Evonne Marzouk is the author of “The Prophetess” (Bancroft Press), a book about an American teenage girl who is called to join a secret community of Jewish prophets.
Marzouk grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s degree in writing seminars and a minor in religious studies. She founded Canfei Nesharim, an organization that teaches Jewish wisdom about protecting the environment.
Marzouk is a touring author now with the Jewish Book Council, and she came to Phoenix on Oct. 29 to speak at Temple Chai about her novel and to educate about Jewish mysticism.
The Jewish News sat down with Marzouk to learn more about “The Prophetess” and her views on the need for young adult books that deal with spirituality. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Is there a gap you see in literature that you’re hoping to fill with this book, specifically around Jewish wisdom and Jewish experiences?
There’s a gap in accessible Jewish stories that relate to the concerns of modern teenagers. My goal was to have the characters feel really authentic and ritually, meaningfully Jewish, but also accessible. And I feel like that’s the gap I’m trying to fill, where it feels true both to the modern experience of what it’s like to be a teenager, and also what Jewish tradition really has to offer to a person like that.
Somebody once sent me a book, and it was very platonic, just questions and answers. It was not good at all. I read a different Jewish book where the characters went and celebrated Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and they were religious Jews, but there was no Sukkot, nothing came after that. People, especially young adults, learn from really interesting stories with characters they can relate to.
This is a book with a female protagonist, Rachel, a young woman who is discovering her spirituality. How important was it to you to bring that to the forefront?
It was really important to me that there be a lot of different kinds of roles for women in the story, because sometimes Jewish women get stuck into this mother-daughter role. And although there are mothers and daughters in the story, it was really important to me that there be a leader who never married and didn’t have children.
Because it’s fiction and you’re imagining what prophets might be like, it can be egalitarian without being too rule breaking, so the prophets have more equality between male and female roles than in some parts of Judaism, for example. But because there were female prophets — prophetesses — in ancient times, it’s easier to make that argument.
And also in the realm of Jewish young adult books that are appropriate or engaging, they often feature boys. I’m a fan of the Lamp of Darkness series, which is David Mason’s series of books about prophets in the time of Elijah. But I think it’s really important to write about a girl that Jewish women, young women, can identify with and really see as someone who could be a role model for them as they grow up.
I couldn’t help but notice that there are similarities between your experiences with Judaism and Rachel’s. Were you consciously basing the book on some of your own experiences, or was that unintentional?
I wrote the book trying to answer questions that I had at that age, and trying to find the answers that then I could write for myself and also for everyone else who might have those kinds of questions, who are wondering, “What’s the purpose of life? And what does all this mean? And also what does Judaism have to say about any of it?” And so I was trying to answer those questions for girls like me.
In some ways the character has some common ground with me, but also I had to work with the character to create plausibility in some of the choices that she was making. I had to change her quite a bit from who I am.
I’m curious about Baltimore. You attended Johns Hopkins University, and you joined the Orthodox community there. Was it just natural that Baltimore would be the setting for Rachel’s story? How did that impact the novel?
The novel is very much around the neighborhood where Bancroft Press is. When I was in college and I was working there, I would wander around that neighborhood during lunch, and at the same time I was starting to have dreams about this book. So it’s always set in that location in my head, because that’s where I was.
There’s this interesting place in Baltimore, in the suburbs, where you’re walking along the street and there’s a depression in the ground, and there’s this creek that runs along it for a while. And I thought that was the funniest, most interesting feature, and that particular piece of setting plays a really important part in the book. So in some ways I built it based on that neighborhood and that creek.
Did the book change from when you started writing it in college to when you finished it, or did a lot of it stay the same?
It changed so much during that time. I have a lot of different versions that I tried to write. At some point, the book changed from third person to first person, which was a huge opening for me. And at some point, the book spanned many years of Rachel’s life, and constraining it to just one year made a big difference. There was one character that I thought was going to have to die, and that character died in five different ways before I finally figured out a way to keep them alive.
My original draft was like 700 pages long. And at some point I went back to see if I could find any part of it that I could see in common, and it was completely rewritten. There weren’t even paragraphs that were the same. But the general principle of the story has been the same throughout.
How did growing up in Philadelphia influence the book?
I was very involved in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization when I was in Philly, in high school. I was president of my chapter and I went to the international leadership training conference in Pennsylvania. And those things really had a formative effect in terms of being able to understand that Judaism is something that I could belong to and that could belong to me. I had a lot of close friends and a chapter advisor and people at the international leadership training conference that really had a profound effect on me.
I was also in a chapter in B’nai B’rith Girls that was really focused on women’s leadership and being able to be a leader as a woman, and I feel like that also had an important effect on me and on this book. My earlier experiences left me a little bit confused, but the experiences I had in BBG left me feeling like Judaism was something where I might be able to find a place for myself.
Tell me about the event you did with Valley Beit Midrash in October.
I’m a touring author with the Jewish Book Council, and I was really honored to be brought to Temple Chai. We did a few things while I was there, we did a Facebook Live and I also did a teaching about Jewish mysticism.
I learned a lot of Jewish mysticism in order to be able to write the book, but only little tiny bits of what I learned are actually in the book. So I thought that I would teach a little bit about Jewish mysticism, and specifically what I was teaching was a lesson about who we are as souls, thinking of ourselves not as human bodies, but as souls living in bodies.
The lesson that I taught was based on something that I learned from Rav Avraham Sutton, who is a rabbi teaching in Jerusalem. For me, it’s a new experience teaching Jewish mysticism, I’ve been learning it for a while, but it was an interesting opportunity. In some ways, mysticism is challenging because it requires people to think in a whole different way. Without getting into a huge amount of detail or getting too complicated, there are some lessons from mysticism that can reinvigorate our understanding of what Judaism is asking of us.
Was your interest in Jewish mysticism the reason you wrote about prophets and mysticism?
Yes, I was always interested in mysticism, because I’m interested in what Judaism says about our relationship with God. In many parts of the Jewish community, we don’t really talk about that much, but to me, it feels very fundamental. I wanted to know what it’s like to have a relationship with God.
We say that we don’t have prophets anymore, and that’s true. But in some ways, the fact that we’re not able to have prophets anymore has made us feel like we are somehow lacking a relationship with God and that is not true. That’s not what Judaism really says. But I think that a lot of Jews are really uncomfortable with this idea of a personal relationship with God, and I think that they’re missing an opportunity.
That’s what Jewish mysticism offers, a deeper relationship with ourselves, a deeper relationship with our souls, a deeper relationship with God. But I only put little tiny bits of that in the book, because it can be very overwhelming. That’s not really what the book is about, but it is something that you could learn from the book if you wanted to.
Will this be your one and only novel or do you have plans for other novels in the future?
I do have other books about this group of characters that could be written, that I’d love to write one day. And also hopefully a continuation story about Rachel and what comes next for her. People are often asking me for the sequel. Right now I’m focusing on this book, but I’m hoping that I’ll have that opportunity.
Evonne Marzouk will speak at the Johns Hopkins Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Baltimore on Sunday, Dec. 8 from 3 to 5 p.m., and at the A Novel Idea in Philadelphia on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 3 p.m.
For all future events, visit evonnemarzouk.com/events. To see Marzouk’s conversation with Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, visit youtu.be/BeuZsg1XTKk.