Am I A Jewish Writer? And Does It Matter? A Self-Interview

My new book of essays, (Not That You Asked), covers a lot of ground: literature, politics, pop culture, sexual shame. It also includes a piece called “Ham for Chanukah” about my unique brand of pork-intensive Judaism. As might be expected, … Read More

By / October 16, 2007

My new book of essays, (Not That You Asked), covers a lot of ground: literature, politics, pop culture, sexual shame. It also includes a piece called “Ham for Chanukah” about my unique brand of pork-intensive Judaism. As might be expected, several concerned readers have emailed – including but not limited to my mother – wanting to know how a Jewish writer could sink so low. Recently, I sat down with myself to discuss the matter: So Steve, for the record, are you a Jewish writer or not? Well, Steve, I'm glad you asked. Lots of authors dance around questions like this, but I’m a wretched dancer. The answer is yes. You don’t find that description reductionistic? Of course it’s reductionistic. But it also happens to be factually accurate. I’m Jewish. I’m a writer. Ergo, I’m a Jewish writer. I’d prefer that critics focus on my work rather than me – every honest writer would – but I gave up on that dream long ago. And frankly, I find the other labels I get slapped with much more offensive. Such as? “Literary pornographer.” “Left-wing blowhard.” That kind of thing. Every time I put I book out, it’s the same mishagoss. The critical culture of this country has become infected with a disease I’ll call PeopleMagazinitis. Rather than writing about the quality of the prose and ideas and emotions within a book, they write about the author. Reviewing has become a form of gossip mongering, rather than aesthetic assessment. And I’m not just talking about the trashy outlets, either. The almighty New York Times Book Review pulls the same crap. Okay, so we’ll stick to the text. In your essay “Ham for Chanukah” you confess to being an atheist. Would it then be fair to call you an atheist writer? If you must label, I’d prefer Jewish atheist writer. You don’t see any contradiction there? Only if you define Judaism as a religious identity. Or even more narrowly, as a theological identity. But Judaism – especially in this era, especially in the United States – is a cultural and ethnic signifier more than anything. It means you come from a particular set of bloodlines, a particular set of intellectual traditions. In my case, two of my great-grandfathers were rabbis. But they were also cranky, difficult patriarchs. And so their children turned away from the formal practice of Judaism. But they remained culturally identified as Jews. That doesn’t really explain the “Ham” part of “Ham for Chanukah.” Ah yes, the ham. That comes from my maternal grandmother, Dorethea. She was a German Jew who immigrated to America a few years before World War II. Her reaction to the devastation of the Holocaust was to deny her Jewish identity. I can’t explain precisely why, but I suspect that, like a lot of Jews, she felt guilty for having survived the Holocaust and blamed herself, and maybe her Judaism, for all the tumult. Whatever the psychological particulars, she became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church. And she insisted on celebrating Christmas. At which she served ham? Well, not every year. Mostly, it was turkey. But we still did the whole holiday schmeer: the tree, the tinsel, the cookies.
As a culturally identified Jew, wasn’t that odd? It was totally fucking nuts. But when you’re a kid, you’re really more focused on gifts than identity. And it wasn’t like my parents hid the fact that we were Jews. We did celebrate Chanukah and Passover, and we had informal bar mitzvahs at home. Still, our brand of Judaism was pretty watered-down by assimilation. So I never made my Jewish identity a central part of my writing. It would have felt phony to do so, to claim that kind of ownership. Especially compared to writers like Nathan Englander and Shalom Auslander, guys who grew up with Judaism as a central and radical aspect of their lives. Before them, you had guys like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Shalom Aleichem, who were writing from within the shetl experience. So now it sounds like you’re saying you should be considered an “assimilated Jewish atheist writer.” There’s really no winning with you, is there? What I’m trying to suggest is that this extratextual labeling is a sucker’s game. All the guys I mentioned above do write about the Jewish world. But their work inevitably grapples with themes and feelings that are universal. That’s how art works. