Memoirs of a False Messiah is Pamela Becker’s debut novel. Originally from New York, she has enjoyed a career as a marketing executive and consultant for several of Israel’s leading technology companies. After she was widowed with three small children, she co-founded and remains the active chairperson of the Israeli charity Jeremy’s Circle, which supports children coping with cancer treatment or cancer loss in their immediate families. A graduate of the writing seminars program at the Johns Hopkins University and the Arad Arts Project artist residency program in Israel, she earned an MBA from Tel Aviv University. Pamela lives in Tel Aviv.
By JONATHAN WEIL
(Additional editorial comments and clarifications — in italic— by this reviewer.)
What inspired you to write your first novel?
So many different things! I have always been interested in the very different ways people interpret what it means to be Jewish, and I was struck by the incredible variety and richness of belief when I first moved to a small desert town in Israel (Arod) as part of a writer-in-residency program 25 years ago (1994). I was living in New York City at the time, struggling with working a day job, writing short fiction and getting them published in tiny magazines. The clean, dry desert air was invigorating.
I had several projects in the works at the time and became introduced to the Black Hebrew community in a nearby town. The founders were originally from the U.S., and they had created a community of like-minded people. This caught my imagination. What drives someone to create a community so completely different in belief and location from the one they came from?
Like my main character, MiMi, I was educated in the New York City yeshiva world but was never comfortable with the “different but equal” role of women in Orthodox Judaism. The more I learned about the Black Hebrews, one idea just led to another, and a Jewish woman, who may or may not be a false Messiah, was born … in my imagination and on the page … until it all came together as my novel Memoirs of a False Messiah.
How – and to what extent – is it autobiographical?
The main character’s journey, from Suburban America to Yeshiva World NYC to Israel is similar to my own. And we studied at the same university (Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). But that’s where the similarities stop. For example, she is an only child— I am one of six. And I have been accused of many things in my life, but never of being a false messiah.
Like MiMi, when I left home for yeshiva, I was 13, and I lived with my paternal grandparents (feeling, as did MiMi, like an outsider). I then lived in the 92nd St. YMHA in New York City so I could attend Ramaz, my yeshiva high school.
I grew up in a traditional home in Latham and our family belonged to a Conservative synagogue. My high school was considered Modern Orthodox.
What I also have in common with MiMi are feelings of ambivalence regarding the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. I deeply respect where I come from, but I struggle with women’s roles in traditional Judaism generally and of course my own, specifically.
She is colder than I am. I cannot separate myself as easily from my past — but I had a much happier childhood than she did.
And, like MiMi, Pamela Becker is also a writer-creator!
Why do you use that specific spelling and configuration for MiMi in the book?
It’s pronounced Me Me. The idea that God has singled her out for a special mission, or just writing a memoir, could be described as narcissistic. She is at the center of her own world.
Of course, the name Mimi also alludes to the biblical Miriam, Moses’ strong and highly respected sister.
How would you define/characterize your own Judaism – past and present?
I was raised quite traditionally, and Jewish education was a high priority in my family growing up. I truly value that education and the community I felt as a young adult in Baltimore and then Washington. Living in Israel, there seem to be fewer shades of grey in Jewish practice. We are more secular than observant, but I hold dear specific religious milestones and rituals.
How would you define your feminism?
To me, being a feminist means not being determined by gender. That is, the opportunities and choices we have in life — education, employment, healthcare, etc —should be based on ourselves as individuals, not as men or women. We are not there yet.
Can and should the novel be called a feminist work?
Is that for me to say? Let’s say it’s written by a feminist writer.
What would a feminist view of the Bible mean to you?
Men lead almost all the stories of the Bible and Apocrypha and very rarely are the women given a voice. I think that’s one of the reasons Anita Daimant’s The Red Tent is so popular. Many of us are interested in understanding the biblical stories in a context where women have a voice.
That is one reason MiMi creates a community, a cult known as the “Community of God,” where she is not only HEARD but also REVERED.
But wouldn’t you say that there are some very strong women role models and women with strong voices in the Bible like Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Hannah, perhaps other matriarchs? Some are even prophetesses and queens and have whole books devoted to them.
