My maternal grandmother fought to escape her Lower East Side. My Babbi was born in 1932 and raised on Pitt Street and Houston, a few blocks from where I would grow up years later. She was the daughter of Orthodox Austrian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1919 with thousands of other displaced Jews, gazing in awe at the Statue of Liberty from the steerage deck of a third-class freighter.
The Lower East Side of the ’30s was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, an unruly Jewish village struggling through the end of the Depression. Its tenements teemed with immigrants who practiced wild customs—matchmaking, interpreting prophesies from dreams— that they’d imported with silver menorahs hidden under rags during the ocean passage.
My handsome grandfather had a bachelor pad on Henry Street before he was a Zayde. They met when he taught my Babbi art and their hearts filled over many hours developing photographs in dim darkrooms. Images of her from that time are coy and striking, he bold and laughing. Their eyes gleam for adventure, conquest, love, glory, knowledge.
To this day my grandparents teach me about loving fully, they have always fully believed in my writing, encouraged me to pursue it no matter what the odds. In a career filled with rejection, this fighting spirit buoyed me. Their beautiful old home in Long Island with a swimming pool and lush garden is my refreshing escape from the downtown New York hustle I still live in. Their wisdom, tenacity and verve inspire me every day and so I decided to sit down with them before the publication of my memoir Fame Shark and talk about their first meeting, performance as love, competition, what art means to them and the perils as well as pleasures of celebrity. Continue reading
“I sound like a cheap, mean kyke,” my father raged. “I sound like an idiot, a complete non-entity,” my mother was furious too. I had been nervous about them reading my first memoir, Fame Shark, but none of my jitters had prepared me for this ballistic reaction. We were sitting down to breakfast at Castillo, a Dominican restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side where I had grown up eating delicious homefries colored orange from Sofrito. Now they stuck in my throat.
For me, the book was a monument to the obvious: I was in love with both my parents. But raised by two Jews who were brilliant psychoanalysts, my love had a darkness, a depth, an introspection I’d learned from them. Wasn’t that a good thing? Wasn’t that flattering?
“So, it’s basically fiction,” Mom said,”a lot of this stuff never happened.” It was true that I had purposefully pandered to a modern American culture that had the attention span of meth addicts. I’d cut all the “boring” bits out of my life in this telling. But fiction? No way. It had been hard, terrifying and humbling to write truths about myself: I had been bullied to the point of molestation as a kid, I had later exchanged sex for money and movie roles, cultivated friendships with drug dealers, sunk to supreme unhappiness at the altar of celebrity worship. I had begun writing Fame Shark still half in the throes of an idiotic, unoriginal fantasy that the book itself would lift me into celebrity. Only the therapeutic writing of it had helped take me out of my own narcissism/self-hatred (a diagnosis my parents had once agreed with, in our darkest conflicts). Continue reading
“Many artists are ‘underground’,” a writing instructor of mine once remarked, “but no one is more underground than writers.” To that I would add that no one is more underground than writers who don’t write in the language of the place they live. It amounts to a sort of double life. On the outside, you function in the same language as everyone around you. But then you have this other world, where you think and create in the tongue of a stranger. Your boss, the next-door neighbors, the mother of your child’s best friend and Moshe from the makolet might be aware that you are working on a novel, but you know, from the very first word you write, that they will probably never read it.
While I was writing The Wayward Moon, a novel which takes place in the 9th century Middle East, the situation was even more confusing. I was constantly alert to the fact that rather than Hebrew or English, my characters would have spoken something that sounds like Ha lachma anya di achalu avtania, and dizabin abah bitrei zuzei. If, like me, these phrases from the Haggadah are all the Aramaic you know, then you understand the difficulty. As I wrote the novel, I realized very early on that I could never really know how Rahel Bat Yair, the story’s heroine, really spoke. All I could do was try to imagine her “voice,” not only the sound of it, but the “music” of it, its point of view, its inherent assumptions and ways of seeing the world. It wasn’t a matter of getting it “right” or “wrong,” because due to the absence of Jewish women’s voices in the few documents that have come down to us from that time, it was impossible to know exactly what idioms she would have used to express herself. All I could do was read the limited material that is available (e.g., letters from the Cairo Geniza, writings by men of her time) and listen to the tones, attitudes and modes of expression as they play out in the folk tales, songs, films, and poetry of people who have lived their lives in the lands of Islam.
