As I travel around the country visiting Jewish institutions of all kinds, my “worry” quotient is growing daily. Nearly everywhere I go, I hear stories of declining membership, difficulties in attracting the next generation, peaking enrollments and flat fundraising campaigns. This is unusual for me; I have been an optimistic cheerleader for the Jewish community during my career. Bottom line: I am not worried about the future of the Jewish people; I am very worried about the future of Jewish institutions.
What’s happening? In Relational Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing), I outline the many challenges facing any Jewish organization seeking to engage people. A “biggy” is the Internet. Once upon a time, rabbis and Jewish educators held exclusive access to the wealth of Jewish practice and tradition. Not today. In the zeitgeist of DIY – “Do It Yourself,” the Internet offers enormous resources for just about anything someone wants to learn or do. Another challenge: why should I pay thousands of dollars in membership fees if I can “rent-a-rabbi” to do a backyard Bar/Bat Mitzvah? In the larger Jewish population centers, there are plenty of rabbis who cannot find work in established congregations hanging a shingle and offering their services as independent contractors. Jewish Community Centers face increasing competition from well-equipped health clubs open 24/7. Day school tuition is so high it is pricing out a large segment of those who would like to send their kids.
All this begs the central question facing Jewish institutions: “What’s the value-added of joining?” If the “offer” of affiliation is not truly attractive, I am afraid the membership base will continue to narrow as young people find alternative ways to “do Jewish” and aging baby boomer/empty nesters opt out.
For me, the value-added must be a face-to-face community of relationships that gives my life meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. “Meaning” is an understanding of the significance of life. “Purpose” is an imperative to do what you are put on earth to do during your life. “Belonging” is a community of people who will be there for you and with you. “Blessing” is a feeling of deep satisfaction and gratitude, a calendar and life cycle of opportunities to celebrate the gifts of life.
In my research for writing Relational Judaism, I searched for organizations and individuals who “get” this, who understand that building relationships, not simply offering a calendar of programs, is the task of the moment. The book presents six case studies: Chabad, Hillel, congregation-based community organizing, next generation initiatives, social media and fundraisers. In my next posting, I will share some lessons learned from their pioneering work, work that I believe is the forward edge of creating a Relational Judaism for the twenty-first century.
I was 28 before I first saw the Statue of Liberty in person. I’d been accepted to grad school in New York City, and my husband (then fiancé) and I flew out together to see the school—and, in my case, to see the city for the first time. It was a hasty trip, with a red-eye flight and a hodgepodge itinerary. We had friends of friends in Chelsea, and they graciously allowed us to crash at their place. It turned out they lived on one of the busiest corners in the city, and the incessant cab-honking kept us awake most of the night. It was a very New York welcome.
That first afternoon, still fuzzy with jet lag, we took a walk out to the Hudson Park greenway. At Chelsea Piers we stopped to watch the trapeze students swinging through the air above us, looking nervous in their leotards and safety harnesses. We walked out to the end of one of the piers, and that’s where I caught my first real-life glimpse of her.
Wow, I thought. Here I am. There she is.
At that distance she was just a slim gray silhouette, motionless on her pedestal. Tour boats churned at her feet; helicopters swooped past her like dragonflies. She seemed like the only still object in a moving world. Looking at her, I felt what I’d later come recognize as a particularly New York-style cognitive dissonance: the weird fact of this huge, iconic thing just sitting there, minding her own business, while the city went about its afternoon.
A few years after I stood on Chelsea Pier, I gave a character in The Golem and the Jinni the traditional immigrant arrival in America: a steamship cruising past the statue, the waving hands and the tears of joy. Except that my character is far from a traditional immigrant. She’s a golem, newly created and alone. She has no knowledge or understanding of the statue; she doesn’t even know what liberty is—though she’s newly liberated herself, her master having just died. But she recognizes that the people around her love the statue, and she takes comfort in the fact that it is clearly a constructed woman, like herself.
