Tag Archives: jewish identity

My Name is Yusha

josh-weilAny run-in with a Russian bathhouse is bound to shock: men chugging bottles of beer-like kvass, felt hats helping them sweat, sweat flying from birch branches as they beat their naked flesh. But what sticks with me most is this: stepping into the sudden heat, seeing them perched all around me, their privates dangling at my eye height. Feeling their stares. Realizing they are all uncircumcised.

I’ve never been much of a Jew: can’t speak Hebrew, wasn’t bar-mitzvahed, don’t believe in God. In Williamsburg I feel aligned with hipsters more than Chasids. I like mayonnaise on my pastrami. My grandmother shakes her head. Though she’s accepted my goyish ways, calls my wife “sweetheart” when, surely, her grandmother would have said “shiksa” instead.

Still, my father’s parents fled Germany just before the Holocaust, his grandfather was sent to a concentration camp, and, though, miraculously, he made it out, I know I have great aunts and uncles who did not. My mother’s grandfather was forced from his shtetl into the Russian army—for a Jew, near-certain death. In my family, the story of his flight is legend. I believe it, the way I’ve never questioned my father’s stint on a kibbutz. Though for a long time I couldn’t comprehend how his sister could move to Israel, trade Montana’s mountains for Tel-Aviv. Continue reading

Posted on July 14, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

“Are You Jewish?”

invisible-cityYes. But it’s complicated.

My mother is Jewish, which, as my grandmother used to tell me, means that the Nazis would have come for me, too. My dad, on the other hand, is Christian. And not just a Christmas Christian, he is a church-going Christian; a Christian who left his career as a lawyer to be ordained when he was 55. A Christian who wears a cross around his neck. My sister and I grew up “both.”

Let me explain.

My mother is a proud Jew, from a family of Southern Jews for whom Judaism was their primary identity. My grandparents went to temple almost every Friday night of their lives. My grandmother used to tell me that that’s what their group would do as teens in the 1930s in Nashville: temple, then out for a movie. My great-grandfather was a prominent Zionist. He ate with Golda Meir and gave jobs to hundreds of European refugees at his hosiery mill during World War II.

Then, in 1972, my mom married my dad, and my great-grandfather sat shiva for her. She had grown up in his home and she never saw him again. The wedding was small; immediate family were the only ones on either side who showed up. Everyone else was too angry and anxious. Neither is converting? What will the kids be? Confused!

But guess what? We weren’t confused. The message my parents sent my sister and I was about faith in God, about love and kindness and about the power of tradition. Although the rest was important to them – my dad takes communion every week, and my mother never misses her parents’ yahrzeits – the differences, from a child’s perspective at least, were basically unimportant. Was Jesus the messiah? That was the divergence as I saw it. But why focus on that one thing when pretty much everything else seemed essentially the same? Love God, love your fellow man. Seek justice, be honest, do good.

As a child and adolescent, it was relatively easy to move between the two faiths, and I found myself taking on the role of contrarian. I never felt more Jewish than with Christian friends. When people asked me what religion I was I’d say both, although the idea was always for me to choose once I “grew up.” For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a gold necklace with two pendants on it: a Star of David and a simple cross. They said I could wear them however I wanted to and I chose to wear them together, but it didn’t sit well with people. Everyone seemed offended, or confused. I stopped wearing the necklace at all after a few months.

As the years went by, I came to understand that I didn’t need to mark myself. I went to Hebrew summer school as a child and Sunday school at my dad’s church as an adolescent. My sister had a bat mitzvah, but I did not. Sometimes we accompanied my grandparents to Friday services. The whole family celebrated the High Holy Days, Passover, Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah.

As an adult, I have always identified as Jewish. As my grandmother said, “We need more good Jews.” And, how can I say it, I feel Jewish. You can choose Christianity, but Judaism chooses you, and that means something to me.

