Books have always fascinated me, even from the very earliest days of my childhood. As the child of Jewish intellectuals I imbibed with my mother’s milk the concept that literature is nourishment for the soul; no other activity merits greater respect or in fact deserves more affectionate devotion from us.
I lived in Hungary for the first decade of my life, back when the country was held in the steely grip of the Communist Party and the truths of the authorities could never be brought into question. The media were controlled by the state, and journalists were accomplished liars about everything except the scores of soccer matches, which were impossible to falsify. Seekers after truth had to resort to works of literature, even though the official censors kept a close watch on such publications.
In search of the few available crumbs of truth, my parents bought copies of all new novels and poetry collections published in the country. Our home was like a library, piled high with books. Perhaps that’s why I’m always astounded when I encounter people who haven’t the slightest interest in literature.
My first vivid experiences of the world of books were purely sensual delights: the smell of paper and printer’s ink, the nuanced colors of the book jackets. Later, once I’d learned to read, I traveled, powered by the fuel of the alphabet, to inner and outer worlds, down into the depths of history, sometimes into the future, toward the vast riches of life that extended farther than any eye could see. I spent time with people who had lived long before me in places I would never be able to visit; perhaps those places had never existed at all. I often curled up under the covers to read, living in a boundless world of dreams, full of adventures.
For a long time my favorite book was A Thousand and One Nights, that perpetually enchanting cocktail filled to the brim with the most delicious ingredients of the Middle Eastern storyteller’s art, spiced with liberal doses of invention and humor, sensuality and cruelty. Sometimes I would skip school, preferring the company of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad the sailor. One time I was caught and as my mother seized me by the ear, I couldn’t help exclaiming, “I wish I was grown up already and could spend all my time just reading, reading and reading!” Perhaps that episode was influential in my decision ten years later to dedicate myself fulltime to a life in the world of books.
My next tumultuous literary experience came in my late teens when I read The Trial. It was earth-shaking for me. With just the first few pages I realized that I adored Kafka, especially the tension between dazzling light and absolute depths of darkness that characterized his prose. More than anything else I was impressed by his conversational style, recognizable for its simplicity and crystal clear transparency. And I took his motto for my own: “Correctly comprehending a thing is no guarantee that one hasn’t failed to understand it at the same time.”
Kafka the strict moralist became my guide, one who pointed out the right path but never disclosed the goal. That great prophet of ambiguities taught me to look at the world with fresh eyes and without illusions. Reading Kafka gave me insight into myself; I discovered that I’m a complicated, eclectic and urban Jew, one who believes in no God but still has spiritual needs, and, I hope, has a moral dimension: a man who accepts uncertainty as the only constant and change as the only certainty.
Others who have enriched my world are the great writers of Latin America. Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa have taught me that within a work of the imagination everything can exist simultaneously and on the same level, outside our familiar sense of chronology, with no distinctions drawn between the realistic and the fantastic or between reality and myth. Their approach allows one to create a world complete in itself, a landscape in which everything leaps into view as if lit by a flash of lightning.
I’ve lived my whole life surrounded by novels, works of the imagination and invented stories. The question therefore presents itself: Why, exactly, do I read and I write?
As far as I’m concerned, reading and writing serve the same purpose. They help me to come to grips with myself and with the world around me. I read and write so as to see more clearly, so as to fully develop and exactly express my feelings and thoughts. I do this above all in order to explore and to encounter—not things that I already know, but instead those that still remain obscure to me, half intuited and virtually unknown. For I aim to push my way into that hidden reality and perceive things in new ways. In such an endeavor, not even cutting-edge psychological research can come close to what poetry can achieve.
I am never alone when I read or write, even though a casual observer would see these activities as a profession practiced entirely solo. In a different sense, however, they provide one with an ample and rewarding circle of acquaintances. When I read, I enter a world conceived by another person, and when I write, I am reaching out to my fellow human beings. These tasks sustain and uplift my spirit by extending its worlds of fantasy, feeling and play. In literature nothing is sacred. Its works are the products of dreams, thoughts, feelings and fantasies that never petrify into dogma. Literature is the eternal conversation of the human race.