If you think about it, the Statue of Liberty is an oddity among monuments. We Americans like our statues to be of real people, of presidents and heroes and civic leaders. But the Statue of Liberty is a personification, a portrait of an idea, and a female one to boot. (Name one other woman whose face is so closely associated with the idea of America.) She’s become such an everyday image that it’s hard to remember that The Statue of Liberty isn’t just her name, but her function, the purpose for which she was built. A Statue, representing Liberty. And as it turns out, Bartholdi and his workers were merely her first set of creators. In the years that followed she was brought to life again and again, a multitude of animations, as each immigrant en route to Ellis Island filled her with a new set of hopes and fears, longings and disappointments. In that sense, she’s the ultimate American golem.
Here’s a confession: I haven’t read that many golem stories. Or at least, as many as someone who’s written a book called The Golem and the Jinni probably should’ve. I haven’t read Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, or Marge Piercy’s He, She and It. I haven’t cracked Thane Rosenbaum’s The Golems of Gotham, or the more golem-centered volumes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.
When I started writing The Golem and the Jinni, I was really, really unsure of myself. I was embarking on what I knew was my first real book, and it was like all newborn things, delicate and easily disturbed. Something warned me that if I filled my head with the golem stories of other, far more talented writers, I would crowd my own barely-formed golem right out of my brain, or unintentionally mash it into a different image.
Over the years, that intimidation became an almost superstitious avoidance. Maybe now that the book is finished, I can finally crack The Puttermesser Papers without worrying that Ozick‘s golem will feel more real to me than my own. But in any case, here are a few golem stories that I do know, and that added their own particular flavors to my book, whether I meant them to or not.
1) The old, classic stories of Rabbi Loew and his golem. Honestly, I’m not sure when I first heard these stories. At Sunday school? That sort of Old World folk culture didn’t fit with our modern Reform curriculum. My grandparents? My mom’s parents were cosmopolitan German Jews; this wasn’t really their thing. My dad’s folks were the Yiddish speakers, but I don’t remember them telling me folk tales. Usually they were too busy trying to get me to eat things. So where did I learn them? It feels like the stories were always there, floating through the ether: Rabbi Loew and his golem, the protector of Prague’s medieval Jews during the pogroms. Years later, after I’d started writing The Golem and the Jinni, first my parents and then my in-laws visited Prague and brought me back little translated volumes of golem stories. A few were variations I hadn’t read before, but mostly they were already familiar.
2) Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. If you haven’t read this yet, seriously, treat yourself. The golem in Kavalier and Clay is the golem, Rabbi Loew’s legendary creation. It’s a real-world presence in the first part of the book—one of the characters attempts to smuggle it out of Prague—and a recurring motif through the rest of the book, one of its many threads of longing and sadness. (Really, you’ve read this, right? Because I can lend you my copy if you haven’t.)
3) James Sturm, The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Sturm’s graphic novel follows a 1920s all-Jewish baseball team facing anti-Semitism as they travel the Midwest. Going broke and looking for a gimmick to fill the seats, they dress the team’s one African-American player as a golem, and advertise his prowess. Then, of course, things start to go awry. It’s a sad but satisfying tale, and a good baseball yarn as well.
4) Naomi Kritzer, “The Golem.” “The golem woke on December 1st, 1941, and saw the future before her like an unrolled scroll.” With a first line like that, how can you not read more? This particular golem—the first female golem I ever encountered—is built by two women in Prague who hope to survive the unsurvivable. Kritzer (whom I’ve known since college) uses her prescient golem to examine ideas of free will, destiny, and choice. (You can find “The Golem” in 2001’s Year’s Best Fantasy, and in Kritzer’s digital collection Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.)
5) The X-Files, “Kaddish.” Maybe I’m cheating a little here, but shows like The X-Files have been as formative to my imagination as the books I’ve read. In this fourth-season episode, Mulder and Scully go to Brooklyn to investigate the strangulation of a neo-Nazi who murdered a Hasidic Jew. I remember feeling proud that the show was tackling a golem story, but also thinking that the supporting players suffered from the unfortunate exoticization that happened whenever The X-Files dealt with an ethnic beastie. That golem, though: pretty creepy.
