Writer by design

Writer by design

The Russian-American dreams of Fair Lawn's Margaret Gurevich Gelbwasser

A  girl can dream, can’t she?

Margaret Gurevich Gelbwasser’s grandparents dreamed of living a Jewish life in Minsk, her parents dreamed of a life in America, and she dreamed of being a writer.

How did those dreams work out?

The Jewish life in Minsk part didn’t work out very well for her grandparents. Her parents were luckier. They took their children to America, where their lives were rocky at first, but soon smoothed out as they relaxed into this country.

And Margie Gelbwasser of Fair Lawn is a writer.

Margie Gelbwasser as a toddler in Minsk
Margie Gelbwasser as a toddler in Minsk

Margie was born in Minsk, in what is now Belarus but then was the Soviet Union, in 1976. She, her parents, her older sister, her grandparents, and an aunt, uncle, and cousin all left for what was then Jewish refugees’ usual way station, Italy, and after a few months found themselves in Brooklyn. She has only a young child’s fragmented, narrative-free memories of that time — “the elevator of our apartment building in Russia, the ocean and a breakwater in Italy.”

Family history, though, tells her that her paternal grandfather “made sure to find a mohel to circumcise his sons,” even though such overt religious practices were illegal in Russia then. “It was very important to him,” she said, and he paid a high price for it. “He went to the gulag for five years, when my dad was two years old, in 1949, because he got a tallis from an American.” That grandfather, Feivel Gurowich, never made it to America; he died when Margie was just three months old. His widow, Sonia, stayed in Russia. “I met her for the first time when she visited us,” Margie said. “I was 17.”

None of her grandparents were in labor or concentration camps, although many relatives died there, but all of them — grandmothers as well as grandfathers — fought in the woods or for the Russian army. Margie is aware that as these things go, they were lucky. “It’s amazing what people did,” she said. “They had such hard lives.”

The family was able to leave through a very short time-window that opened in about 1978 and closed around 1980, she said. “Those two years, they let everybody go. They just didn’t want us.”

On the other hand, they — Soviet leaders — wanted to make it as hard as possible for those unwanted Jews to leave, Margie said, and they were creative in the small-scale, mind-numbing chores they required. Among other seemingly Augean tasks, Jews who wanted to leave had to prove that they had no outstanding library books. Anywhere. That meant going to every library in the city and making every clerk paw through every handwritten record.

Eventually, every last bureaucratic i was dotted and every possible t was crossed, and the family was allowed to leave. “My parents always stress that we weren’t immigrants,” Margie said. “We were refugees.”

Their first apartment, in Brooklyn, “was pretty awful,” Margie said. “We didn’t have any money for furniture. We slept on boxes, and used a box for a table. I remember that my dad would stay up at night because there were a lot of mice, and he wanted to make sure that they didn’t crawl on us.”

Isak and Inessa Gurevich
Isak and Inessa Gurevich

Margie’s mother, Inessa, had been a chemist in Minsk, and her father, Isak, had been a mechanical engineer. Isak did not speak English; “my mom thought that she had learned some English, but no…” Margie said. There were no professional jobs for them in this country. They did whatever they could — “my mother lugged barrels of paint” — but they persevered. Her father took a job in Paterson; both parents took night classes and learned English. “It was hard, but it was one of those stories,” Margie said. “It’s an American dream story. They took those awful jobs in the beginning, and we didn’t have anything. Eventually my mother got a job as a chemist, and my father got a job as an engineer.”

In fact, she said, “he did the HVAC systems at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.”

The family was sponsored by HIAS, as the onetime Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society now is called, “but my dad paid them back,” Margie said. “He made sure that anything he borrowed he paid back.”

Soon the family moved to a better apartment in Brooklyn, and sent Margie and Diana, who is five years older, to a yeshiva. When Margie was 8, though, they moved to Fair Lawn. Now, Margie and her husband and their son; her sister, now the infectious disease specialist Dr. Diana Finkel, her husband, and their five children, and Inessa and Isak Gurevich all live there, three generations firmly rooted in one town.

Russian Jews’ relationship to Judaism was complicated, and once they moved from Russia their children did not share it. “In Russia, your passport said ‘Jew,’” she continued. “All your identification said ‘Jew.’ You weren’t allowed to practice Judaism, but you were identified with the title of Jew. So when we came to America, to my parents, that identity — being a Jew, being called a Jew — was a very strong thing.