Yes and no. There are strong women characters in the Bible who take action and have an impact, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
Would /could one’s feminism make it difficult to practice Judaism and, more specifically, its Orthodox forms? Did it or does it present this problem for you personally? Can you remain “faithfully feminist” and still be a religious Jew?
I attended a yeshiva high school, where I was taught that women and men have “different but equal” roles in religion, the family, society, etc. I have a hard time accepting the “different” because I never understood why we should be different … Because the boys were taller? … Because that’s the way it’s always been? And I don’t agree that the roles as described are equal. To me, the roles seem unbalanced in favor of the boys.
I was widowed relatively young with three kids under seven (I have since remarried). Suddenly, it was just about being THE parent – not a mom or a dad but the single parent that was responsible for everything. From a Jewish ritual perspective this was most clear as we started with the kids’ bar mitzvahs (we are four down, one to go). I didn’t even see it a possibility that my kids would be called to the Torah for the first time without their one remaining biological parent in spitting distance, so we chose egalitarian synagogues.
The failure of Orthodox Judaism, in my opinion, comes back to “different but equal” roles. This is where Orthodoxy has failed women because the roles may be “different” but they are by no means “equal.”
Could one view the book as partly a condemnation of Orthodox Judaism? Would you view it that way?
Absolutely not. Orthodox Judaism was not for MiMi. And, as much as I respect the education given to me, it’s not for me. But that certainly doesn’t mean that it’s not for anyone else.
What is your personal view of the Messiah?
I am not holding my breath.
In the final analysis, do you view MiMi as a “false Messiah”?
Without giving away spoilers … some of the ideas and messages that were attributed to her were false, but she was authentic in her belief that God spoke to her.
Am I wrong that MiMi herself never created this notion of a false Messiah— beyond questioning and doubting it, which I myself see as a positive?This is open to interpretation. But it is true in the book, that other people declare her a Messiah publicly and she doesn’t protest the notion.
Stories from the Bible and specific biblical characters inform your novel. (For example: Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Daniel and Susannah and the Elders, Prophetess Debra, Aunt Miriam, her father Adam). How do these stories/characters inform your work?
MiMi saw herself as the next major religious figure and was most inspired and fascinated by other biblical characters. The same way a kid who wants to be an inventor might read all the books about Steve Jobs.
Why her strong identification with the biblical Daniel in her visions/dreams and with Susannah?
Daniel appears in two ways in the novel. One, as a hero in the lion’s den and then as a much different kind of hero at legal proceedings (in the “Susannah and the Elders” story). He is the strong—physically and intellectually—male character that protects her in her dreams. While I’d like to leave the interpretation to the readers … Daniel makes sense to me as the fantasy-protector for a girl, and then a young woman, who grew up the way she did (largely estranged and unloved).
Why the specific narrative structure in the book? Non-chronological? Each chapter representing a different year? Is it literally true that you wrote the book chronologically all the way through and then “mixed” it up?
For the most part I wrote it chronologically, but I didn’t want the reader to wait until half-way through the book before seeing the community that MiMi created.
The book’s particular narrative device allows the writer to order the key events — as well as, at times, withhold them—so that they carry maximum emotional and dramatic impact for the reader.
The book’s front’s piece quotation from Exodus 20: 5 re. “punishing the children for the sins of the parents” is important. Explain.
MiMi’s parents’ perceived sins had a huge impact on MiMi’s childhood, how she defined herself, and how she perceived their fates.