Being a Jew, for me, now, is about claiming the joys and burdens of a tribe of people I respect. Even growing up in the 1980s, the Holocaust was very present in my home. My grandmother told me stories about her cousins, European Jews who were barely observant, who considered themselves Frenchmen or Germans, but who were forced to announce themselves as Jews and be killed for it. Would you stand up and announce yourself? was the implicit question. And the answer, for me, was always yes.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on May 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Searching for My People

ellen-litmanMy first job out of college was at a large insurance company in Baltimore. I was a computer programmer there, and in addition to my entry-level salary, I was entitled for five days of vacation, ten sick days, a handful of standard federal holidays and on top of that, two floating ones. Those floating holidays – they were just freebies, really. They could be picked at random, used for anything. At least that’s what I thought.

I started the job in July and now it was autumn. Rosh Hashana was approaching, to be followed closely by Yom Kippur.

“You’re taking the floating holidays?” asked my co-worker Ami. It was more of a statement than a question. Maybe even an order. Ami grew up in Israel, married an American, and now, in her fifties, had three daughters close to my age. At the office she was famous for speaking her mind. Even the upper management feared her sharp tongue.

But she was kind to me. I was a fellow Jew, a fellow immigrant. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in me. Maybe she saw one of her daughters. My family and I came from Russia three years before. They were in Pittsburgh now, while I was here in Baltimore, living on my own for the first time in my life. Ami must have felt sorry for me, a young girl, all alone. We were supposed to have things in common, she and I. A worldview, a set of values, a sense of shared history. I didn’t know it yet, but I was about to disappoint her in a dozen different ways.

I shook my head and told her no. I wouldn’t be using my floating holidays. Why should I? I thought. What would I do with myself – all alone in my small apartment? I’d never observed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before, and I wasn’t planning to start now.

Ami stared at me for a moment. “You poor girl,” she said. “You don’t even know who you are.”

I should have felt chastened, I guess; but instead I was furious. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I had no religion and didn’t feel a need for one. But that didn’t make me any less of a Jew. Back in Russia, it was my ethnicity, my nationality, a line in my Soviet passport, a way of life. It was in my last name (decidedly un-Russian) and in my facial features. “Just so you know,” a college classmate once told me, unprompted, “I have no problem with Jewish people.” This was a variation on the “some of my best friends are Jews” line and a dead giveaway that something was afoot. “He’s such a Jew,” another college classmate said in passing, referring to a particularly unappealing professor.

So yes, I knew exactly who I was and where I stood, even if the only time I stepped into a synagogue in Russia was to purchase a year’s supply of matza. (You couldn’t get it anywhere else.) I had good friends, also Jewish, and we’d long ago learned what to expect: colleges we couldn’t apply to, professions we couldn’t pursue. We shared a certain sense of humor, a certain kind of sadness. We’d learned to recognize others like ourselves. “Our people,” we called them.

Here in America being Jewish meant something else entirely. I didn’t quite know what it meant. Bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs? Hebrew schools? High holidays? Days after arriving in Pittsburgh my family and I were taken to a synagogue for Yom Kippur. I remember feeling jet-lagged, disoriented, bereft of my old life, and desperate for something to believe in, somewhere to belong. But the synagogue was huge, and inside there were rows upon rows of well-dressed people, who all seemed to know one another and who had no time for us. I sat up on the balcony listening to the Hebrew words I didn’t understand and I wanted the whole thing to be meaningful. But nothing felt familiar. There were no miracles that day, no sudden sense of coming home.

In the years to come, I would keep searching. Not for a new identity, but for that elusive feeling of belonging. Who were “my people” now? I’d find them in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. At software companies where I worked. In writing classes I took at night and later in grad school. Some of these people would be Jewish, but not all.

I still don’t attend a synagogue or observe holidays, though. Does it make me a bad Jew? Perhaps. But it doesn’t mean I don’t know who I am.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 20, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Stained Glass

tova-mirvisHow is this book different from all your other books?

The most obvious answer: in Visible City, there are no description of Shabbat or shul, little grappling with religion and community. My other novels, The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World, were clearly Jewish novels. My subject matter was steeped in questions of Jewish belonging and identity, belief and doubt. In the ongoing panel discussion debates about who is or isn’t a Jewish writer, I always felt comfortable saying I was certainly one. I didn’t feel the label as limiting, didn’t think it prescribed me in any way, but it did describe the place I was writing from, the world from which my imagination sprung.