“But for me, growing up in America, just being called that but not practicing anything” — because her parents were out of practice at practicing Judaism, so on the whole they didn’t — “I didn’t feel the connection to it. It was just a name.

“We did go to Hebrew school, but my parents couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel the strong connection. They never went to synagogue either, except for the High Holidays, and any time I wanted to do more they got nervous.

“As a teen, you are going to try to find yourself. I had a friend who was involved with NCSY” — the Orthodox youth group that works hard on outreach to unengaged Jewish teens — “and I went to one of the Shabbatons. My mom got nervous and worried. It was a very mixed message.

“In Russia, my mom’s mom always found matzah on the black market. It was dangerous, but she always got it. Here, matzah is on the shelf.” When you don’t have to work for a connection, when it just offers itself to you, perhaps it appears to be less valuable, she suggested.

“I felt that I always was searching for a connection,” she continued. Now, she feels that she’s found it. Her family belongs to Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge. “I feel like it’s what we’ve been looking for for a long time. I feel really connected.”

Margie always knew that she wanted to be a writer. She always wanted to tell stories, she wanted other people to read them, and she wanted to spend all day doing it. She went to the College of New Jersey — it was called Trenton State College then — and then got a masters in English at William Paterson University. She taught language arts at a middle school for 10 years; now, as the mother of an 8-year-old, she teaches writing classes and workshops, gets jobs as writer-in-residence in schools, and, of course, she writes.

How do you break into writing? Well, for most people, it helps to be good at it (although sometimes it also helps to be lucky, to be brazen, and to catch the zeitgeist. How many Shades of Grey are there?). Margie began as a magazine writer, publishing pieces in Self, Ladies Home Journal, Scholastic, and Writer’s Digest, among others. She had majored not only in English but also in education, at her parents’ insistence, so when she had to pick a specialty as a magazine writer, that was easy. “I wrote a lot of stories about teaching and education,” she said. Also, “because my sister is a doctor, I wrote a lot about health. I can tell you a lot about what your nails say about your health.”

She also began to work on what was an ambitious novel about Russian-Jewish-American life, loosely based on her family, in 2005. “I thought of it as being like a Jewish ‘Joy Luck Club,’” she said. “I wrote 320 pages of it, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t figure out how to fix it, so I shelved the whole thing.

“There was one part of it, that was written from a teen girl’s perspective, that seemed to flow better than anything else.” When she showed the novel to other people, they agreed that the section had life. She took another writing class, wrote another 120 pages, “and then I scrapped that too.” But there was a life underneath all those pages of thrown-out prose that kept kicking.

Eventually, all those ideas and trashed pages and recurrent desires turned into her first novel, “Inconvenient.”

To her surprise — but perhaps unsurprisingly nonetheless — her first novel was a young adult work. “It’s about a Russian Jewish girl in a town based on Fair Lawn,” Margie said. “In the book, the mother was an alcoholic. Mine never was, but alcohol was very big when I was growing up. In Russian culture, drinking is really accepted.

“That got me to thinking — if someone did have a problem, how would you know it? How would it work? So I went to AA meetings — I did it officially, I applied for permission and it was approved — and I talked to children of alcoholics.

“I learned a lot. I learned that in the Jewish religion in general, people think that there aren’t any alcoholics, so alcoholism is hidden. A lot of people are embarrassed to go to AA meetings. Also, a lot of AA meetings are in churches. Often, Jews won’t go into churches, and also it makes it seem, just by the meeting being in a church, that it’s clear that this — that alcoholism — isn’t our problem.”

How did her mother feel about the character based on her being an alcoholic, even though she never was? “She’s okay with it,” Margie said. “I am sure to tell people that it’s not based on her. But some other things in the book are based on my life — like the characters’ first apartment, which was very similar to ours — but the story isn’t mine.” She made up a plot, based on what she saw, what she knew, and what she researched, and she shored it up with visual, emotional, and evocative details from her own experience.

Another large part of the book deals with her character’s sense of being an outsider, which was based squarely on her own life.

