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April 23, 2015 by

Who Believes and Who Doesn’t?


What do you believe? Why? Is faith a certainty, fixed and immutable, or is it an ongoing process, and evolution of the spirit and the soul? Who has faith and how did she get it? These are just some of the questions that began to tug at Victoria Zackheim, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and editor of five previous essay collections. As she mulled over these thoughts, an anthology began brewing. The resulting volume, Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists, showcases the work of 24 writers, including Caroline Leavitt, Aviva Layton, Benita Garvin among others, who have widely divergent views on the subject. Zackheim chatted via email with Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the winding road she took in assembling this, her sixth collection, and also about some of the revelations she experienced along the way.

YZM: How did you come to compile this book? 

VZ: I’m not sure if there was one event—perhaps it was the composite of several—that led me along this path. What I can say is this: once the journey began, there was no turning back. The early stirrings came from questioning myself about my own faith, a curiosity to clarify what I believed. The deeper I probed, the more I needed to pose questions to friends, until I found myself engaging them in long, soul-searching conversations. Finally, the awareness that I absolutely had to explore the subject of faith and the role it plays (or doesn’t play) in my life led me to the genre that has become so prevalent in my teaching and writing: the personal essay…and then the anthology. Once that was decided, and my agent gave the thumbs-up, I sent an invitation to twenty-five gifted writers who represented a cross-section of cultures, religions, and lifestyles. I was hoping that perhaps ten would accept my invitation, and then I would continue inviting. Twenty-three accepted and the project was launched. After the proposal was completed and the book was sold to Beyond Words, essays began to arrive, I was fascinated to discover that people I was certain were atheists were believers, and a few I assumed to be believers were not.

 YZM: Has your own understanding of or feeling for Judaism changed in any way as a result?

VZ: Yes, and in so many ways. A dear friend was visiting me, a woman for whom religious faith is vitally important. My daughter mentioned that her rabbi was leading a Bible study after the Saturday morning service and I thought my friend, a Mormon and a scholar of the Old and New Testaments, would find this interesting. After the shabbat service, we joined the study group. As we sat around the table and the discussion ensued, I was both surprised and uncomfortable by how little I knew. The more precepts and beliefs the participants explored—with my friend contributing to every aspect of the discussion—the more isolated I felt. Oddly, this led me not so much into a deeper study of Judaism, but toward a more enlightened experience of it. Having lost many relatives in Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto, I’ve always worn my Judaism with a sense of responsibility and pride. But this was always a Judaism of culture and history, ethics and lifestyle. Moving closer to an understanding of the Biblical aspects became my goal, and it is a pursuit I continue…and will do so for years to come. In so many ways, I believe this will help me clarify what I believe, and perhaps one day make me more certain of the role faith plays in my life. This project has not changed my emotional relationship with Judaism as much as my intellectual relationship to it. 

YZM: You’ve adopted a very broad, multi-cultural approach; can you talk about your reasons for this?

VZ: When I create an anthology, one of my primary goals is to invite writers who represent the broadest cultural landscape. I cannot imagine that readers wish to be exposed to two dozen authors revealing similar beliefs and attitudes. The compelling feature of a collection is the variation, even the polarization, of beliefs. In the Faith book, this is so clearly represented in the essays of Anne Perry and Mara Purl—two women of unshakable faith—and the rant against all religion delivered by Malachy McCourt. There are many viewpoints that fall between absolute faith and disdain, and these are explored throughout this collection. Some people were born into their religion, others searched for and found it. Christine O’Hagan and Carrie Kabak write about their childhood experiences in the Catholic church, and how the unyielding doctrine shaped their beliefs…and their independence. Tamim Ansary writes about how his Islamic roots led him to secular mysticism. Jacquelyn Mitchard explains why she is a God-fearing atheist, and Beverly Donofrio astounds us with her courage as she prays for the man who has assaulted her, and is about to do so again. Faith crosses into so many areas, with spirituality being one of many.

YZM: Do you see adherence to Jewish religious traditions growing stronger or less powerful?

VZ: As our society becomes increasingly tied to, and controlled by, technology, I see the traditional form of communication disappearing. Look around us! On the subway, of the forty people seated in the train, thirty are engaged in texting or surfing the web. This makes me—and I dare say many people—yearn for those days when we actually spoke to each other. As we are becoming more isolated, I also feel a societal pull to regain some kind of connection. Is it toward religion? I’m not sure, but it would not surprise me to learn that churches and synagogues are experiencing a resurgence of membership. Someone once told me, “We are a world of lonely people,” and I cannot argue that. However, as our society grapples to find ways to connect, are we charting new courses that lead to further isolation? Online dating seems to be a fully accepted mode for meeting friends, lovers, spouses, yet might it not add risk to a process that was once slower and more deliberate? I wonder, too, how many of us have moved away from organized religion, only to return while searching for a sense of belonging, of community.

YZM: Are there times when you doubt your faith?

VZ: Yes, of course, and it usually happens late at night, when the world around me is dark and everyone is sleeping. Why such doubts arise in the middle of the night has been a mystery, until I realized that these are the times when I feel most alone and disconnected, a time when there are no distractions to take my attention away from what I’m truly feeling.

YZM: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Two responses rush forward. The first is a reminder that, whatever our religion, spiritual belief, source of or purpose for faith, we are never alone. Some of us struggle to define our faith, others settle into it comfortably. Wherever we are on that spectrum, there are many who share our same space.

The second message I want to convey—and the book fails if this message does not come through—is the need for tolerance. That entire countries still conspire against a group of people because of the headscarf worn, or the side curls grown is shocking. How can a country as enlightened as the United States of America set apart for ridicule, or even physical attack, a group of people who live quietly and observe religious traditions because a tiny population embraces fanaticism? I’m hoping that in some small way this book will educate readers about our similarities and our differences, stressing how these differences need not be interpreted as threats. 

YZM: What’s next on your horizon?

VZ: I’m considering perhaps a seventh anthology…and then no more. I took five essays from my first anthology, The Other Woman, and adapted it to theater. On November 9th, a Monday night, when theaters are normally dark, there will be a staged reading at dozens of venues around the country. One Night/One Play. My co-producer, Cynthia Comsky, and I are sending invitations out now and the response from artistic directors has been very exciting. I have a second play, Entangled, in development at Z Space Theater in San Francisco, and two films in development. I love teaching creative nonfiction courses in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, which I do year-round, and I’m trying to find the time and courage to write the mystery novel I actually dreamed in 1997! The book tour for the Faith book ended three days ago, and I’m delighted to be home…sweet home.