Judith Teitelman says she never planned to write a novel; but she doesn’t believe in accidents or coincidences. After being dragged “kicking and screaming” into a writing workshop run by a friend in 2001, a number of dots scattered throughout her life got connected.
To begin with, “I’ve had this Hindu god, Ganesha, hanging out with me for a very long time,” she told me in an interview. “I’m the daughter of Holocaust survivors. My mother was in the Kindertransport program (predominantly Jewish children taken from Germany to England during WW2) and my father was the son of an Orthodox rabbi.
“But like many children with traumatic childhoods involving religion, you either hold really fast to it or push it away. My parents pushed it away and looked toward Eastern beliefs in their thinking. The gift of my mother, who mostly raised me (her parents divorced) was to say ‘choose what you want; my goal is to raise good human beings.’”
Judith thinks her mother’s game plan worked for her; she’s been a consultant and teacher in the non-profit community for many years, and has written and been published professionally. But creative fiction wasn’t on her radar.
INSPIRATIONS AND INFLUENCES
Exploring churches and temples of all faiths while growing up, Judith says, “I found myself drawn to Eastern thinking, and Ganesha was a Hindu god who appealed to me from my earliest memories. Besides, I always liked elephants!”
When her grandmother died, Judith heard for the first time the story of why she became a “mean, nasty woman;” it shifted her understanding and later became the inspiration for her protagonist’s arc.
The protagonist is 17-year-old Esther Grünspan, who arrives in Köln, Germany in 1923, “with a hardened heart as her sole luggage.” She’s been left at the altar (“under the chuppah”) in her tiny community (shtetl), as her intended runs off with the richest girl in town, a shocking betrayal of what she thought was the deepest and truest love.
This actually happened to her grandmother. Judith says, “I never knew, and it gave me a sense of compassion for her situation. I had recently been dumped and I knew how devastating it was.”
Many years later, Judith’s husband read her the obituary of the man who’d dumped her. After digging out an old journal from that time, she found the title, “Guest House for Ganesha.” Later, in a yoga class, the teacher read a poem by Rumi that now serves as an introduction to Judith’s novel, whose first line is, “This being human is a guest house.”
And the many parts of “Guesthouse for Ganesha” began coalescing.
Ganesha is the narrator and the elephant-headed Hindu god who both destroys obstacles and puts them in your path, testing your mettle to stay on track.
Esther is shut down emotionally, focused solely on survival. Her master skills as a tailor and furrier allow her to pass as a Gentile, navigating the treacherous waters facing Jews in Europe during Hitler’s rise to power and the ravages of the Holocaust.
This, too, was how her grandmother made it through.
One day Esther happens upon an unexpected sight, a pop-up booth selling samosas, decorated with India-themed art. Inside, she locks eyes with an image of Ganesha, and feels a deep connection to the Hindu god, who becomes an invisible hand guiding her life. He sees into Esther’s stone heart and knows that she understands what love really means, so he chooses to help her get where she needs to go.
RESEARCH-BASED MAGICAL REALISM
A lifelong lover of learning, Judith researched deeply to write this book. Despite being born Jewish, “I probably knew more about Hinduism, India and Ganesha than I did about the Jewish experience,” she said.
One summer, she spent one day every week for seven weeks, watching testimonies at the Shoah Foundation by people who passed for Gentiles and survived the Holocaust. “I knew Esther wouldn’t end up in a camp,” so she fictionalized some of these testimonies into situations Esther faces.
And, Judith still needed the voice of Ganesha. What helped? “I discovered, in researching the Hindu pantheon, the brilliance of childrens’ books in taking big concepts and distilling them down into very clear language.” In the novel, Ganesha doesn’t necessarily speak directly to Esther but rather to the reader, albeit haltingly with elliptical pauses between his thoughts, and his words are printed in italics. Though he speaks in a poetic prose, his thoughts and ideas are straightforward and universally understood.
Oh – and he likes cookies!
THE 18-YEAR JOURNEY
It took Judith 11 years of writing and re-writing, “betwixt and between my consulting, teaching and traveling,” she recounts, “then a year and seven months to find my literary agent, three-plus years to find a publisher, then two years to publication.”
She chose She Writes Press, a hybrid publisher. Audible bought the rights to produce an audio book. Judith was challenged when Audible kept sending samples of voices for Ganesha, but when she heard one sentence read by Fajer Al-Kaisi she says, “I burst into tears, because that was the voice in my head.”
Awards and honors have come her way, including a Gold medal from the 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Silver from The Independent Book Publishers Association Ben Franklin Award for audiobook/fiction; and a finalist for the honor that means most to her as an admirer of the author, the eponymously named (May) Sarton Women’s Book Award for Historical Fiction in 2019.
Find links to the books and audio book at Judith’s website, https://guesthouseforganesha.com
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.