Some folks are born with the balabusta gene and others are not. It’s that simple. If you didn’t happen to grow up where the term balabusta was freely thrown about, let me try to define it for you. I say “try” because Yiddish is a language that requires paragraphs of explanation for one tiny word. Nu, let’s give it a go.
In the glossary of my first cookbook I define a balabusta as the perfect homemaker. She cooks, she cleans, she bakes, she owns the best spice rack. And she does it all with grace, donating her spare time to local charities.
My grandparents were blessed with the balabusta gene (like most everyone from the old country), which comes along with natural cooking instincts that sense exactly what’s needed to make a dish sing. Yet, like twins, it skipped a generation or two and I was born clearly defective in this area. As my grandfather would say to anyone that would listen, “she’s no balabusta.”
For most of my life, it didn’t matter. As far as my mother was concerned, I was destined to become the first Jewish woman president of the United States, and I would have a squad of chefs preparing my state dinners anyway. My dad would kinda show me on the sly how to scramble an egg and how to turn on a stove, skills he deemed useful in emergencies. (That and how to replace a carburetor.) But the lessons (both kitchen and car) didn’t take.
I did my best to learn once it became important to me. That’s code for “I got married and Hubby asked me ‘what’s for supper?’” Funny, he never mentioned he’d be expecting dinner on our dates.
He was in for some inedible awakenings. But I saw how important it was to him, so it became important to me. I was gonna become the balabusta of the century, come hell or high water.
So I experimented and Hubby choked down every morsel. After a couple of years I had this thing under my belt (and on my hips). At last, I crowned myself a “Balabusta” (well no one else was gonna make me kitchen royalty).
But neither Hubby nor I was ready for the sudden emergence of Extreme Balabusta. I’m sure it was the result of one of those hormonal domestic frenzies; it happened just before I had a baby. Like a culinary Madame Curie, I spent ten straight hours making 60 quarts of chicken soup and froze them in individual 2-quart containers. Then I made 120 carrot muffins and froze them in bags of 8-10. Next I produced 4 challah kugels, and a huge brisket (frozen in 3 separate portions), and 90 meatballs (frozen 10 to a container), and 10 pounds of mashed potatoes (also portioned and frozen). We’re talkin’ really hormonal. My mother-in-law looked on in disbelief as I had humongous pots (almost as big as my humongous belly) bubbling on all 5 burners. There was 12-quart vat in which I was mixing my muffin batter, and enough ground beef to compete with Kosher Castle (that’s the Jewish Burger King).
So I had a freezer full of homemade goodies that lasted well into the year. But by the time the baby was three months old, I had to reactivate that balabusta mechanism which had gone dormant. I actually had to cook dinner.
And as Yogi Berra famously said, “It was déjà vu all over again.” I discovered that I had not endowed myself with a genuine balabusta gene; I had simply copied it by artificial means. I had to drag myself back into that kitchen, with Hubby prodding me along as my ever-hopeful cheerleader.
It was time to start over.
I’ll confess right off that this is not my most embarrassing culinary moment, because I actually air the worst ones in my cookbooks. Like “Brisket: A Love Story,” “Chicken Soup: A Disaster Story,” and “Chocolate Mousse: A Scary Story.” Although all could be simply classified as epic kitchen tragedies. Dunno why exactly I always tell all. Must be that I feel taking the humiliation to an uber-public level will serve as penance of some kind. But that’s just a guess, after all I am a cookbook author, not a psychotherapist.
You see, I was not a “born cook.” (But boy was I born to eat!) So when I had to cook up my very first Shabbat meal as a married lady, every course was a different form of disaster. You wouldn’t think there are so many ways to ruin good food.
