What we can learn from the Ba’al Shem Tov

IN HER book, Adele, which was published in 2018, Brandes tells the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, from the viewpoint of his daughter, Adele.

YOCHI BRANDES – the workshop and her novel intertwined. (photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)
YOCHI BRANDES – the workshop and her novel intertwined.
(photo credit: ARIK SULTAN)
In a crowded classroom in Tel Hai College, participants gathered to hear author Yochi Brandes, who was there as part of the 19th Lo Bashamayim Festival to lead a brainstorming session for her next novel.
“My next novel is going to be a historical novel set in the fifth century BCE, at the time of the first Return to Zion,” describes Brandes. “It will involve biblical figures such as Ezra the Scribe, Nehemiah the Pasha, the Persian King Arthashastra and Ruth and Naomi. The most important thing about this novel is, however, that the protagonist is a woman who figured prominently in Jewish culture for years, although not many people have heard of her.”
The idea for the workshop run by Brandes came about in a most unexpected manner. “A year and a half ago, I went on a camping trip with my kids in the western United States,” recalls Brandes. “We arrived at our campsite, and began cooking dinner. As we were sitting around the campfire later that evening, I asked my kids if they’d help me out with some ideas I was still playing around with in my mind while I was writing my latest novel, Adele. There were nine of us there hanging out around the campfire and the most amazing brainstorming session took off. Everyone came up with such incredible ideas and suggestions for me, which really helped me figure out the best way to end my novel. As soon as I got home from this trip, I sat right down and finished my novel.
“When Yael Lebanon, the content director of the Lo Bashamayim Festival, approached me with the idea of running a workshop, I was so excited, because I’m still trying to plan out the storyline for my next novel. I asked her if she could organize a group of 20 or 30 people who could help me brainstorm ideas. I’m always anxious talking with people about a book I’m in the middle of writing, but I realized that I really need to let go and relax a little.
“I’ve been writing books for so many years, that I shouldn’t feel preoccupied with the idea that someone might appropriate one of my ideas and write their own novel. And another thing, I’m usually unsure about how certain readers will react to my ideas. I never know how a brainstorming session will flow. People who’ve been coming to hear me speak for 20 years are used to a certain style lecture, and now all of a sudden I’m changing the format for the festival. This time, I’ll be asking lots of questions.”
IN HER book, Adele, which was published in 2018, Brandes tells the story of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, from the viewpoint of his daughter, Adele. In her book, The Secret Book of Kings (Melachim Gimel), Brandes describes an alternate account of the reigns of kings Saul, David and Solomon from the viewpoint of the women who were part of King Saul’s dynastic line and who lived in the palace in Jerusalem. In Seven Mothers, Brandes writes about a whole slew of female biblical characters: Lot’s daughter, Tamar, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Michal (King Saul’s daughter) and Queen Esther, as a way of explaining why the sages largely ignored the impact of the women in their commentaries. In Akiva’s Orchard, Brandes expounds on the period after the destruction of the Second Temple by focusing on Rachel, the wife of Rabbi Akiva and the daughter of Kalba Savua.
“When I begin my research for a new book, the first thing I do is gather sources about whichever revolution I want to write about,” she explains. “I read lots and lots about the time period and do as much research as I can. And I have an agenda – I have very specific ideas I want to get across. My friend and fellow author Sarah Blau believes that writers should not have any specific bias, but I ask you, is there any work of literature that is more tendentious?
“It’s extremely important for me that the voices of Jewish women be heard, since they were silenced for so many years. I want to write quality literature and to challenge readers. Ancient Jewish culture was patriarchal because that’s how the entire world was in those days. Women may have been busy raising children, but they also played important roles in the cultural world they lived in.”
Brandes, 60, was born in Haifa. The daughter of an admor (a respected rabbi), she is married and has four children. She spent five years researching and working on her latest novel, Adele. In addition to writing, Brandes also loves working with people, and so she recently embarked on a new project: making TV series and movies. The first one is a series based on Brandes’ book Melachim Gimel, and the second series is based on Seven Mothers. The first is an expensive production filmed in castles and with armies, whereas the second is a much more modest undertaking. In addition, she’s also working on a movie with Emil Ben-Shimon.
“I saw a movie by Emil and I absolutely fell in love with him,” Brandes says excitedly. “When I saw it, I said to myself, ‘That’s the kind of movie I want to make, and I want to do this with Emil.’ The movie deals with tensions in the traditional Jewish world – exactly like my books do.
“I met with Emil and we had great chemistry from the get go. We’ve already laid out the synopsis and a list of all the scenes. Writing a screenplay is very different than writing a book. When I write prose, the plot develops as I progress, and it’s very difficult and slow going. I write and rewrite each word over 20 times. The writing process is absolutely torturous. But I learned from the Ba’al Shem Tov that we grow from our failures. And thank goodness I’ve had many.”
What’s the movie going to be about?
“There are at least 100 different identity groups covered in the film: secular, traditional, atheists, liberal religious, traditional religious, people who’ve become more religious, religious ‘lite.’ Reform, Conservative and ultra-Orthodox. Everyone stays carefully inside his box, and then everything blows up. I mean, just look at what’s happening in Israeli society today – the haredi community feels threatened by secular society since it supports gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, there’s lots of hatred, which of course is a result of fear.
“I identify with some of these groups, and with the ones I don’t, I still feel a connection. Maybe that’s my advantage. The movie I’m making focuses on people’s fear of others who are different from them. I show that when you get to know someone personally, the fear dissipates. The movie doesn’t have a ‘happy end,’ though – there’s still discord and distance. But the inevitable conclusion is that we can all get along if we make an effort.
“My husband and kids are organizing a ‘Back to Roots’ trip to Romania to celebrate my 60th birthday. I told them I want to go visit the synagogue where the Ba’al Shem Tov used to pray, since I come from a family of admors. When I tell secular Jews about my background, they’re shocked. Haredim, on the other hand, are not overly impressed since it’s not a famous hasidic line. Now that I’m no longer living in the haredi world, I see how amazing it was to be a member of a Hasidic family.”
Have you learned new things about Hasidism from your research?
“Yes, all the time. I know so much about the day-to-day life, since I grew up in a Hasidic family and I’ve always loved learning about the Ba’al Shem Tov. So, when I set out to write the book, I began researching the specifics of his life. And what I discovered is that so much of what I thought I knew was absolutely wrong. The Ba’al Shem Tov was not afraid of walking around and talking with women. Today, however, the Hasidim are extremely afraid of women.
“The men won’t sit next to a woman on a bus, walk between two women or hear a woman singing. Except for Chabad, all the Hasidic groups condone complete segregation of men and women in every aspect of life. The Ba’al Shem Tov was not in favor of having these elitist, dynastic Hasidic families. He promoted individualism and loved simple people. I wonder what it will be like 250 years from now. Will Hasidic Jews still be following the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov? I wrote this book so that each reader can take away the parts that are relevant to his world.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.