There was no clear cut choice then, back when I was writing my first two books, to write a specifically Jewish novel. I wrote from what moved me, preoccupied me, fascinated me. I wrote out of my own grappling with my Orthodox Jewish community, a world which has shaped so much of who I am. My Jewish self has always been inextricable from my writing self.

And then here too, when I started writing Visible City, there was no explicit decision to write a different kind of book, no moment when I decided I was going to write a book with less Jewish content. I started Visible City without being sure where I was going. Each piece led me to the next, one interest kindling another, one character creating the need for another. There were Jewish parts that I arrived at along the way – one character was raised Orthodox but no longer is and this leave-taking impacts the choices he makes in the novel. Throughout the book, many of my characters are Jewish, though this isn’t mentioned explicitly. (Academics, lawyers and therapists on the Upper West Side. You don’t need to tell us that they are Jewish. We know! Said one of my early readers.)

For a time, I thought that the book would round some bend, become more specifically Jewish. But as the months and then the years of writing went by, the book continued to take me in different directions. Every book is a surprise, to the writer as much as to the reader. I arrived at underground explorers, historical preservation. I arrived at stained glass windows, an art form I’d always associated with churches and which I was little interested in. But now, I fell in love: the abundance of color, the intricacy of the work, the varying colors illuminated depending on how the light shines through.

In a novel too, there are the parts that more easily catch the light, parts that are less clearly evident. Even in a novel that is ostensibly about other things, where my Jewish identity and interests are less prominent, I feel the Jewish part of myself present here as well.

In particular, I see it here in my interest in the way the individual relates to the group, in the way we shape ourselves to match outside expectations. But more than that, on the instinctive gut level from which writers write, my Jewishness is part of everything I write. It’s entrenched inside me, a permanent part of my eye even as I look out at other worlds. All of us, we write from the mix of shapes and colors inside us, the mosaic of our personal and family histories, from our own experiences and from the experiences that live in our imaginations. Like the stained glass windows I’ve come to love, a novel is an assemblage of blazing colors, the individual pieces of who we are visible at different times, depending on the light.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on March 14, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

When You’re A Jet You Stay A Jet

kathy.ebel“Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic.” As a kid, wandering around the kiddish reception at our shul collecting cellophane ruffle-topped toothpicks in a plastic cup, I heard these terms bandied far above my head by adults and had no idea what they meant. Were these languages? Politicians? Street gangs, like in West Side Story? As a first-generation American and the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, I was pretty sure these mysterious terms didn’t have anything to do with me. We were Jews who kept kosher and went to shul, but we didn’t eat or do the things that seemed officially Jewy, like, Fiddler on the Roof-Jewy. My single mother didn’t bake kugel, or encircle the flames of the Shabbat candles with her hands when she made her brachot, or bobby pin a white nylon doily to the back of her head for services (nor would she have dreamed of wearing a kippah like some of her friends from her Consciousness Raising group). My mother used no Yiddishims in her speech, other than “shul” and “schlep” and, while cursing other drivers, “schmuck.” I wasn’t sent to Jewish sleepaway camp to meet my future spouse or bridesmaids or employers. And on Christmas Day, we did not go to the movies or eat Chinese food.

What I did know, always, was that we were German, from old families. We ate our pizza with a knife and fork. We liked marzipan, in whimsical shapes like fried eggs and, yes, piglets. We wore pinky rings stamped with a family crest based on the corporate logo of my industrialist ancestors’ metals business. We kept glass bottles of 4711 eau de cologne in the bathroom. Phrases like “yeah” and “okay”were frowned upon. Continue reading

Posted on June 19, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Most Jewish Thing I Do

