Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, let’s continue with our topic. What happens after a Jewish writer emigrates from the USSR to the USA? Of the fourteen stories in Dinner with Stalin, you wrote 13 in America, as an immigrant. What has changed in your creative laboratory?
David Shrayer-Petrov: First of all both the immediate environment and the greater environment have changed. Most of these stories fashion Russian—Jewish-Russian—characters living in America. In this sense, I’ve become an American writer. Take the story “The Valley of Hinnom.” Even though much of the action is set in Moscow and in Israel, I could never have written this story without knowing that the main characters are former refuseniks living in the US. Continue reading
So why would a nice Jewish girl not write nice Jewish fiction? My last book, Stations West, was about Jewish immigrants in 19th century Oklahoma. It was very “Jewish.” It was so Jewish it was nominated for the Sami Rohr Prize (but not so Jewish that it won). One would expect that my next book would be even more “Jewish.” Yet, on the outside it perhaps doesn’t appear to be.
The book jacket calls my new novel A Nearly Perfect Copy “a smart and affecting novel of family and forgery set amidst the rarefied international art world. Elm Howells has a loving family and a distinguished career at an elite Manhattan auction house. But after a tragic loss throws her into an emotional crisis, she pursues a reckless course of action that jeopardizes her personal and professional success. Meanwhile, talented artist Gabriel Connois wearies of remaining at the margins of the capricious Parisian art scene, and, desperate for recognition, he embarks on a scheme that threatens his burgeoning reputation. As these narratives converge, with disastrous consequences, A Nearly Perfect Copy boldly challenges our presumptions about originality and authenticity, loss and replacement, and the perilous pursuit of perfection.”
There is also a subplot involving a famous ceramicist Holocaust survivor and an art dealer seeking reparations for European Jewish families whose art was stolen by the Nazis. But the main protagonists aren’t Jewish. I would argue, though, that it is still a Jewish novel.
Stations West’s characters were outsiders who, through successive generations, never managed to assimilate into American culture. Similarly, Gabriel is a Spanish artist who feels othered by his language and culture. Despite the fact that he’s resided in Paris almost longer than in his native Spain, he views French culture from the outside looking in. The other protagonist, Elm, is likewise alienated, first, because her branch of her illustrious family is out of favor and second because her grief at the death of her son has created a rift between her and reality. She is no longer able to relate to others in her family or at work.
This experience of being simultaneously outside a culture while attempting to assimilate is a particularly Jewish one. The struggle with issues of national identity, of feigning integration in your own country is one that we all deal with every day, and this way of viewing the world—in the case of A Nearly Perfect Copy, a world created by a Jewish author—makes this book in its own way as Jewish as my first novel. Well, almost as Jewish.
My mother wasn’t the only Jew in our small town in India. There was Aunty Ruby and her family before they immigrated to Israel, and there was always Aunty Sarah. Aunty Sarah was a wonderful seamstress, and when I was taking Bharat Natyam classes, she made me a bag to hold the bells that went around my ankles when I danced. Sewn at the bottom, in a loop, were a string of bright blue beads. I kept the bag long after I stopped dancing, because she had parted with the beads – so precious because they were from Israel – for me, and so they were doubly precious.
When her niece and nephew visited from Bombay, I played with Rivka and Rueben. Years later, when I was studying toward my first master’s degree at Bombay University, Rivka’s grandparents, whom I called Granny and Grandpa, became my guardians (every student from out of town needed a guardian who could take care of her should the need arise). Grandpa died while I was there, and that was the first Jewish ceremony I attended. No one celebrated the high holidays; it was usually birth and death that brought out our Jewish faith.
When I came to study at Berkeley, my involvement and knowledge of all things Jewish grew exponentially. Mom’s cousin, Uncle Bob and his wife Barbara, took me to the synagogue in San Francisco, and I had my very first Passover with their family. It was at a lovely hotel, and I was starving by the time the waiters served the plates. I saw this pale green, flower-shaped puree in the middle of the plate, and popped it into my mouth. Next thing I knew, my eyes were smarting and I was reaching for water. It was horseradish…and how we all laughed, because reading about it isn’t the same as seeing it – or tasting the bitterness.
