“Engaging characters, a 500-year-old family mystery and romance—what more could a reader want? I had a hard time putting it down!” That’s what Maggie Anton, award-winning author of the Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, had to say about Daniella Levy’s debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles (Kasva Press, 2017). Daniella, an Orthodox Jewish American-Israeli writer, also penned Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism (Guiding Light Press, 2016) , and her short fiction, articles and poetry—in three languages—have been widely published in magazines, literary journals, anthologies and news outlets. Born in New York, she immigrated to Israel with her family as a child, and currently lives at the edge of the Judaean Desert with her husband and three sons.
You moved to Israel as a child; how did you preserve such a high level of English?
We maintained a strong “English-language culture” at home. I was a voracious reader from a very young age—I taught myself to read at age four—and I read almost exclusively in English even after acquiring a decent command of Hebrew; I’ve written for Pnima Magazine and had some poems published in Hebrew. One of my day jobs is translating from Hebrew to English.
Tell us about By Light of Hidden Candles
The story begins in the Jewish Quarter of 16th-Century Fez where a dying woman hands her granddaughter a heavy gold ring—and an even heavier secret. Five hundred years later, a woman journeys to Madrid to fulfill her ancestor’s final wish in the company of a young Catholic Spaniard whose priest always warned him about getting too friendly with Jews. The book follows their quest as it takes them from Greenwich Village to the windswept mountain fortresses of southern Spain and as their friendship deepens and threatens to cross boundaries sacred to both. What they finally discover in the Spanish archives will force them to confront the truth about who they are and what their faiths mean to them.
What inspired you to write it?
It’s hard to pinpoint just one factor. I’ve always found Sephardic Jewish history riveting—particularly the Inquisition era. I have also always been fascinated by people who are different from me. The encounters between people of different faiths and cultures portrayed in the book were certainly influenced by my own real life friendships of that kind.
Speaking of which, tell us about Letters to Josep.
Letters to Josep is a collection of letters I wrote to a Christian friend from Barcelona, explaining the basic principles and practices of Judaism. I started publishing them as a blog and eventually compiled them into what became my first book. Like By Light of Hidden Candles, it combines a light, humorous touch with in-depth exploration of serious and sometimes tough issues. And yes, my real life friendship with Josep certainly made its mark on Hidden Candles.
By Light of Hidden Candles weaves together three narratives, one of which is set in 15th-Century Spain. How did you go about your research?
I muddled through it! Thankfully, the internet is an incredibly rich and useful source of information these days. I read extensively from books and academic papers, and when I got bold enough, contacted experts for specific questions. I took several online courses that gave me a good background on working with medieval manuscripts and Spanish history. I explored the streets of cities I’ve never visited with Google Street View and by sitting through painfully boring YouTube footage from tour buses and dashcams! I even went from zero Spanish to B1 level literacy thanks to diligent use of the Duolingo app—which helped me access even more material.
What message do you hope your readers take away from By Light of Hidden Candles?
AS a religious Jewish woman, I sometimes feel tension between my deep love for my heritage and traditions and the call to faraway places and experiences that are forbidden to me. I think that when this tension in portrayed in mainstream culture, it is almost always seen as a tragedy—like a caged bird longing to be free. That’s not how i feel at all. Though choosing what i believe is right over what feels good may sometimes be painful, it is also deeply rewarding in ways that may be less glamorous or obvious, but are crucial to my growth as a person. This idea is somewhat countercultural and I hope I have conveyed it with nuance.
You can find out more about Daniella and her writing at Daniella-Levy.com.