All Jewish, All the Time

Four years ago, when Coleman was born, I sometimes attended a mothers’ group in my neighborhood, an obscure corner of the Lower East Side tucked away beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. Like many new mothers in neighborhoods across the country, I … Read More

By / April 27, 2009

Four years ago, when Coleman was born, I sometimes attended a mothers’ group in my neighborhood, an obscure corner of the Lower East Side tucked away beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. Like many new mothers in neighborhoods across the country, I had a rather conflicted relationship with this group. On the one hand, I was grateful, in those early days, for a place to go one afternoon per week, and for a group of women who were going through experiences similar to mine (lack of sleep, overwork, you know the drill). But though I made a couple of close friends within the group—friends with whom I’m still close and whose children have become Coleman’s friends, which is intensely wonderful for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint—I often found myself feeling alienated and alone, even as I sat in some nice person’s living room, picking at a cookie and wishing someone would magically airlift a double espresso from the coffee shop down the street. This was partly because, I suppose, I’m suspicious of groups, in general. In this group, as seems to be common, cliques quickly formed, and it sort of irritated me that these closed units of women felt the need to constantly chatter about the outings on which they’d gone together, the music classes in which they’d enrolled their kids together, the things they’d do over the weekend together, and so on, without thinking that this might, perhaps, make others feel excluded. Why go to the mothers’ group at all? Why not, I thought, just hang out together on Wednesdays between three and five, if you’re only going to talk to each other anyway? I tried to steel myself against the stupidity of it all, but couldn’t quite manage it. In other words, I felt like I’d returned to junior high, or maybe even high school (to be slightly kinder). In the years since, I’ve heard many other women complain about similar situations at their local playgrounds or whatnot, and I still can’t quite figure out what makes it so, though that knee-jerk feminist explanation has crossed my mind: That women are somehow raised to be competitive with each other. Even ostensibly liberal women who exclusively feed their kids organic baby food. The other explanation, I suppose, is that women shouldn’t, perhaps, be allowed to focus on their kids as much as do mothers of today, including myself.

Sometimes, while I was scooting around the hardwood floor of a shiny new apartment, trying to make sure Coleman didn’t inadvertently reset some stranger’s Tivo, I felt like a secret agent, a spy, sent to report back to HQ about the foibles of modern parenting. All around me, women would be talking about sleep training, and eliminating petroleum products (goodbye, A&D ointment), and spacing out vaccines, and the sugar content of YoBaby, and which nannies ignored their kids in the park (much pity was reserved for the parents of said kids), and a million other things that I basically didn’t think about at all. And in a way, I was a spy: I was (am) a writer. At that point, I was working frenetically on my novel—whenever Coleman slept, at the weekend, etc.—while doing some writing for magazines, as I’d done for years, and editing features for an online magazine called Nextbook (more on this in a moment). But somehow my work life seemed unreal and strange to many of the other mothers I met. One woman, when I explained that Nextbook allowed me to work at home, said, “Oh, so basically you get paid to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s nice.” Er, no. The reason I bring all this up is because perhaps the strangest thing I encountered at the meetings of that group—stranger even allowing a baby to cry in his crib for an extended period of time in order to learn how to fall asleep on his own, stranger than the habit of writing down the contents of every single one of a baby’s diapers (!)—was an insistence that having a baby eliminated a woman’s ability to read. “I haven’t read a book since I had So-and-so,” the women, or many of them, constantly said. “I pick something up and then I just fall asleep.” One woman said she could make it through the whole paper each morning—which I found, and still find, deeply impressive, since I tend to fade out around the “Business” section—but couldn’t commit to actual books, because her time was so interrupted. Whenever I mentioned a book I’d read—generally as part of a conversation with a college friend of mine who’d moved to the neighborhood—someone was, apparently, legally bound to good-naturedly call out, “How can you read? I just can’t read anymore.” That’s weird, I thought, the first time it happened. And then it kept happening.

