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.
the conscious act – or speech – of a non-obviously looking Jewish individual to an obviously looking Jew intended to indicate that he or she is also Jewish; or, the conscious act of a non-Jew towards a Jew to indicate his or her affinity with the Jewish people.
An example of the former is when I was on the plane back from Denver and a bare-headed Jew came over to me and said Shalom. He was ‘bageling’ me. He was attempting to indicate with the word Shalom that he too is one of the tribe.
I am sure that many of us have been bageled before. Often all of us have been approached by individuals –Jewish and non-Jews- and befriended or just greeted in order to inform us that the person standing before us would like to connect with us.
In the latter case of a non-Jew, the act of being bageled can be as innocent as the non-Jew also saying Shalomor sometimes – as happened to me at the airport in Denver- much weightier and significant.
So sit back, relax and listen to one more tale of the ‘travels of Rabbi Eisenman’.
My least favorite part of flying is the security check point. Believe it or not- I enjoy the actual flight. After all, I have hours of uninterruptible time by myself; what could be better?
However, the security check point is always uncomfortable for me. I do my best to empty everything in my pockets, hoping that the metal detector alarm will not sound, as I do not want everyone seeing ‘the rabbi’ having to undergo the ‘wand’ treatment.
As I was approaching the security machine in Denver I was quite conscious of the fact that I was the most obviously looking Jew in the airport at the time. I emptied my pockets and waited for the guard on the other side of the metal detector to signal me to begin the shoe-less, belt-less, cell phone-less stroll through the metal detector doorway to the freedom of the plane.
The officer on the other side of the detector was big. He was about six feet three and trim, fit and very stern looking. As I waited to be instructed to begin my walk, I wondered silently if he was physically capable of smiling.
He slowly lifted his fingers ever so slightly and indicated that I was now to proceed through the invisible aura which sees all.
I walked through and looked up at my protector expecting and hoping for ‘the nod’ which would allow me to proceed without further delay.
However, it was not to be.
Officer Cheerful-face indicated that I must approach him.
I slowly neared my ‘defender of the homeland’ with both trepidation and nervousness.
“Will I be whisked off to Gitmo, never to be seen again?
Will I become the next poster child for the Agudah?
Will prayer rallies be held on my behalf?
Will the very same ‘please forward to everyone you know’ emails that I have preciously railed against now be splashed all over the virtual world for my quick and immediate release?
Will the young girls in Bais Ya’akovs all across the globe know my Hebrew name by heart as their pristine and sinless lips fervidly say Tehillim for my redemption?
Will I now write books from the inside of a prison cell in Guantanamo Bay?”
I was now face to face with the law.
He slowly looked me in the eye and then, in a move which no doubt would strike fear in the hearts of the mightiest of men, he motioned to me to come very, very close to him. He then began to look from side to side.
“What is going to happen to me now?
If the person who is supposed to be my protector is now making sure no one else is looking and that no one else can hear us, what is he planning to do?
Could it be that he is secretly related to a choleric and cross congregant who still bears a grudge against the rabbi for his not getting ‘Shlishi’ last Shabbos?
Could it be that he is really a secret admirer of Osama Bin Laden and he has mistaken me as a fellow Taliban?’
Finally, after his being convinced that no one else could hear us, he began his murmured divulgence:
“America must support Israel! The only hope for America is when we and Israel are totally in sync and when there is no difference between our interests and that of Israel. That is the only hope for our country. I just wanted you to know this!”
I nodded and, as quickly as my little legs could transport me, I proceeded to the plane.
Friends, I was just super bageled–with cream cheese and lox as well!
I was a guest on a radio talk show last week when the interviewer offered a question that caught me off guard. In the midst of a discussion about raising my son Ezra, who has autism, she asked: “With a person who is so comfortable with things that are very concrete and predictable, how do you explain a concept like God?”
As it happens, God comes up in conversation quite a bit in our household. My wife is a rabbi who teaches Jewish texts at a Jewish community high school. We attend synagogue every Shabbat, and our family life revolves around the Jewish calendar.
Ezra, who indeed craves the predictable, has always been attracted to the more concrete aspects of Judaism: the calendar, the holiday cycles, the weekly rituals. At an early age, he memorized the ten plagues, and began acting them out—dramatically, and in order—at our seder. He has always been attracted to Bible stories pitting good against evil: Moses vs. Pharaoh, David vs. Goliath, Mordecai vs. Haman.
Understanding God was different. During prayer services at his Jewish summer camp, the kids in the special needs program sing a song called “Thank You, God,” taking turns expressing what they’re grateful for. But beyond that simple understanding, I simply didn’t know what he grasped.
In the radio interview, I recounted the time when Ezra, then 12, had been in a particularly surly mood, fixated on talking repetitively about his craving for potato chips. Partly to shake him out of it, I spontaneously began speaking in the voice of God (or the kind of booming voice Charlton Heston heard in The Ten Commandments). To my surprise, Ezra—who generally avoids extended conversations—went along, and engaged in a lengthy and revealing dialogue with God. (Miraculously, he also stopped talking about junk food.)
More recently, Ezra, now 15, has approached the subject of divinity with more resistance. On a Saturday stroll not long ago, he asked my wife and me about why we observe Shabbat. When we reminded him of the idea that God created the world in six days, he interrupted.
“I don’t think God did that,” he said. “I think it was more natural.”
I’d never heard him say anything like that.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked. “Did somebody tell you that?”
“No,” he insisted. “I just think the world was was more from nature, not from God.”
As the interviewer noted, children like Ezra can struggle with abstract concepts, but my son seems to be doing fine. The Hebrew word “Yisrael” — Israel — literally translated means “struggles with God.”
Not only was Ezra sounding like a typical, questioning teenager, he was doing so in the best tradition of the Jewish people — struggling and wrestling with God. As in so many cases, whenever I think I need to teach my son, he turns the tables and teaches me.