By the time I was writing The Invitation, I felt very comfortable having a Jewish character. Confession: I am very lazy about researching, but everything, from Jonathan Feinstein’s name to his sudden interest in having a Bar Mitzvah for his son, came right out of my own knowledge and experience. When I did a reading in San Francisco, Aunty Barbara came along with her caretaker. She hadn’t read the novel yet, and I hoped she would get a kick out of seeing her daughter’s name, Ellen Krueger, who appears as a minor character.
Lois Leveen’s newest novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is now available.
There’s a novel I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immigrant parents work hard, and, as a measure of success, move to the suburbs—where their older daughter thrives in school, while the younger daughter struggles socially, especially with her ethnic identity. Introduced to a charismatic, and most certainly unorthodox, rabbi, this younger daughter immerses herself in Jewish learning to steady her passage through the throes of adolescence. Her deepening involvement in the synagogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social justice, and greater confidence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a better example of Jewish-American literature?
Except, the novel in question, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chinese-American family. Its author, Gish Jen, is herself the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Jen grew up in Scarsdale, a community she portrays with an amazing mix of accuracy, acerbity, and affection in Mona. Raised in a similar suburban community and only thirteen or so years younger than Jen and her protagonist, I’ve joked that I don’t need to write a novel about my childhood, because Jen already did it for me.
Jen’s novel reminds us that “Jewish” is an identity that is less bound by race or culture than we might initially assume—Mona, after all, converts, making her no less Jewish than any other Jew, even as she integrates Chinese culture with her burgeoning religious identity. But does a book count as Jewish-American literature just because it features Jewish characters? Does it matter if its author (unlike her convert protagonist) isn’t Jewish?
Compare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on the true story of an African American slave. After being freed and educated in the North, Mary Bowser returned to the South and became a Union spy during the Civil War, by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. From the first page of this fictionalized telling of her story, Mary’s mother regularly converses with Jesus about Mary’s future. Although somewhat skeptical about her mother’s insistence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eagerly attends prayer meetings with her parents, and later, when she moves away from her family, seeks solace both at Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel, the founding African Methodist Episcopal church, and at a Quaker meeting. One particularly moving Baptist sermon motivates her to give up her own freedom and return to the South. Later, she articulates her horror at the war’s devastation by doubting whether her participation in such wide-scale violence could really be Jesus’ plan. Not a very Jewish story.
Unless you define the Jewishness of a novel by who wrote it: me.
There’s no doubt I’m a Jew. I’ve got the name, the nose, and the siddur presented to me by my childhood synagogue on the occasion of my bat mitzvah to prove it. I’ve even got a string of writing credits for Jewish publications, from Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal to The Jew and The Carrot, where I served as “the Shmethicist,” an ethical food advice columnist. Surely I’m a Jewish American writer. But does that mean my novel—about an African American raised as a Christian—is best understood as Jewish American literature?
Maybe it’s a sign of my Jewishness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a matter of textual explication. In creating the character of Mary’s mother, I invoked the Christian faith that sustained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the galleys of The Secrets of Mary Bowser I realized that, quite unconsciously, I also invoked my own Jewish sensibility. Mary’s trajectory is an exploration of what it means to be chosen, in ways that are directly related to my Jewish understanding of that concept as implying a responsibility to serve some greater good. Mary’s relinquishing of her own freedom to serve her community implies a belief in the individual’s responsibility to serve the community through tikkum olam. It places her in a tradition of chosen individuals that includes Moses, Daniel, Esther—even the reluctant Jonah. The Secrets of Mary Bowser is an adult novel, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit or The Endless Steppe, the Jewish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave narratives and historical accounts of American slavery I studied as an adult.
When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bowser at Oregon Jewish Voices, a program at the Oregon Jewish Museum, the poet Willa Schneberg compared the novel to Storytelling in Cambodia, her book about the Cambodian genocide. The comparison underscored that for both of us, being Jewish writers doesn’t mean writing only about Jewish experience. It means drawing on our Jewish experience to reflect on themes of injustice and social action in myriad contexts.
