still reside in a big black garbage bag in her closet.
And whenever her parents left the kids with a babysitter, they would come home to a full written accounting of everything that had transpired in their absence, written by guess who? Levinson even had a "writing studio" as a child – a large storage closet off her bedroom that she decorated with black lights and signs like "Keep on Truckin’" and "Hang in there, baby."
But making up stories wasn’t something she thought about doing.
Yet after years as a journalist and then a freelance writer, primarily writing on health topics, she got an offer she couldn’t refuse – the opportunity to write a book of children’s historical fiction as an adjunct to a line of Jewish dolls, called Gali Girls. The project was in some sense the culmination of an exploration of her Jewish identity that began during college with a trip to Israel.
Levinson will discuss her book, "Miriam’s Journey: Discovering a New World," on Thursday, January 26, at Barnes & Noble, Marketfair.
Levinson, 47, says she grew up essentially as a secular Jew. She was born in New Jersey, but her family moved to New York and then, for middle and high school, to Massachusetts. Her father sold furniture. "He could sell ice to Eskimos," she says. Levinson’s mother is a painter. She dabbled when Levinson was a kid, but after the children were out of the house, she took lessons and started doing it professionally.
When her parents moved to New Mexico, Levinson followed and got a degree in journalism from the University of New Mexico in 1981. Despite her early interest in writing, Levinson’s entry into journalism was serendipitous. To fulfill her English requirement, she wandered into a Journalism 101 survey during her sophomore year. "A light bulb went on. It so captivated me with the power of the pen," she recalls. "I could have a meaningful life and be a writer at the same time.
In college she heard National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg speak to the Society of Professional Journalists’ student chapter, and it was Stamberg who finally reassured her that a journalism career would not preclude having a family. Levinson admired Stamberg intensely -"I loved her, her voice, everything about her." When Levinson asked her journalistic heroine, "Can you actually have a family and be a journalist?" Stamberg’s answer was "Of course you can."
Her first newspaper job was with the Deming Headlight, in a two-traffic-light town in southern New Mexico. She didn’t stay too long at her next job, with the Odessa American in Texas. She then landed a job with the Trenton Times, where she stayed for nine years, first as a health writer and then on the copy desk. When she moved to freelancing in 1993, she continued with health writing.
But after years of bustling newsrooms, working in her spare bedroom got lonely. When she talked to herself once too often, she decided to form a writer’s group, Professional Writers’ Alliance (www.pwawriters.org).
Levinson’s first step in learning what it meant to be a Jew was to quit school for a few months – her goal being a trip to Israel. She moved home, worked to save some money, sold her car, and flew to Israel. "It was during the Iranian hostage crisis," she says, "when the Mideast was a tinder box. My parents didn’t want me to go."
But she went and spent six months doing an ulpan, an intensive Hebrew language program, at Kibbutz Netzer Sereni. Many kibbutz members were Holocaust survivors, and Levinson lived with people from many different countries. "It was the best experience of my life," she says. "It changed me; I understood that being Jewish meant something really special, and it was my obligation to spread the light."
Her father’s death four years ago brought on a personal crisis that drastically changed her career focus and furthered her reevaluation of what being Jewish meant to her. "Health writing seemed vacuous and meant nothing," she says. Healthy behavior hadn’t helped her father: "He took blood pressure and cholesterol medication, walked (for exercise), and then died of an aneurysm." She remembers herself in tears one night, saying to herself, "I can’t do this anymore; I’m willing to give up decent money to write about Jewish stuff."
Also, Levinson says: "His death gave me an appreciation for the Jewish values he instilled in me without my realizing it. He was non-observant, non-affiliated (not affiliated with a specific temple), and agnostic – something I used to resent a little – yet his philosophy, `To be a good Jew, just be a goood person,’ is exactly what my rabbi, Eric Wisnia of Beth Chaim, always says. Rabbi says, `You don’t have to believe in God to be a Jew. Just put an extra `o’ in there and do `good,’ then you’re doing God’s work.’ My father did God’s work."