Yesterday I wrote that my novel, The Golem and the Jinni, is “pretty darn Jewish.” In truth, that’s only half the story. There are two cultures in my novel, set in New York at the turn of the 20th century: the Jews of the Lower East Side, and the Syrian immigrants who lived in what’s now New York’s Financial district.
When I started writing this book, I was incredibly daunted at the idea of writing about a culture that wasn’t my own. At a guess, I know slightly more about Syrian culture than your average American Jew: my husband is Arab American, so I married into the knowledge, as it were. But it’s one thing to know the foods and the holidays and the etiquette, and to learn how to say salaam aleikum and shukran and insh’allah when the cousins visit. It’s quite another to create fictional characters who belong to that culture, hopefully true to life and free of generalizations. I really, really didn’t want anyone to read my book and cringe, like a British person watching Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
And as soon as I started to research, it became all too clear just how little I knew. The residents of “Little Syria,” as it was called, weren’t Muslim but Christian, mostly Maronite Catholic and Eastern Orthodox from what’s now Lebanon. I’d always been flummoxed by the various and subtle differences between Christianities, and now I felt even more daunted. I tried to plug my ignorance with books and informational websites, and often ended up more confused than when I started. I went so far as to order a back issue of a Catholic magazine that had an article I wanted to read. Before long they’d given my name to every Catholic mailing list in America. One charity even mailed me a rosary. I still have it, hidden in the back of my sock drawer, as though from God’s prying eyes. How the hell do you throw out a rosary?
After a while I’d read enough to feel like I could start writing. It was important to me that the Jewish and Syrian sections of the book be roughly equal: in length, in weight, in the importance of the characters. I didn’t want one side of the book to be merely a catalyst or booster for the other, like the stalwart friend in a romantic comedy. This led to a number of interesting decisions. After some back and forth, I decided not to use any Yiddish sayings in the book. If I couldn’t say it in Arabic, then I wouldn’t say it in Yiddish either. (I had a couple of salaam aleikums in there before someone told me that only Muslims say it, not Arab Christians—exactly the sort of mistake I was looking to avoid.) I tried to use religious and cultural details sparingly, because a little goes a long way, and I wanted to keep my blunder opportunities to a minimum.
And frankly, my fears weren’t confined to the Arab-American half of the book. I grew up Reform, but most of the Jewish characters in my book are Orthodox, which sometimes feels to me like a different religion entirely. It did help, a little perversely, that I’d often find multiple and conflicting answers to a question. Two Jews, three opinions, as the saying goes, and the same thing happened when I’d try to pin down an Arab Christian detail. We Jews don’t exactly have a monopoly on that particular trait.
Eventually I decided not to obsess so much over the impossibility of truly knowing something that I myself haven’t lived. The only other option would be to worry myself to a standstill—and that was one thing I wasn’t willing to do. By its very nature, writing a book is an act of hubris. Here are my ideas, you say, and they’re worth your money, time, and attention! But it’s also a leap of faith: trust your intentions and stay true to the story, and the effort will be worth it. I’ll leave it up to my readers to decide whether or not I’ve succeeded.
When I started looking through the extensive and awe-inspiring Visiting Scribe archives, one theme kept popping out at me: the perennial question, “What Does It Mean to Be a Jewish Writer?” I decided I’d use my space here to offer my own take, but as I thought about it, the question kept shifting into something else. Not what does it mean to be a Jewish writer, but why am I a Jewish writer?
Because I am, undeniably. True, I’ve only written one book so far,The Golem and the Jinni, but it’s pretty darn Jewish. My one other published piece, a short story called “Divestment,” is about a German Jewish woman in the last years of her life. When I think about possible future projects—novels, short stories, maybe a screenplay?—inevitably it contains some element of Judaism, either at its center or creeping in around the edges.
