Friends across time: Local author Amy Ariel pens a novel about two Jewish girls who celebrate Shabbat together in St. Paul in 1912

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The idea for Amy Ariel’s first novel began about 10 years ago — with a simple request from one of her students.

The student, Amalia Hertel, who was then just seven years old, told Ariel that for her birthday she wanted a book about a girl her age who liked to read, and was smart and precocious. Having already read Little Women and the Little House on the Prairie books, Amalia wanted more — and she wanted the girl in the story to be Jewish, like her.

So Ariel went looking for a book for Amalia. She found some Holocaust books, but not much else.

“So I decided that instead of getting her a book, I would just write her a short story,” Ariel told the AJW. “I wrote her a 10-page story about these two girls who live in St. Paul, and one of them fell back in time and spent Shabbat in 1912 with a girl her age. And they learned about each other and their different ways of being Jewish, and learned about St. Paul in 1912 and then she found her way home.”

One of the parents at Amalia’s birthday party read the story and suggested that Ariel turn it into a full-length book. At the time, Ariel was a preschool teacher at Beth Jacob Congregation and was also in law school, so she put the project aside.

“After I finished law school in 2002, I at some point picked it up again,” Ariel said. “I thought, this might be kind of fun, to play with it and do some more research on 1912 and see where else the story can go.”

Ariel’s book, Friends Forever, was recently published by St. Paul-based Yotzeret Publishing. In June, the book was honored with the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award (religion category) for “outstanding contributions to children’s literature.”

According to a press release, the award highlights excellence in family-friendly books covering the broad expanse of a child’s existence, helping them grow socially, emotionally, ethically, intellectually and physically.

Friends Forever is the story of Abigail, who takes the train from St. Louis to live with her Aunt Rose for the summer of 1912 in St. Paul. One day, Hannah mysteriously appears in Abigail’s yard, which is actually Hannah’s yard in modern-day St. Paul.

The book is narrated by Abigail, who recalls the encounter and the friendship that developed in spite of their differences in personality, Jewish observance and time.

“It’s these two girls, who live in the same house about 100 years apart in time, and who are both Jewish, who spend Shabbat together, getting to know each other and learning something about the Progressive Era that is all around Abigail, but, because it has just been her life, she’s never really thought about,” Ariel said. “But as Hannah finds out that women don’t have the right to vote yet and there are fairly recent descendants of people who had been slaves who live on the street not far from Abigail… they start to raise some questions, from a kid’s perspective, on what’s going on in the adult world around them.”

Ariel did a great deal of research to offer historical accuracy to the story. She spent a lot of time online looking at early 20th century speech patterns and catch phrases (“by gory!”), as well as popular books (Abigail is reading The Secret Garden, which had been newly published) and board games, such as Around the World with Nelly Bly.

“Things like that were really fun to find and then find ways to incorporate them into the story,” Ariel said.

For her young Jewish readers, Ariel intended the story to be true to what their lives look like on Shabbat — even though Shabbat observance varies from family to family.

“I think it’s important for us to have an honest conversation in the Jewish community about the variety of ways that Jewish observance happens, and the variety of the texture of Jewish life,” Ariel said. “Part of what makes it so beautiful is how complicated it is and how we parcel it out.”

And for non-Jewish audiences, Ariel wanted to offer an opportunity to read a story with Jewish characters, though the story itself is not particularly Jewish. She hoped to convey a sense of what Shabbat looks like in someone’s home, specifically the home of a Progressive, observant Jewish family.

“A lot of literature that is out there with a Jewish family, the Jewish family is Orthodox,” Ariel said. “So there’s one view of what it can look like to be Jewish, and then there are a bunch of books about the Holocaust, so that’s another view of what it can look like to be Jewish… In Abigail’s case, she’s living well before the Holocaust, and in Hannah’s case, she’s living way after the Holocaust, so it’s not a story that’s defined by persecution, it’s just a story about living their lives as Jewish kids.”

In 2005, Ariel began working full-time as a Jewish educator at Mount Zion Temple, where she developed programming for students in grades seven through 12 and outreach to college students. It fulfilled her lifelong goal of being an “advocate for youth in a creative way.”

But her life was interrupted by a leukemia diagnosis in December 2010. She underwent a bone marrow transplant on May 12, 2011, and is doing well, often finding support from fellow authors and her publisher, Sheyna Galyan.

Ariel continues to work part-time at Mount Zion and is “absolutely” planning to write more books — perhaps a novel for young adults, ages 15 to 17, or a sequel to Friends Forever.

“These two girls are together for a very short amount of time, but they care about each other and they listen to each other and they learn to trust each other,” Ariel said. “They figure out really how to be friends with each other, and what it means to have a friendship like the kind of friendships we have at camp or at a youth group event.”

For information on Friends Forever and to read a blog post by Ariel about her book and leukemia treatment, visit: yotzeretpublishing.com.