As in the old Yiddish saying, it was beshert, or "meant to be." The next day the editor of the Jewish Woman magazine called, having been referred to Levinson by her sister-in-law, who was too busy to take an assignment. "It started a wonderful relationship," Levinson observes, adding that she has been writing steadily for them for the past five years.
Two of her Jewish Woman features won prizes from the American Jewish Press Association, so she decided to join the organization and to attend a workshop for freelancers in New York. When a speaker mentioned he was looking for book authors, says Levinson, "we all flocked to him afterward." But she didn’t leave it at that. "He said in his speech that he admired persistence," so she barraged him with E-mails and phone calls, which he never returned.
She tried one last time and finally got through. He was actually apologetic and offered her an assignment for a book on Jewish dating services. Although she researched the topic and wrote an outline, she ultimately decided not to do it. "The money was not good enough; I was not passionate about it; and it was not Jewish enough for me," she says.
But the effort was not a total loss for Levinson, because he was the one who told her to check the Gali Girls website (www.galigirls.com), which was advertising for a writer. Gali Girl dolls were created by Aliza Stein in Teaneck as kind of Jewish version of the American Girl doll. The dolls come with their own wooden Sabbath candlesticks and challah, a special twisted bread for the Sabbath, and they dress modestly. (See sidebar.)
Stein was looking for books that would combine Jewish values, history, and community, and at the same time serve as a basis for new character dolls. "It sung to me," says Levinson about the possibility of writing for Stein, and she realized quickly that her own grandmother’s story provided a great plot. Levinson had recorded the story on tape in 1989, right before her grandmother died. She wrote a one-page synopsis and sent it to Aliza Stein, who accepted it.
In "Miriam’s Journey," as with Levinson’s grandmother’s family, the father goes ahead to the United States and sends for his family after earning enough money to purchase fares. After a difficult overland journey from Russia through Europe and constant seasickness in steerage, Miriam Bloom’s family arrives to find that the father has died. This is a slight change from Levinson’s grandmother’s story, because there the family actually knew about the father’s death before their journey. "A few things were tweaked to make the story more dramatic," says Levinson.
Drawn from her grandmother’s real story as well are other plot twists, including the fact that the family is denied entry into the country because they have no financial support, and that a lawyer takes up their case and publishes a sympathetic article in the Forvarts (Jewish Daily Forward) that saves the day.
Sadly, the result for Levinson’s grandmother wasn’t living happily ever after, because she was sent to live with a wicked aunt. Levinson is thinking she might later use that part of her grandmother’s story as a sequel, after the series has a good foundation.
Levinson’s professional experience in journalism came in handy while she did research for "Miriam’s Journey," which takes place in 1914. "It’s fun because I can use my journalistic skills to research history, which is not my strong suit," she says. "I would bone up until I had a semblance of an authoritative voice."
Although she made up the shtetl (small eastern European Jewish community) of Grodek for the book, she based her descriptions on a picture of her grandmother’s shtetl. As she read about the period, she looked for those small details that give a narrative authenticity. For example, she learned that people living in thatched roof houses would sometimes prop up the roofs on sunny days to air out the rooms.
Levinson and her husband, Larry, a systems editor with Bloomberg LP, live in Hamilton and two children, Zoe, 12, and Aaron, 10. Writing the book was also something of a family affair. Levinson interviewed her mother and her aunt, who told her that her grandmother’s cottage had a dirt floor. Levinson’s mother-in-law checked the Yiddish. Her kids read the book and gave her advice and feedback. She adds that her son loved reading the book – not a surprise to Levinson, who feels strongly that her books are adventure stories and not just for girls.
She has written two more books for the same publisher for the same series, but with different heroines.
Levinson’s goal is to use her books as a tool for values education. Consequently, she is trying to market her book for use in classrooms, both secular and religious, including churches as well as synagogues. "Jewish values are universal values, human values," she says. "Part of our mission as Jews is to spread the light."
Robin K. Levinson, Thursday, January 26, 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble, MarketF air, West Windsor. Booksigning and talk with the author of "Miriam’s Journey: Discovering a New World." 609-716-1570.
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