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy (or even understand) their work. Just like you don’t have to be a member of the British landed gentry to enjoy Jane Austen. Okay, fine. No more labels. But I do think it’s fair to ask how Judaism has influenced your writing. Oh, absolutely. I’m not going to sit here and pretend I’m a man without a religion. From the outside, it might sometimes seem like that, because there’s nothing in my work (or even in my name or my physical appearance) that screams Jewish! In my case, the links to Judaism are subtler. For instance, in one of the first stories I published, “My Life in Heavy Metal,” I used the word “kvell.” Now, there aren’t a lot of non-Jews who use that word. But my mom used it all the time (because her parents spoke Yiddish), so it was something I heard growing up. And it was the exact right word for the sentence in question. But even more than trafficking in Yiddish words, I think of my work as having a Jewish attitude. Meaning what? Meaning neurotic, self-deprecating, smart-alecky, moralizing. Oh, and guilt-ridden (though I suppose that falls under the broader category of “neurotic.”) I think you just dug yourself a bit of hole. Why? Did I miss an adjective? No, but I don’t think your fellow Jews are going to appreciate being reduced to a series of adjectives. Actually, you’re right. I forgot an adjective: contentious. If these descriptors cause offense, I hereby apologize. But I don’t take them back. These are the attitudes I associate with the Jews I know, and I do so lovingly. I like that we’re big mouths and that we know how to crack jokes at our expense and that we’re honest about our doubts and in our concern for the world. And I do believe that the most important part of being raised Jewish – the one part that seems to have stuck for me – has to do with a determination to find, or create, meaning through words. Isn’t that what the Bible amounts to? It’s a bunch of Jews telling stories in an effort to make sense of their world and their role within it. This is what all the great Jewish intellectuals have been up to, from Maimonides to Marx and Freud. And I’ll add Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth to that list. We’re preoccupied by the life of the mind, by consciousness itself.
Now you’re sounding like a booster for the whole “Chosen People” line. Oh, nonsense. I’m not suggesting that Jews have the monopoly on intellectual achievement or self-reflection. But you’d have to be an idiot not to recognize the emphasis that gets placed on ideas and learning in a Jewish home – even in secularized one like mine. There’s an ambition there, a stubborn vitality. You can hear this even in the Jewish liturgy. As you might guess, I’m not a regular at Synagogue. But I’ve heard the Yom Kippur services a few times, and what always strikes me about them is the emphasis not on acts of atonement, but simple attention. The whole idea is to recognize the splendor of the universe, and to give thanks. God becomes a form of gratitude. Writers have the same agenda. We’re in the business of pricking readers’ consciousness, enticing them to slow down and experience the richness of the world inside and around them. This, by the way, is why my wife and I hope to raise our daughter Jewish. Yeah, I was going to ask about that. Given the declared atheist thing, it seems odd to impose a religion on her. Maybe. But I think you can raise a child to have religious identity without pushing them into a specific belief. My wife Erin wanted to convert to Judaism because she respects the values of the religion – that emphasis on ideas and learning. As for me, I want Josephine to know who and where she comes from, that she owes her existence to a particular history of sacrifice. I want her to know that her great-great grandfathers, cranky or not, were passionate thinkers. I want her to celebrate Passover in a manner that compels her to recognize that her ancestors, people of her own blood, endured hardship so that, thousands of years later, she could sit around stuffing herself with roast chicken and matzo balls. And I want that moral knowledge to inform how she views her own world, the social conscience we hope she’ll develop. But that doesn’t amount to a kind of “buffet Judaism”? Just picking and choosing what you like, with no deeper commitment? Yeah, it does. And so what? I’m not interested in forcing my daughter to commit to the parts of Jewish tradition that oppress women, or denigrate other cultures, or presuppose a God that endorses bloody wars. That stuff is medieval. We’ve got enough medieval notions coming from the right wing of this country at the moment. What I want is for Josie to feel a sense of wonder and humility as she moves through the world. I want her to remain curious. More than anything, both Erin and I want her to be a reader. And I think being raised Jewish, or semi-Jewish, can only help.

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