Imagining a Lost Jewish Past: Janice Weizman’s “Our Little Histories”

Janice Weizman’s Our Little Histories, laid out as a cross between a short story collection and multi-generational saga, explores Jewish history and identity from the perspectives of everyday women making hard and fateful decisions. With rich characters and engaging dialogue, Weizman pulls the reader into the hearts and minds of Jewish women whose experiences are too often sidelined in how we relay our collective narratives. Although the work is fiction, it often feels like a past that may belong to any one of us.

How did you initially form the ideas for these stories and interlaced threads?

My first book, The Wayward Moon, was a historical novel set in the 9th Century Middle East about a 17-year-old girl trying to find her way in a very patriarchal, religious society. After it came out, I started thinking about my own family history, which is rooted in the shtetls of Eastern European. I grew up in Toronto, in a community that was at the time primarily made-up of decedents of Jews from Poland and Russia. The notion of where our grandparents and great-grandparents came from and the lives they led there was in many ways inaccessible to us. As a result, my sense of my own cultural roots was a little flat. I became interested the question of what it means to be cut off from your family’s past.

On the other hand, Israeli and American Jews of Ashkenazi descent share a connection to the lost shtetls of Eastern Europe. And from these remote places came these two astonishing developments: one was the movement of Jews out of those shtetels to America, where they achieved unprecedented successes in every field, and the other was the emergence of Zionism and the creation of Israel. So you have to wonder, what was it about these places and the people who lived in them that enabled their descendants to do these incredible things? 

All of that is also tied up with the fact that for centuries, the Jews of the shtetl were religious, socially insular, and unable and/or unwilling to participate in the wider culture. However, as the modernization of Europe was set in motion, young Jews became extremely curious about the larger world beyond. I was interested in that whole process, and I wanted to explore that movement through fiction.

Your book is indeed threaded with culture – especially writing and poetry.

We are all shaped by our time and place, and one of the things that has always characterized Jewish life is the centrality of the written word. For Jews looking to join the wider world, reading works of literature was a way to participate in what modern culture had to offer.  

And there’s also the issue of language itself. The Jews of the shtetel lived and spoke in Yiddish, but that language has been mostly lost. The early Zionists insisted that everyone discard their mother tongue and adopt Hebrew, while in America, Yiddish died out organically. That sort of mass abandonment of a language is a startling phenomenon, which I wanted to explore. So I took up the idea of a Yiddish poem written by a long-forgotten woman, which gets transferred from generation to generation in all kinds of interesting ways, as a way of thinking about what’s been lost. 

This book is very female-focused, and in your acknowledgments you wrote about seeking out female voices. Can you talk about that?

When I started research for this book, I began with the Yiddish classics – Sholom Aleichem, Peretz, Isaac Bashevis Singer – who are all male. I wondered about female perspectives on the period, and so I started to seek out Yiddish literature written by women – for example, Singer’s older sister, Esther Singer Kreitman, who published an autobiographical novel called Debrorah. 

The English translation isn’t great, but it still conveys what life was like for Jewish girls in Poland in the early years of the 20th century – spoiler: it was rife with sexism. In fact, a lot of the work by Jewish women of that time depicts how limited they were by their own communities. Another source I used were anthologies of women’s Yiddish writing, like Arguing with the Wind, and Found Treasures, both made up of short stories both written and translated by women.

Many Jewish women’s lives were incredibly constrained. They were bound by social conventions and communal religious norms. Unlike the men, many were illiterate, and it was common for them to be married off at a young age in arranged marriages. But this also began to change, and the stories in the book trace a trajectory in which Jewish women claim more agency and attempt to assert some control over their lives. 

And the final story, which is the earliest one chronologically, is all about the agency of a woman living in what you just described as a very constrained situation.

I was really interested in the way that women of that time, despite the limitations set on them, could shape the destinies of their families. From our perspective, within modern feminism, we often miss the fact that women could be very strong, influential characters within their own families and communities. 

Maybe that is what feminism is about at its core – the tension between cultural constraints and people’s agency. 

Yes, you can say that feminism is very much about that conflict, and the intersection, of those things. 

Is there a character that you particularly relate to?

Writers like to say that there is a little bit of them in all their characters, and I think that’s true. Jennifer, a museum curator in the first story, “Reality,” was very relatable for me. Her psychological journey – from zero affiliation with her own Jewishness to a deep understanding of her cultural roots, speaks to my own concerns about what Jewishness means today. I also really enjoyed writing about Nat – a first generation Chicago newspaperman living in 1938 –he deals with similar questions, but from a very different point in time. But ultimately, I feel most in common with Yoyna, a sheltered Yeshiva student who confronts the wider world through a trip to the “big city” of Minsk. What he experiences there challenges him and changes his perceptions.

Did writing the book change you?

It brought the connections with my ancestors alive. And it clarified the idea that us Jews living today are a link in a very long and dramatic chain. And that we carry that history inside of us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

What is the significance of the photo on the cover?

That photo hangs on the wall in my mother’s apartment in Toronto. It was taken on the Beth Tikvah synagogue trip to Israel in 1969. The young Canadian Jews in the photo were about to connect with Israel for the first time. In that way, it captures a pivotal moment in their lives and identities, but also symbolizes something much, much larger.

How is the book launch going given current events?

This is a challenging time to be putting a book out, because the reality of what we’ve been living through is far more harrowing and intense than any work of fiction. And yet, I feel that the book’s themes and ideas about Jewish identity are more relevant than ever.