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.
In my last few blogs, I wrote of my hope that The Promise of Israel can help foster a new kind of conversation about Israel, a conversation rooted in ideas and not focused on the conflict. Israel’s importance to the world, I suggest throughout the book, is its central idea: the Jewish State is a reminder of the dangers of unfettered universalism, a call to arms urging us to celebrate our differences.
But during the course of writing the book, it became clear that I needed to make an intentional detour in the argument. For as I spoke about the manuscript in front of audiences, it became clear to me: there’s a sense among many American Jews, particularly among the younger generation, that they really don’t need Israel any longer. American Jews feel completely secure, entirely accepted. They love Israel, but, they argue, they don’t really need Israel.
So I decided that I needed to include a chapter towards the end of The Promise of Israel to address this. I needed to remind them that Israel isn’t just a homeland far away, but it’s actually the generator that provides an enormous portion of the energy for the American Jewish community. Sans Israel, I decided to argue, American Jews would find themselves without perhaps the one issue that truly motivates and energizes their community. Without Israel, after all, what would remain to make Jewishness anything more than some anemic form of ethnic memory long-since eroded? About what else in Jewish life, besides Israel, do contemporary Jews feel shame, or anger, or exhilaration? What else in Jewish life evokes the same intensity of emotion? It’s actually hard to think of examples.
When JCC’s discuss whether or not they should be open on Shabbat, do people get exercised? Not really. When a Jewish home for the aging decides to cease offering kosher food, does the issue bring out the masses? In 2011, a proposed ban on circumcision in San Francisco that both saw Jews at the forefront and had clear anti-Semitic overtones; but did it provoke a stir anywhere near as powerful as what happened after an Israeli naval raid on a flotilla thousands of miles away the year before? Not at all!
When Israel’s Chief Rabbinate or some Israeli political party threatens to declare all Reform and Conservative conversions invalid, American Jews become enraged, even though that policy will affect very, very few of them. Why, though? Sometimes, it seems that American Jews get much more worked up about what Israeli rabbis who are not of their denomination say than they do when their own local rabbis speak!
We should not ignore this peculiar phenomenon, because it speaks to something very deep inside us. When we think about it, we understand that on some level, we intuit that a People without a state is missing something critical. We can’t articulate precisely why, but we know it’s true. American Jews, secure and confident though they are, need Israel because whether we want to admit it or not, even in the Diaspora, Israel is key to making the Jewish experience whole.
That is why issues in issue electrify American Jews in ways that many “domestic” Jewish issues don’t. This, too, is a conversation that I hope that The Promise of Israel will help to foster.