Vanessa Zoltan, podcast host, atheist chaplain, and author of Praying with Jane Eyre joins Zibby to talk about her book and the path that led her to write it. After not feeling connected to prayer while enrolled in divinity school, Vanessa tried to approach Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a sacred text. Vanessa and Zibby talk about how what it means to connect on a spiritual level with a secular book, what she loves most about the popularity of Vanessa’s podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, and the influence her family’s history with the Holocaust has had on her life and her work.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Vanessa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to have you on.

Vanessa Zoltan: Thank you so much for having me on.

Zibby: I am excited to talk about your book and your podcast and your whole approach to reading a sacred text. This is speaking to the choir here, preaching to the choir. Talk about the book, your idea for the book, the whole pivot to divinity school, and how you arrived at using Jane Eyre as inspiration.

Vanessa: I grew up as a Jewish atheist, grandchild of four Holocaust survivors, so atheism was hard-won. I worked in education for ten years. I always wanted to be a teacher, so that’s what I went to school for and then worked at education nonprofits. Obviously, we need wonderful people in education, but the education nonprofit world sort of chewed me up and spit me out. I really found it dispiriting that I think we as a country just don’t believe that black and brown children deserve to learn. Otherwise, we would fund schools irrespective of property taxes and pay teachers more and do all these things. That, to me, seemed to be a soul problem. We as a country have that Calvinist notion that even at birth you must have done something wrong for your bad luck. Culturally, if you find out someone has cancer, we as Americans immediately want to be like, oh, did they smoke? Oh, did they — we want to blame people for their racial identities or bad luck or whatever it is that we see as them deserving, their poverty. That just really seemed to be something crushing and depressing about the American soul, and so I wanted to go to divinity school to think that through. This thought occurred to me in 2008 and 2009. I’m a millennial, so I was like, I’m never going to be able to retire anyway. This whole system is screwed. I might as well do something I like.

Chaplaincy, which is what I wanted to do when I went to div school, it’s reading, writing, and chatting. I was like, I love those things. I went to divinity school. About halfway through, I realized that I was not going to be able to teach myself how to pray. I really wanted to. I was visiting people in prisons and hospitals. They were asking me to pray. I just felt like I was faking it and performing. The reason was, I would go to temple and every time I heard the Shema, I would picture my family members saying the Shema right as the gas came out. I just couldn’t get over that hump. I asked a professor to teach me how to pray using Jane Eyre because it’s my favorite book. I thought, this won’t trigger me. I was right and wrong. We spent six months figuring out what it meant to pray and starting from scratch and really breaking down what prayer was because we were using a secular text. I realized all the things that are probably obvious to a lot of other people, that Jane Eyre is patriarchal and racist and all the things that make it difficult, but I still found praying with it really rewarding. My book is a collection of sermons using Jane Eyre as the lectionary. Just like you would go to temple on a Friday or church on a Sunday, there’s a piece of text that you are in conversation with. My book is about resentment and romantic love and anger, but using Jane Eyre as the lectionary instead of the Bible. That was a very long answer, Zibby, I’m sorry.

Zibby: Don’t apologize. It was great. Reframed, it’s also a collection of essays. Whether you call it a sermon or an essay or whatever, they’re reflections. They’re reflections on texts. They’re reflections on you. It’s really a memoir in essays. Let me just tell you what your book is.

Vanessa: No, that’s absolutely right. That’s absolutely right. I appreciate you saying that. You don’t have to know Jane Eyre in order to enjoy the book, I would like to think. It’s really just reflecting on a quote in order to think through things in my own life.

Zibby: To be honest, I found the most interesting parts about you, not about Jane Eyre and your interpretation of it. Your story was what was so powerful to me. The fact that you’re using the text in that way was also really powerful. You have this line, or not line, about how to use a text to make it sort of a sacred text. I’m just going to read this little paragraph so people even understand what you’re talking about. You say, “Do this at home. Pick up your favorite book or pick out something else you love, be it knitting or baseball, and let it teach you how to get better at being a loving person in the world. If you want to do it with books like I did, it’s easy. Just read the book over and over. Write down in a journal, the sentences that speak to you. Collect them and recite them. Pray them. Meditate on them. Think about them. There are no wrong ways to do this. It’s really just earnestly asking a text to change you and letting go of the control as to how it will change you. Some of you may, in fairness, think I am reading too much into the world we find in Jane Eyre. To you, I say, maybe and join me anyway. Let’s read too much because otherwise, we risk reading too little. Let’s find the strange stuff. The strange stuff is the stuff of life, the beautiful unknown, the exciting unforeseeable. The strange stuff may get you on your knees even when you really don’t believe in getting on your knees.” I love that, Vanessa. I am obsessed with this paragraph and this whole approach. I feel like this is what I do anyway. This is what so many book lovers do and why they hold them as sort of talismans. Sometimes I just touch the books; I feel better. It’s so ridiculous.