While this sort of linguistic alienation is challenging for a writer, it can nonetheless be conducive to writing. The sense of being isolated, of having to wrestle alone with the voices in your head, enacts something existential. Writing becomes a sort of refuge, a place where you can sink into the words and phrases and fully inhabit your state of aloneness.
Having said that, if any Israeli publishers are reading this, Moshe from the makolet is still waiting.
I’m sitting on the back porch of my temporary lodgings in Atlanta, while two spiders go at it, the smaller invading the larger’s web. (Why? Who knows. Maybe he or she is lonely.) Larger lunges at smaller, until smaller retreats, and both settle down again to await the arrival of an unsuspecting fly. Watching them, I am reminded of Charlotte’s Web, which I read when I was boy, and how caught up I became in the struggles of Charlotte and Wilbur and how I never wanted the story to end. Unfortunately, it did, yet fortunately for me I found many other stories to get tangled up in—Encyclopedia Brown, The Westing Game,The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia.
Back then, I read only for pleasure and escape and erroneously imagined these books I so loved to be handed down through a series of magic tricks to end up in my favorite bookstore. I had no idea they were written by real people, who sat at real desks and typed them out on real typewriters, arduous page after arduous page. These books, these authors, changed the way I saw the world, but more than this they changed the way I interacted with it. I learned about sleuthing, betrayal, love, and death by falling headfirst into these created universes, which matched the reality of my own only insofar as they resembled the familiar—houses, trees, the sun and moon, stars, streets, etc. Other than this, they were as fantastical as they were absorbing; I couldn’t wait to flip the page to find out what happened next.
While working on my own novel, I had a similar experience, yet now I was in complete control (or so I thought) of what happened next. The process of writing and publishing Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence took ten years and through it, I learned many valuable lessons, the most important of which is this: we writers have little say in the fate of our characters, who ultimately dictate to us how they want the story to be told and what will happen to them. So it was that one writer after another began to appear in the pages of Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence and I had nothing to say about it. No, really. They turned up and took over and suddenly the novel became more than a novel about a fraught triangulation of widow, critic, and ingénue. It became a novel that asked where stories come from and who owns them, how we write novels and why we do. Like a fly, I was trapped in my novel’s web and the less I struggled, the more I discovered about the characters and myself and the more I discovered, the more the impossible began to occur—the characters told me what was going to happen and held me to this, refusing to let me go until they were satisfied I’d told their stories as honestly and as well as I could.
When someone asks me where I’m from, I never hesitate to say that I’m from New York City. Then, a little ashamed, I often confess that I’m not really from New York, that I was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. While I did not spend my formative years in the city, I have always considered myself a New Yorker, which probably has to do with all those summers I spent on Long Island with my mother’s parents. The day trips to Jones Beach and into the city to see a play or wander around Macy’s! Some of my favorite memories still involve being stopped between stations on the subway or the Long Island Railroad. And then our slow approach into Penn Station and the skyscrapers obliterating the sky and my mother leading my brother and me up into the beautiful, congested fray that is Manhattan.
