Interview with Samara Shanker, author of NAOMI TEITELBAUM ENDS THE WORLD

In Samara Shanker’s new middle-grade novel NAOMI TEITELBAUM ENDS THE WORLD (Atheneum, 2022), Naomi is surprised when she receives a small clay figure as a Bat Mitzvah gift. When the golem comes to life and grows out of control, only Naomi and her friends can stop it before it destroys all of Los Angeles. NAOMI TEITELBAUM ENDS THE WORLD is a contemporary novel that features Jewish folklore, history, tradition, and supernatural adventure! It is a compelling read that will appeal to middle-grade audiences.

Welcome, Samara!

What inspired the idea of giving your main character, Naomi, a little golem as a Bat Mitzvah gift?

I tend to have a different answer every time someone asks me this, but all the answers are true. What it comes down to is that I’ve always been really fascinated by golems and all the different stories about them, so there are a lot of different reasons I chose to focus on golems in this book. I’ve written a few pieces – mostly short, adult fiction stories – that sort of reinterpreted the idea of a golem, but I wanted to get back to the roots of the story. I think the interesting thing about golems is that a golem is created for such a solemn purpose, but the actual stories tend to have an element of playfulness to them, like when the rabbi’s wife asks it to fetch water and the rabbi comes home and laughs at her predicament. To me, mixing that solemnity with playfulness is such a quintessentially Jewish trait. So it was that, combined with the fact that both golems and adolescents raise a lot of questions about agency and purpose, and learning to approach things with nuance, so it seemed fitting to put them together.

Samara Shanker

In the story, Naomi and her friends go on a journey, both real and spiritual when the golem starts wreaking havoc. Can you tell me a bit about the challenges of weaving story elements about contemporary kids with Jewish traditions and folklore?

I think the biggest challenge I had was figuring out what was reasonable for the kids to know. Hebrew school only gets you so far in terms of the more niche and esoteric Jewish knowledge, and the kids are pretty secular, despite being raised in a conservative synagogue. I had to figure out sources of information that felt authentic, and figure out where the kids might be able to fill in the blanks on their own. Fortunately, every Jewish community I’ve ever been in has no shortage of grown-ups willing to tell you a story.

What was your research process like for this book?

As you can imagine, many many online sources, even those that were all credible Jewish scholarship, had clashing interpretations of any story and character that I could think of. I did a lot of sifting through sources to find common threads, eventually decided that there were a lot of places that I could probably blaze my own trail, and finally resorted to bugging the rabbi when he came into the coffee shop I worked at for his afternoon latte until he lent me a giant book of Jewish folklore, and that was definitely the most helpful source I had.

Throughout the novel, many aspects of Judaism are explored. How important to you was it to represent different Jewish communities?

I think people forget the immense diversity there is within Judaism, even within Ashkenazi groups, which is, for better or worse, what the majority of non-Jews think of when they think of Judaism. I have a bit of a unique experience in terms of the communities I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in. I spent my formative years in a Chabad Hebrew school, went through my bat mitzvah in a reform synagogue, and spent time in a community of incredibly diverse young Jewish adults who brought experiences from places spanning from Yemen to Brooklyn before landing in a conservative shul in California, and now in Virginia. Out of consideration for length and cohesiveness in the story, I had a bit more of a limited scope in this book, obviously, but I would love to imagine that even just beginning to touch on different communities might open the door for people to consider that there are so many different and beautiful ways to be Jewish and to experience your Jewishness.

Tell me a bit about your setting. Why did you choose Los Angeles as the backdrop for your story? 

I’m not ashamed to admit that L.A. was an entirely pragmatic decision. I wanted a place with a large Jewish community that was close to nature but at least moderately easy for kids to get around on their own. I also always need help with geography, and I have some friends in L.A. who were willing to let me borrow their far superior senses of direction when I needed to.

What do you hope your readers come away with after reading NAOMI TEITELBAUM ENDS THE WORLD?

Unlike the reason I chose golems, my answer to this one never really changes. I work with kids, and I am amazed every day at their tenacity and fierce determination to make the world better. I’m so proud of them, but I’m also so nervous for them, because the way our culture treats activism and online exposure really feels like if you’re not “on” all the time you’re failing. I’m worried all the time that these beautiful, brilliant, rising stars will burn themselves out before they’re able to achieve what they want. I wanted to let them know that it’s not only okay, but unbelievably necessary to take breaks and step away sometimes. I don’t think any of them are doubting that they can’t abandon the work, but I think a lot of them forget that they’re not obligated to complete it. I wanted to remind them of that.

Thank you, Samara!

Samara Shanker has been making up stories about magic and monsters since she was a kid sneaking in extra reading past her bedtime. By graduate school, she had moved on to writing stories that reimagined the folklore and mythology she had always loved as a kid (mostly still written after bedtime, once she finished all of her sensible homework.) She works now as a tutor and children’s literacy specialist, and gets to do most of her writing during the day, which has done wonders for her sleep schedule. She lives in Virginia with her rescue puppy, Jack Kirby, and devotes most of her time not spent working or writing to spoiling her niece and nephew. This is her debut novel.

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