Congregational rabbi and acclaimed author Rabbi Zoë Klein discusses writing Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories, the unique nature of short stories, and how illustrations interact with text.
What inspired the creation of Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon: New Jewish Stories?
Each of the stories in the book has a unique origin and source of inspiration, but the collection as a whole was inspired by all the short story anthologies I’ve loved. The first such collection I was given was when I turned eight, Rootabaga Stories by Carl Sanburg. From there, I remember the terrifying Yellow Fairy Book keeping me up at night with its spells and blood puddings, and as I got older, such collections as Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and Occult by Joachim Neugroschel, A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Howard Schwartz, Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars: Jewish Women in Yiddish Stories by Sandra Bark, Rachel the Clever by Josepha Sherman, Collected Stories by Cynthia Ozick, and For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander all captivated me. And each week, preparing to teach Torah by reading countless commentaries and divrei Torah is itself a lifelong study of powerful short stories!
Can you share a bit about your writing process?
For me, the smallest part of the writing process is the act of typing out the words. A large part of the process is research, and an even larger part is staring into space while the thoughts churn. Behind every story is a thick file of notes, musings, articles, essays and ideas. I spend a lot of time in the research stage, studying and collecting details. To write “The Magic Word” I listened to dozens of linguistics podcast episodes. I study and research until the characters start to create themselves. I have trouble doing what many writers do, which is finding an hour or two a day to write. I need six to eight hours to fully immerse into each new world. So I write on my day off, or when there is a quiet weekend, when I can nest up and delve.
This book is structured in three parts. What can readers expect from each section?
The eight stories in the first part, Candle, are anchored in Jewish text and tradition. Some take place during Biblical times and others are reminiscent of fanciful Chasidic stories. The eight stories in the second part, Feather, take place in the modern world. The characters may remind you of people you know or of yourself. These stories wrestle with relevant issues, many through adventure and quest. The six stories in the last part, Wooden Spoon, each take us on a deeper more mystical journey, presenting inklings of new theologies. But I do encourage readers to skip around and bounce from section to section in whatever order you like!
You are also the artist behind the book’s illustrations. What role do they play in the reading experience?
Each illustration brings to life a detail of a story, but none of them are of the protagonists. For example, the half-melted snowman illustration for the title story is just a tiny detail in that story. But when the details of a story feel dimensional and alive, hopefully, the rest follows. The characters become fleshed out in readers’ imaginations. The playful drawings give that imagination a little tickle.
How does Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon differ from your previous books?
Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon, as a collection of short stories, is vastly different from Drawing in the Dust, a novel. Short stories are an economy of words, and so there isn’t the luxury that a novel has of long descriptive passages and thoroughly explored internal monologues. Rather, a lighter brushstroke is necessary to convey a sense of place. Plot twists and character arcs need to have a smaller turning radius while still feeling natural.
Which of the stories are especially meaningful to you?
This is such a hard question! I feel like my answer would be different depending on the time of day, the weather, and the zeitgeist of the moment. But if I had to answer at this particular moment, I would say “Shalom Bayit” is especially meaningful. I don’t feel as if I wrote that story. Isaac and Mateo, the main characters, don’t feel fictional. In fact, when I read it I feel grateful to them for coming to me. Their story seems so real that I can picture them stepping off the page and changing the world. “JEW” is also deeply meaningful to me, as I’ve always been fascinated by the word “Jew,” how it’s been maligned throughout history, and how it is redeemed. I love “Lace Theory” for how it presents a new metaphor for our interconnectedness. “The Flying Insect Café” is so dang fun. “Shades and the Rock on the Grave” is a favorite of mine. And I have this little love affair with “The Goat Keeper” story, which I have been writing and returning to for decades.
Rabbi Klein is available to visit communities for speaker events and book clubs. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Zoë Klein has served Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, California, since 2000. She pursued the rabbinate out of a passion for ancient texts, mythology, liturgy, and poetry. Rabbi Klein is the author of the novel Drawing in the Dust; the children’s story The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah; The Scroll of Anatiya; and the collection of short stories Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon (CCAR Press, 2023).