Rachel books bring familys Jewish past out of hiding

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The year is 1903, and young Rachel is leaving Russia with what remains of her family, escaping the violent pogroms that took her father’s life. After a cross-country train ride to Shanghai — one of the closest safe havens for Jews at the time — the teen tries to adjust to life in China, finding a job at a Jewish newspaper to help support her mother and siblings while she dreams of moving to America.

It reads like historical fiction, but much of “Rachel’s Promise,” the second book in Shelly Sanders’ “The Rachel Trilogy,” is based on fact. Sanders’ grandmother Rachel eventually left Shanghai for San Francisco, enrolled at U.C. Berkeley and became the first Jewish woman to be accepted into the university’s science program, graduating in 1930.

Shelly Sanders

But after marrying a Canadian man and settling in Montreal around World War II — when the area was rife with anti-Semitism — she gave up her Judaism entirely and hid it from her family for decades.

Sanders, who grew up without religion in Toronto and Illinois, found out about her grandmother’s heritage when the writer was 18 — four years after Rachel had passed away. “There are so many questions I never got to ask her,” says Sanders, who will speak to students Nov. 17 at S.F. Congregation Sherith Israel.

Sanders worked as a journalist for national outlets in Canada for 14 years before deciding to try her hand at writing a novel. “Rachel’s Secret,” the first in the trilogy, published last year, introduces the fiercely independent girl living in pre-revolutionary Russia as anti-Jewish violence is on the rise; her best friend is a Christian boy who must choose whether to go against his family to help her. The book was named a Notable Book for Teens this year by the Association of Jewish Libraries.

“It became especially important to me to know more about my ancestry when I had my first child,” explains Sanders, now 49 and a mother of three. Her own mother, who had learned about the family’s heritage when she was 24, didn’t have much information; she knew only that some of the family had died in the Holocaust and that no records existed of those who’d stayed behind in Russia. To get some answers, Sanders visited her grandmother’s sister, who was living in Montreal — and had married the son of a rabbi.

“I spent an entire day asking her questions about being Jewish, about living in Shanghai and about Russia,” says Sanders. “I left with about 20 pages of notes. It was so eye-opening, especially considering the [members of my family] who’d come back to Judaism.” (Those include her aunt and her brother, neither of whom were raised Jewish; both married Jews and are raising Jewish children.)

Using the infamous 1903 Kishinev pogrom as a jumping-off point, Sanders crafted a narrative based on her great-aunt’s stories as well as “tons” of research, using the New York Times’ digital archives about Shanghai around the turn of the century. She also delved into Russian literature, rediscovering her passion for Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others in a quest “to get the cadence right, the way [the characters] would have spoken and written.”

As a journalist, getting the details right about life during the era was as important as “humanizing” historical events, she says. That commitment to historical accuracy is part of what is bringing Sanders from her home in suburban Toronto to San Francisco: The final installment of Rachel’s story will be set in the Bay Area, with the young woman establishing herself in San Francisco, learning English and joining Sherith Israel, which at the time had many Russian immigrant members. Sanders even plans to work in a plot point about Rachel writing something for The Emanu-El, J.’s predeccessor, which was founded in 1895.

Sanders also plans to visit the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley to gain insight into Californian Jewish history. One character she plans to introduce in her third book is the real-life Jewish journalist and social activist Anna Strunsky, who studied at Stanford and had an affair with Jack London; Rachel wants to be a writer, says Sanders, so she takes inspiration from the journalist.

Though Sanders isn’t religious, she says she’s studied Judaism and become close with a rabbi in her area as a result of researching her grandmother’s life. And while she’s saddened that the real-life Rachel felt she had to hide her Judaism for so long to survive, Sanders also understands it — and feels lucky that she’s in a position to pay tribute to her grandmother.

“When I travel and give talks and speak to book clubs, people always come up to me who are descendants of Russian Jews or of Holocaust victims and say, ‘I have a relative who hid their Judaism as well,’ and you realize how many people lived their lives that way out of fear,” she says. “And when you hear about what some of them went through, you understand it.

“Some people ask me what my grandmother would have thought about the book, about the character Rachel,” Sanders adds. “I like to think she would be grateful that you could live openly as a Jewish woman nowadays — and women in my family are doing that. I think she would be glad to know we’ve gotten to that point.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.