Vanessa: No. It’s people talking to you from across time and from their most vulnerable points of view. They’re really curated, so it’s their best-articulated thoughts. Books are offerings of really vulnerable things. A novel is such an embarrassing thing. It’s like, here were my daydreams and my imagination. It’s so vulnerable. People are just offering them to us. Of course, they deeply touch us. There are studies that show that readers are more empathetic than other people. Obviously, that is not a one-to-one ratio. There are many great readers who, I’m sure, are jerks. Obviously, there are a lot of people who don’t love reading who are .

Zibby: I think it also depends what you’re reading.

Vanessa: Yes, absolutely. Reading changes us.

Zibby: You look on someone’s bookshelves, and it tells you about somebody. When I just made that joke about people reading, maybe they’re reading all these angry books. I don’t know where I was going with that.

Vanessa: Bill O’Reilly.

Zibby: Yeah, or something, just vitriol. What you said about the Shema and the gas chambers, oh, my gosh. All your passages in the book about your family history and Auschwitz and what percent survived, the part, to me, that really resonated and that was different than so much else that’s been written on this topic was how you, generations later, are trying so hard to put yourself in that situation. I think I related because I do this all the time in horrible events. What was that like? I want to be in that. You say that you really go there. What was it like? What would it sound like? What would it feel like? You essentially reexperience it just in your mind with active imagination. Then it’s this generational trauma that seeps through.

Vanessa: It’s definitely a generational trauma. I also just think these types of things are still happening all over the world. I think that with climate change, we have events like this in our future. COVID was a version of this. We had people in hospitals dying. That was happening along racial and socioeconomic lines. We allow for genocides all the time. I am not part of the solution. I am not better than that, but I definitely want to be ready for when it happens in a way that I can do something more than I already do. The one piece of surviving thing that I have from my mom’s mom is because a neighbor hid it, this tiny, worthless jewelry box. That obviously wasn’t enough, but it was something. I want to be paying attention around me in a very Timothy Snyder, fighting tyranny through just paying attention to the people around you and being loving to the people around you. The Holocaust wouldn’t have been able to happen if neighbors had defended their Jewish neighbors.

Zibby: There’s even that thing — you said how whenever people visited friends’ houses — sorry, I’m stuttering here — your family would say, “Well, they’re a nice friend, but would they hide us?” Oh, my gosh, the lens through which you’re viewing friendship. You wrote, “They’d debate. Would these friends who’d just fed us, accepted our flowers, laughed with us, and hugged away hide us from the Nazis if the Nazis came to the streets of Los Angeles tomorrow? March 3rd, 1989, that’s what it was at the time.” You said, “Literally, all four of my grandparents spent time in Auschwitz. My mom’s parents met in Auschwitz. I met my partner on OkCupid. So for my parents, this question of who would hide us was not an academic one. They were trying to teach us. They were modeling for us that picking friends wasn’t just about laughing around the table. It was a question of life or death, and it was a question of life or death for both parties.” That is heavy stuff.

Vanessa: One of my best friends, Matt Potts, he cohosts “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” with me. He’s really a person who I talk to every day. The first time I left his family’s house, I don’t know how we ended up talking about it, but I brought this up, that I’m always curious when I leave a house now, would they save us? I feel like we connected so strongly because he’s half Japanese and spends a lot of his time studying the internment camps in the United States. He was like, “I really struggle with it.” He had three really little kids at the time. He was like, “I don’t know if I would be able to bring that danger into my house.” Then a couple days later, he was like, “I don’t know if I would be able to model for my children that we say no to a friend.” A couple days later, he was like, “But man –” Watching him process that was so illuminating to me of how hard those decisions were for people at the time and how hard those decisions are for all of us all the time. In Houston, there was flooding and no electricity. Do you let your neighbors in? For how long? These are live questions for all of us. Joel Osteen has the biggest megachurch in Texas and during Hurricane Harvey, closed the doors and locked them and did not let people in. That is criminal. I think it’s important for all of us to think through questions so that we let people in in times of crisis.

Zibby: Wow. That is something that should be actively thought about. It’s one of those things. It’s something that, when emergencies happen — although, with COVID, people are making those decisions all the time as well. Who are you going to quarantine with? All of that.

Vanessa: COVID was so strange because it was the opposite. It wasn’t community outreach. It was, the thing you can do is lock yourself up at home to stay safe, which I feel like, psychologically, was hard for everyone.

Zibby: I feel like maybe I dreamt the whole thing. Some days, I’m like, did that really happen? No, that couldn’t have happened. It must be in my imagination.

