Israeli-American mystery novelist has KC roots

JERUSALEM — Novelist Libi Feinberg, in her backyard garden.

JERUSALEM — Since she left Kansas City for college, Libi Feinberg has done many things and lived in many places.

With the publication this year of her first novel, “The Disappearing Dowry: An Ezra Melamed Mystery,” by Israel’s Zahav Press, her latest incarnation is as an acclaimed mystery novelist.

Feinberg was visiting her parents, Kehilath Israel Synagogue members Morris and Ruth Feinberg, last November when she got a call from a publisher’s representative, inviting her to write the book, which is to be the first in a series.

Feinberg said the offer was a surprise and a challenge, considering the varied paths she had taken in her life.

Feinberg graduated from the University of Michigan with a major in theatre, English literature and history. She moved to New York in 1976, took a class at the New School for Social Research and became a poet.

In 1979, she took off for Israel, where she spent six months on a kibbutz and another six months in a development town “and fell in love with the country.”

“I didn’t grow up as a Zionist,” she says candidly.

After that year, she returned to New York. But in 1981, during the First Lebanon War, she came on aliyah to Kibbutz Yiron, in the upper Galilee, near the Lebanese border.

That wasn’t pioneering enough for her, though, so in 1982 she moved to Kibbutz Ketura in the Negev, became a member and lived there until 1985, working with young children, in the enamel workshop and providing horseback rides to tourists.

“That reminded me of Barney Goodman camp and horseback riding at Benjamin Stables!” she said.

On two different occasions, she directed Ketura’s Purim shpiels, which were big musical productions.

“It reawakened the theater bug, and, ultimately, I knew kibbutz wasn’t for me, so I left and went back to New York,” Feinberg explained.

After receiving an MBA in marketing and international business, she got a job with the Manhattan Theatre Club, an off-Broadway theatre, where she started to direct, “fulfilling my dreams.”

After about five years, though, she realized “the dream was kind of empty.” She started to explore, became religious and joined a synagogue. This was the process that showed her she wanted to go back to Israel, and she returned in 1995.

‘Something I can have fun with’
She stayed with longtime friend, former Kansas City Jewish Chronicle Editor Diane Wolkow Schaefer, then found an apartment, managed an art gallery in Jerusalem’s Old City and finally got a job doing public relations for a firm specializing in nonprofit organizations.

Feinberg also began to write for Mishpacha, a magazine targeted at Orthodox Jews and published in both English and Hebrew.

While there in 2007 to 2008, she began to write a serialized novel, “Terra Incognita,” which, in turn, was picked up by Jerusalem publisher Targum and will be published in the fall.

“It’s about descendants of anusim (i.e., marranos, or crypto-Jews) living in a small village in Catalonia, in northeast Spain. This led me to a trip to Spain for research and to write a four-part series on the Jews of that area,” she says.

Libi’s books are written under a pen name, “Libi Astaire,” (It’s close to her real name of Libi Esther) because she didn’t want her name as Libi Feinberg so much out in the public.

While Feinberg was visiting in Prairie Village last year, the CEO of Targum Press called to tell her he was starting a new paperback imprint, Zahav Press, and asked if she would like to write a book.

“I decided to do something I can have fun with, a mystery series, taking place in the 1800s England in the Jewish community. The detective is a ——— parnas ——– (wealthy benefactor of the synagogue),” Libi says.

The book, “The Disappearing Dowry: An Ezra Melamed Mystery,” was published in April for adults, but it also has appeal to young adults. It is already being considered for the prestigious Sydney Taylor Book Award for 2010. (This is an annual award for a book for children or teens that authentically portrays the Jewish experience and is awarded by the Association of Jewish Libraries.)

Breaking the mold
On her blog, The Book of Life, south Florida Jewish librarian Heidi Estrin praised “The Disappearing Dowry,” calling it “a light and enjoyable read, one that frequently made me smile.”

“When I first heard that it was written ‘in the style of Jane Austen,’ I admit I was worried: books written in a famous author’s style … can easily fall short,” wrote Estrin. “However, this book feels like a loving tribute to Austen rather than a cheap imitation … What really sets the book apart is its portrayal of Jewish life in 19th century England. We see an active Jewish community, proud of its heritage yet comfortably British, but also aware of its outsider status. There are few books that explore this setting in a Jewish context, and I found it very refreshing.

“I also found it quite refreshing that anti-Semitism was not a strong theme in this book. It would have been so easy for the author to use anti-Semitism as motive for the mystery’s central crime. The theme of prejudice dominates much of Jewish literature, and I feel that Libi Astaire breaks the mold by choosing not to follow that path.”

Now Feinberg is writing the second book in the Ezra Melamed series.

What else is in her future?

“My next step is to sell my book for a movie. It would be perfect for the Hallmark Hall of Fame! she exclaims.

Reflecting on the circuitous path her life has taken, Feinberg said, “I really feel when you come to Israel, that’s when you discover who you really are and what your purpose is in this life. HaShem is going to help guide you so you can fulfill that purpose.”


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