Every step I took along those overpopulated sidewalks, every museum and bookstore I wandered through, every salty pretzel I pulled apart and devoured—all of it was leading me closer to my future self. At the time, I had little idea that years later I’d live in and among those crowds, museums, bookstores, and pretzel carts, though I should’ve suspected as much, given my early fondness for the city. When I was a boy, I fell head over heels in love with the city, yet it wasn’t until I finally moved there as a young adult that I came to really believe what Le Corbusier meant when he said, “A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe and 50 times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
A beautiful catastrophe, unlike any other in the world, especially for a young man who wanted desperately to become a writer. Even now, when I think about it, I am still filled with a sense of the romantic and haunted by that earlier version of myself, who traversed the sketchier and verboten neighborhoods of Morningside Heights and Spanish Harlem on his bike, who lived on 107th and Central Park West, in what was and would continue to be for ages the biggest, most amazing apartment he ever lived in—a doorman building with view of the park, our rent only $1,400 a month. I shared the apartment with a friend, another Columbia undergrad, and eventually set a short story there. It was hard to leave an apartment like that, but leave it we had to do. After graduation, I moved downtown, then ultimately to Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, where I stayed for over a decade, until it was time for me to go. I had become too hard, too covetous of what other people had, and New York was killing me.
From there, I went to DC, then to Gettysburg, PA, then back to New York for a brief stint that lasted a summer and fall. Then, it was to Berlin, then back to Gettysburg, then Durham, NC, then Gettysburg yet again. Now, I am in College Station, Texas, soon to be moving to Atlanta—but, but, but…I left my heart in New York, just like so many of my characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence. No matter where I have gone, no matter where I have lived, New York always beckons me back. She is an impossible place to leave for long, even more of an impossible place to untangle from. Just ask Antonia Lively herself, or Henry Swallow, or Catherine Strayed. Just ask any of these characters where they’d rather be and they will tell you, “Well, New York City, naturally.”
Unfortunately, we do not always get to choose the places in which we live; some places choose us. Antonia, Henry, and Catherine live in Winslow, a small college town in upstate New York, and it chose them. It also chose me and it is where I have lived, in my imagination at least, for over ten years. I know the town just as well as I know New York City, perhaps even better than that, because I created it whereas, in some ways, New York City created me.
All fiction writers have a streak of audacity. To make up something and then ask readers to suspend their disbelief and give themselves over to your vision is, well, a little outrageous. Among the most audacious are the writers of historical fiction. How can anyone presume to know what it was like to live and work and raise a family in a time other than their own? How can one comprehend the hopes, the limitations, and the challenges of people who lived their lives in historical periods with radically different circumstances and assumptions?
Logic says that it’s impossible. Yet the imagination insists that it’s not. It insists that, with a little bit of help, it can transcend space and time and understand something beyond the here and now.
Allow me to offer an example. Let’s say you want to write a scene in which a character goes to a bathhouse. You could do worse than to make your way to Acco, a city in the North of Israel. When you get there, you may want to linger for a few minutes on the boardwalk, enjoying the vista of the bright blue sea, but don’t stop there. Continue along the boardwalk, and head for the old city. You’ll know it by the shops and vendors at the entrance, selling nargillas, Armenian pottery, olive wood carvings, humous, and fresh pomegranate juice. Look for the signs on the walls pointing the way to the Hammam – the public bathhouse. When you get there, you’ll have to take the tour. Maybe you’re the type that doesn’t like tours, but do it anyway. That way you’ll get to see the inside. You’ll be shown the various pools, now dry and empty, and hear the stories about the generations of balanim – bathhouse attendants who would scrub you down with sponges and brushes and fill you in on the latest gossip. And then there will be a moment when the group moves on, but don’t follow them. Remain behind and linger a little longer.
Instead of the empty stone pools, think of steam rising from the hot water. Instead of the scent of moldy walls, imagine wafts of rosewater and jasmine oil. And now, in the dim light and the silence, try to hear the voices. Hear the groans of the women being scrubbed with rough sponges by stern-faced attendants, the trills of laughter from a group listening to the town matchmaker tell a racy joke, the soft whispering of two girls in the corner, pointing to a third and whispering, “Look at that stomach. If she isn’t pregnant, then I’m a Rabbi.”
If you can see all this, then you’ll feel it in your bones—how the very drama of life played out alongside the tiled bathing pools. And as you emerge into the alley that leads back to the market you’ll know, from some mysterious place in your head that you never knew existed, exactly how to write the scene in the bathhouse.
