Author Archives: Wayne Hoffman

Are E-Books Kosher?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Earlier this week, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing, the meaning behind the names of a few of his characters, and a gay Jewish reading list.

There’s a scene in my novel Sweet Like Sugar where Benji, the main character, finds himself alone in an Orthodox rabbi’s house. The first thing he does is check out the bookshelves that line every wall: religious commentary in the study, nonfiction (in English and Hebrew and occasionally Yiddish) covering everything from ancient Jewish history to the Holocaust in the living room, coffee table books about Israeli art and archaeology in the dining room, kosher cookbooks in the kitchen, even a shelf of poetry in the bedroom. Benji notes the differences between the rabbi’s collection and that of his Conservative parents, which has less scripture but more fiction (Roth, Malamud, Sholom Aleichem), as well as a smattering of non-Jewish books: Civil War histories, Tom Clancy novels, biographies of Bill Clinton and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Two Jewish households,” Benji muses to himself.

Benji can tell a lot about people by the books they keep. Everyone can. But for how much longer?

We all know about the rise of digital books, whether they’re on your Kindle or your Nook or your iPad. Print editions, meanwhile, are on the decline.

E-books have obvious virtues: they’re cheaper, friendlier to the environment, and take up less shelf space than traditional books. Paper-preferring holdouts fret about who loses in this digital revolution: bookstores with no products to sell, publishers with declining revenue despite healthy sales, authors whose royalties evaporate, readers who miss the physical pleasures of holding a real book – cracking the spine and dog-earing the pages.

But regardless of whether e-books are good or bad for literature, they offer a bleak future for people like Benji (or me), who see books — what people read, what they keep, what they display — as a window into their owners’ psyches. Writers and readers may adjust to digital formats, but we snoops will definitely suffer.

Some people peek into medicine chests when visiting a house for the first time, but I linger around the bookshelves to see what books reveal about their owners. One might have a disconcerting penchant for self-help books or Family Circus cartoon collections, while another has leather-bound volumes that, in their unopened state, seem obviously intended only to impress onlookers. Some hold on to college textbooks, while others check out mystery novels from libraries. One might pile paperbacks haphazardly on a nightstand while another alphabetizes books on well-ordered shelves. (Some people don’t have any books in their houses; they are the oddest of all.)

On a visit to Prague several years ago, I met a local man and struck up an acquaintance. We shared a few afternoons and a couple of meals, talking about art and politics and pop culture. We seemed in synch. When he asked if we could stop by his apartment on the city’s outskirts before dinner one night, I immediately accepted. I nodded along for the basic tour – the kitchen filled with slightly unfamiliar appliances, the sleekly European bathroom – but as soon as he excused himself to get us a drink, I headed straight for his bookshelves. Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Michael Cunningham, and biographies of everyone from Madonna to Sigmund Freud. Cultural criticism, history, philosophy, geopolitics. In English—which, I discovered, was just one of about a half dozen languages he spoke. There were books in Spanish and French, Czech and his native Romanian, works by authors I had on my own shelves in Greenwich Village alongside those by people whose names I could neither recognize nor pronounce properly.

I’d already had a good feeling about my new acquaintance – good enough to visit his home. But it wasn’t until I saw his books that I really understood him, and felt certain I wanted to know him better. His books indicated to me a shared sensibility: curiosity, humor, skepticism, thoughtfulness. Sure enough, we have remained close friends for years despite being an ocean apart.

I have dozens of similar experiences, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Book snoops have taken stock of many unsuspecting people’s shelves, scanning titles, checking for dust, building personality profiles based on what we find. The joy of book-snooping isn’t even limited to potential friends or paramours; you can get to know a stranger just as easily.

The place I rented three summers ago on Cape Cod lacked air conditioning or a bathroom door that closed properly. Delivery trucks and a faulty smoke alarm made it a difficult place to find peace and quiet. But never mind: It was filled with books. Whole shelves of well-worn plays, a wall of nonfiction about local history, an entire room for hardcover novels. I never met the books’ owner—I found the rental through an intermediary broker — but it was clearly someone organized, a focused collector and avid reader. It made an otherwise unremarkable, small apartment feel like a perfectly curated live-in library, and I felt connected to the unknown owner, and his apartment; I’ve reserved the same place every summer since, I’m staying there again this weekend when I kick off my book tour in Provincetown, and I’ll go back next summer, too. And I’ll be checking the shelves again, seeing what’s been added or removed or rearranged and trying to deduce what those changes imply.

We are what we read. If you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can still judge a person by his books. But this isn’t possible with e-books, unless you plan to swipe someone’s Kindle and scroll through the downloaded titles behind his back.

