From the cover of "On God's Radar" by Robert Schoen
From the cover of "On God's Radar" by Robert Schoen

Spiritual wanderlust in new books from Bay Area authors

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Paula Wagner, who now lives in the East Bay city of Albany, has traveled a great deal, both geographically and spiritually. Born a twin in London to an English mother and Jewish American father, she (and her family) crossed both the Atlantic and the American continent before settling in California.

Cover of "Newcomers in an Ancient Land" by Paula WagnerThe habit of moving became a constant, and included stints in France and Italy as an adult. But it was in Israel, where she moved at 18 to study Hebrew, that she truly connected with the land and people of her father — and came to know it as her heritage.

She was at a kibbutz the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and she navigated the shock and pain though the compassion of the Israeli people. It was in Israel, too, that she met and married a French Jew named René, with whom she set off on further life adventures.

Wagner now divides her time between creative writing and career coaching, and still travels whenever she can. Her memoir, Her new book, “Newcomers in an Ancient Land: Adventure, Love and Finding Myself in 1960s Israel,” which is her first full-length book, was published in July. It offers a lively, personal view of Israel in the ’60s and the meaning of extended family.

Temple Sinai of Oakland is not the inspiration for Oakland musician Robert Schoen’s first novel, co-written with fellow congregant Catherine deCuir of Albany, he insists. Nor is the central character of “The Rabbi Finds Her Way,” a young rabbi named Pearl Ross-Levy, based on Sinai’s Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, though they may share characteristics.

Cover of "The Rabbi Finds Her Way" by Robert Schoen and Catherine deCuir“I’m real and she’s not,” Mates-Muchin has clarified.

Nevertheless, local readers of the novel should have a great time identifying places mentioned and speculating on the characters. The timely and humorous narrative — which follows Levy’s first two years as an associate rabbi at a large Reform congregation in California — hits on many of the current challenges facing women rabbis, as well as issues congregants bring to them.

Schoen, a former composer-in-residence at Temple Sinai, also wrote “On God’s Radar: My Walk Across America” following the death of his father in 2017. Both books were published in April of this year.

Outside of fiction writing, deCuir, who converted to Judaism at 61 “after thinking about it for 40 years,” is a cantorial soloist and jazz vocalist who sings with Schoen’s jazz groups. Their collaboration anticipates a series of five Rabbi Ross-Levy novels.

The duo has been on the book-talk circuit, with their next appearance at Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 2 p.m.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.