Mysteries and Jewishness

Mysteries and Jewishness

Author Julia Dahl among the three Strong Women to speak at the Kaplen JCC on Sunday

Julia Dahl
Julia Dahl

It’s possible that among the many ways to divide the world into two, one of the best ways is by asking whether or not you love murder mysteries.

Those of you who don’t, well, my condolences.

Those of us who do understand the way the genre (or why give in to haters? The art form!), when done well, fulfills our need for a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end; novels that mix intuition with analytic thought, and characters who have histories, motivations, families, and voices, and who move through the real world and encounter the situations and crises that deal with real problems without getting didactic about them.

Then, of course, there are badly written mysteries; we’re not dealing with them here. (Or, if possible, ever.)

In what is usually an entirely different category of thought, there are the questions about Jewish identity that bedevil many of us. What does being Jewish mean? Can you be just ethnically Jewish? Culturally Jewish? Theoretically Jewish? If you are halachically Jewish, what if anything do you have to do to maintain your Jewishness? Is it about religion? About DNA? What is it?

So imagine what a mystery-loving, Jewish-world-living reader thinks when stumbling across a series of mysteries about a young reporter, the daughter of a long-vanished chasidic mother and a genuinely sweet, nurturing Protestant father, who explores mysteries in the chasidic community — mysteries involving both murder and identity — as she explores the Jewish world she is just beginning to meet.

Julia Dahl — the author of the so-far three books about the young journalist Rebekah Roberts, a freelancer who lives in Brooklyn and works for the down-market Trib, a thinly veiled pseudonym for the down-market New York Post — will be among the three writers at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ “Sunday of Strong Women” this weekend. (See below.)

First, the mystery part.

Ms. Dahl has loved mysteries as long as she can remember, she said, although it was only about 10 years ago that she realized that she could write them. “I started with Agatha Christie and Stephen King, before they were age-appropriate,” Ms. Dahl said. “And of course Nancy Drew; when I was growing up in the ’80s, there was a reboot of cool Nancy Drews, and I would read, like two a day.

“In high school I decided that I wanted to be a writer, but it didn’t occur to me to wonder how someone could make a living as a writer. So when I did start to think about that, I got into journalism, and I loved it. And of course I’m still always reading mysteries, and also becoming obsessed with Law and Order and NYPD Blue and Murder She Wrote. My brain has always been attracted to murder mysteries.”

After college — Yale — Ms. Dahl also earned an MFA at the New School. Fine arts, though, includes literary novels, not mysteries. “So I wrote a literary novel,” she said. “It was terrible.” And then, in a bookstore, she picked up a book by Gillian Flynn — it was her first novel, “Sharp Objects,” not her breakout work, “Gone Girl” — and “I thought this is what I want to write. A creepy literary mystery, where character and prose matter, and it is thrilling and dark and psychological.

“And it all came together with ‘Invisible City.’”

That’s where the Jewish part comes in.

Like her heroine, Ms. Dahl is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Protestant father; unlike her heroine’s parents, her own mother and father remain sturdily and happily married.

“My mother comes from Nashville,” Ms. Dahl said. “Her maiden name was Blum, and the other family name is May. Being Jewish in Nashville is a family thing. My family is Reform, and when my mother was growing up they all went to the synagogue on Friday night, and they all went to the Jewish day school there.

“Being Jewish were at the center of their lives. And they’re also big Zionists.

“Judaism and Israel were at the center of their lives.”

But things, as often happens, happened. “My mother was in California in 1970, and went on a blind date with my father. They married, and her grandparents sat shiva for her. She never saw them again.”

The Dahls lived in Fresno when Julia was growing up. “Both my parents are very religious,” she said. “My dad was a lawyer, and he taught Sunday school in his Lutheran church, but as soon as we went to college, he went to seminary. Now he’s a deacon.” Her mother was active in her synagogue.