Vanessa: It was like a novel.

Zibby: It was, yeah. So you wrote this book. Along the way, also discovering this massive podcast following. You started with Jane Eyre. You moved on to different texts. You went to Harry Potter and started putting your unique, amazing lens on that book. Then tell me about turning that into a podcast and everything that’s happened since with that.

Vanessa: I started a Jane Eyre reading group. There were four women who came every week. One week, my friend Casper came. He was like, “This is really amazing, what you’re doing, reading secular texts as sacred. You should do it with a book people actually want to read.” I was like, “That’s so mean. Everyone loves Jane Eyre.” He was like, “No, everyone loves Harry Potter.” I was like, “Oh, that’s smart.” Instead of four people, eighty people came. Really, it was just luck. We were doing this as part of a small community congregation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, affiliated with Harvard Divinity School. Sam Freedman from The New York Times came up to write an article about atheists in divinity school. We got mentioned in it. To your point earlier that this is what readers do, readers from all over the world wrote to us being like, “I read Harry Potter every year on the anniversary of my father’s death. I have a whole quote journal full of Harry Potter books. When I’m sad, I reread them. I fall asleep to Jim Dale reading me these books every night. Can I join your class?” This was in 2015. We didn’t have Zoom the way that we do now. Also, we were just like, something really intimate is happening here. We had people break up in small groups. We basically just kept saying no to people. Matt Potts, that man I was just talking about, was like, “You guys should do this as a podcast.” We were like, “We don’t know anything about podcasting.”

It turns out that there was a first-year at the divinity school who was studying digital media as ministry. She went through a depression. Her name’s Ariana Nedelman. She went through a depression right as she graduated from college. John Green and Hank Green’s Nerdfighteria really got her through that time, and some of the Pemberley Digital Jane Austen reimaginings. She came to divinity school to study how those communities matter. The three of us, Casper, Ariana, and I, partnered up. Our goal was to have three hundred listeners and just to do proof of concept that you can treat secular things as sacred. We somehow ended up with eighty thousand listeners. It became its own thing. Then I didn’t want to just be the Harry Potter company because Harry Potter‘s complicated. J.K. Rowling has really let her hateful transphobia taint those books. We’re still treating Harry Potter as sacred and leaving J.K. Rowling at the door. We also treat romance novels as sacred. We have a podcast, “The Real Question,” where we treat different texts as sacred every week. We don’t want Harry Potter to be the whole proof of concept, but it’s been amazing. We’ve been doing this for five years now. We have eighty local groups who meet all over the world. We have one in Latvia and then one in each borough of New York City who meet and do this every week, treat Harry Potter as sacred in small communities, which is the best part of it to me, that people are bringing each other soup and doing all the things that communities do.

Zibby: Wow, it’s so amazing, the power of your idea and how it’s taken off and changed people’s lives. That’s a mitzvah, atheist or not. I also thought it was so interesting, your whole, I’m Jewish and here are all the eight thousand ways that I’m Jewish, and yet I don’t know that I believe in God. I have to hold that alongside all the rest, which is complicated. Yet you explain it very clearly and hold that. That’s the lens through which we see everything you’re doing. Hats off to you.

Vanessa: I do love being Jewish. I really do. God, I’m talking about him so much; we’re having the Potts family over on Sunday to do Hanukkah. My younger stepdaughter is nine. Last Passover, she turned to me and said, “I’m a little bit Jewish, right?” I was like, “Yeah, you are.” We have a very Jewish household. I just really can’t believe in the afterlife, is always where it hits a wall for me. I want to make paradise here on Earth and not pay attention to the afterlife. I have all these lofty goals. I do not go around doing good deeds all the time, but these are the things I like to think about.

Zibby: Actually, you do. How many good deeds does one person have to do to be someone who does good deeds? You do one, and that’s pretty good. Not every single thing. You don’t have to do it on the way to Starbucks. Wait, I’m losing my train of thought, which I almost never do. What were you saying one second ago? I wanted to keep talking about it.

Vanessa: My stepdaughter said, “I’m a little bit Jewish.” That I’m Jewish and an atheist?

Zibby: Oh, yeah, I wanted to know — you said that you don’t believe in the afterlife. You don’t have to answer this. It’s none of my business. Do you believe in signs from people who have passed away? Do you believe that somehow their souls linger, or that there’s nothing?

