One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.
The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?
Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.
This is how we keep a head from growing inflated.
I found my first error in my book in this sentence in the introductory chapter, “Hidden Jew”: “My stepfather [Randy]…knew from very early on that my mother was Jewish. His rather conservative family didn’t, and they still don’t.”
This was, to the best of my knowledge, true at the time of my writing it. There is, in fact, a later, and longer, passage in the book devoted to this very subject: namely, that my mother was so proud about my success as a writer that she couldn’t help telling her family and friends in Mississippi about it—but she was so committed to keeping her Judaism a secret that she never told them what the book was about. (I’ve written about this online in some detail. Please read here to see what I’m talking about.)
Anyway, I recently returned from a family trip to Mississippi, where the discussion of the book was very much a dinner table topic. My step-grandmother, Anne, a wonderful woman with whom I’ve always had a great, if-not-entirely-frank, relationship, chimed in with this over our red beans and rice:
“I suppose it’s time to let the cat out of the bag,” she said, hushing everyone. “Right after your mother and Randy fell in love”—when I was about 12 or 13, or around 1986—“he said, ‘Now, Mom, she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Jewish. So don’t say anything.’”
There were a couple of implications here. First, our circumspection, or downright lying, through the years had been for nothing—they had known we were Jewish. What’s more—and no one said this, but it was implied—they had known without our saying a thing, assuming it somehow from our manner, appearance, and attitudes. Which is a little discomfiting, but still amusing from where I sit. As I have always said to my mother whenever she tries on a bit of a southern accent: “Ma, you can take the girl outta Queens. But you can’t take the Queens outta the girl.”
As this is my first post, please allow me to introduce myself: I am the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, which tells the story of a secular Jewish kid (me) who moves from New York to Mississippi, where he is forced by his mother to pretend he is a Christian. As an adult, I determine to understand what place, if any, there is in the religion of his birth for a kid who sang lead in an Episcopal school choir, studied the Bible, and took Communion. There’s more to it—everything from Jewish Catholic priests in New Mexico to my ten-minute bar mitzvah as a 38-year-old—but that’s a fair start to understanding where I’m coming from.
I sometimes struggle to explain what renewed my interested in Judaism. As I write in the book: “I visited a Holocaust Memorial site on vacation in the Czech Republic (it moved me to be sure, but not in this direction); I had children (I love them but that didn’t do it either); I lost members of my family (I miss my grandparents but I’m not [doing this] for them). The truth, banal as it might sound, is that I simply wanted to know. Or, more precisely, I needed to. Like my mother, I had my own myth to make real. Only mine, instead of entailing the abandonment of a specific and defined heritage, would require its embrace.”
So I lack a simple answer for what motivated the project and process of answering my question. I do, however, remember the specific thing that convinced me re-enter the world of Judaism, in my own way: the Manhattan eruv. Most readers of this blog, I assume, are familiar both with the concept of eruvin as well as the unique history of the one located in Manhattan (You may not, however, know, that a certain Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side holds a—admittedly ceremonial—99-year lease on the entire island, at the bargain price of just one dollar), but I didn’t, and when I happened one day some years ago to notice the wires of the Manhattan crisscrossing the avenue outside of my office, I was inspired enough to learn.
The presence of this massive, symbolic Jewish household suggested something a few, very important things to me: first, I was in a Jewish world already and I didn’t know; second, that world was complex and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really accept its spiritual underpinnings; and last, and most important, if I didn’t make the effort to see that house—that world—it would, for all practical purposes, not exist. Now, I wander the city doing something very un-New York: looking up, scanning the streetlights for evidence of eruvin.
The first title of a book that I remember with clarity is QB VII. It seemed so odd, with letters instead of words. My mother is an avid reader, and because there were no public libraries in our town, she saved every book. I grew up with bookcases lining the hallways, the shelves weighted down with novels. From the time I was very young, Mom would, on occasion, give me books she thought I needed to read. I was about 12 when she handed me QB VII, and then all the other novels by Leon Uris. Mom said that family members she had never met in Germany had died during the Holocaust, and because I did not know their names, every victim I read about in the novels became my family.