This surprises me more than you might think. I don’t live what anyone would call a visibly Jewish life. On Friday nights you’ll find me on the couch, eating takeout and watching Doctor Who. My weekly dose of group spirituality comes on Sundays, when I drive 45 minutes to a Buddhist meditation center. My husband is a nice young Arab-American man I met in college. (Bashert!) There’s no Mogen David around my neck, and no mezuzah at the door, though we do have a lovely silver menorah and an antique page from the Quran. My toddler daughter has only one Jewish-themed board book on her groaning shelf, titled Let’s Nosh!—and, let’s face it, that sums up a lot of my religious expression right there.
So if it’s true what they say, that Judaism is a religion of actions rather than beliefs, then my list is looking kind of skimpy. Except, of course, for the writing.
It’s hard to pin down why my writing is the most Jewish thing I do—except that a large part of writing is about exploring a life’s undercurrents, whether they belong to the characters or (consciously or not) the writer. And as far as undercurrents go, my Judaism is practically a riptide. Like so many of us, a lot of my first stories were Bible stories, Noah and Jonah and let my people go, and I devoured them, their rhythms and their themes. I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and I grew up with those stories too—first told in weighty silences, then in brief but ominous glosses, before finally, when I was old enough, the truth. My family belonged to a Reform congregation that downplayed God and belief in favor of “the Jewish life cycle,” and my early years were set inside that structure: Sunday school, Hebrew school, Bat Mitzvah, confirmation, the whole shebang.
In Libertyville, the Mayberry-esque Chicago suburb where I grew up, that made me different. And that difference somehow tied in the other ways that I was different, or at least the ways I felt different. I roll my eyes when I hear others reminisce with bitter pride about their gawky, geeky, Star-Trek-and-X-Men-filled childhoods—yes, you were a dork, we were all dorks, let it go—but it’s easy to forget how it could make you feel like the loneliest person in the world. Much has been made of the Jewishness of Superman: the hidden alien, secret and alone, blinking incognito behind those nebbishy glasses. Of course Superman’s powers would be flight and invulnerability, and not invisibility. What was so great about invisibility? We dorks already had it in spades.
So there I was, a big ol’ Jewish dork, sneaking reads of the latest Dragonlance novel instead of studying my Torah portion. And as I got older, through college and early adulthood, the “life cycle” touchstones and rituals began to fall away. Perhaps it was because they never gained their own intrinsic meaning for me, just a sense of obligation: the whispers from the murdered great-greats and the cousins who never were, hovering somewhere over my shoulder. You do this because it’s what Jews do. You do this because we couldn’t. But somehow—and there are days when I deeply regret this—it wasn’t quite enough.
The stories stayed with me, though, grooved deep into my brain, and were joined by the urge to tell stores—and by some strange transitive property of the subconscious, that urge felt Jewish. Like when I was a kid, and my dad turned me onto Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, and that felt Jewish. And how walking between junior-high classes with my nose buried in a book felt Jewish. And when, in my mid-twenties, I took a serious look at my unhappy career and decided to hell with it, I’m gonna write —that, too, felt Jewish.
So there it is, unfortunately. I don’t light candles on Friday night, and my daughter will grow up eating cheeseburgers and moo shu prawns. (Or watching me eat them, at least. Maybe she’ll be a vegetarian, who knows?) This is what I do instead. I write, and I write Jewish stories. And even if someday (heaven forefend!) I write a story that has no hint of Jews at all, no turn-of-the-century golems or space rabbis or even so much as an irradiated latke, you can guarantee that that story will still feel to me, in some weird and ineffable way, Jewish.
In 2011, I was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Thanks to this honor, I was invited to speak at several Jewish book groups all over the country. I would hate to keep the expertise in Jewish book groups all to myself, and so, forthwith, here are:
1. Jews buy books. I don’t know what the statistics are on this, but I’d guess that Jewish women are singlehandedly floating the entire publishing business. They even buy hardcovers.
2. The mad dash at the end of your reading is not to have you sign your magnum opus for posterity, but rather to partake of the slightly dry coffee cake.
