Local novelist Pam Jenoff grew up in Marlton, currently resides in Cherry Hill, and has held many titles in her life.
From Cambridge University graduate, to former special assistant to the Secretary of the Army, to member of the State Department at the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland, to graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to attorney in Philadelphia, to current mother of three and teacher at the Rutgers University School of Law, Jenoff has accomplished much.
However, throughout that long list of accomplishments was Jenoff’s lingering desire to hold one title in particular — writer.
That desire eventually came to forefront of Jenoff’s life in September 2001 after the 9/11 attacks when she first became a lawyer.
“When 9/11 happened, I had this life epiphany that I call ‘dear God I don’t want to die at the law firm,’” Jenoff said. “Being a lawyer was a great thing, but I wanted to be a novelist.”
Jenoff soon took a novel writing course at Temple University and got to work.
In 2007, after years of squeezing in writing during her law career, came her international best selling novel “The Kommandant’s Girl,” the story of the 19-year-old Jewish Emma Bau and her life as the Nazis invade her native Poland.
Seven years later, and now having written seven books, Jenoff’s life as a writer is still in full swing.
As recently as last week, Jenoff was once again a guest at the Katz JCC’s Arts, Books and Culture Festival, the annual weeklong series that brings Jewish authors, speakers, artists, events and activities to the center.
As a member of the Katz JCC and author whose books all have the epicenter of World War II, Jenoff said appearing at the ABC Festival in Cherry Hill was special.
“I always joke that I could stand in the middle of Barnes & Noble holding a sign and not get recognized as a writer, but if I’m in the locker-room here getting dressed, someone will be like ‘aren’t you…?’ so it’s special on many levels to be here and talk to my home community.”
And while Jenoff said she wouldn’t necessarily describe herself as observant, she said Judaism is essential to her identity and work.
“I think my years in Poland, really seeing what had happened there and the way people were trying to hold on to that last little bit of Jewish life over there, really cemented it for me, really cemented my identity much more so,” Jenoff said.
With that in mind, Jenoff describes the Katz JCC as a type of “home field” she’s always excited to play.
“I use the expression in Jewish — it’s the Shtetl, which is like the village, so this is the modern-day equivalent of the village where we come and we know everybody and it’s a safe and inviting place that we love.”
Jenoff also extends that love of connecting with people to those outside Cherry Hill, both when visiting book fairs across the country and interacting with readers online.
In the Internet age, Jenoff said she’s able to connect with readers on a sustained, meaningful basis, video-chatting with book clubs or just seeing how her books have touched readers.
“Smart, engaged groups of readers like this are kind of my happy place for a conversation…for me that’s really it,” Jenoff said. “I develop these relationships so it’s about the books, but it’s about so much more than the books. It’s about the connections.”
In addition to the “The Kommandant’s Girl,” Jenoff’s novels include “The Diplomat’s Wife,” “The Ambassador’s Daughter,” “Almost Home,” “A Hidden Affair,” “The Things We Cherished” and her newest work “The Winter Guest.”
“This is a very happy place for me, having these two things, this duality,” Jenoff said. “It’s a little bit busy, but it’s definitely worth the stretch because I feel like I work for myself.”