I knew I was going to dedicate my first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence, to my maternal grandparents long before I ever set out to write it. Or let me rephrase that: until I was tasked with dedicating the novel, I had no idea just how clear it had been that I would dedicate it to them. During the years it took me to write the novel, I never thought about the dedication, nor did I think much about my dearly departed grandparents, though in retrospect they were always with me, whispering their story into my ear.
No, the novel isn’t about them, not literally anyway, but it does touch upon certain themes—displacement, trauma, assimilation, ambition—about which I would never have plumbed had I not known the intimate details of their struggles. Marianne and Stephan—Mimi and Steve to their friends—were both born in Vienna, where they met and married. Both full-blooded Jews, their Jewishness never played a significant role in their upbringing. They were Jewish, just not religious, and rarely attended shul.
Long before their conversion to Catholicism in 1930, long before they fled Austria in 1936, it seemed they had already begun the slow, arduous process of shedding themselves of their Jewish identities to live a Jewish-less life in America. They arrived on Ellis Island in 1938, after having spent time in Istanbul, then Geneva. They bought a house in Manhasset, NY, and there raised my mother and my aunt as good Catholic girls, never once alluding to the war, or to what they left behind in Europe.
Like my grandparents, who loved Vienna and missed it every day, many of the characters in Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence yearn both physically and emotionally for a place to which they cannot return. How then, my novel asks, do we make a home elsewhere? How then do we find happiness in a strange place when we have been stripped, or have stripped ourselves, of our identities, that which made us who we were?
I wrote the novel to answer this question, among many others, for myself. When you read it, I hope you will find an answer or two for yourself.
A young man leaves his home and sets out on a journey. He is impressionable, sensitive, and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Because he is young, everything is new, surprising, a revelation. He is awkward, but also hopeful. He knows little, but he is eager to learn. He is betrayed by those he trusts, and happily surprised by people he thought were his enemies. So it goes as he journeys in and out of chance meetings, mishaps, and adventures. And ultimately, after feeling the full weight of his experiences in his soul, he comes to understand a truth about himself, about the world, and his place in it.
The literary term for this sort of novel is the bildungsroman. In English, we might call it a novel of self-discovery and it is a classic genre in both Western and world literature. Our literary canon is full of such tales of self-realization.Tom Jones and David Copperfield are examples of the genre as are Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, and A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Though works involving a heroine are few, Jane Eyre comes to mind as a rare exception. But generally, women, and particularly Jewish women, are absent from the genre.
This is not at all surprising. Traditionally, Jewish women were not the protagonists of stories about self-discovery. Rather, they were usually married off and on their way to motherhood while still teenagers. The trajectory of a Jewish woman’s life was set out for her from the day she was born, and it did not involve venturing into the world to seek one’s fortune.
But what would have happened if a woman was forced by circumstance to undertake such a journey? What if she had to make her way in the world alone? What would be her fears? Her concerns? Her particular vulnerabilities? How would she survive? What would she learn about the world? What would she learn about herself?
In The Wayward Moon, I’ve put my heroine in precisely this situation. Rahel Bat Yair is a 17-year-old Jewish girl living in the Babylonian town of Sura in the 9th century Middle East. The story opens on the eve of her engagement, and Rahel, entirely content in her own world, has no desire to travel anywhere. Unlike the typical male hero of a bildungsroman, she has no use for experience or adventure. When circumstance forces her to take to the road, like Homer’s Odysseus, she wants nothing more than to go home, but unlike him, she has no home to return to.
Typically, at the end of a bildungsroman, the hero has achieved a modicum of self-knowledge, and whether he returns home or begins anew, he is able to utilize his experiences in forging his life as an adult. Would Rahel Bat Yair be able to utilize her experiences? Would there be a way for her to draw on her hard-won knowledge to enable her to contribute to her community? Or would she choose to conceal what she has seen and done?
Considering how little has come down to us about women’s lives in Jewish society of her time, we can easily speculate about the answer.