How l—a Jewish Writer—Approach Sensitivity Reads for Authors Who Write Jewish Characters
Building trust with readers by providing a clear why.
By Jamie Beth Cohen • July 14, 2021
I love writing about, talking about, and practicing Jewish customs. Because of that, I’ve become someone writers turn to for “sensitivity reads” (also known as “authenticity reads”) when writing Jewish characters. It’s fascinating work, but also work that is sometimes misunderstood by people inside and outside of publishing. Sensitivity readers are not here to censor authors but to help them avoid pitfalls they may not even realize exist. Because no matter how much research you do on a culture, you can’t find answers to questions you don’t know to ask.
Sensitivity readers are not here to censor authors but to help them avoid pitfalls they may not even realize exist.
Once, I read a published book where there were lots of flowers at a Jewish funeral. Can there be flowers at a fictional Jewish funeral? Sure. Is it common to have flowers at a Jewish funeral? Not really. Can there be a good reason for flowers at a real or fictional Jewish funeral? Sure. What if the deceased (real or fictional) had a lovely garden full of roses and lilacs and peonies? OK, there might be flowers at their funeral. What if the deceased (real or fictional) left specific wishes for a flower-filled funeral? Great! There’s nothing in Jewish law that says you can’t have flowers at a Jewish funeral. Even if there were, not every Jew follows Jewish law the same way.
But in a book, if there are flowers at a Jewish funeral and the reason isn’t in the text, an astute reader might wonder if the flowers were a conscious choice by the author or an oversight fueled by a lack of cultural understanding. And that wondering can take the reader out of the narrative and, in some situations, reinforce harmful misconceptions about Jews. When something an author writes doesn’t ring true, feasible, or authentic to the reader, the reader may end up questioning what else the author got wrong. This breaks the necessary trust between author and reader.
So, if I were asked, “Can there be flowers at a Jewish funeral?,” I wouldn’t give a yes or no answer. I would ask the author, “Why do you want to write a scene with flowers at a Jewish funeral? Is the scene necessary? Are the flowers? Have you laid the groundwork in the text that supports that choice?”
When something an author writes doesn’t ring true, feasible, or authentic to the reader, the reader may end up questioning what else the author got wrong.
It’s not only non-Jewish writers who have questions about writing Jewish characters.
In an online group of Jewish writers I’m in, someone asked if a Jewish family having bacon at the breakfast table would be appropriate for a middle grade novel.
She, a Jewish writer, grew up with bacon, as did I, but what she was asking was, “How would this land with middle grade readers?” Because when we write for kids, we think about how what we write will shape their perceptions and realities (the “mirrors and windows” theory). So, the conversation among Jewish writers in this case was not “Could this happen?”—we all knew it could—but rather, “What does it mean to put this in a book?”
When I do an authenticity read, my feedback is always informed by the fact that I was raised one way but, as the saying goes, “Two Jews, three opinions.”
I was raised a secular Jew in Pittsburgh, and my husband went to an Orthodox Jewish day school and a Conservative Jewish congregation in New Rochelle, New York. We are both Ashkenazi Jews. Combined, we have worked in multiple Jewish professional settings, including newspapers, synagogues, camps, K-12 schools, undergrad programs, and seminaries on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and in California. When I’m doing a sensitivity read and come up against something that strikes me as a potential misstep, I leverage not just our combined knowledge but those of our connections.
When writing Jewish characters, any answer to a question about a lifecycle event, a tradition/custom, a religious observance, or daily life will be…maddeningly varied.
This past year, I sensitivity-read a manuscript for a non-Jewish author who lives in (and set the story in) an area where I have never lived. A few things gave me pause. I checked with people I knew who lived there. I gave detailed feedback and ultimately asked why one of her characters was Jewish. It turns out, it was to set the character apart and in contrast to another main character. I asked if that was really necessary and if there were other ways to set the two apart without positioning a Jewish character as “other.” (Because I live in an area with a large population of conservative Christians, Christian hegemony is one of the things I think about a lot, so that’s another lens I bring to my work.) She hadn’t thought about that, so she took the feedback to heart in her revision process.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand that when writing Jewish characters, any answer to a question about a lifecycle event, a tradition/custom, a religious observance, or daily life will be:
- time-period dependent,
- based on the character’s level of observance and/or denomination, and
- maddeningly varied.
If the why is solid, and clear on the page, a writer can do just about anything.
For example, I’m working on a memoir about the death of my (Jewish) dad, who was cremated following an autopsy. Obviously, this is nonfiction, but I will still acknowledge in the text that an autopsy and cremation are not typical for Jews, and I will explain why they happened in my family. Am I required to explain it? No. But as a writer and a Jew, I want to address the questions these details will raise so as not to leave the reader wondering.
In my work, I’m never looking to tell someone what they can or can’t do, but I often ask why they are doing what they are doing. In my opinion, if the why is solid, and clear on the page, a writer can do just about anything. To me, that’s the best thing about writing.
Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer, storyteller, and podcaster. She writes about difficult things, but her friends think she’s funny.
Photo: Mark Pontz Photography