Read more about Lois Leveen here.
Joshua Henkin’s new novel, The World Without You, comes out this week.
The story goes that, in 1923, when my father, age five, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to speak to the immigration officials, and there was some suspicion that he was a deaf mute and the family would have to be sent back to Russia. My grandfather kept trying to get him to speak, but my father refused. Finally, my grandfather decided to ask my father a math question. My father answered the question, and the family was let in.
This story gets at some core truths about my father. He was excellent at math — he would later major in it in college — and he remained a shy man until his death nearly two years ago. Yet what I remember most clearly was how he told that story — with a trace of embarrassment, it seemed to me, as if he’d committed an indiscretion. He’d answered the math question and gotten the family in, but he’d been guilty of showing off.
My father was a law professor, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Columbia, for over fifty years. He loved teaching, and for him teaching was also a way of expressing love. His own father, an Orthodox rabbi, certainly expressed his love through teaching, and my father inherited that from him. In the first paragraph of the Shema prayer in the Jewish liturgy come the words v’sheenantam l’vanecha — you shall teach your children—and in synagogue, whenever my father came to those words, he would reach out his prayer shawl and kiss my brothers and me.
My father was facile with language and he loved it, loved language perhaps the way only an immigrant can, a boy whose own father lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English—he never needed to—whereas he, my father, saw English as his entry into America. He used to help my brothers and me pass the time on airplane trips by giving us word jumbles. And when I was seventeen and the SAT loomed, he started coming home from the office with a list of vocabulary words he had run across that day. Some of these words were long and hard to pronounce and others were short and easy to pronounce, but they had one thing in common, which was that they had never appeared in the history of the SAT and they would never would appear in the history of the SAT and what in the world kind of books was my father reading such that he came across these words? Quondam, for instance, which means erstwhile, which means former, and which I will forever associate with my father, just as I will forever associate with him the word incognito, which he once opened the dictionary and proved to me was in fact pronounced incahgnitto, not incogneeto, just as he proved to me that it should be kilomee-ter and not kilahmeter (I can still hear his voice: “A thermometer is a measurer of heat, but a kilahmeter isn’t a measurer of kilos.”)
I think of him, too, when I hear the word impertinent, which was the punchline of a joke he once told, a joke I was too young to understand and don’t remember any longer, a joke about an Englishman and a Frenchman arguing over which is the superior language, English or French, the punchline to which is impertinent, which doesn’t mean not pertinent, it means rude, the joke, as I recall, being on the Frenchman, or the Englishman, or both, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I can’t read or say or hear the word impertinent without thinking of my father. It’s true of a hundred other words as well, and since I speak English every day, since English is the only language I speak with any measure of fluency, I’m thinking about my father all the time—can’t stop thinking about him, can’t even listen to rock music without thinking about him, my father who had no interest in rock music but who overheard me once singing the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” and there he was, my father, saying, “Don’t you think those young men could have come up with a better rhyme for dog than log.”
At college, we had to take expository writing freshman year, and we were asked to choose between different options—history, literature, social studies, and the like. One option was fiction, and if you enrolled in it you would write essays about fiction and you would also write some of your own short stories. When I mentioned this to my father, he said, “I wouldn’t begin to know how to write a short story.” And I thought, Aha, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what set me on the route to becoming a fiction writer. It seemed to me a way to carve out my own path in the world. But it was also a way of following in my father’s path. Because when I hear English spoken, when I read it, when I write it, it’s my father’s voice that comes to me and will, I suspect, for the rest of my life.
Pnina Jacobson and Judy Kempler are the authors of One Egg Is A Fortune.
Food has always been central to Jewish life – it holds both biblical and historical significance and often reflects our Jewish heritage. One Egg Is A Fortune shows that food is a great equaliser and, while considered a “Jewish” cookbook, appeals to the broader community all over. That being said, with thousands of books published annually, it’s sometimes difficult to rise to the top. Wikipedia quotes that in 2009 the U.S. alone published 288,355 new titles and editions. There are also a prolific number of cookbooks published with the popularity of cooking TV shows.
