I don’t always write about Jewish people, but I am always a Jewish author. I don’t always treat Judaism either as culture or as religion, but sometimes I do—notably in my first novel,
(1998), which is about a community of Orthodox Jews who summer in upstate New York.
When Kaaterskill Falls came out, some readers assumed that my own religious beliefs paralleled those of the protagonist, the pious and imaginative Elizabeth Shulman. This was flattering to me, because I loved the character. However, I am her author, not her sister. I did not infuse Elizabeth with my own hopes and fears, nor did I share her history. Readers asked: What is it like to write about your religious beliefs? Again, I was flattered by the question. I was creating a character with her own religious beliefs.
People assume that writing is self expression, and to some extent they are right. The tricky part is that fiction writers express themselves by displacing their experiences, transposing their beliefs, coding their feelings. A novel is closer to dream than memoir. Therefore, while my work is deeply personal, it is not autobiographical. That’s what makes my job so satisfying. I am not Elizabeth Shulman, the Orthodox mother of five, any more than I’m Sharon Spiegelman, the bohemian seeker in my second novel,
Indeed, I think of those novels as part of a larger project—a kind of “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” in which I explore the spiritual lives of two very different Jewish women in America. Elizabeth lives a highly structured life, and longs for autonomy. Sharon lives in a wilderness of choice, and longs for structure and guidance. My relationship to these characters? I’m both and neither.