Image credit: Cover of book
by Marcia R. Rudin
Praised be the God whose life, whose cleansing rains let parched men and women flower toward the sun.Rabbi Richard N. Levy
When I wrote my novel Flower Toward the Sun, I had no idea it would turn out to be a story of early, positive interfaith relations in America in 1905 and 1906. I had just intended it to be a pleasant tale of two immigrant women journeying to the Promised Land of America in search of better futures whose lives were changed forever by a mistake at Ellis Island.
The idea for the novel came to me when I visited the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration in New York City. In one of the display rooms I saw a large photograph of two attractive young women whose nationalities I don’t remember but whose cultures I knew were quite different. The caption under the photo explained that these two women were sent by mistake to each other’s final destination.
Wow, I thought, what a mess! No cell phones, emailing, texting, or Internet searches. Only letter writing and very slow mail. How long did it take to straighten out this situation? Was it ever straightened out? What happened to the two women? Did they adjust to their unfamiliar, probably even alien environments?
In my novel Flower Toward the Sun, in the summer of 1905 seventeen-year old Rebecca leaves her parents and Jewish shtetl in Ukraine to join her fiancé Samuel in Milwaukee. At the same time, eighteen-year-old Ingrid leaves her orphanage in Norway to become the Picture Bride of Lars, a widowed Norwegian farmer with two young sons homesteading near the town of Minnewaukan, North Dakota. Rebecca and Ingrid meet on the ship and are processed together at Ellis Island, the entrance point for most immigrants to America in those days. But officials put them on the wrong trains, and each is sent to the other’s fiancé and destination.
Rebecca ends up in North Dakota, where, realizing what has happened, Lars takes her to his farm to live until he can find his Picture Bride and return Rebecca to Samuel. Ingrid is sent to Milwaukee. Samuel and his family take her in, honoring Judaism’s important commandment to welcome the stranger. They hope to find Rebecca when they return Ingrid to Lars.
Alone in a strange country and unable to speak English, Rebecca and Ingrid are thrust into conflicting religions and cultures.
It is hatred at first sight for the feisty Ingrid, who never even saw a Jew in her homeland and knows nothing about them, except they killed Jesus. She hates Samuel and his traditional Jewish family, their crowded apartment, and the big, noisy city of Milwaukee. She longs to join the Norwegian farmer to begin her new life. Samuel and his family, leery of all non-Jews, can barely cope with the difficult Christian orphan.
[Ingrid] hates Samuel and his traditional Jewish family, their crowded apartment, and the big, noisy city of Milwaukee. She longs to join the Norwegian farmer to begin her new life.
Wisconsin Street, Milwaukee, WI.
Image credit: Photochrom print by the Detroit Photographic Co., copyrighted 1900. From the Photochrom Prints Collection at the Library of Congress
More photochroms from the Midwest & the United States | More photochrom prints[PD]This picture is in the public domain
Rebecca feels alienated and alone on Lars’ isolated farm, living in a Christian culture with anti-Semitic tendencies. Lars is stern and demanding. The neighbors and Lars’ sons are not welcoming.
However, as time passes, Ingrid and Samuel and his family become friends and learn to respect each other. Lars and Rebecca reach out to each other and even fall in love. Both women adjust to their new lives and cultures and begin to understand the other religion and fit into the unfamiliar culture. And the families, friends, and neighbors in both locations gradually learn to understand the young immigrants and their strange ways. As Ingrid and Rebecca settle into their new futures, we witness warmth, mutual understanding, and tolerance, examples of positive Christian-Jewish relations in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and rural North Dakota in early twentieth century.
How did this interfaith aspect in my novel come about? Was it because I’ve been immersed in the topic through my husband, Rabbi James Rudin, who was a pioneer in the field of Jewish-Christian relations in his thirty-two years as Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee? Or did it develop organically as I wrote the story because the conflicts between religions and cultures of my four main characters demanded to be resolved to the readers’ satisfaction?
When I speak to book clubs I am often asked about my creative process. How do I get my ideas? Do I outline the story first? Do I know the ending before I begin? Or do I let the characters themselves dictate the action, surrendering my rational control over them and their narrative?
It is difficult to answer these questions. The creative process is a mysterious one. I’m just happy that in my fictional world in this novel there grew to be more understanding between the Christians and Jews in the two communities.
And I’m glad Rebecca and Ingrid found happy new lives.
Marcia R. Rudin graduated from Boston University and earned a joint MA degree in religion from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. She studied for a PhD at the New School for Social Research and taught history of religion. She was a resident in screenwriting at the MacDowell Colony of the Arts. Her plays have received productions in Manhattan, New Jersey, California, West Virginia, and Michigan.
Marcia is author of the novel Hear My Voice and coauthor of Why Me? Why Anyone? and Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults. Her articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times and The New York Daily News. An expert on destructive cults, she was quoted in Newsweek and The New York Times and appeared on Dateline NBC, CBS Evening News and CBS Morning News.
She and her husband, Rabbi James Rudin, live in Manhattan and Florida. For additional information, visit www.marciarudin.com.
You can find Flower Toward the Sun and Hear My Voice, both by author Marcia Rudin, by clicking the links. And click to read the latest by Rabbi James Rudin, Pulitzer Prize nominated author and husband of Marcia Rudin, The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes, and Presidents.