Book competitions are a way to promote awareness and sales. As self-publishers we entered some international competitions to increase the potential for a successful product. And it worked! One Egg Is A Fortune has been recognised on the world stage. It has won 3 awards:
- Winner at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in the Australia/Pacific fundraising category (Paris, March 2012)
- A silver medal in the cookbook category in the “World’s Largest Book Awards Contest” for independent authors and publishers in the United States (May 2012)
- An Indie Excellence Award also in the United States (May 2012)
Equally humbling: being acknowledged by our non-Jewish community. Irina Dunn, who runs the Australian Writers Network, wrote: “this is without doubt the most beautiful and original recipe book I have ever laid my eyes on…remarkable in its conception, perfect in its production, beautiful in its execution.”
Zechariah Mehler, a widely published food writer who specializes in kosher cuisine wrote: “A buffet of stories and recipes benefit elder care … one of the most innovative cookbooks to be released in the kosher world.”
We’ll leave you now with a summer recipe:
1 medium seedless watermelon
1 small white onion, very finely sliced
1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped
Remove the skin and any seeds from the watermelon and cut into 2cm cubes.
Toss watermelon and onion lightly together in a large bowl and chill well. Sprinkle with fresh mint before serving.
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.
I realized late in life that my parents weren’t your typical Baby Boomers. My dad wasn’t anti-establishment. My mother wasn’t a feminist. Ask them about Woodstock and my dad will tell you that he left early because the crowds made him nervous. My mom will tell you that her attendance was required on a family road trip that summer.
One of the things that they had in common was immigrant parents. Eastern European Holocaust survivors on my mom’s side. Israelis who lived on the land before it was a state on my dad’s side. You didn’t tell your Holocaust survivor parents that you wanted to go to a rock concert instead of sitting in the back of a sweltering car sandwiched between your two younger siblings the summer of Woodstock. And if you’re Israeli, it makes total sense to avoid any and all situations that might invite terrorism.
Jewish immigrant parents meant that you ordered your food – meat, fish, eggs – well done. You sent it back if it bore any resemblance to a living creature because at some point in the past there wasn’t high quality meat around. Jewish immigrant parents meant that you didn’t pursue a career in the arts, even if you could play virtually any instrument brilliantly and immediately by ear, like my dad could. You were to become a doctor, a lawyer or a businessperson. And girls weren’t supposed to major in math in college, like my mom did. They were supposed to major in Home Economics, or get their Mrs. degrees.
The way in which my parents do resemble Baby Boomers is the way in which they bridged respect for tradition with excitement about the future. My mother both understands Yiddish and loves Aerosmith. My dad’s wardrobe includes solemn high holiday suits and hip New Balances. And yet my issues with them – everyone has issues with their parents – are based somewhat on their residual ties to the old world. I’ve often felt I was deprived of the former hippies who are disappointed in how conservative I am. These guys seem to find my social activism impractical. They are clearly grossed out by how rare I like my steak cooked. And they’ve said very little about my so-called writing career, which was clearly little more than a hobby in their eyes.
But that all changed when I told them that my novel was being published.
My mother lit up when I told her. I will always remember that lunch. How we ordered another round of food to celebrate. She asked me about every detail of the publishing process with wide-eyed wonder. My father didn’t sleep the night I told him, as he was excitedly brainstorming titles. It reminded me of that scene in Man on Wire where the most skeptical member of Philippe Petite’s crew, the one who most doubted his ability to tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, was the most affected when he did.
Intellectually you can know that your parents want you to succeed. Of course they want you to succeed, they’re your parents. But they want it on their terms because they don’t know any others. And emotionally that can come across as a lack of faith. But as much as they want you to do things their way, it’s even more thrilling when you go your own, and against all odds, it actually kind of works. Of course, if and when I have kids of my own, I really hope they become doctors. But I guess if they wanted to be lawyers, that would be ok too.