My potato kugel was a perfect example. Sitting at our Shabbat table was Hubby, my mommy, my granddaddy and my dear sis. They had all come to “help” this inexperienced cook, not to snicker. At least that’s what they said. When it came time to serve the kugel, even I knew that it didn’t even resemble one. It looked more like an off-color giant latka that had been run over by a truck. I cried, and I decided not to serve it.
But I couldn’t fool Hubby. He knew I had labored over it because potato kugel is one of his favorite Shabbat foods. So he asked about it. I shook my head, wide-eyed. “Come, on, I know you prepared it,” he prodded gently. I shook my head again, searching his face desperately for understanding. Finally, staring at my shoes, I whispered that I was too embarrassed to bring it out. He sweetly, calmly and lovingly told me that I should never be embarrassed about my food, that I had worked hard on it for him and he wanted to have his new wife’s first potato kugel. (He scored extra points from the family with that speech.) So head hung, I brought it out. A suppressed gasp gripped the table. Hubby smiled weakly. Everyone else looked over their shoulders at the wall, the ceiling, the floor. But he gallantly cut himself a piece and sent it down, as I watched in horror. Ever the noble prince, he actually ate another piece. Then he announced his verdict. “Perfect,” he paused, “for a Passover cake!”
That’s his secret: when I want to cry, he makes me laugh. When I want to scream, he makes me laugh. So I laughed through my tears, everyone relaxed, and the kugel mysteriously disappeared from the table.
My mother always told us she could do magic. And though my sisters and I were modern children of the ’70s, brought up by this very same mother to be lefties and intellectuals, we believed her – all the way into early adulthood. She was that powerful a figure to us.
She said her beloved bubbe and zaide had taught her the potent, sometimes scary elements of Jewish magic – part of the “folk Kabbalah,” I would later learn – that allowed her to predict the future, interpret dreams, and – did she actually say this, or was it extrapolated by me as a frightened five-year-old listening? – manipulate the world to her liking.
As an older child, I once boldly asked her to teach me “the signs” she mentioned so often, by which she could read the future. She refused, saying “Once you know them, you’ll see them everywhere, and it will terrify you.” I couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than her warning.
Still, part of me was incredibly intrigued. “Magic” was the thing I myself most wanted to do from an early age, and J. R. R. Tolkien became my favorite writer at the age of nine (and remains my favorite today). Fantasy and sword-and-sorcery were among the genres I loved the most, but I had never heard of any Jewish sorcerers or magicians until my mother mentioned them. Continue reading
I’m a nonobservant Jew, except for going to a seder every time I’m invited and vaguely wishing I did more to celebrate Purim because I love its spirit of play and rebellion. In my writing life, I’ve identified much more as a lesbian than a Jew. My own religious feelings tend toward pagan or atheist, and living in New York my entire life, I’ve encountered much less overt anti-Semitism than I have homophobia. So why did I wind up writing my memoir, Growing Up Golem, with the fabulist premise that instead of giving birth to me, my mother had actually used magic from Kabbalah to create me as her own personal golem?
One reason is that my parents’ lives were extraordinarily affected by anti-Semitism. As American Jewish children during the Holocaust, they grew up with the terror that they themselves would almost certainly have been killed, had they but lived in Europe. My mother quite frequently mentioned her lifelong consciousness of this fact to me. And my parents’ fears were hardly confined to the hypothetical. My father, growing up in the Bronx in the ’30s and ’40s, was beaten up every Halloween by young toughs in his neighborhood because he was Jewish. Later, drafted into the Army and stationed in Germany during the Korean War, he was so viciously Jew-baited by his own sergeant that he actually attacked the man and was put in the stockade (and, probably more damaging, given a less-than-honorable discharge).
My mother was raised largely by her grandmother and grandfather, immigrants from Romania and Austria respectively, who educated my mom in the folk Kabbalistic tradition as a young child (I know the young are not supposed to be taught Kabbalah, but my mother very definitely was), and encouraged her to study Jewish philosophy, at a time almost no girls were. As adults, my parents were both fierce about fighting to preserve Jewish identity, their own, mine, and everybody else’s: “You’re a Jew if Hitler would have killed you for being a Jew,” my mother would say bluntly.
