How Chasidic life inspired the latest Miller’s tale
A few years ago, novelist, film director and screenwriter Rebecca Miller and her children were rowing across the lake in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, when she spotted a crowd of Chasidic families enjoying a day out in the sunshine.
“I was fascinated by the women in particular,” she recalls, “and their ability, in the middle of New York City, to be able to maintain such a hermetic life. I went into a kind of trance, listening to them.” This, she says, proved to be the key to her new novel, Jacob’s Folly, which until then was going to centre on an almost too-kind-to-be-true fireman.
Around the same time, she read an article by a Satmar woman “in which she described her grown-up daughter being followed around by a fly all day and she wondered if it was a soul doing penance. I thought: ‘Wait a minute — is there reincarnation in Judaism?’ And then I found gilgul in the kabbalah.” This inspired her choice of narrator — a reincarnated Jewish fly.
For scholars, reincarnation, or transmigration of souls — gilgul — is disputable. But for storytellers, it’s irresistible. And in Jacob’s Folly, inside the body of a 21st-century American fly lives the soul of Jacob Cerf, an 18th-century French Jewish pedlar. “I researched the tiny, 18th-century Jewish population in Paris, who were there under sufferance and had to have passports,” Miller explains.
Her research unearthed an actual police inspector “in charge of Jewish affairs”, a man called Buhot who kept “a ledger with the name of every male Jew in Paris” and whom she drafted into her story. “And,” she adds with an air of proprietorial delight, “there was a real Jacob Cerf, a Polish Jew. I wanted them to be Polish Jews because I’m a Polish Jew. I wanted to feel connected.”
This is a sentiment that has applied to most areas of Miller’s life. Growing up as the child of one of America’s greatest playwrights, Arthur Miller, and distinguished Magnum photographer, the Austrian-born Inge Morath — he Jewish, she Protestant — the young Rebecca’s “root occupation” was religion. “My first questions were about the nature of God. And I used to worry that the devil might be in the house!
“I had a Catholic phase. My best friend was a neighbour’s son and when his family went to the Catholic church every Sunday, I got a ride. Had I got a ride to a Baptist church every week, I might have been a holy roller. Had it been shul, I’d have had to walk, which would have been a long, long way from where I came from.”
Religious customs and beliefs are central to Jacob’s Folly, especially those within Judaism of the most fundamental kind. For this, Miller went to stay with a strictly Orthodox family and it was there that her main female character, Masha, took shape. “One of the most powerful experiences I had within that community,” Miller recalls, “was on Shabbes among the women. As they made dinner, they sang together so beautifully. Then when everybody sat down around the table and the men sang the hymns, the women weren’t allowed to sing — in accordance with the talmudic equation of a woman’s voice with nakedness — but silently mouthed the words. And I thought: ‘Wow, what a moment it would be if one of them sings.’ Masha!
“I came to the Orthodox way of life feeling very foreign and ended up seeing the beauty of it. The way the community works is amazing. If somebody has too many blankets, say, or too much baby formula, they invite others to come and take. The mother of the family I was with allowed her three-year-old child to walk up the street from a crèche to have her diaper changed. Their confidence that they are living in the way God wants them to live is so profound.”
Indeed, although the fictional fly in Jacob’s Folly provokes Masha’s urge to rebel and become an actress, Miller’s treatment of strictly Orthodox family life is sympathetic and tender. In this regard, she is more tolerant than her famous father, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants. “Though he had a deep identification with being Jewish, my father was very suspicious of religion,” she says. “Ours was an essential, cultural Jewishness. This book was in part a journey to at least the beginning of an understanding of how Jewish I am.”
How filmable, to this director, is a book with a fly as its central character? “It took me five years to write and I need some liberation before I even think about it,” Miller reasons. But don’t bet against it. Her films tend to be based on her own books, including The Ballad of Jack and Rose, Personal Velocity and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.
With her parentage, Rebecca Miller was surely destined to possess a powerful creative talent. And versatility — she was a painter and actress before she began to write. She also teaches at New York University, and tells her students “how my father wrote in what I think of as a ladder format. People don’t actually answer each other, they speak in a way that moves the action on.”
Another creative — and Jewish — dimension to Miller’s life is her marriage to the outstanding actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, whose actress mother, Jill Balcon, came from a Jewish family. “Very late in the game, I give Daniel my manuscript,” Miller reveals. “He’s always got great comments but I want him to read it when it’s almost done, when I feel it’s good.”
Until recently, they lived in Ireland, spending the summers in America. They’ve now reversed that, living in America and spending summers in Ireland. This is mainly for the schooling of their three sons, Gabriel (from Day-Lewis’s relationship with Isabelle Adjani), Ronan and Cashel. But also because “I just need to hear my own people talk”. Again, that urge to feel connected. “My youngest, Cashel, who’s 11, recently told me that he just wants to ‘go on learning’ for the rest of his life — sweet, but that’s what’s been so great about writing this book. I haven’t learnt so much since I left university. You just keep on learning.” As you do in reading fiction like Jacob’s Folly, containing history and fantasy, comedy and psychology, folklore and theatre. In the fly Jacob’s own words, it’s a kind of “cosmic drum roll… from a mirthful sky”.