By Ellen O’Brien
“The Prophetess,” by Evonne Marzouk, is a book about an American teenage girl who is called to join a secret community of Jewish prophets. “The Prophetess” was published in October 2019 by Bancroft Press, a small publishing company in Baltimore.
Marzouk, who lives in Silver Spring, MD, is a touring author with the Jewish Book Council. She grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a bachelor’s degree in writing seminars and a minor in religious studies. Marzouk will speak Sunday, Dec. 8 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Johns Hopkins Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Baltimore on St. Paul Street.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I’m curious about the choice of Baltimore as the setting.
The novel is set around the neighborhood where Bancroft Press is. When I was in college and working there, I would wander around that neighborhood during lunch, and at the same time I was starting to have dreams about this book. So it’s always set in that location in my head.
There’s this interesting place in Baltimore, in the suburbs, where you’re walking along the street and there’s a depression in the ground, and there’s this creek that runs along it for a while. And I thought that was the funniest, most interesting feature, and that particular piece of setting plays a really important part in the book. So in some ways I built it based on that neighborhood and that creek.
Is there a gap you see in literature that you’re hoping to fill?
There’s a gap in accessible Jewish stories that relate to the concerns of modern teenagers. My goal was to have the characters feel really authentic, meaningfully Jewish, and accessible. I feel like that’s the gap I’m trying to fill, where it feels true both to the modern experience of a teenager, and also what Jewish tradition has to offer to them.
People, especially young adults, learn from really interesting stories with characters they can relate to.
This is a book with a female protagonist, Rachel, discovering her spirituality. How important was that to you?
It was really important that there be a lot of different kinds of roles for women in the story, because sometimes Jewish women get stuck into this mother-daughter role. Although there are mothers and daughters in the story, it was important that there be a leader who never married and didn’t have children.
Because it’s fiction and you’re imagining what prophets might be like, it can be egalitarian without being too rule breaking, so the prophets have more equality between male and female roles than in some parts of Judaism, for example. But there were female prophets — prophetesses — in ancient times, too.
I couldn’t help but notice that there are similarities between your experiences with Judaism and Rachel’s. Was this conscious or unintentional?
I wrote the book trying to answer questions that I had at that age, and trying to find the answers that then I could write for myself and everyone else who might have those kinds of questions, who wonder, “What’s the purpose of life? What does all this mean? What does Judaism have to say about any of it?”
Was your interest in Jewish mysticism the reason you wrote about prophets and mysticism?
Yes, I was always interested in mysticism, because I’m interested in our relationship with God. To me, it feels very fundamental. I wanted to know what it’s like to have a relationship with God. I learned a lot of Jewish mysticism in order to write the book. In some ways, mysticism is challenging because it requires people to think in a whole different way.
We say that we don’t have prophets anymore, and that’s true. But in some ways, the fact that we’re not able to have prophets anymore has made us feel like we are somehow lacking a relationship with God and that is not true. I think that a lot of Jews are really uncomfortable with this idea of a personal relationship with God. Jewish mysticism offers a deeper relationship with ourselves, our souls, and with God. It can be very overwhelming, so that’s not really what the book is about, but it is something that you could learn from the book if you wanted to.
Do you have plans for other novels in the future?
People are often asking me for the sequel. Right now I’m focusing on this book, but I’m hoping that I’ll have that opportunity.