“The experience of being kind of on the outskirts in Fair Lawn, because I was Russian — that is based on my experience. And I feel that it could be true of any culture. If you seem different, if you feel like this other, then you really do seem different to yourself.” Some of this feeling of being peripheral, never fully on the inside, may be entirely internal, she said, but the experience is powerful nonetheless.

“Inconvenient” is a dark story, with an ending that is hopeful but not full-on happy; it earned glowing reviews. It is out of print, but Margie has bought back the rights, had a new cover designed, and plans to upload it as an ebook. “It was marketed only to Jewish schools, but it didn’t need to be,” she said. “It isn’t only a Jewish story.” Like most writers, she is a constant self-editor; the book will not be available until she has tweaked it once again. Although it was published in 2010 — not so long ago — “there is an overhead projector in it — there never would be now — and some out-of-date stuff with cellphones.”

Her second YA book, “Pieces of Us,” came out in 2012. “It is about cyberbullying, rape, and abuse,” Margie said. “It is a very dark book. I thought that there was a need for it. There was a very similar case that was happening as I was finishing it, in Cherry Hill, about a girl who was videoed when she was drunk and the boys who used the video as blackmail.” The timing was coincidental but verified the topic’s immediacy and importance for her.

The book, according to Kirkus Review, is “suspenseful, disturbing and emotionally fraught, a strong novel for a strong stomach.” It’s “painfully believable,” Publisher’s Weekly agreed.

Margie’s first two young adult novels
Margie’s first two young adult novels

It was time for something completely different.

Margie is married to Stuart Gelbwasser, who is an actuary “and is very smart,” his wife said. “When we were dating, I’d have him add up our bill and calculate everything in his head. It was very cool!” She uses his name personally and professionally; it is the name that appears on the covers of her YA fiction.

As Margaret Gurevich, Margie writes a frothy, light, happy series — there are two books in print so far, one more on its way, and who knows what will follow, so series is perhaps a leap but maybe not — about Chloe Montgomery, an aspiring clothing designer who over the course of three books enters a reality show based on clothing design, wins (sorry for the spoiler, but you must have guessed it), and then gets to make clothes.

She works closely with the illustrator, Brooke Hagel; she comes up with the plot and writes passages where Chloe creates and sews something, a professional seamstress tells her if such a creation is physically possible to make, and then Ms. Hagel tells her whether it will look like a dress or a disaster on the page.

“My YA books are edgy,” Margie said. “This is for middle-schoolers. It’s nice to have stuff for younger kids, things that I don’t have to warn parents about.” That’s why she uses different names. “I wouldn’t want someone to read the Chloe books and then decide to pick up one of the others.”

There is something sweet and uncomplicated about writing middle-school books. They are not dark. “When Chloe is designing a dress, there is no background angst associated with it,” Margie said. “It is just a dress. With Chloe, if she is upset, it is because the dress design didn’t work out, not because her engagement was broken. It’s just the design, not something that happened to her years ago and she still hasn’t worked out.” And there is no sex, or even romance. “A middle-school boy kisses Chloe on the cheek once — and that’s it,” she said.

Margie works with illustrator Brooke Hagel to create Chloe’s designs.
Margie works with illustrator Brooke Hagel to create Chloe’s designs.

Although she writes fiction, Margie also does a great deal of research — a worldview she got from all her magazine work. She takes the results of her study and makes it live. “Sometimes I get offended when people hear that I write YA and ask me when I’m going to write a real book. There are lot of adult books, and not all of them are literary.” There are a lot of literary YA and middle school and even children’s books (defined differently, of course); there are many books that do not aspire to that level of artistry but are great fun, and there are others that simply are terrible. That is true across genres. “I never laugh at anything anyone else is reading,” Margie said.

She’s not sure what project will come next. Her next book, “my first non-fiction, took a lot of research,” she said. “It’s for National Geographic, due out in June, for younger readers. It’s a chapter book, and my son is very excited about it.”

Why does her son care about this one more than the Chloe books, which he dutifully tried to read but could not make his way through? Because those books are about dress design, and this one is called “Diving With Sharks!” (The exclamation point is National Geographic’s.)

“We were told that the Chloe books were about following your dreams, about feeling that you could accomplish anything. I believe that’s what I do in my own writing,” Margie said.

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