SONY DSCWhen 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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on April 22, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Almost Jewish

allison.amendSo 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 Copboldly 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.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on April 17, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Question for You

boaz.yakinHey, I have a question for you: How important is it for you to identify as a Jew? As a liberal or conservative one? As a Zionist or anti-Zionist? As religious or secular? How important to you is your tribal identification? How much room does it inhabit in your psyche? How much power does it hold in those parts of your mind that employ language and structure and iconography to help you situate yourself in the moment and provide you with a map, a compass, a barometer, so that you might feel you know who and where you are at any given point in time? Do you question it much, or do you simply accept it as a useful base from which to operate? And speaking of usefulness, how’s it working for you? Is it helping you? Bolstering your strength, both inner and outer, aiding you in achieving warmth and intimacy and connection in your personal relationships, allowing you to live your life as fully as possible? Or is it hurting you? Giving you something easy and pre-fabricated to fall back on and identify with rather than making an effort to expand yourself outward, limiting your relationships, circumscribing your life? Is it just a useful or unuseful label to stick on yourself, or is it much more than a label, an entire ecosystem of biology and behavior both born and bred that comprises what makes you you as truly as the particular composition of atoms into molecules into cells etc etc etc that define your shape, as mutable and impermanent as that might be? Is it a comfortable niche to sit it, because niches are comfortable, even when they might subject you to all manner of torture and affliction, because despite all that, nothing is less comfortable than standing in the middle of a vast nothingness with no landmarks or architecture to give you a sense of place or belonging?

I’m asking you this—but it’s actually a question that, on the occasion that I think of myself as a Jew, which occurs often enough, I tend to ask myself. And I can’t say I’ve come up with any kind of definitive answer for it, or believe that I ever will.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on April 8, 2013

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Makes a Creative Process Jewish?

Is my fiction Jewish? In my last blog post I came to a firm conclusion: yes—and no. Well, I think I can make the same bold claim for the creative process I go through when I’m writing. On the one hand, I have to do the things all writers do, whatever their background: I have to start with some promising, mysterious, uncertain thing (a line, a character, a mood), and work with it until something more whole develops, and keep things open so that I can revise and revise and revise, as drastically as is required, until I have a piece that I can comfortably call done. Again, this is what all writers do. Yet, when I look at it more closely, I have to say that I do those things pretty Jewishly.

What do I mean? Well, the creative process is a basically dead thing if it’s just a bunch of pre-ordained steps that you follow from start to finish. Creativity becomes powerful when it’s infused with purpose and meaning and direction—the distinct purpose, meaning, and direction brought to the work by each author—and that infusion, in my case, comes from the wisdom of Judaism.

There’s an old, old story (we’ve got some very old stories) that suggests that, when God was figuring out how to make the universe, God read the Torah for instructions. I love that. I also love the old wisdom of the Pirkei Avot, which says of the Torah, Turn it, turn it, for everything is in it. What all that tells me is that artists—folks who boldly engage in the act of creation—could get a lot out of that foundational text of ours.

As a matter of fact, one of my big recent projects was a book called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books), an attempt to take on the Torah, portion by portion, to see if each weekly reading had something—insight, reassurance, even instruction—to offer artists. I pretty much expected the project to fail. And yet it didn’t; portion after portion I found valuable ideas, images, and stories that were immensely relevant to my work as a writer. I found insights about the ties between creation and destruction; about how abundant inspiration and also the lack of it are both part of the process; about speaking out and silence; about the need to appeal to the senses in our work; about why we bother to create at all; about the dangerous attractions of publication and fame; about the close relationship between content and form; about fearlessly taking on difficult material; and so on.

I mean, the Torah is a rich and complicated book; you might be able to write something called The Lawyer’s Torah or The Parent’s Torah just as easily. (Take those ideas and run with them, someone.) So I’m not saying that the Torah is secretly just a message to artists, and that all other interpretations are misinterpretations. What I’m saying is just that artists have every reason to turn to some of our oldest sources of wisdom for aid and understanding in our own lives and work. One of the telling things was that I was simultaneously reading a lot of biographies—Jewish painters, choreographers, writers, etc.—and I saw them echoing the very things I was uncovering in the Torah, so I threw them in alongside the more ancient words and let the echoes speak for themselves.

