When a friend of New York author Joanna Hershon casually mentioned one afternoon at a barbecue that his ancestors were Jewish cowboys and his great-grandmother was a famous ghost who haunted a hotel in Santa Fe, N.M., Hershon knew she'd struck gold for her next novel.
She quickly reached a dead end when researching her friend's ancestors, but became immersed in a world she hadn't explored before, going down what she called a rabbit hole of Jewish pioneers in America.
“I've always been fascinated by the American West and also the Jewish Diaspora. So this seemed like the perfect story for me to explore,” Hershon says. “I was interested in the contrast of this lawless place and what I knew to be a German Jewish culture that was very elevated.”
The harrowing and exquisite journey of young Eva Frank, the heroine of Hershon's third novel, “The German Bride,” took shape as Hershon asked herself why financially well-off and educated women left the comfort of the Old World for an unknown quantity across the sea.
“I bet there were some women who weren't entirely thrilled about what they found,” she says. “Certainly for that time it wasn't what they were used to — it was a primitive society in a lot of ways.”
Although the number of Jews that emigrated from Berlin to Santa Fe in 1865 is what Hershon calls “an almost comically esoteric small group of people,” Eva's struggle to make peace with her past, to create a home, and to carve out happiness from heartbreak is universal. Her quest can't be satisfied within the confines of a love affair or the borders of a country, and it's this deep dissatisfaction that pushes her farther west, propelling the novel forward like a runaway stage coach.
“I'm very interested in flawed people, in how people sabotage their own happiness,” Hershon says. “But I'm also interested in people who never give up in searching for that happiness.”
Steve Sheinkin lives in Brooklyn, but his main character, Rabbi Harvey, lives in a fictional town in the Rocky Mountains called Elk Spring, Colo. It's the mid-1870s, times are tough and even cowboys need a little Talmudic wisdom to settle their disputes.
Because nobody could pigeonhole a graphic novel about Jews in the Wild West, it took 10 years and countless rejections before Sheinkin found a publisher for “The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Wisdom and Wit in the Wild West.” But once he did, “Rabbi Harvey Rides Again: A Graphic Novel of Jewish Folktales Let Loose in the Wild West” followed on its heels.
“My family lived in Colorado when I was a kid for a little while and the imagery must have stayed with me,” says Sheinkin, who also has written history books for children called “King George: What Was His Problem?” and “Two Miserable Presidents.”
“At first the idea of Jews in the Wild West seems like a punch line,” he says. “But the more research I did, the less fictional it seemed.”
To create his hilarious yet subtle comics that deal with everything from a boy believing he's a chicken to thieving grannies, Sheinkin adapted the teachings of the Talmud, Jewish folktales and Hasidic wisdom to the wild and woolly times of the saloon and the gold digger.
“I write all the dialogue and the jokes are personal,” he says. “I try not to change what's rich and traditional about the stories in terms of the wisdom, but it always bothered me that they set it up but didn't take advantage of the chance for a joke.”
“I'm always afraid people will ask me what he'll do,” Sheinkin says. “But I'm not a rabbi, nor do I have 4,000 years of wisdom at my fingertips. Rabbi Harvey gets to be all of these great rabbis rolled into one.” S
The Weinstein Jewish Community Center's annual Jewish Book Fair is Nov. 30-Dec. 6 at 5403 Monument Ave. Steve Sheinkin will be featured Dec. 1 at 4 p.m. in a free program that's geared to readers from 9 to 14 years old.
Joanna Hershon will be featured in the Fiction Lover's Lunch on Dec. 3 at noon. Tickets are $19. Call 285-6500 or visit www.weinsteinjcc.org for a complete schedule of the other authors and events.