Judy Petsonk compares herself to the queen she portrays in her latest book, but only up to a point.
“I am the mother of two young adults, I’ve been married for nearly 30 years, and I’m ‘a woman of a certain age,’” she said. “But my husband and children are truly lovable and bear no resemblance to the family of Shalom-Zion.”
Just how unlovable that family was is part of the intriguing drama that drew Petsonk, a former newspaper reporter, to Shalom-Zion, otherwise known as Queen Salome Alexandra, and inspired her to write Queen of the Jews. Though a work of fiction, the book explores the extraordinary life of this historic figure who ruled Judea two centuries after the Maccabees fought for its freedom, and around a hundred years before the birth of Jesus.
The writer, who lives in Highland Park, will discuss the queen and the book — along with four other authors talking about their works — at an event sponsored by the sisterhood of Congregation Beth Chaim on Sunday afternoon, March 15.
Shalom-Zion “was a contemporary of three Cleopatras, though not the one you’re thinking of,” Petsonk writes on her website. “Though you may never have heard of her, she has had an enormous influence on your life and Western civilization in general. Her chaotic, colorful times may remind you a lot of our own.”
Petsonk learned about Shalom-Zion while on a visit to Israel in 2005. Archaeologists had uncovered ruins of her palaces and forts, along with their ritual baths and other evidence of the queen’s Jewish observance. While Petsonk used her imagination to fill in the vast gaps in the historical record, seven years of research provided a groundwork that astounded her.
“As a grade school kid, I loved to read historic fiction. I longed for stories about strong, powerful women and couldn’t find them,” she says in a video on her website. In this queen, “who wasn’t Esther,” she found one.
Petsonk’s previous two books are nonfiction. In Taking Judaism Personally: Creating a Meaningful Spiritual Life, she conveys the ways in which her selection of “mystics, feminists, and non-observant Jews exploring tradition share their spiritual journeys.” She says it “opens a wide variety of possibilities in contemporary Jewish life to those seeking a spiritual home in Judaism.”
In The Intermarriage Handbook: A Guide for Jews and Christians, which she coauthored with Jim Remsen, Petsonk provides practical self-help advice “for intermarried families and those who love them.”