So hail, or at least grudgingly accept, the e-book – this novel marks my e-book debut, so I’m not knocking the format – but with one caveat: If, in the future, books and bookshelves have vanished from our homes, it will be a loss for anyone who uses those objects to learn more about us. Some things, an e-book simply can’t do.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips. He is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book NETWORK. For more information on booking Wayne, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org

Posted on September 1, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Gay Jewish Reading List

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Earlier this week, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing and shared the meaning behind the names of a few of his characters.

When I was first coming out 25 years ago, there were precious few books about being gay and Jewish. Thankfully, that’s not the case today. There are enough to fill whole bookcases. But will anyone who isn’t gay read them?

Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry says that non-gay people won’t read books with gay themes – with the notable exception of works by humorists, such as David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs, who play their lives for laughs. Straight people can’t relate seriously to gay life, the thinking goes; they don’t know from such things, and they don’t want to know.

Even if there’s a kernel of truth in that notion – and I fear, sadly, that there often is – straight Jewish readers in particular should be able to bridge this culture gap by choosing Jewish gay books: While some of the gay content might be unfamiliar, at least the Jewish content will provide a point of identification.

Where to start? Well, my own book, of course. (Here comes the plug.) Sweet Like Sugar includes characters representing a diverse array of Jewish practice, from secular to Orthodox, engaged to alienated. It’s a story of a young man named Benji Steiner, who’s rejected the Jewish traditions he grew up observing, searching for a place where he can still connect to his community. But it also follows Benji on his search for Mr. Right. If you’ve never read a book with gay characters and themes, I hope this’ll be your first.

But I also hope it won’t be your last. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of books on gay Jewish subjects. At the risk of leaving out many books and authors whose work is worth your time, here’s a brief list of GLBT books that non-gay Jewish readers will relate to. This list isn’t comprehensive, or representative of anything more than my own bookshelf, so feel free to add your own favorites.

Start with an anthology – it’ll give you a broad survey of what’s out there, and turn you on to authors whose work you’ll want to read more deeply. Nice Jewish Girls, a lesbian anthology edited by Evelyn Torton Beck, was the first of its kind, published in 1982. Twice Blessed, edited by Christie Balka and Andy Rose, came out a decade later, and includes dozens of personal and topical essays on everything from community to spirituality. Queer Jews, edited by David Shneer and Caryn Aviv, came out several years after Twice Blessed, and shows the continued evolution of thinking around GLBT issues for Jews. These three together provide a great historical background, as well as an introduction to some of the most important thinkers on these subjects.

Once you’ve got that foundation, check out a few more recent collections.Mentsh: On Being Jewish and Queer, edited by Angela Brown, features essays by some of the biggest GLBT literary names around. Found Tribe, edited by Lawrence Schimel, collects coming out stories from Jewish authors. AndBalancing on the Mechitza, edited by Noach Dzmura, is the first Jewish anthology to focus specifically on transgender issues.

If you’ve got a particular area of Jewish interest, there’s probably a gay-themed book that’s right for you. If enjoy reading about Israel, check out Between Sodom and Eden, by Lee Walzer, about the (mostly positive) situation for gay Israelis. If you’re drawn to Holocaust tales, read Gad Beck’s An Underground Life, the true (and truly amazing) story of a gay Jew who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Berlin. If you’re invested in cultural politics, Jay Michaelson’s persuasive God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality comes out this fall. Prefer books about spirituality? The Choosing, by Andrea Myers, recounts the unusual personal journey that led her from a Lutheran upbringing to an adult life as an ordained rabbi – and out lesbian. If memoirs are your thing, here are three to start with: Lillian Faderman’s Naked in the Promised Land, Stanley Ely’s In Jewish Texas, and Lawrence Mass’s Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite.

Lots of us prefer reading fiction. Sweet Like Sugar isn’t the only novel about gay and Jewish subjects. Two of my favorites are The Same Embrace by Michael Lowenthal (about twin brothers divided by religiosity and sexuality), and Faith for Beginners by Aaron Hamburger (about a mother and her gay son on a journey of surprising self-discovery in Israel). Other great family-focused novels include The Lost Language of Cranes by David Leavitt (set in New York City) and Light Fell by Evan Fallenberg (set in Israel). Sarah Schulman has written daring and complex books – fiction and nonfiction – for decades; start with her novel Rat Bohemia, which will make you look at “family” in a new way, and then work your way through her other titles. T Cooper’s Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, is one of the more unusual novels in recent years, combining an old-fashioned Jewish immigrant story with a modern-day gender-bending tale of troubled youth. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues blazed a trail for other transgender stories almost 20 years ago, and remains a classic. There’s much more. When in doubt, pick up almost anything (fiction, nonfiction, essays, mysteries) Lev Raphael ever wrote – beginning with his short story collections Dancing on Tisha B’Av and Secret Anniversaries of the Heart.

