Debra Spark’s newest book, “The Pretty Girl,” is now available. Her blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres — it’s in my most recent book, “The Pretty Girl” — and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theater. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.