Wednesday, April 15, 2015


In this interview, Janet Heller, author of The Passover Surprise, talks about her sources of inspiration and her connection to Judaism. 

Q. What is the source of your inspiration?

A: I am 65 years old, and I taught English and women's studies courses at various colleges and universities for 35 years, so I have many experiences to draw on for my writing. I also served as a teacher and principal for two Jewish religious schools. I organized a successful faculty union at one university. Sometimes, I adapt stories that friends have told me about problems that they faced. I love nature, so I include birds, animals, trees, and flowers in my work. I have four younger brothers and sisters, and I began writing stories for them when I was about nine years old. I also write for my former religious school students and for my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and great-nephews. Often, I write about a problem that troubles me. I usually feel better and understand the situation better when I can articulate my feelings in words.

Q. What brought you to use midrash as a source for your work?

A. I have always found the stories in the Jewish Bible compelling, and I frequently see parallels between my own experiences and those of the matriarchs, patriarchs, and other people in the Bible. I have been writing modern midrashim (reinterpretations of Biblical characters and events) since the 1970s. This impulse to create poems and stories that revisit the Bible has a long tradition in Jewish literature. 

I studied Hebrew literature at Oberlin College and the University of Wisconsin and with Rabbi Daniel Leifer (may his memory be a blessing) at the University of Chicago Hillel Foundation. Danny Leifer was particularly interested in modern midrashim. When I chant Torah and haftarah portions at my synagogue, I frequently write a poem about the passages. I have read midrashic poetry by Israeli writers Chaim Gouri, Rachel Bluwstein, Amir Gilboa, Yehudah Amichai, Chaim Nachman Bialik, etc., that has influenced me. The central theme in my poetry book of modern midrashim, Exodus, is the departure from Egypt, which represents all of the journeys that people make: trying new experiences, leaving a bad relationship, finding a new job, taking risks.

Many of the poems in Exodus are dramatic monologues from the perspective of different characters in the Scriptures. I'm particularly interested in the women in the Bible. While many characters take risks, other characters resist change. I often fill in gaps in the Biblical narrative. For example, we don’t know much about young Isaac’s perspective in Genesis. My “Isaac” poem presents a modern youngster’s view of his dysfunctional family. Similarly, Genesis does not tell us anything about the relationship between Rebekah and Rachel. In one poem, I have Rachel speaking to her mother-in-law while in labor with Joseph. I also portray a woman prophet.

Most of the poems in Exodus deal with contemporary themes, especially women’s and family issues, such as tension in relationships, mentoring, the conflict between women who focus on their families and career women, job discrimination, rape, battered women and their children, custody battles, losing children to cancer, etc. In contrast, other poems emphasize a humorous perspective on a Bible passage, such as “Vacation Cruise,” which is about Noah’s ark.

Q. What is your connection to Judaism?

A. I was brought up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a Reform Jewish home. I did not have a bat mitzvah when I was 13; however, I began studying Hebrew in earnest when I was 15. I enjoy the Hebrew prose poetry prayers of traditional Jewish services, so I started attending Conservative Jewish services as soon as I went to college. I'm currently an active member of the Conservative synagogue called the Congregation of Moses, in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

When I was working on my doctorate in English, I joined the egalitarian Upstairs Minyan at the University of Chicago Hillel Foundation. I loved the gender-fair services, which included the matriarchs in prayers and included women as prayer leaders. Rabbi Danny Leifer encouraged me to learn how to lead musaf for the Hillel's High Holiday services because I have a good voice. I learned how to chant Torah from other graduate students at the Hillel Foundation. I learned how to chant haftarah from Arnold Fox, a professor at Northern Illinois University, when I taught there in the 1980s. I tutored four students for their bnai mitzvah. 

I have served on the boards of two synagogues and have been president of my Sisterhood/Women's League chapter at the Congregation of Moses. I am very pleased that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is publishing a new egalitarian and gender-fair prayer book in 2015. This new siddur respects the contributions of women to Jewish education, history, and culture. Siddur Lev Shalem also includes readings from modern Jewish literature and interpretations of the traditional prayers. I'm lobbying to have my synagogue adopt this new prayer book.

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