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.