Now I’m going to throw in someone who usually doesn’t make this kind of list: David Feinberg. His books – two novels and one collection of essays – aren’t “about” being Jewish in the way that many of the titles above are. But his stories are steeped in Jewish identity and culture, and focus on Jewish characters; if you think Woody Allen makes Jewish movies, you’ll understand why Feinberg’s books are Jewish, too. Sardonic yet earnest, enraged yet hilarious, Feinberg was also one of the finest chroniclers of the AIDS epidemic, until his death at age 37 in 1994. (I think of him as a cross between Larry Kramer and Paul Rudnick – a front-line activist, but always on the lookout for something to laugh about.) Follow his neurotic Jewish protagonist B.J. Rosenthal through Eighty-Sixed, Feinberg’s dazzling debut novel, which contrasts gay life in New York before the epidemic to a time when gay men started dying in droves. Follow B.J. again in the sequel Spontaneous Combustion, in which he continues his search for love and sex in what has become an unrecognizable war zone. Or pick up Queer and Loathing, Feinberg’s biting collection of nonfiction essays, published weeks after his death, to get a sense of just how horrible things became – yet how humor, coupled with resolve and anger, helped so many people endure and even resist for as long as they could. That’s something every Jew should be able to understand.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips. He is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book NETWORK. For more information on booking Wayne, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org

Posted on August 31, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What’s in a Name?

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

On Monday, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing.

When it comes to a novel, what’s in a name? There are often dozens of characters in a novel, and some of their names have stories behind them. Others, less than it might seem.

In my first draft of Sweet Like Sugar, I had a very good reason – I can’t remember it now, but I remember that it was a very good reason – that all the characters my protagonist dated had to have names that started with the letter “C.” My husband Mark, who has been the first person to read my work for more than two decades, told me this was confusing. I revealed my very good reason for keeping the names despite the confusion, and he assured me that my reason was not so very good. He was right, of course; that’s why he’s the first person to read my work.

Some characters in Sweet Like Sugar are named for real people. Most notably, an older woman named Irene is based – in the vaguest way – on my great aunt Irene, who passed away last year. My aunt was never in the situations that define Irene the character, nor did she ever say the things that Irene the character says. But there’s something about my aunt’s soul, her perspective on life, her ability to bring people together, to be direct without being cruel, to be loving without resorting to guilt, that I wanted to instill in my character. Giving her my aunt’s name helped me understand my character’s heart, and how she might act in certain circumstances. She’s not my aunt – a woman to whom no writer could do justice – but she possesses enough of my aunt’s essence to warrant her name.

Sometimes hardly anything connects the characters to the people I’ve named them for. In Sweet Like Sugar, for instance, the main character’s roommate is named Michelle, and her boyfriend is Dan. I named them for my own college roommate Dan and his wife, simply swapping which person lived with me. The characters in the book bear some passing resemblance to their namesakes -– Michelle has dark curly hair and alert eyes, while Dan is blond and tall (or taller than I am, at any rate, which is also true of half the men in the world). There aren’t any deeper specific resemblances beyond the physical, though. I just needed names for a wonderful straight couple for whom I could feel some personal affection, and they’re the ones who came to mind.

More often, there are characters who are based on real people whose names have been changed. A dancer from Rochester who opens my protagonist’s eyes about his own sexuality? He’s based on a real person in my life, but his name wasn’t Donnie, as it is in the book. A guy who chases after Jewish men, calling them “bagel boy,” hoping it’ll seem endearing instead of grossly fetishistic? He was real, too, but I changed his name to protect the not-so-innocent. Ditto a bully at summer camp, a finger-wagging grandmother, and a girl with whom I found myself in a compromising (albeit entirely innocent) position as a teenager.

If they’re based on real people, why change the names? This is fiction, remember. Sweet Like Sugar is not my autobiography. Benji, the protagonist, might be a gay, Jewish man from suburban Maryland, but despite those similarities, he’s most definitely not me: We’re from different generations, have very different families and friends, and have traveled decidedly different journeys both as gay men and as Jews. His story isn’t my story. So it’s only right that the characters in his story have different names from the characters in my real life – even in those instances where the characters are based on real people.

Although readers wouldn’t know the difference, giving characters new names allows me to disconnect them from my reality, and it lets me tweak their personalities, actions, and motivations if need be, without worrying about misrepresenting any real people.

