This week’s guest: Doris Rubenstein (Ecuador 1971-73)
I’m pleased to host award-winning author Doris Rubenstein. Doris is a native of Detroit and a graduate of the University of Michigan. After two years in Peace Corps/Ecuador, she started a long career with non-profit organizations and in the field of philanthropy.
She is the author of five books besides her newest one. You’re Always Welcome at the Temple of Aaron won the 2009 USCJ Schechter Award, and The Journey of a Dollar was a Silver Franklin Award winner from the IBPA.
Doris has lived in Minnesota since 1984 and received her M.A. from Augsburg University there in 1993; her thesis won a Kenneth Clark Award for Research in Leadership from the Center for Creative Leadership (N.C.). She has been a regular contributor to numerous local and national publications on the subjects of Philanthropy and the Arts.
This week Doris will talk about her newest book, The Boy with Four Names (iUniverse, 2021).
DL: Congratulations on your new book! What is it about?
DR: The book is a historical novel about a Jewish family, and especially their son, who fled Nazi Germany and landed in Ecuador. There are three points of view in the story: the father, the mother, and the Boy with Four Names himself. Each of them has a different path, but they come together through dangers and difficulties to find a new home that is safe, free, and welcoming.
The book is aimed at teenagers, but—like War Horse and the Harry Potter books— adults can enjoy it, too. The boy has a really difficult time defining his identity, as do many teens wherever they may be. This makes it especially appealing to that audience. But then again, who didn’t struggle with their identity in high school? I was amazed when I talked with many of my classmates while preparing for my class reunion four years ago; how many of them identified themselves entirely differently than I would have identified them at that time: the “cool” kids, the shy kids, etc. From what I could tell, it wasn’t until we broke away from our neighborhood roots and families that we created our own identities. That’s sort of what happens to the “hero” of this book, only he manages to do it when he’s younger than most.
What inspired the creation of the book?
There is a real boy with four names, only he’s about 84 now: Enrique Cohen. His family fled Europe when he was a toddler and he was brought up in Ecuador. Along the way, he attended the University of Michigan, where he met my cousin and they married a couple of years after graduation. I’m a lot younger than he is, and the difference seemed even greater when the two of them got married and headed off for a life in Ecuador. But, as fate would have it, when I was accepted into the Peace Corps in 1971, I was assigned to Ecuador.
When I worked on the coast and in the Amazonian areas of the country, when I’d come into Quito for R&R (or training or whatever), I’d stay with the Cohens—either my cousin and Enrique or Enrique’s parents, who treated me like a niece. I lived in Quito for eight months during Peace Corps and saw them at least weekly during that time. I’ve been back for visits five or six times over the past 48 years. I was always curious about their story, but they really didn’t talk about it much. I got snippets here and there, but nothing close to a narrative.
I got the idea for the book while on a visit in 2013. We were invited to an event at the synagogue there. I knew some of the other Jews in Ecuador but didn’t know their stories, either. My Jewish (and non-Jewish) friends in the States were amazed to learn that there are Jews living in Ecuador, some for four generations now. Their exposure to Holocaust stories pointed toward those who fled to the U.S. or Canada, or Israel. Maybe some of our generation knew that Jews had gone to Argentina because of the Eichmann trial. But Ecuador? As for teens, the only “teen” story they seem to know of is Anne Frank’s, and that’s got a pretty sad ending. I thought that a different story directed at them—like Enrique’s life—would shed new light on the lives of Holocaust survivors. And his true search for a unified identity certainly should resonate with many teens, too.
Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?
The writing process started with research. I visited Ecuador in 2019 and did an in-depth interview with Enrique. His wife sat in on it and after it was over, she said that she’d never heard most of the stories he told—and they’d been married over 50 years at that time! I’d written a “novelized” history of my father’s family about six years earlier (printed just enough copies for my relatives and a couple copies for Historical Societies), so I felt comfortable with the genre of historical fiction. In reality, I’m a non-fiction writer—mostly histories and newspaper and magazine articles. I surprised myself that writing this book was not all that difficult: inventing dialogs, etc. seemed to flow fairly easily.
Aside from the interview with Enrique in Quito, he and I exchanged many more emails when I had questions or needed clarification. But there were numerous questions he couldn’t answer because he’d been too young to remember things, or his parents and grandparents never discussed them in his presence. So I had to invent a lot of things that seemed plausible and were historically accurate. For example, I wrote that the family got forged identification papers from the Olivetti family, of typewriter fame. They probably didn’t, but it’s a documented fact that the Olivettis (who were Jews) forged hundreds of documents for Jewish refugees from across Europe.
Even with this, I still had places in the story that could be filled in only by other Jewish refugees to Ecuador. I can’t remember how I found it, but I found a Facebook group called “Jews of Ecuador” (the JOEs, as they refer to themselves). It is a closed group for Jews who were born in Ecuador, or who grew up in Ecuador, or whose parents fit those parameters. I asked for permission to join the group, explaining my purpose. They were terrific! The JOEs supplied me with numerous stories from their families’ experiences that were slipped into The Boy with Four Names when Enrique’s memory was deficient.
I also read two books by JOEs: one was a memoir written in English; the other is a history of the Ecuadorian Jewish community. It’s written in Spanish and is very academic, but full of good stuff! My Spanish sure got a workout with that book!
The hardest part for me was to make the language “teen-friendly.” I didn’t want to write at too high a level, but I didn’t want to talk down to them. I ran a fairly late draft past two friends who taught high school and both assured me that I was right on target.
The pandemic didn’t really help or hurt me while writing. I’m retired, so my time is my own. I also was working on another project at the same time, a history of Jewish theatre in the Upper Midwest (I live in Minnesota). That came out last fall. I wrote it for the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. So when I needed a break from one project, I would concentrate on the other.
What was the best part of writing this book?
Actually, I loved the research. Connecting with Enrique in an entirely different way, though I’ve known him since I was twelve. Meeting the JOEs on Facebook, reading their stories, and being so completely accepted into their world.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
The hardest parts were making sure that the events of the Cohen family coincided accurately with the actual historical events that drove them out of Europe to Ecuador. I wanted to be sure that this book could be used as a teaching tool about the Holocaust as much as a pleasure-read without making it like a textbook or, on the other hand, a totally fictional book.
How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?
As I’m writing this, I’m waiting for the publisher’s rep to call so that I can order copies of books to be delivered to me for autographing and direct sales. I’ve set up a Facebook page for The Boy with Four Names that has a link to my email address. The best way to buy it is from the publisher: www.iUniverse.com/Bookstore. Then insert my name or the book’s title in the search box.
Any final reflections you would like to share?
DR: I ran a PDF of this book past the Executive Director of the Association of Holocaust Organizations. She exclaimed, “There’s NOTHING like this for teens on the market right now and this story has to be told and read!” Wow. What an endorsement! But this book is not only a Holocaust story. It tells a LOT about Ecuadorian geography and culture during the 1940s: what it’s like to have lived in a Third World country back then. And, of course, it’s appealing for the psychological profile of a teen, trying to figure out who he truly is as his own person.
Thank you for joining us this week, Doris. Much luck with the new book!
A prize-winning fiction writer and poet, Donald Levin is the author of seven Martin Preuss mysteries: Crimes of Love, The Baker’s Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, Cold Dark Lies, and the latest, In the House of Night. He is also a contributor to Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, and has recently published a sequel to his contribution, The Exile. He is also the author of The House of Grins, a novel, and two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and NewYear’s Tangerine. He lives and writes in Ferndale, Michigan, the setting for the Martin Preuss Mysteries. His website is: www.DonaldLevin.com