Writer hides Jewish characters in her popular romance novels

Alina Sivorinovsky has a passion for passion.

Writing romance novels is an unlikely career path for the 31-year-old emigre from the former Soviet Union. A New York resident who writes under what she calls her "goyishe name" of Alina Adams, Sivorinovsky grew up in San Francisco and served as president of Hillel during some turbulent times at San Francisco State University.

"Before I could write I knew I wanted to be a writer," says Sivorinovsky, who arrived in San Francisco as a 7-year-old child in 1977. She spoke no English.

She has since gone on to publish four romance novels, including two that feature Jewish characters. Because of editors' fears that overtly Jewish figures might prove "offensive" to romance readers, Sivorinovsky crafts her fiction with what she calls "secret Jews."

Her first book, "The Fictitious Marquis," tells the story of a 19th century noblewoman who hides her Jewish roots from English society.

Hidden Jews, she says, also fit into her most recent book, "When a Man Loves a Woman."

The two lead characters are Jewish, but Sivorinovsky says she only gives subtle hints of their true identity. "I can't tell you how much I'd like to have my Jews out in the open rather than being Marranos," she says.

Born in Odessa, Sivorinovsky takes a pragmatic approach toward being "part of a minority population." But, she adds, that "doesn't mean I can't be a little subversive."

In "When a Man Loves a Woman," published last April by Dell, Sivorinovsky features two physicians in a plot that she jokingly describes as "When Harry Met Sally at the ER."

Neither character minds working on Christmas. The heroine is named Deborah Brody. "Non-Jews don't pick up," she says, but the author gets mail from her Jewish fans saying, "We figured it out."

As a writer for mass audiences, Sivorinovsky acknowledges that Jews constitute "a minority culture in a majority culture." But she questions editors' reluctance to feature openly Jewish characters.

"I genuinely feel editors underestimate their readers," she says. She believes editors are governed by a view that romance readers only want accounts of "white bread people in white bread towns.

"That's not true," she asserts.

When she first came to the United States, neither she nor her parents, Genrikh and Nelly Sivorinovsky, knew much about Judaism. In the former Soviet Union, her parents "knew enough to be frightened. My father was not allowed to go to medical school because he was Jewish, although the official reason was he wore glasses," she says.

Sponsored in the United States by local Jewish organizations, the family was placed in a furnished apartment and Alina started attending Brandeis Hillel Day School. She went on to Lowell High School and then San Francisco State.

She remains grateful to her adopted country and San Francisco's Jewish community. Without either, "not a single thing in my life or career" would have been possible, she says.

As a child, she would come home from Brandeis Hillel and teach her parents what she'd learned about Jewish tradition and holidays. "America sort of woke us all up Jewishly," she says.

At SFSU, she headed Hillel and fought against a wave of anti-Israeli sentiment on campus during the Gulf War crisis. She helped organize a candlelight vigil and became heavily involved in Jewish issues.

Her career turned to romance after she submitted a work of women's fiction to an editor in 1993. The editor rejected the book, but suggested that she try penning a "Regency romance" — one set in 19th-century England.

The result was "The Fictitious Marquis," published in 1995 by Avon. Sivorinovsky was 24 at the time.

Romances, she maintains, fill a social need by giving people "hope and happy endings." She says she is flooded with appreciative fan mail from readers inspired by stories of lovers who overcome great odds to find one another.

"That's what romance does; it's hope," she says. "It's the faith that everything will be OK."

A frequent air traveler, Sivorinovsky figures she's done her job well if she can make a reader's eight-hour flight seem like only four hours.

Contrary to stereotypes of her audience, Sivorinovsky says most readers are married, college-educated and hold jobs outside the home. "I get some very intelligent fan mail."

A believer in tikkun olam, or repairing the world, she has started providing readers with online weekly installments of romances. Her Web site is located at www.AlinaAdams.com.

Rather than charging, she asks online readers to consider making a donation to various charities. One of her favorites is Kidsave, an organization dedicated to helping orphaned children.

She has also broadened her virtual horizons in other directions — recently beginning work for the Web site of two television soap operas.

Romance is keeping her busy; for now, she says, writing "the great American novel" is not in the picture.