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Behind the Scenes: The Woodcarver's Daughter part 1

Posted by Yona Zeldis McDonough on 3/29/2021
Through an email interview with Kar-Ben's Marketing Manager, Yona Zeldis McDonough shares some insight into the inspirations, process, and thoughts on her novel The Woodcarver's Daughter. She was born in Hadera, Israel, and lives in Brooklyn, New York. Educated at Vassar College and Columbia University, she is the author of eight novels for adults and 30 books for children. Her short fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in many national and literary publications. She is the fiction editor of Lilith Magazine, a feminist, Jewish magazine.

Where did you get the inspiration for your latest or upcoming Kar-Ben book?

Some years ago I went to a show of carved carousel animals at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City. As a life long lover of these creatures, I was fascinated to learn that so many of them had been created by Jewish woodworkers who had been hounded out of Europe by persecution and pogroms. These artisans had carved the bimas, Torah scrolls etc. for the synagogues in their home towns, but when they came to the United States, they turned in a secular direction, and got work carving animals for what was the Golden Age of Carousels. A wall note mentioned that all the carvers represented in the exhibition were men because girls were not allowed to join the woodcarvers guild, and so could not learn the craft. Right then an idea for a story was born: what if there had been a girl who wanted to defy convention and learn to carve? Who would she be and how would she make her dream come true? That girl was Batya and I wrote her story.

2. What did the writing process look like? Did you speak to anyone of note? Where did the bulk of your research come from?

My research came in the form of extensive reading and looking at the glorious photographs documenting the horses and the carousels of the period.

3. In writing your book, are there any new insights that have changed your perspective or view on your own Jewish Heritage?

Before I embarked on this book, I had no idea about this fascinating chapter in Jewish history and how it fit into the larger emigration narratives. These carvers were wonderfully adaptive, learning to use their formidable gifts in unexpected new ways—it’s a story of grit and resilience and it embodies so much about the Jewish immigrant experience.

4. Are there any personal stories or life experiences attached to this story?

I used stories of my grandmother’s early life in Russia. Like Batya, she and her family were forced to flee from the their homeland, and she told me about a pogrom that happened during her childhood. And wood carving was a hobby of my grandfather’s—he had a wood shop set up in his garage and I remember the pleasure he took in that. So I included—and honored—each of them in this book.

5. How do you hope your book will impact the Jewish life of a child?

I certainly hope it will inspire Jewish girls (and all girls, really!) to look beyond the moribund restrictions that still exist. Even now, girls are not uniformly encouraged to enter all arenas, especially ones traditionally associated with boys. And I hope too that it will provide a sense of permission for boys, like Batya’s brother, who may want to follow a different path than the one expected of them.


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 West Bloomfield author tackles racism in children's book 'The Singer and the Scientist'
 Behind the Scenes: The Woodcarver's Daughter part 3
 Behind the Scenes: The Woodcarver's Daughter part 2
 Behind the Scenes: The Woodcarver's Daughter part 1
 Let All Who Are Hungry, Come and Eat

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