Wednesday, August 05, 2015

An Open Letter to Bethany House and RWA

Yesterday, Sarah Wendell (from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) posted the text of a letter she sent to RWA about For Such A Time, an inspirational romance that retells the story of Esther by setting it in a concentration camp between a Jewish prisoner and the Commander of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp. She felt compelled to talk to RWA about this because it was nominated for a RITA award (one of the biggest, if not THE biggest awards for romance books) in two categories. (Best First Book and Inspirational Romance)

Rose Lerner gathered some 5-star reviews of the book. While I was writing this post, Katherine Locke wrote a powerful response. And parts of twitter retweeted and raged together about this. But only parts. It was telling to see who didn't acknowledge the conversation. It was heart-breaking to see who didn't. It wasn't surprising to see who didn't. Very little about this whole thing has surprised me.

I have been saddened by this whole thing since I first became aware of the book, the day Smart Bitches posted their review at the end of June. (Unlike many other reviews, this is one that won't make you weep for humanity.)

But yesterday I became angry. I needed to do more than tweet about it. Which Jeanne then reminded me of.

So, I wrote a letter to RWA and Bethany House and am sharing a version of it here (I tailored each letter to be a more organization specific)

The morning of the RITA awards, I took my daughter to celebrate Shabbat and she finally noticed that there is a police car and a police presence at our Temple during services. My daughter just turned four and I had to explain to her why, in a way that wouldn't freak her out, we needed police protection to go to services in 2015, just outside of Washington DC. I had to explain this in a way that wouldn't make her scared of going to a house of worship that she adores, in a way that didn't make her fearful because of her faith. I had to explain why our place of worship needs police protection every week. This is not a temporary thing. This is just our reality. One day she'll realize this is not the reality for her non-Jewish friends.

I haven't had to explain to her (yet) why our Temple has a perimeter of ugly concrete planters, because if you put flowers in it, maybe we can glide over the fact that our house of worship needs protection against car bombs. One day I'll tell her about other Temples and congregations I've worshiped with, about the times I've gotten my bags searched to be allowed into a building to worship, about the lectures we used to get from the bimah at the start of High Holiday services about suspicious packages and evacuation routes (because we may be there to celebrate a new year and to atone for our sins, but first we must deal with the mundane matters that our faith makes us targets of mass murder. Repeatedly. In the US. In 2015.) My daughter likes seeing the doggies at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She doesn't know they're a bomb-sniffing K9 unit.

The day after the RITAs, Mike Huckabee claimed that Obama was leading the Israelis to the doors of the ovens, because in current rhetoric everything from a nuclear deal with Iran to universal health care (both sides of that debate are guilty here) is the same as the systematic rounding up and murder of ethnic groups (not just Jews) across a continent and beyond* in order to eradicate their cultures and faiths from the world.

My Christian coworkers feel comfortable wearing a cross necklace. I do not wear a Star of David and I hide my last name when dealing with the public at work. I have been ranted at too many times with ideas from the Protocols of Zion, been given too much literature, too many lectures to try to bring me to Jesus, when I'm just trying to do my job. A job where I have to use vacation days to get off major holidays, vacation days a former employer used to deny because the other Jewish person I worked with had seniority.

This is modern Anti-Semitism, the micro-and-macro aggressions of daily life that come with being Jewish in the US in 2015.

This is the culture where it's seen as perfectly acceptable to publish a book like For Such A Time, and to then nominate it for a prize like the RITAs (in multiple categories!). This is a culture where we can have a book about how a Jew and a Nazi Kommandant can find true love through Jesus because she doesn't look Jewish. This is a culture where such a story may disgust me, but it doesn't surprise me in the least. Of course Nazis** are redeemable and of course beautiful Jewish heroines don't look Jewish.

And of course, a happy ending is one with a conversion. I understand that for a Christian publisher, a happy ending involves finding Jesus. But, wanting Jewish people to find Jesus led to the Spanish Inquisition. It was an unsuccessful way for people to try to survive the Holocaust. But it's not just history. Even today, I deal with too many people that think the way for a Jew to find happiness is a renunciation of faith in order to turn to Jesus. They come to my door and interrupt me at home. They come into my work. They leave literature on my car.

