-Joseph, The Last Watchman of Old Cairo
Anne Landsman is an award-winning author of the internationally-acclaimed novels, The Rowing Lesson and The Devil’s Chimney. She is currently making a feature-length documentary film, "Daughters of the Wind." The Rowing Lesson was a 2009 finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.
“I’m an extrovert in an introvert’s profession,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin said, at our biennial Sami Rohr Institute a few years ago. I found myself nodding in agreement. As a child, I fell in love with the sound and weight of words, what it felt like when they were spoken out loud, or read in silence. Even though I could disappear into the pages of books for hours, the outside world shimmered.
I grew up in a small South African town in a valley ringed by purple mountains that were snowcapped in winter. My father, a country doctor, would get crates of grapes from his farmer patients during harvest season. Our own garden was full of nature’s bounty with loquat trees, guava trees and a kumquat tree. I spent many heat-dazed hours picking and eating fruit and searching for chameleons hiding in one of our hedges. Hard to be inside on such days.
I’m insatiably curious about people and the conversations at the dinner table were full of medical shoptalk and local gossip. I took it all in. When visitors came to stay, I was delighted. I thought of becoming an actor when I grew up, or a veterinarian. What I did best, though, was write. I went to film school and studied screenwriting hoping that the collaborative nature of the medium would satisfy my need to be with people. Eventually I found my way back to my first love, books, and wrote the novels, The Devil’s Chimney, and The Rowing Lesson. In between, I had children, taught fiction writing and screenwriting as well as learned how to stand on my head and ride horses – though not at the same time!
I never imagined that I could tackle two major projects at once but now, with my children grown, I’m doing just that. I began writing A Thousand Crowns, a novel written for children set in an Elizabethanesque England, as mine were growing too old to be read to anymore, and I realized the magic of their childhood was beginning to slip away from me. The novel has been through several iterations and I’m in the midst of a third revision. The protagonists are two Jewish children who’ve escaped the Inquisition but have to contend with a new environment that’s not safe either.
And true to an earlier dream, I’m making a documentary film, “Daughters of the Wind,” finally using the skills I learned at graduate school so many years ago. The film chronicles the lives of girls who ride and train horses in the West Bank and Israel, revealing the unlikely connections forged among horse lovers in the midst of a seemingly intractable conflict. The novel takes me into a deeply private place, alone at my desk, and the film propels me outwards, out of my comfort zone into a region where I’m often the only non-Arabic or non-Hebrew speaking person in the room. The hours inside are now balanced with periods of filming in dusty arenas and stables all over the West Bank and Israel. I’ve become attached to the rolling, ancient hills and the complicated lives and struggles of my real life characters, a far cry from wrangling the inner lives of imaginary characters. In between filming and editing, I return to the novel, happy not to worry about how to cross checkpoints with my crew, how to raise funds to continue filming and all the other myriad details of making a documentary. Now I toggle between being an extrovert in an introvert’s profession, and an introvert in an extrovert’s profession.
I wrote the above before the pandemic hit, turning us all into introverts. Leaving the house to buy groceries, let alone traveling to a foreign country, is daunting. I’m surprised at what this confinement is teaching me, and how my emotional landscape has shifted, now that the outer world is shuttered and quiet. The internal chatter about going in versus going out has ceased. Each day is a practice in staying strong and healthy for myself, for my family and for my community, as much as I am able.