I was sent to yeshiva for the first three grades of school, by parents who wanted me to have a strong foundation in Judaism, despite the fact that they themselves were almost entirely secular.
It worked. I’m a would-be radical writer of 49, but the stories that have the most emotional relevance for me, in the whole of human history, are the Hebrew Bible stories I learned before the age of eight:
Samson, a man of superhuman strength, betrayed by the woman he loves until the Philistines gouge out his eyes and his only remaining remedy is suicidal. Jacob pretending to be Esau, a hairy, masculine man, so that his own blind father will give him the blessing intended for his brother, the favorite. Joseph, who his own father, Jacob, loves the best, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. Jacob, again, wrestling with God (with God!), getting his thigh pulled out of its socket in the process, and demanding (and wresting) a blessing from the Lord. Gritty, often violent stories, filled with personal emotion – rivalry, envy, love, betrayal.
These stories are not superficial, not mealymouthed, not “nice” in the sense of bland, inoffensive, “pious.”
They are not easy stories, and Jewish culture at its depths is not an easy, sanitized, goes-down-smooth culture.
Precisely why I love it, and why I (a woman educated in the antireligious theories of deconstructionist literary criticism and the English (Christian!) literary tradition), made it the foundation for my book.
“I didn’t think he’d do it. I really didn’t think he would.” That’s how I open my book, with a short “midrash“ – a short readers and writer’s response to the story in the context of all the Abraham stories that come before.
And then, in the next chapter, I introduce the author of Genesis 22 and the writing of the story. Those pages are pure speculation. No one knows for sure who wrote those nineteen lines of scripture, let alone what he (I explain much later in the book that no one thinks the story was written by a woman) was thinking as he wrote, let alone his interaction with his editors or his wife, or even when the story was written or what parts of the cycle of Abraham stories (of which it is the climax) were written before (in my version it is late to the Abraham cycle) and what parts were written afterward.
Jane Smiley called those pages amusing and shameless, and I would add wholly anachronistic. There is, I believe, plenty of literary and figurative truth in them, starting with the first line of Chapter 2 (“He was a writer”: no one who appreciates the story as a story would deny that) but the historical truth comes later.
And already people are asking why? Why open a non-fiction book with speculation. The answer is pretty simple: The subject is as close to infinite as a subject can get. In a book of 250 pages I have probably not even sampled one percent of one percent of the exegesis that’s been translated into English, and the vast majority of it probably hasn’t been translated into English. My book moves chronologically but it is less a survey than a series of soundings. There is, inevitably, a lot of repetition, and for it not to be tedious (or more tedious than it is) it had to be written from a point of view.
But what point of view? I struggled with that question for years, and in fact I probably have more than half a dozen versions (not drafts, but very different versions) of the opening 30 pages, the pages which I establish the narrator’s point of view and voice. They are still on my hard drive. One is simply from my point of view, James Goodman, writer and professor of history, from soups to nuts. But I was never happy about the way that version sounded, the way I sounded as narrator. It was too serious, too straight, too stiff. One is from the point of view of the author of the story, an author who feels he wrote a pretty straightforward story about obedience to God. He likes the story, which makes it all the more frustrating as he discovers that every Tom, Dick, and Harry (or Jubilees, Philo, and Josephus) feels free to revise it, add characters and dialog and scenes and thereby twist the story and its meaning in every imaginable way, including versions in which Isaac actually dies. Another is from four points of view, Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, and God. There are, alas, others.
In the end I settled on the perspective of writer (and reader, since all writers are the first readers of their own work) who thought the author got the story wrong and who wanted to revise it. He is not able to revise it (for reasons you need to read those pages to understand). So he pins his hope on (and takes some consolation from) the idea (provided by his wife) that the story will ultimately be revised by others. “Someone will revise it,” she says. The perspective of a writer who thought he got the story wrong provided the moral center I wanted (grave reservations about the story) as well as the tension I wanted (Was she right? Would the story actually be revised? If so, how, when, and why?). It also provided the forward momentum I thought my narrative needed (as I watched the history or life of the story unfold).
“But where,” my real wife asked recently, when she started reading the book, for the first time, “did your narrator’s voice come from? Who is it? I like it, but it isn’t you.”
“No, I said it isn’t.”
“It never is,” she said. “But this one is more so.”
“I think that’s right,” I said. My narrator is, like all narrators and then some, a character all his own, some amalgam of voices, a writer, a reader, a father, a historian, a skeptic, and a Jew.
Like many people I know, I first heard the story of Abraham and Isaac as a child. I couldn’t have been older than thirteen. I was probably closer to ten. But I learned the story differently from many if not most of the Christian and Muslim and even some Jewish kids my age. The Christian kids learned that the story was about Abraham’s faith in God, who could, if need be, bring Isaac back from the dead. Abraham’s sacrifice was a prefiguration of a greater sacrifice to come. The Muslim and many Jewish kids learned that the story demonstrated the very essence of what it means to be a Muslim or Jew, complete submission or obedience to God.
I learned that the story was God’s way of proclaiming his opposition to human sacrifice.
Our Hebrew-school teacher explained it exactly as our Hebrew-school textbook did: God, he said, had brought Abraham to a new land. A good and fertile land, where it was common for pagan tribes, hoping to keep the crops and flocks coming, to sacrifice first-born sons to God. Then one day, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the beloved son of his old age. Abraham set out to do it, and was about to, when God stopped him. He sacrificed a ram instead. In the end, Abraham had “demonstrated his—and the Jews’—heroic willingness to accept God and His law,” and God had “proclaimed” that “He could not accept human blood, that He rejected all human sacrifices.” Continue reading
Many people ask me, “What’s a nice guy like you doing in a field like this?” By which they mean: What’s a modern U.S. historian doing writing a book about the history of a Bible story. They know I have always been interested in stories, how and why people tell the stories they do. My first two books are both narrative histories of events written from multiple points of view. But it is a long way from the Scottsboro Case and the NYC blackout of July 1977 to Abraham and Isaac, more than two thousand years and about a dozen academic fields in which I had absolutely no prior experience.
The truth is that I had been looking for a story to track and retell over a longer span of time. Scottsboro focused on a few decades of the twentieth century. Blackout focused on a few days. I was wondering what it would be like to track and tell a story over centuries. But what story? Events far beyond my study ultimately shaped my choice, as they so often do.
It was 2004. Dark days. Terror attacks had sparked a global war on terror and there was no end to either war or terror in sight. Wherever I turned, I heard the word “sacrifice.” Eulogists praised soldiers for making the ultimate sacrifice. Proponents of staying the course in Iraq in the face of a fierce insurgency and the threat of civil war argued that if we withdrew, our dead would have sacrificed their lives in vain. Opponents called for the repeal of recently enacted tax cuts, and perhaps even a reinstatement of the military draft, to ensure that the sacrifice exacted in two surreally distant conflicts was not borne entirely by a few. Americans accused the parents of Afghani, Pakistani, and Iraqi suicide bombers of sacrificing their children. Afghanis, Pakistanis, and Iraqis accused coalition commanders of doing the same. One American antiwar activist stalked pro-war congressmen and prominent political commentators, video camera in hand, asking them if they would sacrifice one of their children to retake Faluja, a city they had not heard of before 2004.
I started doing what scholars and creative writers do: reading about sacrifice, and then child sacrifice, in history and literature, sacred and profane. I wanted to know who had sacrificed children and when and why. I found a slew of accusations (one group of people accusing another of sacrificing children) and a lively scholarly debate (truly heroic efforts to tease experience out of scant evidence) about which of those accusations were true. I also found the story of Abraham and Isaac, the ground zero of Western child sacrifice stories. Before long I had turned from books and essays about the story to the story itself, and then to all the Abraham stories in Genesis, then to commentary on those stories, starting in antiquity.