I never imagined, when I was reading Uris, that one day I would actually write – and publish – novels.
I like to joke that my first novel, A Good Indian Wife, is pure fiction…it is also purely Indian. The second novel, The Invitation, is more personal because my character Jonathan is Jewish, like my mother; is a doctor like my grandfather; and lives in Marin, which is across the bay from Berkeley, where my mother grew up. Jonathan also gave me an entrée into the Jewish Book Council. I almost did not send in my application for the JBC Network, because I feared that though I am Jewish, I had not been brought up celebrating Jewish holidays, which mirrors Jonathan’s experience, but left me feeling I wasn’t Jewish enough. I calmed down when I realized that many of my friends in the US had been raised the same way. They, too, had not been to a synagogue until their twenties.
Mom was very excited when I told her I was going to New York to make a 2 minute presentation. She didn’t ask me what I was going to say. She only said: “Be proud. I want you to stand there and be proud.”
My mother wasn’t the only Jew in our small town in India. There was Aunty Ruby and her family before they immigrated to Israel, and there was always Aunty Sarah. Aunty Sarah was a wonderful seamstress, and when I was taking Bharat Natyam classes, she made me a bag to hold the bells that went around my ankles when I danced. Sewn at the bottom, in a loop, were a string of bright blue beads. I kept the bag long after I stopped dancing, because she had parted with the beads – so precious because they were from Israel – for me, and so they were doubly precious.
When her niece and nephew visited from Bombay, I played with Rivka and Rueben. Years later, when I was studying toward my first master’s degree at Bombay University, Rivka’s grandparents, whom I called Granny and Grandpa, became my guardians (every student from out of town needed a guardian who could take care of her should the need arise). Grandpa died while I was there, and that was the first Jewish ceremony I attended. No one celebrated the high holidays; it was usually birth and death that brought out our Jewish faith.
When I came to study at Berkeley, my involvement and knowledge of all things Jewish grew exponentially. Mom’s cousin, Uncle Bob and his wife Barbara, took me to the synagogue in San Francisco, and I had my very first Passover with their family. It was at a lovely hotel, and I was starving by the time the waiters served the plates. I saw this pale green, flower-shaped puree in the middle of the plate, and popped it into my mouth. Next thing I knew, my eyes were smarting and I was reaching for water. It was horseradish…and how we all laughed, because reading about it isn’t the same as seeing it – or tasting the bitterness.
By the time I was writing The Invitation, I felt very comfortable having a Jewish character. Confession: I am very lazy about researching, but everything, from Jonathan Feinstein’s name to his sudden interest in having a Bar Mitzvah for his son, came right out of my own knowledge and experience. When I did a reading in San Francisco, Aunty Barbara came along with her caretaker. She hadn’t read the novel yet, and I hoped she would get a kick out of seeing her daughter’s name, Ellen Krueger, who appears as a minor character.
“Jew town,” Mom directed the autorickshaw driver.
“Where in Jew town?” he asked in Malayalam.
My mother and I had made a special trip to Cochin to see the synagogue. Mom was excited because she had last been in a synagogue forty years earlier, when she lived in Berkeley with her parents. After she married my father and moved to India, she discovered that our small town had churches, mosques, a Buddhist stupa, but no synagogue. I had read about synagogues, had seen pictures, but I had never been inside one, so I, too, was very excited.
I knew about the Cochin Jews, knew, too, that there weren’t enough for a minyan, because most had immigrated to Israel. Still, it was a tremendous disappointment when we arrived at the synagogue and discovered the doors were firmly shut.
“It has been empty for a long time,” the driver informed us. “I thought you simply wanted to see the clock tower,” he pointed to the sky.
We looked up at the bell and clock tower, which, Mom explained, approximated a dome.
