By Cindy Mindell
Leora Freedman writes Jewish stories. That is, her characters try to find meaning in Judaism, relate to the State of Israel, and live as Jews while fully engaged in the wider world.
That was certainly the case in her first novel, the award-winning The Ivory Pomegranate (Gefen Publishing House, 2002), which follows a group of graduate students who confront their own heritage amid the antisemitism on an Israeli college campus unleashed during the first intifada. Her second novel, Parachuting (Sumach Press, 2011), explores a ‘70s-era suburban Connecticut Jewish community through the lives of several high school girls caught up in the counterculture and with their Israeli neighbors.
Now comes The Daughter Who Got Away, Yotzeret Publishing, Inc., 2016, about an adventurous mother and daughter who have chosen to live at opposite extremes of the Jewish world – the mother in Manhattan and the daughter in a small community in rural British Columbia.
Freedman’s wide geographic reach reflects her own peripatetic life. Born Laura Perliss in Manhattan, she moved as a young child with her parents to Norwalk in the mid-‘60s. There, the family joined Congregation Beth El, where Perliss attended Hebrew school and celebrated her bat mitzvah, then got involved in the synagogue’s now defunct Hebrew High School and USY. After graduating from Norwalk High School, Perliss earned a BA in English Literature, with highest honors, from the University of Rhode Island, and an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona.
She married Canadian photographer Eric Freedman and the couple moved to Jerusalem in the late ‘80s. “I was always fascinated by the concept of Israel and by the Israelis I met, so it seemed natural to move there and give it a go,” she says.
Laura – now Leora – wrote fiction and taught English as a foreign language at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and helped her husband run a photography studio. She gave birth to a daughter, Nessiya. When the second intifada erupted in 2000, the Freedmans found it impossible to make a living, so returned to North America, settling in Toronto. Leora is the coordinator of the English Language Learning program at the University of Toronto, where she is also a faculty member.
This tri-country experience has influenced Freedman’s writing in various ways.
“I think that’s evident in The Daughter Who Got Away,” she says. “The novel is based on many stories I’ve heard about my family’s immigrant experience in the U.S., as well as the experiences of family members who immigrated to Palestine in the pre-state days. Much of the novel also takes place in a small Jewish community in a remote part of the Canadian West, and the book centers on the characters’ encounters with the wilderness.”
Freedman originally set out to paint a portrait of a small, isolated Jewish community in a remote part of Canada, introducing Manhattanite Celia into unfamiliar territory.
“I wanted to explore the beauty and intensity of the wilderness and the ways in which these things can become part of a Jewish life,” she says. “It seemed natural for me to tell the story from the point of view of someone coming to this fresh from the East Coast.” The character of Celia is drawn, in part, from Freedman’s own family history.
Freedman infuses her stories with what she calls “the Jewish cycle.”
“The Jewish cycle can shape not only our perceptions of experience but also the experiences themselves,” she says. “For example, this time of year people focus on Passover, and on a spiritual level, they might experience the holiday as an opportunity to liberate themselves from something. But they may also notice that this just happens: suddenly, they see a way forward, and they weren’t even thinking that it had anything to do with Pesach. I’m not saying life always works this way, but I think it does more often than we notice.”