What made it particularly weird was that, for me, the opposite was true, particularly in Coleman’s first few months. I spent so much time simply sitting in a chair, nursing him, that it seemed like I had nothing but time to read. For years I’d worked like a maniac trying to establish myself as a journalist—or, at least, just make a living—which meant reading many, many very bad books for assignments, as I wrote a lot of book reviews and author profiles and “five-books-about-Iran-type round-ups. When Cole was born, and my freelance paced slowed, I began to read as I had in childhood, obsessively and purely, picking up anything that struck my fancy. I read the collected works of Somerset Maugham, simply because my grandmother had liked him; I read through a huge pile of novels by my former Columbia classmates, which was equal parts thrilling and disappointing; I caught up on the Victorians; I re-read Jane Austen and Thomas Pynchon and other writers I’d loved in college. I read every issue of The New Yorker and pretty much anything else that anyone left within arm’s reach of our rocking chair. I didn’t, of course, read any of the parenting books that the other mothers often discussed, as I’m constitutionally incapable of concentrating on nonfiction (unless its narrative), but I did, certainly, find that much of what I was reading was relevant in one way or another to my new life as a mother. There was the obvious: Like Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, which beautifully captures the playground politics I’ve just described, as well as the day-to-day experience of tending to a baby, by turns glorious and tedious. And the not-so-obvious, which covers just about every book I read: Every fictional parent-child relationship made me think about Coleman, about the sort of parent I wanted to be, about my own parents, the choices they’d made. Was this not, I wondered, as important as reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk or Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child? In the end, there’s little fiction that’s not about family. Then, when Coleman was five months old, I started working for Nextbook, which meant vetting a good deal of material to decide if we should cover it or no. Every Tuesday, I somehow got myself dressed in normal clothing and walked to our Soho office for the weekly story meeting, at which I’d present my feature ideas. Nextbook, as you probably know, is a Jewish magazine, but like Jewcy it’s a somewhat unusual Jewish magazine. Basically, our then-editor’s concept was that every story needed to truly have a Jewish idea at its center. So while other Jewish magazines might, for instance, run a profile of, say, Seth Rogen, in which he mentions something about his bar mitzvah, we would run a long, semi-analytical essay that would ask whether the films of Judd Apatow and his acolytes have a Jewish sensibility. We spent much of our time trying to figure out what to cover and how to cover it, trying to figure out the idea at the center of any piece. At first, I worked two days a week—squeezing in my editing whenever I could, since we couldn’t afford a sitter for two full days—then, as Nextbook rapidly grew, three days, and then, when Coleman was eighteen months old, began working at the office full-time. Our editor-in-chief left and I was given his job. Suddenly, my life became all-Jewish, all-the-time. The volume of reading expanded maybe threefold. Soon, I felt like I could recognize the major tropes of contemporary Jewish lit: The historical novel set in the shtetl; the ironic modern immigrant’s tale; the Holocaust memoir; the who-knew-there-were-Jews-there (India! China!) memoir. Before I go any further, I should explain that my family falls into the secular Zionist branch of American Jews. Thus, I went to various hippie Zionist camps and spent a summer in Israel, but was allowed to drop out of Hebrew school after a year. And though our Seder always followed the bones of the Maxwell House Haggadah, we definitely skipped some of the more dull moments. My parents are interested in, but not fully defined by their Jewishness. We had Exodus and Our Crowd and Masada and Hooray for Yiddish! on the bookshelf, along with some Roth and Bellow and Malamud, certainly, but that was the extent of it. In college and grad school, I studied English, with an emphasis on the Moderns and postwar American poetry, but I was interested in people like James Wright and Robert Lowell, not Philip Levine or even Allen Ginsberg. I’d lived in London for a bit after college, and for pleasure I tended to read British. And so working at Nextbook was something of an immersion course for me. I’d not, for instance, read much contemporary Israeli fiction, so it was a revelation to discover Yehoshua and Etgar Keret. Or to discover obscure novels like Jerzy Andrezjewski’s controversial Holy Week, an account of the final days of the Warsaw ghetto. Or to find my way through those big three that had graced my parents’ bookshelf: Roth, Bellow, Malamud. And Singer. Writers that were, perhaps, so ubiquitous that I’d not thought them necessary. (They are.) Equally exciting was discovering Jewish threads in favorite writers, particularly my beloved Brits: Muriel Spark’s The Mandelbaum Gate; George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Or new writers, like Jami Attenberg or Rachel Kushner or Elisa Albert. Pretty quickly that thing happened, the thing that happens when you master a particular job. I’m sure it has happened to you. What is it exactly? It’s that, I suppose, you internalize the ideas in which you’ve been schooled. Soon, I couldn’t read anything without figuring out a Jewish slant on