“Back to the train station now?” the driver asked.
“No,” Mom responded. “We are going inside.”
“Not possible,” the driver insisted.
“There has to be someone who can open it for us,” Mom said, and turning around, walked into the shop that was across the road.
“Do you know the man who has the keys to the big church?” she asked the shopkeeper.
The shop keeper took in my mother’s 5’10” frame, the blue eyes, the white skin, and asked, “You are Jewish?”
“Yes,” Mom said, “my daughter and I are both Jewish. We want to pray in our church.”
The man glanced at the brown skin I inherited from my Indian father and shrugged. He wasn’t going to question kinship. “I will call the man,” he said, and half an hour later, the doors swung open.
We were the only two in the synagogue, and yet we whispered. We marveled at the blue tiles from China, the Belgian chandelier, the brass that glinted.
“Just imagine,” Mom said, “It used to be filled with people.”
I thought about the generations who had worshipped here, the men who had built the synagogue, all the way back to the ones who had arrived in Cochin on a ship centuries earlier.
I recalled that very moment when I was writing The Invitation. My character Lali is a female version of my father: Jacobite Syrian Christian, comes to America for graduate school, marries a Jew. What if, I wondered, Lali’s ancestors had once worshipped in the synagogue? Locals must have converted to Judaism, for how else had that first ship load married, kept their faith? It was entirely plausible, then, for a Jewish family to decide to become Christians at some point, and so I wrote it into my story.
This was the part of the novel that worried me the most when Mom read an advanced copy.
“I love it,” Mom’s words were sure, her accent still American. “What I like best is Lali’s Jewish ancestor, which means she is Jewish. I’ve never read that in any novels, but it makes perfect sense.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. I had Mom’s approval. And for me, that mattered the most.
When I first started writing, I loved reading advice for writers from my favorite authors. Yet there was one common piece of advice I didn’t quite get. Whenever writers spoke about letting the characters control the story, I became skeptical. It sounded a bit too fluffy and hazy for my understanding. I had no idea how to implement that advice. After all—I was the writer. I was the one deciding my characters’ fate. What does that mean, in a practical sense, letting the characters control the story?
I still don’t fully get that advice, but after gaining more experience writing, I have learned that in order to produce my best work I have to be willing to abandon many intentions I had for a story when I first began writing it. This is probably one of the hardest things that I had to learn to do as a writer. Every writer comes to the page bursting to say something. Yet I found that in order for a story to work one must be willing to abandon their original intentions in the service of what works best on the page.
A few months ago I googled myself and found a bunch of thoughtful responses (both favorable and less favorable) that engaged with one of my just-published stories, “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations.”
Some responses, however, treated the story as if it was non-fiction, and clearly in service of one particular opinion or another. Because the story was fiction, I was surprised to read these polar opposite responses from people who held strong opinions on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Some viewed the story as pro-Israeli propaganda and claimed that it was degrading to Palestinians, while others claimed that I must hate Israel, and that I’m trying to profit by negatively portraying my own country. The language of the responders on both sides was far less kind than my summary of their sentiments.
I was pleased to see that other readers pushed back on these purely political interpretations of my story, and that they urged for it to be understood as fiction. I think the fact my story managed to enrage people with opposite political views is actually an odd kind of accomplishment. The irony is that one of my story’s central themes was the absurdity of the war of narratives that is happening in the West regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
A passionate war of narratives regarding this conflict has been going on for ages. People on both sides are eager to evaluate everyone and everything only in regards to how that person or work of art either agrees or disagrees with their point of view. Although I wish my work could be evaluated only as a work of art, I know that because of my subject matter that may not always happen.
While many differing interpretations have been given to the choices I made in that story, the truth is I feel as though many of those choices were not up to me. They were in service of the story. Whatever my original intentions were when I began writing that story, it was the story itself that dictated my later choices and brought me to write from my characters’ perspectives in the ways that I did.
