Last winter, Zöe Klein Miles, the senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah and the author of four books (the novels “Drawing in the Dust,” “The Scroll of Anatiya,” “The Goblins of Knottingham: A History of Challah” and the short story collection, “Candle, Feather, Wooden Spoon”), took a sabbatical: She spent three months in a rustic cabin in Tennessee, writing. “I went there to fulfill a fantasy,” she told the Journal, to see “if I was a full-time writer.”
It’s a question she has wrestled with in her quarter century at the West L.A. Reform congregation. In 2009, when she was asked if she considered herself a rabbi or writer, she said “While the answer is clear in my heart, sometimes it is hard to speak it. I consider myself a novelist first.”
“I come to the rabbinate with a novelist’s soul … being a rabbi is field work for stories. Being a novelist is soul work for being a rabbi. They feed into each other.”
Asked today, she answers the question differently. “I am both. Today, I would not distinguish between the two. I come to the rabbinate with a novelist’s soul.” In many ways, she explained, “being a rabbi is field work for stories. Being a novelist is soul work for being a rabbi. They feed into each other.”
But the real answer to the question came to her while she was still in Tennessee. Even though being off the grid sparked a creative flurry — she wrote hundreds of poems — by the end, she changed her flight and returned two days early. “I was ready to be back in my community.” She missed the vitality and energy from being part of a community, “that back and forth, not just having all of the ideas churning inside of yourself.” On the other hand, she was “pleased to learn I wasn’t a hermit, because I didn’t know that I wasn’t. I thought maybe, secretly, I am.”
Mixing literature and her Judaism is something that came naturally to Rabbi Klein Miles. “I always loved writing. I wanted to be a writer.” As a young girl, she used to pull her parents’ copy of “Moby Dick” off the shelf. She would start reading and think, “This guy knows a lot about whaling.” She realized she “needed to know something. In so many books the main character is a writer. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to immerse (myself) in learning.”
“I was always fascinated by sacred literature, the beauty, the intrigue.”
That led her to study “sacred texts, ancient writing, scripture, exploring spirituality, exploring mysticism — these were journeys that inspired my love for language, for letters and for stories.” By age 10, she was reading the Bible with a dictionary by her side. “I was always fascinated by sacred literature, the beauty, the intrigue.”
Becoming a rabbi wasn’t on Klein Miles’ radar until, as an undergrad at Brandeis University, she decided to spend her junior year in Israel. While schmoozing with friends, she told them, “Gosh, if I was a man, I would be a rabbi.” While she had never met a female rabbi, and was “not the type to break through glass ceilings,” once she learned that “becoming a rabbi was possible, that was the direction I knew I needed to go.”
But, then again, Klein Miles is not the type to let roadblocks stand in her way. Early in her career, a publisher rejected her manuscript, telling her he didn’t accept fiction. She dug in, telling him that “fiction delivers messages and transmits values in a lasting way that imprints itself into our hearts and souls.” The publisher gave in. “Unlike non-fiction, stories stay with us for a lifetime.”
Looking back, the 52-year-old Klein Miles said she doesn’t wish she had taken the path of being a fulltime writer. “I know a lot of people who are. The interesting thing is, I think that I produce as much, if not more, because of the generativity of being in a community.”
Fast Takes with Rabbi Zöe Klein Miles
Jewish Journal: What favorite book is on your night table?
Rabbi Klein Miles: “Godel Escher Bach,” a fascinating book about the mind and patterns in the universe.
JJ: Your favorite Jewish food?
Rabbi Klein Miles: Cholent.
JJ: Your favorite kind of music?
Rabbi Klein Miles: I love the ‘80s. Classic rock. But my favorite is the music my children make. My younger daughter Zimra plays guitar. My son Rachmiel is a beautiful guitarist, also plays banjo and sitar. Kinneret is a professional musician – pop, jazz, New Wave, alternative music.