Linda Frank wraps up Miss Marple, Chinese Jews and a stolen Iraqi Torah all into her new mystery The Lost Torah of Shanghai.
If you need help looking for the afikomen, amateur (and fictional) sleuth Lily Kovner could probably find it.
Kovner is the protagonist of Linda Frank’s two books, After the Auction and The Lost Torah of Shanghai, the latter of which she will be discussing at the Gershman Y as part of its Book It! series on April 7.
Both stories follow Kovner, an older Jewish woman with a keen journalistic eye and a rich family history that leads her on several mysteries to discover the backgrounds and whereabouts of familial treasures — a seder plate in the first book and a Torah in the second — stolen by Nazis and Communists.
In the latter, Kovner embarks on a journey to find the historic Iraqi Torah scroll taken from the home of a Chinese government official in Shanghai.
The mystery of the scroll comes about from Kovner’s recently discovered cousin, Ruth, who is half-Jewish and half-Chinese and living in Israel.
Kovner (laughingly) takes on the embodiment of a “Jewish Miss Marple,” referencing the infamous Agatha Christie character.
Her second novel definitely focuses more on the mystery than the fact-based fiction of the first one, although extensive research was still required.
“This book is sort of a sequel in the sense that it centers on something that was inspired by this cousin, Ruth,” she explained. “The book involves all of the streams of Jewish settlements in China from the Kaifeng Jews to the Iraqi Sephardic Jews, the Russian Jews to the Jews who came to China to escape the Nazis.”
In fact, Frank had a surprising amount of prior knowledge of Chinese Jews.
She used to be on the board of the American Jewish Committee in San Francisco and organized exhibits across the country for several years.
One was called “Jews and Modern China,” which was sponsored by the Chinese government. It depicted the history and artifacts of this not-so-well-known culture.
“I met a lot of people in the Bay Area with those stories and family stories. We added to the exhibit people’s mementos and pictures from their life,” she noted. “Jews and non-Jews are very surprised about that whole history.”
But Frank has somewhat close ties to China. Her son and daughter-in-law have lived in China since the late 1990s, and she’s visited them 12 times. She also once co-led a Jewish trip to China.
“I’ve always been interested in the stories of Jewish communities in places you might not expect them,” she continued. “At some point, I really found that before the war, before the Communists came, they had Zionists organizations, they had Yiddish theater, they had really established Jewish communities like there also were in Europe.”
And like any Jewish mother who doesn’t get to see her children often, she sends them homemade baked goods.
“He’s had Passover brownies, mandel bread, honey cake, lots of banana bread — they’ve all gone to China all these years,” she laughed. “The China experience is very much a part of my life.”
That’s also true for Kovner, whom Frank loosely based on herself: a journalist in her 60s who swims for exercise and sends care packages to her children.
“Making this kind of story a mystery or a novel at all came from the story of one character in the first book who was an older man, sort of a surrogate uncle to Lily,” Frank added, “sort of resembles in some ways a man that my mother told me about during the war. I could never find enough information about him to do a decent magazine piece or anything like it. I ended up incorporating what I knew about that story and making him a little diabolical,” which became “Uncle” Nachman Tanski, who passed away in the first book but left a lasting impression.
“It really came out of being a sometime journalist and finding a story I wanted to tell but not being able to get enough facts,” she said.
Frank hopes attendees at the Gershman Y will enjoy her discussion, which is actually “framed in a journalistic way,” she explained. “I really back up more than just the story of these fictional characters with what’s important about the history.”
As for a third book, Frank’s inspiration will go far deeper than fiction.
“The third book will be based on a family story of a cousin of mine who was left with a Catholic family in what was then Poland, now Ukraine, during the war,” she said.
For decades, no one could track her down — until the Soviet Union fell.
By that point, she had grown up, married and had children.
But just before she died, she told her granddaughter that she was actually Jewish, a secret she had kept her whole life out of fear. That granddaughter has since made aliyah.
“That’s a true story,” she laughed. “So I’m beginning to think of it as a Lily story.”