S.F. writer creates Jewish heroine reaching the threshold of old age

Meet Mona Pinsky. She's a 64-year-old restaurant hostess and grandmother of two. She likes bright outfits — turquoise skirts, orange jerseys, flowered leggings. She's got arthritis but still enjoys sex.

And she's about to become a "meddling old woman" — in the best sense of the phrase.

"I wanted to show in her something I've seen in so many women in my generation — a late blooming," said Harriet Ziskin, author of "The Adventures of Mona Pinsky."

The novel combines elements of a mystery and a coming-of-age story, in which Mona finally overcomes her lifetime of passivity, learns to assert herself, and confronts the "isms" holding her back. Anti-Semitism. Sexism. Ageism.

The metamorphosis begins when Mona overhears a conversation at work between four customers who appear to be plotting a crime. She soon gets caught up in political drama.

While the older Jewish male has long been a staple in fiction and drama, Mona may well be the first older Jewish heroine many readers have encountered in modern literature.

"Where I'm getting the most response — the nicest response — is from people who like the fact that she's an older Jewish woman," the 62-year-old San Francisco writer said.

Ziskin chose her heroine's age as 64 verging on 65 for a reason.

"Sixty-five in the American culture is the threshold of old age. You're officially old," she said with a chuckle.

Though many novelists have used aging as a theme, Ziskin said, most concentrate on physical and mental deterioration. Few focus on personal or emotional awakening, even though Ziskin said she's seen this happen time and time again in real life.

"What makes this unusual — this is an older person who is growing," she said. "It's not emphasizing the shrinking. It's emphasizing the growth."

The author said the phenomenon of the late bloomer is particularly visible in women like herself who grew up during the first half of this century.

Mona never went to college because her mother didn't consider higher education "feminine," but even women like Ziskin who attended Radcliffe were presented with a similar message.

"It was OK for us to develop our intellect, but the reason was to serve our men," she said.

Therefore, Ziskin said, the traditional coming of age has occurred much later in life for many of her contemporaries. The author, however, doesn't fit into that category. She earned a doctorate in education from U.C. Berkeley in 1972 and already wrote one book of nonfiction based on covering the criminal courts as a freelance journalist.

Though Ziskin contends that Mona is an amalgamation of acquaintances, particularly those she met during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, she acknowledges at least one similarity between Mona and herself.

Both are assimilated Jews who grew up in New York and moved to California as adults.

Mona's childhood is unclear, but Ziskin said her family didn't belong to a synagogue and celebrated only one holiday each year, Passover. Ziskin believes her parents felt a sense of shame that may have stemmed from their view of Jews as victims.

"It was really through the civil-rights movement that I got in touch with my Jewish past," Ziskin said.

She became involved in the movement as an adult when she began working as an aide for Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, one of the few black Congress members in the 1960s. She later worked in the then-U.S. Office of Education, planning desegregation for Southern schools.

Meeting blacks, who shared a history as victims of racism, helped Ziskin overcome feelings of shame about her heritage.

"It eased the way for me to confront my own background," she said.

Though Ziskin now embraces her Jewish identity, it is as a political philosophy rather than a religious commitment.

"To be Jewish is to be involved in your community," she said. "If you have any money, you share it. If you have any time, you give it."

In the novel, Mona is also forced to examine her Jewish identity in response to acts of anti-Semitism and visions of her thoroughly Jewish but long-dead Uncle Gabe. By doing so and becoming involved in her community at the same time, Mona is transformed.

"She's not going to run off and go to synagogue or High Holy Day services," Ziskin said. "But she's a much more whole person."