“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
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.
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.
Hey, 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.
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.
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 mitzvahs, bagels, 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.
It’s clear from the names of my two pop culture humor books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, that my Jewish background is a primary force in my writing. What these titles don’t reveal is how much my work is informed by my father’s experiences during the Holocaust.
They say every child of a Holocaust survivor is born with a tear in her eye. This is far from an obvious starting point for cultivating humor. But like many other creatives, my “weighty inheritance” significantly contributes to the overall tenor of my writing about contemporary Jewish life—in both revealed and unrevealed ways.
My first book, Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe (cooljewbook.com), was a 2008 National Jewish Book Awards Finalist and the first humor book honored in the awards’ 50-year-history. My new book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe (hotmamalah.com), debuted this month. Both books are filled with humorous depictions of Jewish life and practice. They promote learning about your identity and celebrating it with a reverent irreverence…an irreverence based on a real love of being Jewish.
My father, who will b’ezrat Hashem, soon turn 90, is a survivor of Buchenwald. As a child, my father told me his parents died “in the war.” It was only when I turned the age of bat mitzvah that I learned their precise fate. On Yom Kippur 1942, the Nazis deported them and their daughter Rosa to Treblinka. They were never heard from again. That same year, the Nazis murdered my uncle Lipman in the Czestohowa ghetto. Somehow, despite years as a slave laborer in war-time Poland, my father survived. He was near death when General Patton’s Third Army finally liberated Buchenwald. He was furious to miss the oranges and chocolate U.S. liberators fed his fellow captives. As many of them died from complications, my father realized this was one more blessing that saved his life.
One of my father’s mottos is never give up. One day in April 1945 he was a slave. And the next day, suddenly, the skies parted. And he was a free.
Another of my father’s favorite maxims is never, ever be ashamed to be a Jew. My books, Cool Jew and Hot Mamalah, turn this injunction into a positive: to know who you are and own it. Little did I know that my own embracing of this teaching would lead me to new revelations about my heritage, including the Sefardi history of my mother’s family. Check back soon for more about them in an upcoming post in this series.
I have very distinct memories about growing up as part of what was then a very small Jewish community in Buffalo Grove, IL. Today my hometown has a big Jewish population, as does the rest of the North Shore. But at the time, there was only one other Jewish family on the block, and I don’t recall them being particularly invested in their Judaism. It was on the Attenbergs to represent.
Just what every child wants. To represent their religious differences.
I did get in a few fights in school. Kids threw around anti-Semitic slurs, not knowing necessarily what they meant. It was probably just something they picked up somewhere, as kids do. In third grade a girl called me a kike in gym class, and I challenged her to a fight after school. We met in the soccer field, surrounded by other children. I was chubbier than her, so I just sat on her and sort of slapped her around the head. I was eventually declared the winner. A few years ago she friended me on Facebook, and I declined.
The holiday season was the toughest, I think, because there so many differences between how we celebrated our holidays and everyone else celebrated theirs. I remember being banned from other houses as a younger child during the winter holiday season; I was the only one who didn’t believe in Santa Claus, and I was ruining everyone’s Christmas.
Still, in all of this, I developed a sense of pride in being a Jew. If we were different, weren’t we at least a little bit special?
When my parents first moved to Buffalo Grove, the population was small in general, and while there were plenty of Jews in say, my father’s hometown of Highland Park, about a half hour east of us, they just hadn’t found their way out to us yet.
I called my dad recently and asked him about it.
“There was one other Jewish family on the block, maybe?” I said.
“You have to remember that there were only six to eight thousand people in Buffalo Grove,” he said.
“It was very small,” I agreed.
“When you consider what percentage of the population is Jewish anyhow, you didn’t have a lot. And we were one of the first forty families in our synagogue – we joined in the second year of the synagogue. Everybody who was in the synagogue at that time was well aware of that particular problem in Buffalo Grove.”
I pictured a bunch of Jews in the 1970s gossiping about The Buffalo Grove Problem.
“By the way, Patton Drive has not changed,” he said. “There’s still only two or three Jewish families.”
I don’t know why I find that comforting, but I do.
Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world, Rabbi Jason Miller wrote about exploring commonalities between religions and Rivka Nehorai shared the truth about motherhood. Today we hear from Living Jewishly contributor Rachel Wright.
