Local novelist receives N.J. Artist Fellowship
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Local novelist receives N.J. Artist Fellowship

There is no photo of Passaic-based novelist Ruchama King Feuerman smiling with the other 25 winners of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts’ 2009 Artists Fellowships, announced at the Union County Arts Center in Rahway on Jan. 27.

It’s not that she wasn’t at the center that same day. It’s just that she was there for a different event and missed the accolades.

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Ruchama King Feuerman photo by Alyssa Komarow

“I didn’t think I’d win, so I didn’t make it there in time for the announcement,” said Feuerman, who had gone to the center that afternoon for the 12th annual Artists’ Roundtable to learn about financial planning, marketing, and self-promotion. As a writing workshop facilitator, ghost-writer, and book developer, she was looking for tips to pass along to her students and clients.

To her surprise, she found out two days later that she was one of 26 honorees chosen from a field of 463 applicants for the fellowships. The awardees, chosen in the categories of poetry, prose, playwrighting, crafts, sculpture, and photography, received grants of $7,000, $8,600, or $12,000.

Though Feuerman had sent her unpublished second novel, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist,” for consideration, she never expected it to be chosen – and certainly did not expect that she’d be one of the few fellows awarded the mid-level prize.

“When I started looking on the Website at who had won in previous years, I said to myself, ‘Forget it, you’re out of your league.’ Then I finally got an e-mail that I was one of the winners,” Feuerman said.

She was particularly pleased because she and her work are so identifiably Jewish. “This is very encouraging since I’m writing about religious Jews,” said Feuerman, whose first novel, “Seven Blessings,” was about matchmaking in Jerusalem.

“Not many in the ‘wig-wearing world’ get this kind of recognition,” she said, referring to the head-covering worn by Orthodox women such as herself. “Getting this kind of confirmation and validation is a wonderful thing for me and for my writing.”

In fact, the same as-yet-unpublished manuscript won Feuerman a $4,000 Christopher Isherwood Foundation Fellowship for 2006.

Since then, she has also published a compendium of works created by her students, “Everyone’s Got a Story: 41 Short Stories from a New Generation of Jewish Writers” (Judaica Press).

The Arts Council fellowships, meant to help professional artists produce new work and advance their careers and impact on the community, are granted in an anonymous process of independent peer panel review of submitted work. The peer panel for prose included novelists Michael Byers, Nona Caspers, John Holman, and Ernesto Quiñonez.

One of the playwriting fellows is Dominique Cieri of Branchville, a professional who has worked with students at Yavneh Academy of Paramus and Torah Academy of Bergen County. Along with Yavneh teacher Gabriela Weiss, Cieri co-authored “From the Attic, To the Classroom, To the Stage: The Holocaust” in 2001.

Feuerman is considering how she will use the money. “One of the things I was thinking of doing was researching a novel in Albania, but there is a rule that you can’t use the grant for travel outside the country,” she said. “You also may not use it for tuition, which is something else I might have thought of doing.”

Most likely, she will cut down on her teaching time to devote herself to reworking “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” in an effort to get it accepted by a major publisher. In its first incarnation it was rejected by a number of publishing houses approached by her agent, but Feuerman has since revised it and still is working on it.

“It’s rare to get second chances, but I’m rewriting because as an artist, you get devoted to your art and want to see it to completion,” she said.

The plotline revolves around a friendship between a rabbi and a Muslim janitor at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. “I think that is compelling for our times,” Feuerman said. “These are topics close to everyone’s heart these days.”

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