I was born and raised in Israel, and my novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes place in Israel. Because of that, many people wonder why I wrote my book in English. Someone asked me if I had something against the Hebrew language. One Israeli person speculated online that I chose to write in English because I was looking for a shortcut into getting published widely.
That’s not at all true, but the question of why I chose to write in English is a valid one.
The truth is—it happened by accident. I wrote my first book while I was studying at a US college. That’s the only reason I wrote it in English. It wasn’t really a conscious choice, and I never expected the book to get published, so I didn’t give the decision to write in English too much thought.
Whatever I write next may be in Hebrew, or it may be in English. It all depends on what I feel like doing. I am terrible at writing English with pen and paper—I never quite got used to drawing those strange Latin letters, and I need my spell check, so it is easier for me in some ways to write in Hebrew because I don’t need a computer for that.
Yet I believe writing in a foreign language helped my fiction. There is something about writing in a language that does not truly belong to you that is liberating. It is easier to create a new world from scratch when the words you are using are not the ones you used as a child, or those you use to talk to the people you love. Just the knowledge that the characters and places I was describing belonged to the Hebrew language meant that by using English, I was firmly footed in the realm of fantasy, where anything I wanted to make happen could happen as long as it made sense in the world of the story.
Additionally, writing about Israel in English meant that I sometimes had to translate Hebrew phrases and metaphors. The process of navigating between the two languages often resulted in some of the most significant parts of my book. My title, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is actually a translation of a Hebrew bumper sticker and slogan.
I also found that at times it was advantageous not to know all the words that I needed. I often knew what I wanted to say, but did not have the words to say it in English. This forced me to turn to a dictionary, then to others’ fiction. To consider different possibilities, to examine how the new words I considered using were used by others. When writing in English, I am often at a loss for words. I have to fight harder for what comes naturally to native speakers. In Hebrew the choice of words is quickly obvious to me. I don’t have to discover them.
My book is in the process of being translated into several languages, and I have found in my interactions with my translators that they ask the best questions. In my book, I describe the hairs inside a mean base commander’s nose as looking like “the life lines of spiders.” My Croatian translator recently asked me about that image. She wanted to know whether I meant “‘life lines’, the ones you throw into the water when somebody’s drowning or just life + line?”
The truth is I meant both meanings, but even I didn’t realize that was the case until my translator asked about it. She needed to know which of those two meanings I meant in order to accurately translate the text.
Unlike most readers, translators are forced to care about every word and comma. They really read what is in front of them. They press me to explain what I fully meant by every image or dialogue line. Is it a common Hebrew metaphor? Is it an American figure of speech? Did I just invent that image on my own? Could this or that line be a combination of a common metaphor and invention? I myself translate fiction, so I understand exactly how translating forces you to engage with a text in a way merely reading it never does.
I wrote my book in English, but when I wrote it I was often translating from Hebrew in my head. English was an accident, but not, I think, a bad accident.
The characters in my novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, are Israeli. Because of that, my writing will undoubtedly be considered to be Jewish fiction. Yet the truth is there are only a few instances in which Judaism as a religion is a topic in the novel. The most significant instance involves the book of Jonah.
Religious feelings, if we narrow religion to mean having something to do with God, are perhaps not a large part of my novel because they haven’t been a big part of my life. For me, being Jewish had nothing to do with God or even the bible. All of my friends at school were Jewish. Nearly all the people in my town were Jewish. I have fasted on Yom Kippur since I was in second grade and observed Passover, but never once went to temple while I was growing up. In my house, we never once discussed the existence of God, or the meaning of the bible.
At my secular school, as in all Israeli schools, Bible was a required subject. Yet our teachers never stressed theological issues, and the bible was taught just as literature was taught—the focus was on the bible as stories. The emphasis was placed on understanding what a parable meant, or on learning to understand biblical grammar and vocabulary.
