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Fran Manushkin

  • '''Interview by: Kathleen O'Grady'''
  • Date: 2001

After working a decade as a children's book editor with Harper and Row (1968-1977), Fran Manushkin felt it was time to begin putting some of her own children's stories down on paper. Fellow colleagues Charlotte Zolotow and Ursula Nordstrom readily encouraged her transition from children's editor to children's author, and under their guidance Manushkin published her first book, Baby Come Out, a picture book classic that tells the story of a baby who does not want to be born (to be reissued this year by Star Bright Books). More than two decades later, Manushkin now has over thirty titles to her credit and her children's stories have covered a vast range of secular and religious themes.

Yet despite all of her experience and success as an author, Manushkin still feels trepidation about her latest children's book, Daughters of Fire, a collection of ten illustrated stories based on central female figures in the Hebrew Bible. In a lengthy phone interview from her home in New York, Manushkin expressed her anxieties in no uncertain terms: ‘I was terrified to do this book. I thought only men with grey beards were allowed to write Jewish books'.

Manushkin's first authored religious books were, ironically, Christmas books even though she was born and raised in a Jewish household. They were playful stories – with characters named after members of her own Jewish family – and did not broach theological topics so she was not overly concerned about their reception. But Manushkin is less comfortable working in her own tradition. As a young girl, she did not receive the Hebrew education that her brothers were provided, and she found that she was regularly presented the Jewish religion from the male perspective. It was not until she was inspired by an essay of Cynthia Ozick's that established the biblical figure of Hannah as the model for Jewish prayer that she felt she had the right to engage in the on-going dialogue that makes up her heritage.

With Daughters of Fire Manushkin wants to celebrate the rich resources that underlay each Jewish story – the Torah, the Talmud, and the legends and other rabbinic interpretations over centuries that offer a multitude of interpretations – and tell the history of the Jewish people from the women's point of view: ‘What I felt was that I loved these women and I wanted to communicate the difficulty of their lives and their contributions to the history of Judaism. They are like the hidden women of history,' she said with great conviction. Through ten finely-crafted chapters, Manushkin recounts the stories of Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, Miriam, Deborah and Yael, Hannah, Ruth and Naomi, Queen Esther, and others, whose actions are central to the foundations of Judaism.

Kathleen O'Grady (KO): What prompted you to write Daughters of Fire?

Fran Manushkin (FM): My format for this, which I've never seen before, was that I wanted to tell the history of the Jewish people from the women's point of view.

We are always reading Abraham's story, and Isaac's story, and Jacob's story….

I was trying to include as much information as possible yet still make it readable. I'm a picture book writer. This is the longest book I've ever written. I write 6 paged pictures books, and this is like 10 picture books combined, only even more ambitious because I had to stick to facts.

But nobody knows about the women of the golden calf, how they refused to bow down to idols even though the men were. And because of them the women were given a special holiday of Rosh Hodesh, which no one knows about. But now they will.

You know, this book was written at least 30 times -- every one of these stories was written 30 times. And the book was turned down by many publishers.

When it was accepted by Harcourt I decided to rewrite the book. In fact, I drove my editors crazy. At one point, I took everything and started rewriting it from hand all over again, all 10 stories. Even now, as I'm reading it, I rewrite it. I could make so many changes now. It is a book I could take a lifetime to write.

KO: How difficult was it to present these women's stories?

FM: Very difficult. But this was a work of love.

What's wonderful is that in addition to the Torah as a source for their stories, I had all the legends. I leaned heavily on the brilliant people in the past -- Rabbis, who interpreted the stories in many different ways.

There is such a wide choice of interpretations. Eve, and Rachel and Leah were the hardest ones to do.

What I felt was that I loved these women and I wanted to communicate the difficulty of their lives and their contributions to the history of Judaism. They are like the hidden women of history. Because people don't know that Sarah was a prophet, that Deborah and Miriam were prophets, and Rebekkah. And they made decisions that impacted on the whole history of the people. But the religion is always presented from the male point of view.

Eve was very difficult because of all the original sin baggage. That is a phrase that is not used in Judaism, ‘original sin' -- that's just used in Christianity. I didn't want to make her a temptress, which I truly believe she was not. And thank goodness, when I read the Legends of the Jews which is the collection by Louis Ginzberg, a very respected anthology of Jewish Folklore, that's where I found that God created Adam with the two faces, male and female. I didn't make that up.

What I had was a multitude of sources to choose from. Judaism has been very generous in accepting a variety of materials. Except that not everybody knows them. So they get one story and they don't see all the commentary behind it and all the extra story-telling behind it.

It gave me such pleasure to research this – I could research this book forever. I did so much work for Daughters of Fire. I also consulted very hotshot male Talmud scholars.

KO: What gives you inspiration to write?

