Thursday, October 8, 2020

Interview with Author Julie Zuckerman

I've got something special for you today! In the midst of my research on Victory gardens for the podcast, I ran across Julie Zuckerman's article on the Jewish Women's Archive website entitled Seeds of Sustenance: Pandemic Victory Gardens where she compares the Victory garden movement of WWII to today's pandemic gardening wave. Julie Zuckerman, who is the author of the novel The Book of Jeremiah, lives in Modiin, Israel, where she writes fiction and nonfiction and loves to try growing things in her garden. I had the pleasure of interviewing her for the podcast blog!

Julie Zuckerman


Sarah Creviston Lee: Hi Julie, thank you so much for joining me to talk about Victory gardens. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

Julie Zuckerman: I was born and raised in Connecticut, and moved to Israel at the age of 25, where I now live with my husband and four children (22, 20, 16, 11). I work full-time as a product marketer at a high tech company, but my passion is writing and literature. I enjoy many other hobbies as well - mountain biking, running, bird-watching, and of course, gardening! 

SCL: Tell us about your new book!

JZ: My debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, which came out last year, tells the story of the awkward but endearing Jeremiah Gerstler—the son of Jewish immigrants, brilliant political science professor, husband, father. Jeremiah has yearned for respect and acceptance his entire life, and no matter his success, he still strives for more. Spanning eight decades and interwoven with the Jewish experience of the 20th century, the book charts Jeremiah’s life from boyhood, through service in WWII, to marriage and children, a professorship and finally retirement, with compassion, honesty, and a respect that even Gerstler himself would find touching. Jeremiah's wife, Molly, is a bit younger than him, and in an early draft of the novel, there was mention of her family's WWII victory garden.  

SCL: I enjoyed your article comparing pandemic gardening to Victory gardening. What's something that really stood out to you in your research about Victory gardening?

JZ: When I started trying to grow vegetables at the outset of the pandemic, I immediately thought of Molly and victory gardens I'd learned about through my research. I love the posters and the booklets from that time exhorting the public to "Grow vegetables at your kitchen door!" and things like "Our food is fighting: A garden will make your rations go longer." Maybe I'm romanticizing the homefront efforts, but I love the fact that the country truly came together around a common good. Over 20 million victory gardens were planted in the United States, supplying 40 percent of the domestic demand for fruits and vegetables. 

SCL: How has your pandemic gardening been going? Are you fairly new to gardening or do you have some experience under your belt?

JZ: I had a bit of experience under my belt - occasionally growing cherry tomatoes or scallions, but starting in March I became obsessed with growing other things. In addition to drying out seeds from store-bought tomatoes, I planted zucchini, watermelon, eggplant, pepper, tomato and cucumber seedlings, the ends of leeks, and more. Last week, I planted romaine lettuce and the other day I planted broccoli seeds. Fingers crossed. 

SCL: Successes? Failures? (because I think we can all relate to both). I'd love to hear about your gardening experience in Israel versus Connecticut. Has gardening in Israel been easier or more challenging due to the climate or resources available or even the pandemic situation?

JZ: Yes! I'm experimenting with everything. My cucumber plants have gone through ups and downs and for some reason can only handle growing one cucumber at a time. Likewise, though the watermelon vines grew luxuriously all over my balcony, only two (quite small) watermelon emerged. A handful of tomatoes. But one of my zucchini plants did well, and for a time I was harvesting several smallish zucchini a week. I found recipes for zucchini blossoms and can understand why they're a delicacy in Italy. My eggplants are finally coming out -- I planted them in early June and only now, in early October, have they arrived in abundance. My daughter and I love eggplant so I'm looking forward to trying some new recipes.

At one point, the tomato seeds grew into ~60 seedlings and I started giving them away to friends and neighbors. I don't know what happened, but only one friend got tomatoes out of hers! 

Usually the Israeli climate - hot, direct sun - is good for the tomatoes. To give you an idea, temperatures are often in the 90s-100s in July and August here; now in early October, we're still in the 80s-90s. My other daughter loves raspberries and all kinds of berries that do well in New England, but they definitely wouldn't work well in this climate. I never tried gardening in Connecticut, though a few years ago, to my delight, I discovered several wild raspberry bushes growing around the edges of my parents' yard.

SCL: What do you think is the biggest thing we can learn or take away from the Victory Garden movement from WWII?

JZ: I would hope that as we are fighting the common enemy of COVID-19, we should be looking for things to unify us, as our parents and grandparents did in WWII. I've heard of several community gardening efforts that have started since the pandemic, and I think it's the perfect thing to unify neighborhoods. People get excited when they grow their first tomatoes. I have two friends here who are garden therapists and it makes sense to me that gardening -- getting one's fingernails dirty with soil, growing your own vegetables and fruit -- is good for the soul. 

SCL: Would you like to give a little shout out to the Jewish Women's Archive and tell us a little about what their mission is?

JZ: Jewish Women's Archive (JWA) is a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting and promoting the stories of Jewish women. It features articles, blogs, podcasts, events and other programs that highlight the lives and stories of Jewish women "history makers" as well as feminism and current events. It's mission is to elevate the voices of these women and inspire others to be agents of change. 

I was fortunate to publish my pandemic victory garden article at JWA, as well as another creative nonfiction piece about my great aunt, who was murdered at Auschwitz, and her son, who survived.

SCL: Thank you so much for sharing more about you, your garden, and your work. I wish you all the best in your writing and gardening endeavors! 


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