The reader’s introduction to Jeremiah Gerstler is as a mischievous 11-year-old who pulls especially naughty pranks at school and at home. Who can soon forget the spotted frogs that Jeremiah released at his family’s seder on cue during the recitation of the 10 plagues? Anyone who encounters Jeremiah, including his tense, immigrant mother, has a natural empathy for him. It is abundantly clear that he is not the delinquent his school’s principal claims he is.

Julie Zuckerman’s inventive novel in stories, “The Book of Jeremiah: A Novel in Stories,” follows the trajectory of Jeremiah’s long and mostly satisfying life. The next story following the seder disaster portrays Jeremiah on his 80th birthday. Over the past 70 years, he has become an international expert on global trade and a well-respected professor of political economy.


The 13 stories comprising “The Book of Jeremiah” are linked thematically rather than chronologically. The original structure reveals to the reader Jeremiah’s family of origin, his marriage, his career and his dreams and disappointments at a smart pace. That structure also portrays Jeremiah as a complicated man. He has a good heart but can lose self-control to the point of humiliation.

Originally from southern Connecticut, Zuckerman has lived in Israel for over two decades. Always an avid reader, she took a creative writing class at the urging of a friend 11 years ago. The first story she wrote about Jeremiah came from a prompt her writing teacher gave her. He encouraged her to write about someone who was ultimately unlike her but did something of interest. Jeremiah appeared to her as an 82-year-old man learning how to bake. Although the story appears last in the novel, it was the first “Jeremiah story” that Zuckerman wrote. She was intrigued and wanted to unravel what else happened in her character’s life.

Zuckerman—who will be in conversation with novelist Rachel Barenbaum and Jewish Women’s Archive executive director Judith Rosenbaum on Wednesday, Oct. 30, in Brookline—recently spoke to JewishBoston about her novel.

The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman
(Courtesy image)

The chronology of your book is complex and reveals layers of this character with each story. How did you decide on this satisfying setup?

At one point, I had six different arrangements of the book. I was trying to map out themes and points of view. What helped me crack the structure was the suggestion from a creative writing teacher to think of the book in thirds. I wanted to balance Jeremiah as a younger person and an older person, as well as see him from different points of view. I read books on the craft of writing, and what stuck with me was to have a thread going from one story to the next. For example, in one story, I told Jeremiah’s story from his son’s point of view, and in the following story his wife is pregnant with his son. In other related stories, Jeremiah has just moved to the Berkshires and made a career switch to academia. He was worried about whether he made the right decision. The story that immediately follows is 40 years in the future when he’s a professor emeritus at the college, so he has obviously succeeded at that university. 

Did you have any models to consult about the novel’s chronology?

When I started writing about Jeremiah, I had just read “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout. I enjoyed the process where every new story was another layer that revealed who Olive was. I constructed a spreadsheet delineating points of view and themes in Strout’s book. I’ll be interested to read her new sequel.

How does Jeremiah’s Jewish identity come into play at various times in his life?

As an older man, he still feels culturally Jewish, but he doesn’t feel much toward religion itself. He appreciates the communal and cultural aspects of Judaism. As a child of immigrants, he was raised in a traditional home. Like many children of immigrants, he takes on various Jewish personas. He’s not so bothered when his daughter married someone who was not Jewish. He belongs to a temple but doesn’t frequently attend. Yet he wouldn’t think of not celebrating the holidays. He goes to the local Jewish Community Center and travels to Israel.

He’s also very curious, and on that trip to Israel, he’s determined to go to the West Bank to visit a Palestinian colleague with whom he wants to collaborate. The story takes place in 1999, before the Second Intifada—he doesn’t have the concerns he might have had hearing the news about the violence. His curiosity comes from a more academic point of view, rather than from a political one. His field of study is not the Middle East or the Arab-Israeli conflict, but international political economy. There is a lot of interesting research to be done on the subject concerning the Palestinian Authority.

What did you learn from writing this book?

In terms of craft, I learned there has to be some thread for structuring the collection. I enjoyed planting seeds in one story and seeing them sprout in another. In one story about Jeremiah’s wife and son, we see she occasionally baked from a secret stash of mixes when she didn’t have time. That detail comes back in another story.

The book is about family, forgiveness and acceptance. Jeremiah is not always an easy person. He’s often hard on the people he loves the most—his family. The thing I hope comes through in the book is the strong undercurrent of love and acceptance. If your dad is having a bad day, you won’t stop speaking to him. The takeaway is that we should try to be more patient, especially with the difficult people in our families.

This interview has been edited and condensed.