There’s one name in Sweet Like Sugar that’s a nod to another author. It is not Rabbi Zuckerman, the old man who befriends young Benji. Yes, I’m well aware that Philip Roth has made the Zuckerman name quite famous already; my father is a Newark native who went to the legendary Weequahic High School just a few years after Roth, so I’m well aware of most everything Roth does. I had reasons – I can’t share them without spoiling the plot, sorry – for choosing that name, but rest assured, I chose it despite Roth, not because of him.

No, the name I borrowed – consciously – from another author is Zisel. A Yiddish nickname meaning “sweet little thing,” it’s also the mysterious moniker of a character in Sweet Like Sugar. I borrowed it from Isaac Bashevis Singer. In his short story “Two,” a young yeshiva student named Zisel “began to find virtues in his own sex,” and built a loving, if covert, relationship with another man. The story has a tragic ending, and the sexual politics of Singer’s shtetl are far from my own. But I loved the name, and thought it would be appropriate for my story, where two men try to bridge the vast gulf between contemporary gay life and longstanding Jewish traditions.

I don’t know if my readers will get the reference, or see the connection. But I do.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.

Posted on August 30, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Funny Thing Happened — True Story!

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Wayne Hoffman‘s most recent book, Sweet Like Sugar, is now available. Hoffman is the deputy editor of Nextbook Press and will be blogging for theJewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog all week.

My mother has always been a great storyteller: In recounting any anecdote, she knows exactly which details to leave out and which ones to exaggerate for maximum impact. She has a keen sense of the ridiculous. Plus she’s got impeccable timing. Meet her for the first time or the hundredth time, and she’ll launch into a story that’ll have you laughing in thirty seconds.

Okay, maybe that makes her more of a stand-up comedian than a storyteller. But we’re Jews. It’s a fine line.

With her excellent sense of what makes a story compelling, she’s always on the lookout for her son-the-writer. “Here’s something you could write about,” she’ll tell me as she launches into a new bit, almost begging me to steal her material. Or, after I tell her something she finds particularly amusing, she’ll advise me: “You should write a book about that!”

If I wrote a book about everything my mother thinks is book-worthy, I’d have a very busy literary agent. But the truth is, the things I find fascinating or hilarious for a few seconds would rarely retain my interest for an entire book, while the events that inspire me to write a novel aren’t always neat and self-contained anecdotes.

An example:

Several years ago, I was working as managing editor at the Forward, an English-language Jewish newspaper. We shared space with the legendary Forverts, our sister newspaper, published in Yiddish. One day, an editor from the Forvertscame into my office and asked if one of his employees could rest on my couch. I looked up and saw a man behind him, holding himself up against the wall. He had a full gray beard, thinning hair and spectacles and a yarmulke on his head, and I figured he was somewhere past his 80th birthday.

I didn’t know him, didn’t know his name, and didn’t even know if he spoke English – not everyone at the Forverts did. But he was very ill and clearly needed to lie down, and my office had the only couch in the newsroom, so I said yes. He came in, kicked off his shoes, and lay down on my couch without a word.

Every few minutes, one of my reporters would walk into my office to ask me a question or complain about something. (That’s what managing editors are for.) I’d hold up a finger to shush them, and then point at the couch. They’d give me a confused look – they didn’t recognize this man either – but they’d back out and leave him in peace.

Periodically, I’d look over at him as he lay there, snoring or moaning or mumbling, and I’d be amazed that the two of us were sharing this space, even temporarily. I wondered what we could possibly have in common – an elderly Orthodox man who spoke Yiddish, and a (relatively) young, gay, secular Jew who was more comfortable in Spanish. If he woke up, what would we say to each other? What could we say to each other?

There’s no great ending to this scene, no punch line; eventually the old man got off the couch and went back to work. But that afternoon started the gears turning, and eventually inspired the opening scene of Sweet Like Sugar. It’s not what happened that captured my imagination. It’s what might have happened that drove me to spend the next few years writing the novel.

Plenty of other fascinating things happened in that office. There was the night an unmarked package that was ticking arrived in the newsroom, and I was the designated person to deal with it. (“I’m running toward the bomb as fast as I can,” I assured my boss when he got on my case. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a bomb, but an ill-advised promotional toy from the NBA.) There was the time we sat around trying to come up with the most outrageous headlines for a story about an elderly Yiddish poetess who’d started writing erotica. (Most of them were too bawdy to mention, but I’ll include my favorite headline-that-dared-not-be-printed: “Oy, Me So Horny.”) There were all the wonderful typos that made it into print despite our best efforts – including an error that turned the title of a show about Golda Meir from Golda’s Balcony into Golda’s Baloney, which has a very different ring.

Those are all great stories. I tell them all the time. But I’m not going to write a book about them, no matter what my mother thinks.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.

Posted on August 29, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy