These days, when people write a book, they invariably have an acknowledgments page, where they thank a few people or–like someone going on and on at the Oscars–everyone they ever knew, down to the babysitter who once braided their hair in elementary school. My own acknowledgements page for my most recent book thanks my first readers–the friends who commented on my stories in draft–and the artist colonies that offered me an extended time to write.
Now that I think about it, and think about it in terms of what really enabled me to do what I needed to do, I realize I should also have thanked New York’s Tenement Museum. The museum consists of a modern visitor center at 103 Orchard Street and a tenement at 97 Orchard that has been “restored”–or perhaps safely kept in its earlier dismal condition. The rooms have been furnished as they were during the years (1863-1935), when the tenement was occupied.
This may sound drearily like any number of museums, where you stand behind a rope while you look at a Victorian bedroom or see the trundle bed where Melville’s children slept. But it is nothing of the sort. Instead the tour guide who takes you into 97 Orchard Street (you can’t just wander alone) tells you the story of one of the immigrant families who once lived there. And at least some of those immigrants were Jewish.
The Museum gave me the very thing that I needed to write: a sense of the lived life, the specifics of daily existence. I have at times got buried in, and distracted by, my efforts at verisimilitude. I have tried to do research for books and only learned how much I don’t know, how there was no way I could write my book unless I had more courage, more of an ability to ask people who I didn’t know what their lives were like. But intruth you don’t need to know everything to write a story or novel. You just need enough to convince. In an interview on identitytheory.com, the fiction writer Jim Shepard talks about the role of research in fiction this way:
Henry James said, ‘She had eyes like this and a nose like this.’ And you go, ‘I could really see her.’ You have two details! Theoretically you could do the same thing with the Battle of Antietam, right? If you get the right details. Part of the point of all that research is not, ‘Oh, I am going to be able to deploy more details.’ It’s that I am more likely to come across those two.”
What The Tenement Museum gave me were the details, ironically enough, to imagine where my characters lived. I only used two things from the visit to the Museum: a detail about where toilets were placed in a tenement and what the lay out of an apartment might be like, but, in my head, the whole world was quite vivid. I could see it all, and hopefully my readers can as well.
Should I show my husband my work? My sister? My mother? Students sometimes ask me this. Go ahead, I say. Just don’t be too eager to listen to your family members’ opinions about your fiction. Parents and siblings bring too much non-literary baggage to their reading, so they’re not the ones to turn to for clearheaded advice. Which is a shame, I’ll be frank, because my mother thinks I’m a genius. My siblings are kind (though not uniformly) about my work. There are a few comments, over the years, that hurt at the time, that pain me less in retrospect. Here’s one that just interested me. My mother read a few stories of mine (in draft) and then asked, “Why do all your characters have to be Jewish?” She wasn’t asking this about the stories where there was a clear answer. If the story concerned Jews on the Lower East Side or a rabbi (as two of the stories in my most recent collection do), then that was fine. What she was asking was about the other stories. The ones with no clear Jewish content, where I nonetheless had made the characters Jewish. The story about the faltering marriage in Baltimore, the one about the cousins living together in a Cambridge apartment when Vaclav Havel’s press secretary comes to visit? They didn’thave to be Jewish, did they?
And the truth is, no, they didn’t. There was nothing in the stories that necessitated me clarifying their cultural heritage or spiritual lives. Still, even if I did edit the explicit mention of Jewishness out, as I did in some cases–because my mother was right it really didn’t need to be there–the characters remained Jewish in my head.
Why, exactly? I could say that I have spent my whole life as a Jew, even if as a completely secular one, and that is the lens through which I see the world, but I have spent my whole life as a woman, and I find myself able to write from a man’s point of view. I have spent my whole life as an identical twin, and I only once wrote about a character who is an identical twin. I think it has more to do with the immediate kinship that I feel with some Jews, the sense that we share a sensibility. Intelligence, warmth, self-deprecating humor, liberal politics, rugelach, books, and black and white cookies occupy the same place in our hearts. Which is to say that we highly value them. OK, well, maybe not the black-and-white cookies, not for all Jews. I can see that might be a debatable point. And everyone doesn’t share my politics, I know. But you get the idea. There’s a certain coziness I feel with other Jews, and it’s a coziness I like to feel with my characters. My characters are in a quite literal way (of course) “my people.” So, no surprise, I suppose, that they should resemble my people in a larger sense, the ones I come from and the ones for whom I feel a special affection.
Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception.
In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres — it’s in my most recent book, The Pretty Girl — and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theatre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less, Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.
I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my pleasure. I was dispirited. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in history, before I could write the book I intended. I was also anxious to get back to the Marriott in Swiss Cottage where I was staying. My mother and young son were waiting for me, and I knew my son would be impatient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extended separation.
It was late in the day when I finally got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the elevator, I saw a man in a yarmulke holding a clipboard. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be interested by my dip into history. I saw the words Adin Steinsaltz on the man’s clipboard. Now I had another reason I felt like speaking. “He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.
“What’s that?” the man said, interested.
“Do you understand that book?” the man said abruptly.
I had actually studied the book, which attempts to explain the Jewish mystical system that is kabbalah, fairly seriously at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. “I feel like if there are 100 levels on which to get that book, after reading it twice, I managed to get to level two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kindly or not, influence the structure of the universe. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the universe, and similarly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the potential to create the world as a better or worse place.
“Well, I tell the rabbi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he introduced himself. He was Steinsaltz’s personal assistant.
I was shocked. The Steinsaltz book—and other books by Steinsaltz—had once been so important to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jewish such an Irish name. Somehow “Adin,” though I knew it was pronounced differently, made me think it would be OK after all.
It turned out that the Rabbi, who is known perhaps best for his translation of the Talmud, was speaking that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assistant said he could get me in. As exciting as this prospect sounded, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my mother. So the assistant offered something else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have coffee with him.
I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited. Later, I told Steve Stern, a Jewish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, “He’s a holy man!”
My meeting was brief. I was embarrassed by my secular self in front of the rabbi. I should have counted on not feeling quite frum enough to be meeting with him. I felt I should have a question for him, but I hadn’t prepared a question. I didn’t know what to say. He was gentle and kind, but I struggled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t so great. I ended up deciding to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had troubled me, since I reread it in preparation for taking my son to his firstPurim celebration. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that afterward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 additional men. I asked the rabbi about it. The lack of clarity in the Book of Esther bothered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Persians have permission to attack Jews on a certain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are taking advantage of that permission, when the day comes.
“Well, you’ve never been beaten,” the rabbi said.
“If you were beaten, you’d understand.”
It seemed to me that we were talking about contemporary Israel and Palestine and not ancient Jews and Persians. Later I realized we probably were. I discovered that the rabbi’s politics were far to the right of my own. The other thing the rabbi said, though I can’t remember what we were talking about that led him to these words, is that he liked children, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wisdom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love children myself.
Why am I telling these stories?
Because the meeting with the Rabbi redirected me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, anticipating my morning coffee with the rabbi.
I never wrote that book about toy theatres, the one I planned to write when I went to London. Instead, I wrote a novel, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explicit use of the Rabbi’s words about being beaten. I also wrote a story for my subsequent book, The Pretty Girl, called “A Wedding Story.” In it, a rabbi says what Steinsaltz said about children, and the character who hears his words stumbles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.
I couldn’t understand enough about the facts of the Victorian world, so I couldn’t write the novel I intended to. I couldn’t understand the Rabbi’s thinking, and so I found a story I did feel I could write. Stupidity, you could say, stopped me, and stupidity led me forward. Different kinds of stupidity. To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.