Often, young adult novels tend to revolve around vampires, futuristic dystopias or the cool girls at school. It is less common to see Orthodox Jews on the page, especially in something that is positive and mainstream. Leah Scheier, an Orthodox novelist, is working to break that mold with her latest book, The Last Words We Said. The novel features Jewish characters and challenges negative Jewish stereotypes that the media frequently portrays.
The Last Words We Said is Leah’s fourth book, which was published by Simon and Schuster in August. It tells a story of Jewish teenagers in Atlanta, Georgia and how they cope when one of them disappears — all blaming themselves. Leah has achieved great success with her other work — she earned a Star review from the School Library Journal and has been reviewed by Kirkus Booklist and SLJ. Her first novel was published by Disney/Hyperion.
Leah was raised traditional by Russian immigrant parents in Baltimore. While she went to a Bais Yaacov, she did not fit in during her time there because she was not from an observant family, nor observant herself. She became religious later while attending Johns Hopkins University when she was invited out for a Shabbat dinner by the Rabbi on campus. It was the first time she experienced Shabbat in a Shomer Shabbat household, and the experience inspired her to take Judaism upon herself.
Leah does it all as a pediatrician, a novelist and a mother of five. Leah was passionate about becoming a children’s author from a young age but chose medicine as her main career because she enjoys helping people. After residency, Leah had time for hobbies, so she picked up her pen and started writing again. She began writing Sherlock Holmes fan fiction, which eventually evolved into her first novel, Secret Letters.
Leah never intended on writing a story with Modern Orthodox characters, despite being asked often by her Jewish readers. She dislikes novels “when it is obvious what the authors agenda is” so she prefers to keep her novels bias free. Leah says she was “worried that she would not be able to parse her own complicated feelings about Judaism and religion and portray the characters in an objective and completely non-judgmental way.”
When Leah develops an idea for a novel, it’s centered around a concept that excites her. She started thinking about what it would feel like if a loved one had gone missing, along with the confusion and blame that would be felt by the close friends. As she brainstormed, thinking about who the people are, where they live, and what motivates them, she discovered that the characters were Modern Orthodox who lived in the Orthodox community in Atlanta.
Leah envisions scenes as she writes, and as she was doing so, her characters started talking to her. The characters had “loud voices, and they had all these things they wanted to say,” Leah says. As she listened to the characters, she learned that they had different approaches to their Judaism. “I loved each and every one of them and I didn’t feel one was right or one was wrong,” recalls Leah. She understood the different choices they made and did not feel any sense of judgment towards them. That’s when Leah realized that she could write an unbiased novel with Orthodox characters.
The novel has already greatly impacted Orthodox readers. The characters grapple with Shomer Negiah which is the practice of not touching the opposite gender before marriage. This is a “huge conflict for Modern Orthodox teenagers” as they start to form close bonds with the opposite gender, and it is the “biggest aspect in the novel that people could relate to” according to Leah. Readers reached out to Leah saying, “this is the first time I saw myself in a novel.”
The broader community has also appreciated Leah’s work. Leah’s non-Jewish readers were not aware of Modern Orthodoxy before reading the novel and they were excited to learn about the sect. Leah says “there has been a push for more diversity in literature. Ten years ago, most novels were written about white people living in suburbia. Now there is more push for people of color, diversity, sexuality, and religion”
Most Orthodox stories that are told in the media tend to revolve around abuse and dysfunctional events, leaving out the beauty and robustness of Judaism. Leah shares that she “doesn’t mind if the unorthodox story is told, just as long as it isn’t the only story out there.” Leah could only think of two other authors, Chaim Potok and Naomi Ragen, who built their novels around religiously Jewish characters in a more positive light. While the characters in The Last Words We Said, “have a complicated relationship with religion” they still recognize that “Judaism is beautiful” and they strive to feel a connection to God.
In The Last Words We Said, there is a rebellious character, but she is “not angry with religion, she is just trying to figure out who she is and where she belongs,” says Leah. She strives to explore religion on her own while still respecting her family. At one point in the novel, the rebellious character is having a discussion with her friends about Yom Kippur. After proclaiming to be an atheist, she still plans on fasting, leaving her friends confused. This is a common practice for questioning Jews in the Orthodox community, and many readers connected to this scene.
Unlike other Orthodox portrayals, the characters don’t throw away their religion in pursuit of secular freedom. By developing complex characters who go through real life scenarios and experience times of doubt, Leah creates realistic characters that readers can relate to.
The Last Words We Said can be found on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Kindle.