it, a way for Nextbook to cover it. The Emperor’s Children: Danielle is Jewish, isn’t she? And what’s up with her nose always being described as beaky? My friend Lauren’s book about young evangelicals? Well, Lauren is Jewish, didn’t that inform her reporting? At first, this was fine. But as a year, then a year-and-a-half went by and I realized that I couldn’t turn it off. I was a machine, trained to assess the Jewish content of any bit of reading material. Last June, I began to realize that it most certainly was not fine. The galleys of my novel were just about to go to press and people were starting to ask me about the next one, but I couldn’t, somehow, think holistically about a story in the way I had during the early stages of writing A Fortunate Age. In July, after I resigned, I went on a binge of non-Jewish reading, which truly felt like a binge. We were out of town for much of the summer and before we left I grabbed books from our shelves, taking care to avoid anything that might have anything even remotely Semitic in it. It was a relief, as it had been three years earlier, just to read for pleasure, to read anything that seemed like it might interest me, writers I’d heard about but never read (Anne Beattie, Susanna Moore) or new novels by writers I loved (Kate Christensen, Kate Atkinson). Most gratifying, I suppose, was reading works by writers I knew to be Jewish, like Meg Wolitzer—which I eventually allowed myself to do—without trying to find the Jewish story within them. The strange thing was that even when I wasn’t looking for Jewish stories, they seemed to find me. Even the most unexpected bits of fiction—like, say, British novelist Rachel Cusk’s In the Fold—have a Jewish element, a character or plotline. Back in December, when Pearl was born and I was eternally stuck in the nursing chair again, I once again plowed through whole unexplored sections of our bookshelf (Paul Auster, John O’Hara) and caught up on some of the bigger books of recent years (Netherland, Suite Francaise), but then, in March, maybe a week or two before my own novel came out, a strange thing happened: I couldn’t read. That is, like those mothers who’d complained to me when Cole was a baby, I could read the newspaper or The New Yorker, but I couldn’t even pick up a book. “I can’t concentrate on anything,” I told Lauren. “I can’t imagine why,” she said, rolling her eyes. “You have a little bit going on.” But I’d never, not in my whole life, had any trouble picking up a book. At night, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Anxiously, I flipped through my own book, trying to choose sections for my readings, but I couldn’t even make it through more than a few pages of that (admittedly, I know how it ends). I didn’t know what to do with myself. I became one of those people who obsessively checks her phone. And then, once the novel was safely out in the world, the madness stopped. I walked over to the bookshelf and randomly chose two novels I’d long been wanting to read: Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor and Lesley Dormen’s The Best Place to Be, the first a slyly satirical look at the liberal branch of the British middle class in the mid-1990s, the second wry take on New York at the latest fin de siecle. Or so I’d thought. Of course, one of Drabble’s main characters Jewish: Nathan Herz, a child of Golders’ Green who’s made himself over as a slick, cigar-chomping ad exec, and married into the faux-patrician Palmer family. And the Dormen, well, midway through, the heroine explains to her brother that their long-absent father isn’t English; his family fled to England during the war. They’re Polish Jews. Throughout the rest of the novel, the family’s Jewishness frequently comes into play. Now, of course, I can enjoy such surprises for what they are. A thread within a whole, rather than a lens through which to view the whole: The Drabble is a spot-on comedy of manners, just the sort I like, about a large, accomplished family, the offspring of a prominent writer and their spouses and children. The Dormen is, in a way, more a coming of age tale, perfectly observed, linked stories about a woman at various stages of her life in New York, her relationship with her glamorous, feckless mother and her glamorous, feckless best friend, her icy brother, and her kind, patient husband. They are also, as you probably don’t need me to point out, all about families. And this time around I find myself thinking about the relationships between siblings, the way they band together against their parents, the way they grow apart and come together again. My own sister is so much older, so some of this is new to me. I see those other mothers on the playground these days. Like me, many now have two children, and lately they are recommending a parenting book called Sibling Rivalry, about raising children with equanimity, or so I assume, as I, of course, haven’t read it. I’ll take my Margaret Drabble—or Jane Austen, or Jonathan Franzen—over some psychologist’s parenting tome any day, but I generally just say ‘thank you,’ and tuck away the suggestion. Who know? I may need it some day. Parenting is hard and I could certainly use all the advice I can get. Now that our kids are older, the cliques seem to have fallen away. Maybe they were, like so much, simply the result of that mad, exhausted period when our babies were tiny and no one was thinking straight, everyone was searching for some sort of answer, some sort of succor. Now that my novel is out, they seem to understand that I wasn’t just paid to be a stay-at-home mom all those years. And hearteningly, some of them have even read it.

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