“I grew up going to church and going to synagogue,” Ms. Dahl said. “Doing Easter and doing Passover. Both of my parents were very religious, and we did all of it. It was very normal to all of us.

“My parents found more similarities than differences in their religions.

“For me, I dabbled in being both, and I always asked myself what it means to be Jewish,” she continued. Did she ask herself what it means to be Christian? No, she said. “It seems simple. There’s less of a question. Either you believe in Jesus as the messiah and the savior or you don’t.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Dahl’s grandparents moved to Fresno and became a vital part of her life. “They lived down the block from us, and I think they moved just to be sure that we were Jewish. My grandmother said, ‘There are enough Christians in the world. We need more good Jews.’”

Between them and her own understanding of what it means to be Jewish, her identity seemed to settle on the Jewish side (and according to halacha, Jewish law, her mother being Jewish makes her Jewish, no matter what else also might be true). “I am not a super-religious person,” Ms. Dahl said. “To me, Jewish identity was more about history. It almost felt like a privilege. At birth, I was given the gift of being Jewish. Most people don’t get that.”

So, she said, “The question of what it means to be a Jew has always been part of my life.”

Ms. Dahl is married now, and she has a son. Her husband isn’t Jewish, so “what it means to be Jewish will continue to be a central question of my life.”

But it wasn’t a question she particularly wanted to write about. She wasn’t interested in a memoir. So instead, her semi-autobiographical sort-of-alter-ego investigated a mystery set in the chasidic world, the world from which her character’s mother had fled, and to which she remains somewhat connected.

“Growing up in Fresno, I had no idea chasidim existed,” Ms. Dahl said. “There wasn’t even Chabad there in the ’80s. And then I moved to Brooklyn, and had the experience of signing a lease for my apartment, and the landlord was chasidic and he wouldn’t shake my hand. I realized that we are the same people — and we are not at all the same people. So who are they?”

Her interest was piqued. And then, “I moved into an apartment where the man who had lived there right before me had committed suicide,” Ms. Dahl said. “He was gay; he had been chasidic, and because he was gay, he was shunned by the community.

“So I was living in this tiny apartment where this man had lived and died, and I had to know who he was. Who the chasidim were. That’s how the story started.”

In her first book, “Invisible City,” Rebekah solves a mystery in the chasidic world. In the second, “Run You Down,” she works with the chasidic world in upstate New York; the third, “Conviction,” is set in Crown Heights and toggles between now and the riots in the early 1990s.

In all three books, Ms. Dahl’s take on the chasidic world Rebekah encounters is open-hearted and sympathetic. She’s now working on a fourth mystery about Rebekah, set in lower Manhattan, that centers around NYU rather than chasidim. After that, she’s likely to leave Rebekah behind, at least for the foreseeable future.

But she will not leave her Jewish identity behind. It’s not that she’s so deeply connected, she said. “I don’t belong to a synagogue. I always have a big Passover seder. That is important to me. And I light the candles on Chanukah. I have a lot of Jewish friends, and my friends and I talk about things in the Jewish world.

“I guess that my Judaism is more like my arm,” she concluded. “It’s just who I am. I don’t think about it all the time. It’s just who I am.”

Who: Three Jewish women, the writers Julia Dahl, Leah Carroll, and Amy Silverstein

What: Will speak as part of “A Sunday of Strong Women”

When: On Sunday, March 18, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue in Tenafly

How much: $38 for JCC members, $46 for non-members

For more information: Call Kathy Graf at (201) 408-1454

More about the authors:

Leah Carroll is the author of “Down City: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Memory, and Murder.” It tells the story of the deaths of both of her parents — her mother was murdered and her father drank himself to death. Ms. Carroll writes about how she is deeply affected by her history but not held down by it.

Amy Silverstein is the author of “My Glory Was That I Had Such Friends”; it tells about how friendship helped her through two heart transplants. Ms. Silverstein is also a lawyer and active with the United Network of Organ Sharing.

read more: