What inspires an author to write a book? Bryna J. Fireside can pinpoint the exact moment when the idea for Private Joel and the Sewell Mountain Seder (Kar-Ben Publishing, a chapter book for children grades 3–5) came to her: She was reading an article about the seder by Rabbi David Geffen that appeared in this paper.
“At the time, I thought, ‘Boy! This would make a great story for kids,’” she said in an e-mail interview. It was several years, though, before the writing process began.
“Sometimes, it takes quite a while before an idea actually evolves into full-blown story,” she wrote. “That’s what happened with ‘Private Joel.’”
Private Joel and the Sewell Mountain Seder is based on a true story. During the Civil War, Private J. A. Joel and other Jewish soldiers of the 23rd Ohio Regiment of the Union Army requested permission from their commander, William S. Rosecrans, to hold a seder. Fireside’s book tells how they gathered the ritual objects and food they needed and what happened during the event.
“Private Joel and the four Jewish buddies [mentioned in the book] were real members of the 23rd regiment,” Fireside said. “‘Old Rosy’ a.k.a. Commander Rosencrans was their commander. The sutler [a peddler who traveled with the troops and sold supplies] was Jewish and he did send Passover supplies to the soldiers, and the soldiers did fan out and come back with the lamb and other foods for the seder — including that unnamed ‘bitter herb’ and hard cider [which they used in place of wine]. And yes, a couple of the fellows drank too much. But most of the dialogue and other events came from my imagination.”
One fictional aspect of the tale is the inclusion of runaway slaves at the seder.
“As I mulled over the meaning of Passover when these Union soldiers were fighting to end slavery in the United States, I realized that adding Caleb [one of the slaves] and his friends would make this story richer,” Fireside noted.
In the book, Caleb mentions that one of his former owners was Jewish, a fact that might come as a surprise to some children.
“I thought, too, that it was important for kids to know that Jews who were living in the South before the Civil War were slave-owners,” she added.
While this is Fireside’s first Jewish-themed book, she has written several nonfiction works aimed at a more general audience.
“My first successful book for young readers was Is There a Woman in the House or Senate? It was named one of the 100 best books for girls by the Woman’s Booksellers Association and the New York Public Library named it one of the best books for teenagers,” she said. She is preparing the fifth edition of her Choices for the High School Graduate, which will be published in 2009. She has also published several other nonfiction works about American history, including The Mary Surratt Lincoln Assassination Trial in 2001.
While researching that book, she couldn’t stop thinking about the Sewell Mountain seder. “I googled ‘The Jewish Messenger’ for the complete memoir, which Private Joel wrote after the Civil War had ended,” she said. “I even googled ‘Jewish Soldiers in the 23rd Ohio Regiment.’ I didn’t find all 21 soldiers, but I did find Private Joel and four others. The story kept percolating.”
The actual writing process began three-and-a-half years ago when Fireside attended her first Jewish Writers Conference, which was being held at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. “We conference-goers were told that we could submit a first page of a story we were working on,” she added. “I submitted page one of Private Joel. And one day after I returned to Ithaca, I received an e-mail from the editor at Kar Ben Publishers asking for the rest of the manuscript. A manuscript I hadn’t yet finished! Two weeks later I finished the story and sent it out.”
Fireside sees publishing this book as part of her work for tikkun olam — repairing the world — and noted how seriously she takes this task.
“I grew up knowing that making the world a better place was an important Jewish teaching,” she said. “Both my parents were active in their synagogue and in our community. Both my husband and I took tikkun olam seriously, and have spent our lives in Ithaca working on behalf of immigrants and refugees.”
Her husband, Harvey Fireside, died in February.
By writing Private Joel and the Sewell Mountain Seder and her other books, Fireside hopes to spread her message about tikkun olam.
“I would like to think that in some small way, the books I write, whether nonfiction or fiction, will encourage young readers to become part of the solution to healing our world,” she said. “It needs all the help it can get.”