Although my first book is just being published, I’ve learned from the few interviews I have already had that people love asking writers whether or not their fictional stories are based on real life experiences. I don’t know why that is. Almost none of my book is based on my own experiences. The few details that I did draw from my own life are small moments that are in service of a larger narrative that comes directly from my imagination.
The part in the book that most closely resembles a personal experience is the section in which one of my characters describes studying the book of Jonah when she was in middle school. My character, Yael, is frustrated by having to learn about the book of Jonah three times in the same year. She finds that even though she is lectured about the book repeatedly, it still doesn’t quite make sense to her.
There’s a district in Vilnius called Užupis, which has seceded from the rest of Lithuania and established its own republic. To get there you cross over a river on a bridge festooned in padlocks engraved with the names of lovers. On the riverbank below the bridge is the statue of a mermaid. It’s a bohemian neighborhood with its own whimsical constitution (“Everyone has the right to understand nothing,” “Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity,” “A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times,” and so on) mounted on a wall in a dozen languages. There’s a café in Užupis with a terrace overlooking the little river, where I sat drinking beer with some Lithuanian poets. They were impressive company, the poets with their chiseled Slavic features, who recited their poems from memory and, unlike Americans, made no apologies for their art. The subject of conversation was Lithuanian identity and the national narrative the citizens were struggling to cobble together since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a narrative the Jewish component had been mostly edited out of.
“You people are so lucky,” I submitted. “You’ve been persecuted for centuries by the Russians, the Poles, the Germans, whereas I’ve had to punish myself all these years.”
Understand, I’m a cheap drunk, and the beer in Vilnius is very good, especially the dark Baltic variety with its tincture of caramel. Well past my limit (of a single beer) I was inclined to presumption. Also, I wasn’t especially sympathetic to the Lithuanian national identity crisis, having recently visited their Museum of Genocide Victims. This is the museum housed in the old KGB headquarters, a forbiddingly grim building where thousands of Lithuanian partisans were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Soviets. With its punishment cells and execution chamber, it’s a chilling monument to inhumanity, and there’s no question that the Lithuanians suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Russians. But I was more than a little uncomfortable with calling their particular tragedy a “genocide.” I reminded the poets that the Jews had constituted nearly half the population of Vilnius before the war, that theirs had been arguably the richest Jewish culture in Europe. I called the roll of Jewish geniuses from Vilna—the Gaon and the Chazon Ish, Moishe Kulbak and Chaim Grade, the scholar-rabbis, the Yiddish authors, actors, and artists—and suggested that, if the Lithuanians were so desperate for a narrative, they could do worse than to appropriate that of the Litvak Jews. After all, while the official identity of Vilnius had long been Russian, the public life was largely Polish, and the real flavor of the streets was distinctly Jewish. The scant native Lithuanian population was, at least until recently, negligible and ghostly.
I waited for my remarks to revive some atavistic form of anti-Semitism among my listeners, who merely registered then dismissed the suggestion; my reputation as a nudge had preceded me. Lithuania, they explained, was the last nation in Europe to be converted to Christianity. In the late 14th century, when the rest of the continent was building its high gothic cathedrals, the Lithuanians, it seemed, were still worshipping trees. In their zealous quest for identity many of the young were now looking back to the mist-shrouded pagan past. Shikkered from a second beer, I recalled an item of graffiti I’d seen on a crumbling wall earlier that day. It was a more or less stick figure with a protracted middle limb and a legend chalked above it reading in English: Long Dick Boy. It struck me in retrospect that what I’d seen was a pagan scrawl from the Lithuanian Stone Age, possibly the image of some trickster god. I presented my theory to the poets, supporting it with improvised episodes from a cycle of tales about Long Dick Boy: how he stole borsht from the gods, lassoed a dragon with his schlong, etc. “And a little known fact,” I added as a postscript, “Long Dick Boy was circumcised.” I think the Lithuanians were as glad to see the back of me as I was to go home, but I cherish the souvenir hangover I brought back from my time in Vilnius.