3. Members of the JBC Network read your book, and if they don’t like it, they will let you know.
4. Everyone claims to know someone who they want to set you up with, but no one ever follows through on it.
5. It is acceptable to order bacon-wrapped scallops at a pre-reading dinner.
6. In every group, there is always someone who knows my mother.
7. Most people know my father too.
8. The questions I get asked most often: How do you think of your ideas? Did you have to do a lot of research?
9. The two questions I get asked least often: What do you like to eat for breakfast? Why are so many in your generation marrying outside the faith?
10. If you think you’ve met someone before, it’s probably just that she looks like one of your cousins.
So why would a nice Jewish girl not write nice Jewish fiction? My last book, Stations West, was about Jewish immigrants in 19th century Oklahoma. It was very “Jewish.” It was so Jewish it was nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize (but not so Jewish that it won). One would expect that my next book would be even more “Jewish.” Yet, on the outside it perhaps doesn’t appear to be.
The book jacket calls my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy “a smart and affecting novel of family and forgery set amidst the rarefied international art world. Elm Howells has a loving family and a distinguished career at an elite Manhattan auction house. But after a tragic loss throws her into an emotional crisis, she pursues a reckless course of action that jeopardizes her personal and professional success. Meanwhile, talented artist Gabriel Connois wearies of remaining at the margins of the capricious Parisian art scene, and, desperate for recognition, he embarks on a scheme that threatens his burgeoning reputation. As these narratives converge, with disastrous consequences, A Nearly Perfect Copy boldly challenges our presumptions about originality and authenticity, loss and replacement, and the perilous pursuit of perfection.”
There is also a subplot involving a famous ceramicist Holocaust survivor and an art dealer seeking reparations for European Jewish families whose art was stolen by the Nazis. But the main protagonists aren’t Jewish. I would argue, though, that it is still a Jewish novel.
Stations West’s characters were outsiders who, through successive generations, never managed to assimilate into American culture. Similarly, Gabriel is a Spanish artist who feels othered by his language and culture. Despite the fact that he’s resided in Paris almost longer than in his native Spain, he views French culture from the outside looking in. The other protagonist, Elm, is likewise alienated, first, because her branch of her illustrious family is out of favor and second because her grief at the death of her son has created a rift between her and reality. She is no longer able to relate to others in her family or at work.
This experience of being simultaneously outside a culture while attempting to assimilate is a particularly Jewish one. The struggle with issues of national identity, of feigning integration in your own country is one that we all deal with every day, and this way of viewing the world—in the case of A Nearly Perfect Copy, a world created by a Jewish author—makes this book in its own way as Jewish as my first novel. Well, almost as Jewish.
People ask me how much research I had to do on art forgery for my new book A Nearly Perfect Copy. The answer is: a lot. Some of it was even necessary. Some of it was just procrastination.
To that end, I wandered into the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in Paris on one hot day, more in search of a bathroom than in search of wisdom. But, reader I found both (and if you’ve been to Paris, you know how valuable a quality public bathroom is).
The exhibits were what you’d expect (Sephardic artifacts, Vichy government deportation narratives, synagogue records, suitcases—Jewish museums always have a lot of suitcases…), but the true gem here is the library. It’s small but comprehensive, and the librarian was exceedingly helpful when I asked for information
I’m not sure I found anything I couldn’t have found in other English language archives, but this pleasant air conditioned afternoon in a quiet and free study space made me think of two things.
First, there are an extraordinary number of Jewish museums. I am in the middle of a project with two friends in which we visit every museum in the five boroughs of New York City (a project that started out interesting and fun and has deteriorated into a duty as we slog through the last 29 museums. You can find a blog about the project here). There are seven Jewish museums out of the 110 museums in New York (eight if you count the Tenement Museum, ten if you count museums founded by Jews). No other ethnicity or culture or religion has as many museums devoted to it (and we’re not even counting memorials, which are not technically museums).
There are of course many reasons for the proliferation of Jewish museums: there is the rich history of the Jewish presence in New York; museums can be seen as a response to the Holocaust’s attempt to wipe out Judaism. But there is also the long history of Jewish involvement in the arts.
