How 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.
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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.