Author Q and A: Kenneth Wishnia

March 1, 2011

Author Kenneth Wishnia (Website) wrote the unique book “The Fifth Servant” (Book Review) a smart mystery which is funny and interesting. The book is an interesting read about the Jewish ghetto in Prague and takes place around 500 years ago.  The novel is filled with Jewish folklore,  humor as well as Yiddish, German and Hebrew words and phrases which challenge the reader.

Q. You pepper “The Fifth Servant” with a lot of Yiddish and German words, either explaining them almost immediately or letting the reader understand the meaning within the context, were you fear of alienating readers because of that?
A. Sure, that was part of it. My aim was a bit like the old ads for Levy’s rye bread: You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy this book. I wanted the text to be “user friendly,” but not overly so. A number of classic novels such as A Clockwork Orange and The Color Purple are written in non-standard English that is quite challenging at first, but the reader gradually becomes used to the “alienating” language of the text, and ultimately is rewarded for the effort.

Q. I have seen on your website you have visited Prague. How did you find the experience? Did it help in your research? Did you go to Rabbi Loew’s famous synagogue?
A. Since the actual streets of the ghetto don’t exist anymore (they were razed as part of an urban renewal project in the late 19th century), I went to Prague mainly to examine primary documents unavailable elsewhere (especially old maps), and to get a feel for the general layout of the city (How high is the castle? How wide is the river? Which way does it flow?), while picturing my character’s reactions to these surroundings. One thing I discovered by walking the streets myself is that many of the old houses didn’t have numbers (since most people couldn’t read), they had carved or painted signs depicting recognizable objects: e.g., the House at the Three Fiddles, the House at the Blue Pike, etc. Sometimes there’s no substitute for seeing something with your own eyes, so of course I visited the Old-New Shul, the Meisel Shul, the old cemetery, etc., and used these locations wherever possible in the novel.

Q. There are many contradictory Jewish philosophical ideas in the book, some of them which take a lifetime of learning to figure out. How did you manage to write about such complex subjects without aliening your readers?
A. This question points to one of the fundamental differences between a fascinating academic lecture and an emotionally-engaging drama. Basically, every time someone tries to engage the main character in a philosophical or mystical discussion–something that he would love to do under normal circumstances–in this story, he is always under tremendous pressure to head off various disasters, and the conversation is usually more of an obstacle for him to overcome than anything else: either it’s a “test” of his worthiness, or a conversation he must have in order to be able to ask a favor, or a distraction from his real purpose–either way, he’s always off-balance or conflicted about answering.

Q. There are two wonderful scenes in the book which made an impact on me, the first is when archbishop Popel tries to convert the whole Jewish population and Rabbi Loew debates him. It is especially fascinating because neither of them is wrong or right. How long did it take you to write that scene and come up with the arguments on each side?
A. This question overlaps a bit with the territory of the previous one. There is a folk legend that Rabbi Loew once single-handedly debated 300 priests and clerics for thirty days to a draw (which counted as a victory, of course). Naturally, I was tempted to dramatize such a confrontation, and I had enough material for a huge 50-page scene–a grand intellectual confrontation between the two religious figures. Then I decided that the best approach was to write the scene from the point of view of a character who didn’t care for the proceedings at all: the Bishop, who wanted the whole over and done with as soon as possible so he could go back to hunting witches. So again, it comes down to the issue of not using a scene as an information dump, but rather to show the conflicting emotions and agendas of the characters. It’s not that the Bishop is a great friend of the Jews (he isn’t), it’s just that they’re lower on his list of priorities than the witches, heretics, various Protestant sects, and lapsed Catholics.

Q. The second scene which made an impact on me is when Rabbi Loew refuse to marry an interfaith couple because he did not feel the Jewish husband was worthy of his Christian wife. In your research did you find any actual occurrences of such happenings in Prague?
A. No, that’s entirely my own invention. But surely there was some intimate contact between Jews and Christians, since there were laws strictly forbidding it (after all, you don’t forbid behavior that nobody ever engages in). I have written elsewhere about how the medieval Church condemned such relations as a form of bestiality, since Jews were not considered human. “Coition with a Jewess is precisely the same as if a man should copulate with a dog,” wrote one medieval jurist (see Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, JPS, 1983, p. 187). By the 16th century, the Church had modified its position, reducing the charges for such illicit relations to “adultery,” but in those days adultery was still punishable by excommunication and death. Some parts of Europe even had laws that prescribed the death penalty for a Christian woman simply for entering the Jewish neighborhood without an escort. One document from 1536 describes the punishment a Jew of Prague received after he was caught in the act with a Christian woman. It involves contact between his “manly member” and a “dull, jagged knife” (“sein Mennlich Glied… ein schartig stumpff messer” [Trachtenberg, 251]). Yikes.

Shameless plug disguised as a wise ass question: Why do you love so much and often visit the website?
Shameless plug disguised as an answer:
Because it is clearly written for the discerning reader who wants to be entertained by a brilliant and challenging novel such as The Fifth Servant.

Thanks to Mr. Wishnia for answering my questions and I’m certainly looking forward to read more of his books.

Zohar – Man of la Book


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