Hillel Lecturer Nancy Matus: Jewish Heritage Through Her Storytelling

On Wednesday, April 6, Nancy Matus spoke to the Hillel Club and members of the public in Schaefer 111. Matus, a retired dermatologist from Easton, PA, is now a Maryland resident and is promoting her debut novel Free like a Bird.

Free like a Bird features Yosef Matsevitsky, a Jew, as the story’s protagonist and Ivan, a gentile, Yosef’s friend and later antagonist. Matus described the book as a coming of age tale filled with adventure elements.

The book’s setting is 1913 Ukraine. Seven-year-old Josef learns of his father’s plan to immigrate to America from Ukraine in hopes of finding a better life. The story follows Yosef and his family over ten years as they struggle to reunite with the father amidst war, revolution, and anti-Semitism.

The story’s climax occurs when the Bolshevik Revolution forces Josef to return home from Kiev to confront Ivan’s betrayal. The story is a fictionalized memoir, based on real events which occurred during Matus’ father-in-law’s childhood.

Matus used her father-in-law’s memoirs and stories to create the characters and situations of the novel. She said she wrote the book in honor of her father-in-law and to educate her grandchildren and great-grandchildren about their Jewish heritage.

Junior Karina Mandell said writing to teach Jewish heritage helps people “understand the context of some of the scenarios. I’m sure it helped her writing and gave it more authenticity. It might have even helped her step outside her culture/familiarity and see how things used to be from a historian’s perspective.” When describing her initial reactions to the author and her book, Junior Gabrielle Cantor said, “I was impressed and curious [about] the amount of detail… [and I] was also impressed by all the different events that she summarized, which occur to this young boy.”

Although her use of a fictional narrative allowed for more literary creativity, Mandell thought “her use of narrative took away from the authenticity of Josef.” Matus played a cassette tape of her father-in-law speaking about his bar mitzvah, which Mandell said, “had much more gore” than the account in the novel.

Matus said one of the difficulties of writing the book was the inability to travel to the cities in the novel to experience the culture and atmosphere. Most of the towns and buildings described in the story were destroyed over the course of both world wars.

Junior Ariel Webster thought that “having gone there [Matus] might have acquired a feel for the landscape at least. At the same time I don’t think it would have added all that much if she had.”

Cantor said, “I have heard many stories similar to this one, but every one is unique and this story is no exception.”


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