The “sins of the parents” has multiple meanings in the novel and strongly informs the entire work. In fact, the quotation plays a major role in the book’s expressive power and, through its ambiguity, forces the individual reader— and not the author—to engage and interpret the work. Literally, the sin – and what many, including MiMi, see as her curse— is her father marrying a non-Jew, creating a whole series of dire consequences, including her (nameless) mother’s mental illness, estrangement, and subsequent suicide, and her father Adam’s barbaric knifing at the hands of thugs on the occasion of MiMi’s birthday at age 13 (ironically at the very moment of MiMi’s triumphant rite of passage in Judaism). But the parental sin is of earlier origin still. It can be traced back to the paternal grandfather’s disowning of his son upon his “illegitimate” marriage. And it keeps reverberating… Her grandfather sends MiMi away upon his Orthodox community’s discovery of “The Lie”—her “non-Jewish” birth. And, as he does with Adam, he ultimately disowns Mimi because of her anti-Orthodox cultist activity. MiMi’s entire childhood and adulthood is doomed because of parental sin. She suffers from a lack of love and nurturing, manifested both emotionally and physically by her severe and continual bouts of gastritis. Whatever bad things happen in college— for example, her failed first sexual experience – can be viewed as a consequence of the sin. MiMi’s “Community of God” creation, her cult and mission from God, is doomed because of the curse; whatever goes wrong in the cult emanates from the “sins of the parents.” In short, “parental sin” makes her a false Messiah, the owner of false visions and thus a false mission, the creator of a false cult. And it results ultimately in her brutal, cold-blooded murder at the hands of her first cousin Bernard—in his view, precisely because she is a false Messiah.
But the above cataloging of “parental sin” is not the novel’s final word on the matter. Indeed, the reader must decide herself whether “the sins of the parents” doom MiMi or not. If her visions are indeed from God, if they are real and not imagined, if her mission and her cult are genuine, if she is a true and not a false Messiah, then the good works of her cult redeem her. And her loveless childhood is not an impediment to life and love as an adult but rather a glorious overcoming of her tragic past and a triumph and affirmation of goodness and humanity and love. And then, her death, too, is not to be viewed as a savage murder but rather as an elevation to heroic martyrdom. Do not all our saints and prophets suffer at the hands of their devotees, of their acolytes an d non-acolytes alike? The question is this: Cannot God forgive parental sin and visit upon his children quite a different fate entirely? Can he not redeem rather than punish? Can our God be not a “jealous” God but rather a “merciful” one?
Do you agree that the males in your book, for the most part, with the exception perhaps of MiMi’s father Adam, are portrayed negatively? Is this part of the book’s “feminism”?
I absolutely agree but this is not what makes this book feminist. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s surprising for a kid with MiMi’s background to grow up without positive male figures around her. And as an adult, she creates an all-woman cult. There simply weren’t men — good or bad—around.
In summary, MiMi’s Orthodox paternal grandfather, who has already excommunicated his own son Adam, is largely ashamed of her; tries to conceal her “sin” of being the product of an intermarriage; and not only sends her away when this “sin” is revealed, but disowns her when she begins espousing her “radical” cultist views. Her maternal grandfather is a sickly and withdrawn man who exchanges not a single word with her. Her first cousin Baruch (MiMi’s father’s brother’s Orthodox son) murders her in cold blood and then hangs himself in jail. From the beginning, he refers to her, at best, as the family’s “orphan,” “black sheep” and “weirdo” and, at worst, as the pariah whose “sins” and “curse” are responsible for every bad family outcome from social embarrassment to ostracization to illness to death. Her male college peers commit several humiliating acts toward female students and even MiMi’s male friends are hardly friends – for the most part, selfish, unsympathetic, and mocking. Several male media luminaries are unsympathetic if not outright obnoxious in their dealings with MiMi. Her New York landlord threatens eviction, and her bank employer fires her for shaving her head. And this is only the beginning of a litany of “bad” males MiMi encounters from New York to Israel…
How are we to view Baruch, MiMi’s first cousin, who murdered her?
That’s for the reader to decide, but for MiMi the teenager, who could have used a friend at that time (as a girl of 13 who had just lost both parents), he was a disappointment (and, as one can see above, that’s an understatement).
How are we to view MiMi’s Aunt Miriam?
Again, this is for the reader to decide. MiMi (written as Mimi) is often a nickname for Miriam, and I believe that of the adult women in her young life, MiMi looked to her as an example.
Indeed, MiMi looked to her aunt as something of a mother figure and a substitute mother. She often fantasized about the two living together, and Miriam is the only relative who does not desert her and comes to her deathbed in Israel. And, like MiMi, Aunt Miriam (largely because she has never married and has lived with a married man) is the “black sheep” in her family.
MiMi’s mother is not named. Why?