A subplot in my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy is the attempt to gain reparations for art stolen from Jews during the Holocaust. These attempts continue in real life, and encounter thorny legal issues. How can a family prove ownership when the records were destroyed? How do you award a painting to what is now dozens of inheritors? What if the current owners acquired the painting by legal means? Who determines the value of the paintings, and what government should be responsible for paying reparations? In my book, characters exploit these complicated ethical issues for their own financial benefit.
Though I ultimately chose not to focus on this battle (other books, fiction and non have done an excellent job of chronicling the theft—particularly from dealer and collector Paul Rosenberg—and the Nazis’ interest in art), it is worth thinking about the Jewish connection to art.
The Mothers is the first book I’ve written that does not primarily consist of Jewish characters. It’s a little weird that with my first book—where there are pretty much only Jews, even in the department stores and hotels, at the theater and the market—I had no idea I was writing an American Jewish novel. I was just telling this family’s extensive story. I was writing an American story.
This book is also an American story. But similarly, I had no idea that this book was dealing with “cross cultural issues,” which is what some reviewers and readers have reported. I wrote a book chronicling a couple’s struggle to have children. But what I didn’t realize is that, because they are from different backgrounds—the wife, Jesse, is Jewish, the husband, Ramon, is first generation Italian and Spanish—they handle their highs and lows of their experience differently. Though her family has not been particularly observant, Jesse’s memories and her experiences are distinctly Jewish, in addition to being particularly American. She has memories of Passovers with her family, as well as growing up with her sister in suburban Virginia. She remembers the seventies when her mother working was an unusual situation. Her mother was one of the few women she knew who held a job.
Ramon is European and his experience—of speaking many languages and traversing a European landscape embedded in the past—differs from Jesse’s. The two argue over how they will raise the child they don’t even yet have. They don’t know the gender or the race of their potential child, nor do they know where in the country he or she will come from, or when, and still these issues of identity and how the child will be raised are of huge concern to them.
What happens when how we raise our children becomes an intellectual pursuit? Jesse has had more time than most to think about what it means to be a mother. As we know, it all becomes clear once a child arrives, but Jesse is stuck in a zone where she can only think about the future hypothetically. What is lost and what is gained from a shift in cultures? As a mother, what will she bring with her from her past? What will she choose or be forced to leave behind?
Do writers always know what we are writing? No. I am always—always—surprised by what readers take from my books. And they catch things that a writer doesn’t. This book is about Jesse’s struggle to become a mother, but it is also about a marriage. Because this is a story about two families joining up. It’s about sameness; it’s about difference. It’s about being yoked to another and about being freed. I think this is a story about wanting. But you, reader, might find an entirely new and other story being told.
The Mothers is my third novel but it’s the first novel I’ve written that tracks so closely with my own life. I had to make a leap as a novelist to write in the first person, to examine a single woman’s inner life, as opposed to the bigger sweep of the multi-generational novels, Golden Country and Something Red, that were written with an eye toward history and the way it affects families.
This book is all about families really, or about a couple who wants to make one desperately. If my other books deal with what happens to families over time, this character—Jesse Weintraub—is most concerned about time stopping. About the story, as it were, ending with her.
I, like Jesse, struggled for a long time to make my family (even though I do believe that it’s not just children that make a family…). And like her, my spouse and I were involved in a terribly long and particularly harsh adoption process that has only ended a few weeks ago. My most private concerns, a sadness I could only tell myself, were the same concerns I am interested in as a writer. These were in part involving what gets passed down through the generations. The history of our families, the voices of my grandparents and what they went through. What if it all that stopped with me?
What if all the stories just stopped with me? All those voices? At the bottom of it, this is what Jesse feels deeply. She wants to see a new generation grow. She gets a little despairing, she acts a little wild, but at the bottom of it, she wants to pass on all of it, the good, the bad, the painful, the joyous, so the cycle will keep going, so everyone’s story, including hers, gets told.