I’ll make an example of the story that stands out the most for me: Adam and Eve. Not as traumatic a tale for us as for Christians, but still—it’s kind of a big deal when they eat the fruit and get kicked out of the garden. But why do they get kicked out? Because, so goes the story, they’ve eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And what do they do right after they set up a new camp? They “know” each other and make a baby. In other words, as soon as they know the full range of potential in the world—good and evil both—they right away get started on the very first act of human creation. Which means our creativity might be fueled by the same kind of knowledge.

I carry that tale with me. As a Jewish writer, I think my job is, first and foremost, to come to know that full range of good and evil, beauty and brokenness, creation and destruction—to see it and to know it, and to start writing.

And that’s just the beginning.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 28, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Makes a Short Story Jewish?

I think most Jewish writers, at one time or another, face the question of what makes them Jewish writers, as opposed to just writers. For example, consider Joshua Henkin’s blog post, “Are You A Jewish Writer?” posted on this very site, back in June. I personally run into this kind of question in panels at just about every literary conference I go to, during question-and-answer sessions at readings, in interviews, and so on. And I think it makes sense; ours is a history of, on the one hand, segregation from non-Jews, which tends to make a people very aware of its identity, and, on the other, it’s a history of needing to hang onto that identity across an enormous diversity of time and place. Without a doubt all of this tends to produce a mindset that wants to ask, “But is it Jewish?” It also tends to produce literature full of Jewish characters doing clearly Jewish stuff, super-Jewishly: rabbis, bar mitzvahsbagels, and so on.

But a writer can get tired of the question. As Henkin pointed out, “No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.” Indeed. In America in the 21st century, we Jews are still a somewhat identifiable community, with our rabbis and bar mitzvahs and the like, but let’s face it: a day in a (non-Orthodox) Jewish life is largely the same as a gentile life. We don’t spend all day saying: Oh, my G-d, I’m Jewish! I’m taking a Jewish shower! I’m doing my Jewish walk to work! What a Jewish day I’m having! For that reason, a lot of the stories (and poems, for that matter) I write are just intended to be stories, and not particularly Jewish stories. In other words, we live in a situation where we have the option of writing past our labels. And yet….

First of all, I do sometimes write really obviously Jewish stories. In “Jewish Day,” one of the stories from my new collection, Into the Wilderness, a family goes to a baseball game on “Jewish Heritage Day,” and the situation does bring up all kinds of identity issues for the characters. And even when my stories aren’t so obviously tied to my heritage, I think that heritage still matters. I think it does for all Jewish authors. Our history, our upbringing, our life cycle events, all come together to shape who we are, and we write out of that. (The same could probably be said for writers who are Hindu, Mormon, and so on.) Even when our characters are not Jewish, it matters that we are; it means that, instead of talking about our own community, we’re reaching out toward another one. In my story, “Is Any Thing Too Hard for the Lord?” there are two Christian characters praying to Jesus in a car; this is necessarily more an exercise in empathy than an exploration of my own identity.

When the characters are Jewish, we’re doing something else. For example, my story “Person of Interest” concerns a couple with a baby, staying in a shady rent-by-the-week building for the summer; one day, officers from the Department of Homeland Security stop by to arrest one of their neighbors, a young man from the United Arab Emirates. Now, anybody could have rented the apartment next to this guy, and you could argue that my characters just happened to be Jewish. (There are a few signs of their Jewishness, here and there, though it’s not trumpeted from the rooftops.) And so the story isn’t about Jewishness—yet I have to admit that their Jewishness does affect the story. First of all, the narrator’s sense of dislocation in the Midwest reflects the coastal urban origin of a significant number of Jews. More importantly, this incident involving an Arab man is more charged, because of the ongoing Middle-East conflict. It’s more significant. It changes what the events mean to the narrator, and to me. In these senses it is a Jewish story; Jewishness matters. And yet I insist: it’s also just a story, where I’m taking on broader concerns of security and purpose and responsibility.

And so, for me as an author, Jewishness does not have to be the question, or even a question, in every story. I ask any question my fiction leads me to ask. But I also recognize that, when I do so, I’m doing it sort of Jewishly. Bagels or no bagels.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

Posted on November 26, 2012

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