PW: You grew up in a Hasidic household. Was it difficult, in a community that assigns traditional roles to women, to become a writer?
Pearl Abraham: Let's begin by saying that, in the Hasidic world, women aren't subordinated. It's true that in the synagogue, in education, they don't have access to the same texts as men. But women can be quite independent. Growing up, I felt equal to my brothers. I was born in Israel, but I came here when I was five. I went to secular schools, so I started speaking English from an early age. My brothers went to yeshiva. They don't speak English that fluently. In some ways, girls have more independence than boys because they are more exposed to the secular world. In my novel [The Seventh Beggar], Ada is quite independent, and in some sense, has crucial knowledge that her brother Joel Jakob lacks. In practical matters, women are the head of the household.
My father is a writer. My brother is a writer, too. It's different being a writer in the Hasidic community. You go into a synagogue and you ask for a show of hands of who would be interested in your book, and then you publish it and deliver it yourself.
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, wrote that Hasid teaching is first legend, and only secondarily theoretical teaching. Did this focus on legend influence you as a writer?
Well, my bent is toward fiction perhaps because of the legends of the community from which I come. Hasidic life involves a lot of storytelling. And I was a reader.
Your book takes its title from one of the Tales of Nachman, the 18th-century founder of the Bratslav Hasids. How did you get interested in him?
My grandfather on my mother's side is a Bratslav Hasid. When I lived in Israel, we were taken to the Bratslav synagogue. However, I was too young to understand him. It was when I was in college that I started thinking about Nachman. I was reading Kafka, and it seemed to me that he was doing Nachman in his own way. I went back to the Tales after grad school. They are remarkable. Nachman told them, orally—he made them up as he went along.
At this moment, the Hasidic community has a leadership problem. That has led people to go back to Nachman. There have been conflicts between the Bratslavers and the other Hasids in the past, but that has diminished recently. I heard that the number of visitors to Nachman's grave at Uman was huge this year.
You meld together three themes in the book through the main male characters: Nachman, eroticism and the creation of artificial life.
Some biographies of Nachman refer to his erotic side, but they are written in such a way that they aren't clear. Obviously, on some level he struggled with sexuality. However, it isn't considered seemly to write about it too directly.
When Joel Jakob conducts exercises trying to create a being with letters—that's a kabbalistic idea, that God created the world with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. When his nephew, JakobJoel, works with a robot at MIT, what are the programs but strings of 0s and 1s. It is strangely similar. As for the fact that Joel Jakob is creating a female, the indwelling of God ("shekina") is female. And he's a teenage boy. So the union of these themes makes sense on a number of levels.