Vanessa: I believe in what’s written in the Song of Songs, that love is stronger than death. I never met my grandfather. He died eleven years before I was born. My dad told me so many stories about him that my father’s love for him turned into my love for him. I think his memory is a blessing in my life even though I never met him. I would like to keep telling my stepdaughters those stories so that his memory is a blessing in their lives. I just believe that that love and those memories keep us buoyed. I don’t believe that there’s a conversation happening. I also believe that sometimes people’s deaths are mercy in our lives. My grandfather, my mom’s dad who I was incredibly close to and spoke to several times a week and visited constantly, his death has created a lot of freedom as far as, he was very controlling with our extended family. As much as I miss him, and his memories are so many blessings in my life, because he’s dead, I no longer have to talk to certain really abusive people. I think both are true. Death is so material. It’s just so complicated. Yes, I absolutely believe that love is stronger than death, that we can love people past death, and that their love can keep working on us even once they’re dead.

Zibby: I like that. Their love can keep working on us. That’s nice. You wrote really openly about your depression in the book and times when you were bedbound and the gift of Zoloft and all of it. How are you managing that today?

Vanessa: Mostly, really well. I have been on the same three medications for fifteen years now. I was depressed at the age of five. I had childhood depression. This is me post-diagnosing myself, which I don’t think we should do to each other, but I feel fine doing to myself. The moment I remember is the first time I got a homework assignment in kindergarten. My thought was, this is the beginning of the end. Now my life is all work and turmoil. Everything was received by me as negative. A lot of negative self-talk and all of those things. At twenty-three, it got so bad that I wasn’t functioning. I lost fifty pounds and was unable to go to work and live a functioning life. God bless my mom. I called her. I was living in St. Louis, Missouri. I’m from Los Angeles. I called my mom. I said, “I need you to fly here and drive home with me.” I had a car in St. Louis. We drove back to LA. My mom, who was working full time, just figured out ways to lie to her bosses and drive me around until we found a psychiatrist.

This man saved my life. He came out. I told him my symptoms. He said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I find you very boring, but the good is that’s because you’re textbook. Take these pills.” I say I can still feel despair and depression, but I’m able to function through it now. I’m able to rust through it or go on a walk through it, but it’s no longer ruining friendships. I was really anxious about going on medication. I was always really creative. I felt like it might kill something in me. I called my best friend Kim. I said, “I’m really struggling with this decision.” She said, “Oh, it’s not your decision. It’s my decision. When you’re depressed, you’re a really bad friend. I can’t count on you, so I need you to take these meds.” I was like, “Okay.” That was just it to me. I was like, I want to be a good friend to Kim. God bless her.

Zibby: Wow. Is she still a good friend?

Vanessa: Oh, yeah. We’ve been best friends since we were five. She’s my soulmate. My partner is great, but she’s my soulmate. I’m very lucky.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. Thank you to Kim. What are you working on now? Are you working on another book? Yes?

Vanessa: Yes. I am working on a romance novel. That is very fun. Then the other book I’m working on — I’m working on a proposal for treating women’s memoirs as sacred. I think women save each other all the time through conversations like this and through podcasts like yours and through talking about how devastating that miscarriage was or how hard menopause was. Those conversations, for whatever reason, are relegated outside of mainstream conversation. Women’s memoirs, though, are like whispering to each other. I want to look really closely at that and see what it is that women are saying to one another because I think it’s pretty exceptional, what we’re saying to one another. I want to treat those voices as sacred.

Zibby: Wow, I love that idea. I am a huge fan of memoir, huge, obsessed. I feel like books have gotten me through — specifically, those types, but also fiction — everything in life. I feel like that’s, in part, why I’ve built this whole thing. I’m so grateful. I’m just so grateful to the books, to the people behind the books. It’s such a gift. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Vanessa: I got so lucky. I only got a book deal because my podcast had an audience. The thing I will say is I know writers — really, really — who blind-wrote query letters to agents and have gotten book deals. I would say write. Write something you’re proud of. Then write to a million agents until someone sees your brilliance. It is not as opaque and impossible a process as it might seem from the outside. Google “how to write a good query letter.” All the information is out there. I really do think it’s doable. I hate that the publishing industry makes itself look like an ivory tower. It’s not. It’s more porous than it seems. Go for it, is my advice.

Zibby: I started my own publishing company, I don’t know if you know, it’s called Zibby Books.

Vanessa: I do.

Zibby: I’ve knocked down this tower.

Vanessa: Zibby, your website had such a wonderful invitation of, do you think that Zibby might like one of your books? I was just like, okay, I’m going to fill out this form. You and I are talking, absolutely, because you’re knocking down that ivory tower. I just blind-wrote you.

Zibby: I know. I started reading your book. It was so great. I feel like yours is an example of a book that — it just should be a much bigger book. That’s all. It’s so good.

Vanessa: My mom agrees.

Zibby: I’m serious. You’re a great writer. You have such an amazing soul and desire to help. It’s great. I’m really glad we connected.

Vanessa: Thank you. Likewise.

Zibby: It was great to meet you.

Vanessa: It was lovely to meet you too.



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