This reflects MiMi’s attachment (or lack thereof) to her mother.
Why is MiMi’s first book called “The Womb of God”?
She is neutralizing her perceived male-focus in religion.
In this regard, is the next Messiah likely a woman who is to be born from an “unholy alliance,” according to MiMi?
Right. This, in turn, neutralizes the perceived shame of being the daughter of a mixed marriage.
Why is her second book “Exodus from Discrimination – The Redemption of Women”?
She writes of a utopia where women don’t experience gender discrimination.
There is a long account/explanation – based on what is perhaps a unique and controversial biblical reading – of the Messiah coming out of an “unholy” or “illegitimate” union (p. 115). This is, in part, given to justify MiMi’s controversial position on intermarriage. Can you discuss? Is this an existing reading or one solely of your own invention?
This seemed a logical interpretation based on MiMi’s background. I don’t know if anyone has made this argument before.
MiMi was the “unholy” product of her Jewish father Adam and non-Jewish mother, and therefore “illegitimate” in the eyes of an Orthodox Jew, or, rather, the particular orthodox Jews in this book.
Could this be an example of “feminist messianic theory” – a phrase you use several times in your book?
Sure, but it’s MiMi’s theory. Not mine.
Women being celibate and a “position” on abortion are mentioned on several occasions. Journalists within the book continually ask MiMi about these controversial issues and others. Can you discuss?
This is the world that MiMi felt God wanted her to create.
The journalists are asking “trigger” questions, to get potentially controversial comments for their articles. The issue for her “Community of God” (COG) is not abortion. She doesn’t comment on it. Instead, their focus is on children who are already born and whom they are to take care of both now and in the world to come. That said, they turned down a request from a pregnant woman to join the COG because they did not want the responsibility of breaking up a family.
Several parts of the book are worth quoting. Can you respond to each of the following?
“If we convince enough people we can become our own lie.” (p. 65)
I believe this to be true for all of us, in our world of personal branding and spin. After all, I am as attractive as my profile picture on Instagram, and I am as accomplished as my LinkedIn profile. Even if I photoshopped that photo and exaggerated that profile.
Quite literally, this relates to MiMi not being legitimately Jewis— a “lie” perpetrated on and concealed from the Orthodox community. But the lie is much more than this; in fact, it goes to the crux—and essential ambiguity and expressive power—of the novel. Is MiMi a true or false Messiah? Are her visions “real” or “imagined”? Does her “mission” come from God or from her own conceit/ego and her deeply felt need to expunge — by something grand and positive and self-affirming — her own negative and unfulfilling and unloving past? In short, is she living a horrible lie? These doubts and questions can surely affect, perhaps destroy, one’s self-image and self-esteem. But, in her search for the truth, in her insight and wisdom —and in the good works her mission (whether from God or not) accomplishes, they can also make her humanly heroic, endow her with humanity and humility, even — in expunging her self-hate and self-doubt—redeem her. In the author’s own infinite wisdom, these gripping and powerful questions are ultimately left for the reader to answer. And this reader-reviewer believes the novel is the more genuine and honest for it.
“I know my sin now. I came too close to God during my period on earth to effectively fulfill my mission.” (p. 203)
Not touching that one 😊
Do you personally view MiMi as not fulfilling her mission?
Or that one…
The final page of the novel contains a fascinating dream or hallucination—MiMi’s last “vision.” How would you interpret it?
Ahhh … that’s for the reader’s pleasure 😊
See the reviewer’s analysis of MiMi’s explosive final vision in his main review.
Do you have plans for a next novel or new work?
I am working on my next book that hits a little closer to home, Memoirs of an Evil Stepmother.
What is the reason for writing these novels as “Memoirs” and using that particular narrative form to tell your story?
I wanted to tell HER story, MiMi’s story, as she saw it. Part of her story is that others wrote, judged, and commented about her. I was less interested in their opinions, and more about the impact of their judgments on HER.
The interview with the author allows the reader to “hear” her in her own words —giving her the voice she so richly deserves as the author of this provocative work.
Dr. Jonathan Weil is a retired professor of the humanities who specializes in the psychology of reader response.