FM: I was terrified to do this book. I was terrified to do my first Jewish book. Latkes and Applesauce: A Hanukkah Story in 1990 (Scholastic; illustrations Robin Spowart); I thought only men with grey beards were allowed to write any Jewish books.

I wrote Christmas books, very playful little Christmas books years before I attempted this, because they were playful stories and I didn't have to worry about any Biblical stuff.

I wrote a book called The Perfect Christmas Picture with the names of all of my Jewish family members in it years and years ago as an ‘easy to read' book for Harpers.

First of all, I love writing about gallant women. I'm not a gallant woman, but I kept waiting for brilliant women to write these books. I wrote Miriam's Cup (Scholastic, Bob Dacey, illus. ) because no one else had told children the story of Miriam.

With Daughters of Fire, first, I just did Deborah. I tried to sell that to a publisher and they didn't want to do just Deborah, and they suggested I do all the women, and that was terrifying.

It took me so long to realize that I had as much right to write these stories as so many other people.

I was also inspired by Cynthia Ozick, God bless her. I wrote my first Jewish book, a Hannukah book because I was inspired by an essay that she wrote. It was people like Cynthia Ozick who gave me permission in her own writing to take on this tradition and be part of it.

I was reading some collection of Jewish stories or poetry, and in the introduction the writer said that the Jewish civilization has been going on for thousands of years and people are always adding to it and people are always part of the dialogue. And it never occurred to me until then that I could be part of that dialogue – that I could join in.

That's something I certainly want to communicate to girls.

KO: How did your writing career begin?

FM: You know I never thought I was smart enough to write books. I thought books were written by geniuses, books fell from the sky, written by geniuses somewhere.

For ten years I worked as a children's book editor with Harper and Row with these brilliant women, Charlotte Zolotow and Ursala Norstrom, and Charlotte is the one who told me I really should write and was amazingly encouraging and under her I wrote my first book, Baby Come Out, which came out in 1973. It went out of print and is now coming back into print at the same time as Daughters of Fire which really makes me believe in miracles, let me tell you. It is such a wonderful circle that that book is being reissued at the time this women of the Bible book is coming out.

KO: Do you anticipate a controversy with Daughters of Fire within the Jewish community?

FM: I'm not as scared as I used to be, but I'm nervous.

But you know, I cannot carry that kind of concern in my head or I couldn't lift a pencil. And I realize that Judaism is an on-going tradition which is what gives me permission to write and that is what is so wonderful.

When I talk to converts of Judaism they often say they love the fact that you can question this religion and that it is an open discussion. And the Talmud makes it clear that it is a very open discussion because they include all the previous arguments. They don't just say who won the argument, they present all perspectives.

My only education has been self-education, in researching this book for years and years, and researching the best resources I could, the most intelligent sources, and only Jewish sources.

What's interesting is that the first day I got the book I was meeting my niece for lunch downtown and I passed Trinity Church bookstore, and I said ‘Wouldn't it be interesting if they would carry this book? Do I dare go in there and see if they would?', and I look up and it is already in their window.

So the early signs look like it is a cross-over book to me and that Christian readers will also be interested which never occurred to me when I was writing it.

KO: How do you decide what to write about?

FM: What I want are books that I would have loved as a kid.

I wrote Miriam's Cup because when I was a kid, when we had Seders, they didn't educate the women. My three brothers they got Hebrew education, not me. And nobody explained anything. My father would stand there at the Seder table holding a cup of wine in his hand and speaking very fast in Hebrew, none of which I understood.

So I'm trying to write books that children will enjoy and that they will learn from. I want them to be extremely playful books, joyful books.

When I found out there was joy in Judaism I almost fainted dead away, because I grew up in a household in which it was moribund. The concentration was on the persecution of the Jews, and not a lot about the joyful tradition.

And when I found joyful synagogues, my whole point of view changed. Everything is in how a religion is presented to children. And also I speak a lot at schools and libraries, and I want children to understand that they have something to contribute and that the religion needs them.

That is extremely important to me. I write these book to appeal to children, to see Judaism as a joyful religion, not just a religion. If it didn't have great stuff in it wouldn't have lasted this long. Why did we hold on to it so fervently?

With Daughters of Fire, I kept waiting for a greater scholar to write this book. Nobody did it. It seemed to be my destiny to do it, because I wanted to and I was the most zealous in writing it and getting it published.

There has been a huge evolution in Jewish scholarship and a lot of it, of course, is driven by women. I couldn't live without Esther Broner who is a member of my synagogue, who is the woman who began the feminist Seder.

There are living women who created these women's traditions. The new tradition of Miriam's cup, I believe, was created by a group of women in Boston.

I mean it is women who are making these things happen. It was Cynthia Ozick who inspired me.

Women really are empowered more by the model of other women than they are by men for sure. You know, I love men, but it is women who are giving me the strength to do what I do.