After 27 published novels, three stage plays and more than 50 short stories, syndicated worldwide, it is time not only to put my feet up, but to look back on a long and eventful life. Of my cornucopia of novels, only three have an overtly Jewish theme. The first of these follows the travails of a London-based Jewish family; in the second, the newly widowed protagonist visits Israel, where she finds a new love; and the final volume is played out against the background of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and controversial opinions which divide the fictional family. This trilogy, however, represents only a small part of my confrontations with Judaism.
Brought up in an observant London Jewish family, I was required – even as a small child – to walk the three miles, with my father and older brother, to my grandfather’s shul on Shabbat, 25 hours acknowledged as Judaism’s most pervasive and long-lasting gift to Western civilization. Under the guidance of my parents, who lit the traditional candles on Shabbat and recited the blessing over the challahs, I made Kiddush, sang Lecha Dodi on Friday nights and participated in the moving Havdallah ceremony at the end of the Shabbat day. I helped my mother change the dishes on Pesach, prepared the Seder plate, dunked apples in honey in anticipation of a sweet new year on Rosh Hashanah, and followed the precepts and rituals of the recurring festivals.
Married at the age of 19 – almost unheard of today – to a more or less similarly observant Jewish medical student, later to become a psychiatrist, I gave birth, not to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, but to Susan, Louise, Charlotte and Emma, all of whom, in the face of a growing lack of adherence to religious practice among their peers, later married Jewish men.
This, however, is not the end of the story. It was around the time that I was asked to contribute a chapter to a symposium on Confrontations with Judaism: ‘The Ideal Woman in Contemporary Society’ (Anthony Blond Ltd.), that I began to struggle with my Jewish faith. Reservations and doubts started to creep in. Gradually, and not without feelings of sadness, Jewish observance began to give way to a less proscribed lifestyle, and although the major festivals were still observed in my house and at my table, I went along with the more liberal (small ‘l’) observances of my burgeoning family. On the occasions when I attended my orthodox shul, I travelled by car, and took a more relaxed view of Shabbat – although my computer is even now granted its weekly day of rest. While I kept a kosher house, and still do, I turned a blind eye to my daughters’ and grandchildren’s lapses in that department. I also began producing novels whose protagonists were ostensibly non-Jewish.
Although my latest book, Final Draft: Reflections on Life, contains essays on such varied subjects as Grief, Sex and The Potent Appeal of Cheap Music, and while the brief had nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism, an essay on My Grandmother’s Chicken Soup, with its Proustian preamble and nostalgic evocations of family Shabbatim past, infiltrated its way from my subconscious into the list of chapter headings. In the text, I point out how food, and its related imagery, have long been used in literature; how dining rituals provide a framework that directly reflects and expresses human behavior; how my grandmother’s chicken soup defined the Shabbats of my early childhood; and how my own interpretation of her fool-proof recipe still delights those of my now adult grandchildren who are neither vegetarian, nor vegan.
Last month, I celebrated my 90th birthday, a milestone which prompted a good deal of reflection. In the twilight of my long and eventful life, defined by those early Jewish memories, I concluded that, while you can take the girl out of Shabbat – a day of physical and spiritual delights, an oasis of calm and a respite from the daily treadmill – you cannot take Shabbat out of the girl.
Rosemary Friedman has published 27 books (fiction and nonfiction), which have been serialized on radio and widely translated, as well as more than 50 short stories. Her three stage plays were produced in London and Poland and have toured the UK. She has written for TV and film (UK and USA) and judged many literary prizes. A voting member of Bafta, she has also served on the executive committees of the Society of Authors and PEN, where she worked on behalf of Writers in Prison. FINAL DRAFT: Reflections on Life (Peter Owen) was published in November, 2017.