In short, I fell into the bottomless well of biblical literature. I figured that the only hope for me was to write a book about the story. I now have, but I am still not sure there is any way out.
In my novel, Margot, I reimagine Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister, having survived the war and come to Philadelphia where she works as a legal secretary living under the assumed name of Margie Franklin. My book takes place in 1959, just as Anne’s diary is coming to the silver screen, and where Margie Franklin’s present and Margot Frank’s past begin to collide.
As I was writing the novel, I had trouble finding much information about the real Margot Frank. Though Margot also kept a diary when the family was hiding in the annex, hers was never recovered after the war, and very little is known about her today. I could gather only small tidbits from the descriptions of Margot in Anne’s diary and from a few other books published about the family.
But one thing that stood out to me in my research was the reason why the family went into hiding when they did: Margot received a call-up notice from the Germans to report to a forced labor camp. The family moved up their plans, and went into hiding the next day, essentially to keep Margot safe.
I read that Margot Frank left for the annex separately from Anne and their parents, so as not to arouse suspicion. She layered on clothes and rode her bike (which Jews were restricted from doing at the time) in the pouring rain. She rode to the annex with Miep Gies, as if the two of them were simply Gentile secretaries, on their way to work.
The fictional events of my novel are far removed from this bike ride that the real Margot Frank took, but that was the vision I began with of Margot – a young woman terrified and without her family, but composed enough to ride her bike through the pouring rain to go into hiding, to save herself. A woman who was brave even when she must’ve been deeply afraid. A woman who understood how to hide herself, even when she was out in the open.
My grandfather was a Kohen, which I’ve learned (thanks to Google) means he was a Jewish priest, a descendant of Aaron. I never really knew what he meant when he told me this (repeatedly), when he was alive, only that he had been raised deeply religious. But as an adult, as my grandfather, he was more of a cultural Jew. And this was how I was raised, filtered down even one more generation. As a child, I didn’t attend Hebrew School (though one year I begged my parents to send me, just so I’d have something to keep up with all my Catholic friends who regularly attended CCD). We never went to synagogue. We’d go to Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner at my parents’ friends’ house each year (the only other Jewish people we knew who lived nearby), though I can’t remember my parents ever cooking their own holiday dinners. We celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, of course, but my sister and I only sang “The Dreidel Song” as we lit the menorah.
My grandparents lived six hours away when I was growing up, and we only saw them a few times a year, but whenever we did, it was my grandfather who would remind us about being Jewish. As a kid I’d roll my eyes when he’d tell me that I’d care more about my religion when I grew up, when I had kids of my own. I couldn’t understand what he meant. His version of religion, by that point, was socializing at the JCC and reading The Jewish Chronicle. He also was fond of calling all us Bubbelah in public – an endless embarrassment to all the cousins in our teenage years.
My grandfather died almost five years ago, so he never got to see what happened when my children got old enough to talk, to start asking me questions. (Why doesn’t Santa Claus come to our house? My youngest son swore it was because our house didn’t have a chimney. . .). It was around this time that I started to understand what he meant, about religion feeling more important to me when I got older and had kids of my own. I didn’t suddenly start attending synagogue or learning Hebrew, but I did suddenly feel the need to teach my children about where they came from. I read them books about the Jewish holidays and cooked dinners for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I bought a children’s version of the Haggadah so my oldest son could read from it at age four, when he was a budding reader, and I helped my youngest son memorize the four questions to recite. My husband, who is also Jewish and was raised more religious than I was, taught all of us the Hebrew prayer to say when we light the menorah, which we now sing in addition to “The Dreidel Song.”
When I was writing Margot, I did a lot of research about the Holocaust and the Frank family. But some of what I had to learn had to do with aspects of being Jewish that I never really learned growing up. At times I felt a little bit like an imposter, wondering if I really had it in me to write about being Jewish, when I was still figuring so much out for myself. But as I researched and wrote, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather. If he were still here now, I can just picture him saying, I told you so, Bubbelah.