As a Jewish lay leader who works in corporate America, my identity often shifts between my work world and the time I dedicate as a volunteer within the Jewish community. If you follow me on Twitter or are a friend of mine on Facebook, it truly looks like I only have one dimension.
My favorite remark I get is when acquaintances who may know me well enough to be friends on Facebook but not well enough to know what I do for a living, simply assume and certify as they ask: “You work for Federation, right?” Gathering this assumption—because I simply must—with each event and conference I promote and Jewish holiday I’ll be well-wishing to my network.
What a compliment, I always think. That just means to me that I am doing a good job in my role as a volunteer determined to get as much outreach and engagement as possible.
Truth is, my professional job which allows me to be so involved with community has little to do with my strong Jewish identity at all. Which means my work network couldn’t be any less affiliated.
My Jewish friends across the globe who pride themselves on involvement may relate. How many times have you had to explain that our “missions” to Israel, Ethiopia, Russia, Cuba, Greece or Poland, for example, are not the “missionary” experience our non-Jewish associates want to understand?
Recently, I was in Indianapolis at a national conference for the insurance industry, the field I work in. As much as I give to the Jewish world, I also give to the company allowing me the ability to do so. Driven to grow professionally, I work with people from all walks of life. While entertaining at this conference, a question at dinner literally threw me aback.
As the check was delivered– and after a few glasses of wine– one of the members of my dinner party asked a closing question: “Not to be offensive, as I am sure this doesn’t apply, but does a Jew own your company?”
I sat a little unsettled. In my professional life, I don’t often discuss religion as it’s simply not appropriate. And, as a Detroit-based company, we are fairly diverse with people of many religious backgrounds working together in harmony. But, this question demanded a response.
As a professional in the corporate world who also happens to be Jewish, I knew the only thing I could do worse than be complacent was to laugh or agree with any remark that would potentially follow. This would be even worse than the most ignorant of comments. But, not wanting to be overly strong too early, I softly asked why.
“Because of the name of your company – EHIM. I was recently in Israel with my church, and learned of the Hebrew word Elohim. Is this a root from the origins of your company?”
I breathed easy. His only mistake was approach in the ask. If anything, I felt embarrassed I wasn’t ready to be proud to say not only do I work for a Jewish woman but I also am part of this people.
He simply needed an answer that would also teach him it wasn’t offensive to ask someone if they were of Jewish descent if asked in the appropriate way.
In Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, I was proud to have one of the blogs I wrote for Jewish Federations of North America Young Leadership Cabinet be included. This blog described the journey I went on with an ex-boyfriend, exploring his conversion to Judaism from a very Christian upbringing. Back then, I sat on the sidelines, taking the stance that conversion was to be his private journey as I didn’t want to define his sense and understanding of our very deep tradition and beliefs.
Nearly three years later and on the other side, I see things a bit differently. As someone who aspires to grow into the very important role as a Jewish leader, one of the lessons I must learn is that we are not simply leading the Jewish people to follow or help guide them to find their way. We are leading a worldwide community that may not share our religion or tradition – but can follow through understanding and a mutual respect we have for each other.
We don’t need to preach to those who don’t ask. But we need to always be true to who we are. That is the way we lead by example and the way we continue to evolve change throughout the world.
Earlier this week, Stefanie Pervos Bregman, the editor of Living Jewishly, wrote about engaging 20- and 30- somethings in the Jewish world and Rabbi Jason Miller wrote about exploring commonalities between religions. Today we hear from Living Jewishly contributor Rivka Nehorai.
And I thought that I should embrace my youth and hold onto it for dear life
until the wheel passed.
No one ever warned me
that becoming a mom is that much cooler,
in which your level of control and insight, wisdom and laughter
expands beyond yourself and your own dreams
into this greater complex organism.
No one ever whispered
that pregnancy was wild,
squirmy little baby within,
no need for air, thank you very much, just squirming around.
I made that, I laugh smugly to myself. Cool! (With help from the One Above, etc)
And I wonder- Why all the secrets? Why all the hushhush? Why pretend that college life is the best, or young and free is the ideal?
It’s not true, I tell you, it’s a lie, a lie that’s spreading across America.
I can assure you, I am much cooler now than I ever was then. With droplets of time for myself, a whole new mission, and a new direction and explosion in life.
Spread the word.