And they scare me, because that version of Happily-Ever-After means a world where everyone has converted to Christianity. That version of Happily-Ever-After means a world with no more Jews. It's not physically violent, but it's still terrifying. It's not inspirational.

For Such A Time may be a product of such a culture, but it also legitimizes this hate and fear. And in publishing it and honoring it, Bethany House and RWA have legitimized it as well.

This past weekend, I had to start to explain the Holocaust to my daughter. It is the story of the murder of her family, it is the story of how they immigrated to this country, it is the story of the people whose name she now carries. It is not a story where a Jewish prisoner falls in love with a Nazi and finds Jesus.

It's heart-breaking that your organizations created and honored a book that contributes to such thinking. Not only did Bethany House and RWA not see a problem here, you thought it was something worth celebrating, something to recommend, something everyone should read.

It's heart-breaking, but it's not surprising. Anti-Semitism doesn't surprise me anymore. But it also sure as hell doesn't "inspire" me either.

I hope you seriously take the everyday suffering of Jewish people into account the next time you consider publishing a manuscript or honoring a book that uses us as props for your message.

*They pressured the Japanese to have plans to exterminate the Jewish refugees living in Shanghai.

**Yes, many Germans were forced to join the German army whether they believed or not, but that's not who the "hero" of this story is. The "hero" is in charge of a concentration camp. He would have to be a member of the SS--the most loyal and fanatic.

EDITED at 5pm, August 5th: Fixed some typos.

Also, I have had two RWA board members respond to me in a personal capacity, and at least one retweet the link to this post to share it. I do feel heard by the RWA board and hold out hope we'll get an official response at some point. There has been nothing from Bethany House.

EDITED at 1:30pm, August 8: reworded the footnote about Japan to make it clearer. I've also posted an update here. 


Darlene Marshall said...

I've been trying to write my own letter, encapsulating the rage and dismay I feel when incidents like this happen. So far, you, Sarah and others have said what I'm trying to say far better than I ever could. I will continue to work on my letter to RWA, but I doubt it will be half as good as what others have said.

Thank you for speaking up.

Jennie said...

Thank you. That's exactly how I felt yesterday when I was contemplating writing my own response.

Write yours. They need to hear from as many of us as possible.

Jen Robinson said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Jennie. I hadn't heard about this issue at all. While I'm not Jewish, I've been dismayed by the recent rise of anti-Semitism (especially in Europe), and I agree with you that it's necessary to speak up when incidents like this book arise. For what it's worth, I recently had to begin to explain to my half-Armenian 5 year old daughter about the Armenian Genocide. The first of what I know will be many conversations - it's hard enough for adults to wrap our heads around these things. Anyway, I have nothing useful to add, but wanted to thank you for your post.

Jennie said...

Thank you Jen. Good luck with your conversations-- I was not ready to start talking about the Holocaust with L yet, but it came up and...

Stacy said...

I am in tears. I had not heard of this book until today when I came across a tweet expressing someone's shock that it had in fact been published and then honored. I can't even wrap my head around the topic and I will not be reading it. Instead, I'm going to share this blog post and I will tag RWA.

I am so sorry for what you and your daughter have to experience just to worship. I am pagan so I understand a little bit of what you're going through and it breaks my heart. Please know that not everyone is trying to convert other people...please know that you have many people on your side...please know that I am so grateful that you wrote this post to raise awareness of not just the book but also your daily life.


Gabi said...

I feel utterly stupid and ignorant. I was at RWA and had no idea about the content of this book. I am appalled. I wish I had a strionger word. To call the plot ignorance on the part of the author would be making excuses. That the publishing house thought the novel acceptable is reprehensible. I can understand why RWA sent it through to the finals (a matter of scores and the inability to read every entry), but ultimately they should have known the plot line was offensive.

Terry Dawson said...

Well said & powerful. Thank you for calling this out and raising awareness against ignorance and complacence.

Sarah said...

Well said. I'm writing a letter, too.

Reva said...

This is a wonderful response. I only take issue with the ending saying the Japanese wanted to exterminate the refugees, I.e. Jews. They were harsh but we're against following German requests to murder their Jews.

Thank you for an incite full response.

Reva Hutkin

Jennie said...

Thank you Stacy, Gabi, Terry, and Sarah.

Reva--you're right, it's poorly worded and I changed the footnote to say that the Germans pressured the Japanese for extermination.