Local writers debut novel evokes childhood challenges, joys

Esther Ehrlich has lived in the Bay Area for 26 years, but she’s still homesick for New England.

Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Ehrlich took Yiddish and Jewish culture classes from “ancient people with big beards and accents” at the Brookline Workmen’s Circle, and played outside with local kids in her suburban neighborhood, the only rule being to come home by dinnertime. In the summers, she and her parents, brother and two sisters went to Cape Cod, where she camped, swam and ran wild out of doors.

Esther Ehrlich

So for her debut novel, “Nest,” Ehrlich traveled back to 1972 and created a protagonist who evoked the youth and freedom of that time and place in her life.

“An 11-year-old girl voice is really natural” and still “feels fresh in me,” Ehrlich explained. While writing the novel, she said, “I would just lose myself in that world.”

In “Nest,” a young adult novel aimed at ages 10 and up, Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein, 11, lives with her parents and older sister on Cape Cod, one of the few Jewish families in their small community. Chirp’s mother, a dancer, develops multiple sclerosis and then falls into a deep depression, throwing the family into turmoil and forcing Chirp to face very grown-up challenges.

“When I was a kid, I really loved books where kids were confronted with hard life situations, but they found a sense of agency within themselves,” said Ehrlich, citing “The Secret Garden,” “Harriet the Spy” and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” all of which influence Chirp in the book. “I think there’s something about that feeling of kids creating their own world within an adult’s world, where they have the ability to make changes and feel some degree of control.”

Ehrlich’s passion for writing dates back to her childhood when her mother, a published poet, would share and discuss her work with her. Ehrlich spent 10 years writing a memoir that was never published, but wrote “Nest” quickly, channeling some of the memoir’s themes into her novel. “Nest” was published by Random House in September.

Ehrlich loves sharing her book with Jewish audiences and recently held a reading at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley.

Though Ehrlich, 53, emphasizes that “Nest” is fictional, Chirp’s story has many parallels with the author’s own life. Like Chirp, Ehrlich had a psychiatrist father and an artistic mother who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Both protagonist and author come from families with strong Jewish cultural identities and have mothers who grew up Orthodox but moved away from strict religious observance. Chirp’s mother, Hannah, freely eats local clams but doesn’t feel quite comfortable eating bacon.

When Ehrlich’s lapsed-Orthodox mother and anti-religious father had children (four in five years), they knew they wanted to raise them with strong Jewish identities, but they weren’t sure how. They ended up embarking on an ongoing exploration of Jewish life that took a somewhat mix-and-match approach to religious and cultural practice. At the Workmen’s Circle, the ideology was socialist and the word “God” was banned. Ehrlich delighted in singing Yiddish songs and performing in Yiddish plays where she would get dressed up as an old man. Later, her father befriended an Orthodox rabbi, and for a time her family constituted the only non-Orthodox members of his shul.

“It was choosing what has meaning and letting go of the rest. That legacy has been really great to me,” Ehrlich said. “It’s allowed me to have a pretty positive Jewish identity.”

Ehrlich attended Vassar College in New York state, and a few years later came to the Bay Area to spend the summer with a friend. She never went back.

She worked as a carpenter for 12 years and helped rebuild homes after the Oakland Hills fire, then became an oral historian at the Regional Oral History Office at U.C. Berkeley, where she worked on a project about the disability rights movement.

She is the founder of Story Lines, creating life histories for individuals, families and businesses. She lives in Richmond with her husband and two stepchildren; the family belongs to Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

Now that “Nest” has been praised by the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and other reviewers for its honest portrayal of family struggle, Ehrlich’s wide-ranging career has taken a new direction.

“At this point, I’d really like to pour myself into writing my next book,” she said.

“Nest” by Esther Ehrlich (336 pages, Wendy Lamb Books, $16.99)

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.