What’s A Jewish Writer Anyways?

Author JOSHUA HENKIN shares his own take on being both a Jew and a writer

by Joshua Henkin

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My late father liked to tell a joke about the Jewish parents who named their son Shlomo after his grandfather Scott. The joke was being played out all around him and by the time my wife and I named our daughters Orly and Tamar, he was long used to this sort of befuddlement. The joke captured for my father one of the central perplexities of contemporary American Jewish life.

The son of a well-known Orthodox rabbi, my father had been born in Belarus, and when he was five the family immigrated to the Lower East Side. Thus began the process of Americanization for my father, whose Hebrew name was Eliezer and who was called “Lazer.” When he arrived for kindergarten at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, he was greeted by a principal who said, “Lazer? That’s not a real name. From now on, you’ll be called Louis.” And Louis my father would be until the day he died, a month short of his 93rd birthday.

My father eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, fought in World War II, and made a career for himself, first at the State Department and United Nations, and then in academia. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia law schools for a total of 50 years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.

There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home. Though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (keeping a kosher home and observing Shabbat for the sake of the family, sending my brothers and me to day school and Camp Ramah) she never became personally observant. The world in which my mother lived – the secular world – had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself. When he was saying Kaddish for his father and he convened a daily minchah minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only nine at the time, understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn: be a Jew at home, a human being on the street. It’s only now, looking back, that I find something noteworthy in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the father of Reform Judaism as his motto.

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I was thinking about this a couple of months ago when I received an invitation to participate in an authors panel at Hunter College. I would describe my own relationship to Jewish practice as idiosyncratically observant. Among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that I don’t travel on Shabbat, but if I can get myself somewhere without traveling, I’m happy to engage in conduct that, while not technically Shabbat-violating, isn’t, as they say, shabbesdik. The panel was held on a Saturday, and shabbesdik or not, it isn’t particularly sane to walk eight miles from Brooklyn to Hunter College and eight miles back, all to participate in an authors panel. But my new novel was coming out in less than two weeks, and under such circumstances you tend to do a lot of things that are neither shabbesdik nor sane.

As I was walking through the rain to Hunter, I remembered another such incident more than 25 years ago when I, a rising college junior, spent the summer in Washington, DC. One Friday night I was invited to a party in suburban Maryland, and I prevailed upon a friend, who was not Jewish let alone Shabbat-observant, to walk with me to the party. It was a sevenmile walk if we followed the directions correctly, but we didn’t, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we got to the party at one in the morning. We didn’t even know the host (the party was being held by a friend of a friend) and we ended up having to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their living room floor.

What lesson can be drawn from this other than that I, at age 20, was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to attend a party? Perhaps not much. But it occurs to me that in certain ways I am my father’s son – my father who never would have done what I had done (he didn’t like parties), but who was of a generation that, for better or worse, didn’t wear its Jewishness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in synagogue. When he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frankfurter, on Friday nights he would secretly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t travel home on Shabbat. He’d acted similarly a few years earlier when, at Harvard Law School, he had a final scheduled for Shavuot and he hired a proctor to follow him around for 48 hours, and then, when the holiday was over, he took the exam.

Nearly 50 years later, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and graduation was scheduled for Shavuot, many Orthodox Jews (and a good number of non-Orthodox Jews, too) staged a protest to get the date changed. When I told my father about this protest, he was mystified. Ask Harvard to change graduation because of Shavuot? You didn’t ask for special treatment. The world did as it did, and you accommodated it.

What does this have to do with being a Jewish writer? A lot, it seems to me. My father, if he were alive, would have been similarly mystified by the fact that every June, under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council, hundreds of writers gather in a room at Hebrew Union College to make two-minute presentations to representatives from JCCs across the country. These writers (most of them Jewish, though not all) of novels and political manifestos and biographies and cookbooks stand before the assembled and to one degree or another trot out their Jewish bona fides in the hope of securing invitations to Jewish book fairs, invitations that have helped launch careers.

The critic Adam Kirsch, writing about Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander’s New American Haggadah, captures this cultural shift well: “[J]ust try to imagine a Haggadah created in 1970 by, say, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. It’s not just unthinkable, it sounds like the punch line to a joke. That’s because, for the Mailer- Roth generation of American Jewish writers, Jewishness was preeminently a social fact, the name of a parochial, prudish, petitbourgeois milieu that had to be humiliated if it was to be escaped…. You could imagine a Roth character scribbling obscenities in his parents’ Haggadah, or perhaps masturbating to it, but not trying earnestly to rewrite it.”

In the same vein, it’s hard to imagine Roth or Mailer speaking at the Jewish Book Council event or participating in a symposium such as the one that appeared recently in Moment Magazine, which asked a number of authors whether and how they consider themselves Jewish writers. By and large, the answers were animated by pride and anxiety and prickliness, all of which I understand. I’m often asked the same question myself, and I end up being tongue-tied. Am I a Jewish writer? I’m a Jew, and I’m proud to be one, so on some level by definition I’m a Jewish writer, just as I’m a Jewish father, a Jewish New Yorker, a Jewish eldest child, a Jewish basketball fan, and a Jewish watcher of “Friday Night Lights” (though not, as it so happens, on Friday night itself ).

But I’m not generally asked whether I’m a Jewish eldest child or a Jewish basketball fan or a Jewish watcher of “Friday Night Lights,” and therein lies the rub. Because when a writer gets asked the Jewish writer question, something more seems to be going on, something having to do with the writer’s own relationship to Judaism or whether the book he has written qualifies as Jewish based on the number of Yiddish phrases contained in it or the amount of whitefish consumed by his characters.

To take my own work as a case in point, my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, had lots of Jewish subject matter; my second novel, Matrimony, had very little Jewish subject matter; and my most recent novel, The World Without You, has lots of Jewish subject matter again. Does that mean I was more of a Jewish writer for the first novel, less of a Jewish writer for the second novel, and more of a Jewish writer again for the third? That’s just silly. I’d also add that these kinds of questions serve to ghettoize a writer when good fiction is good fiction and should reach as broad an audience as possible. No one asked Cheever whether he considered himself a male writer. No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.

And now, in good Jewish tradition, I’m going to contradict myself. I’m very interested in time in fiction, and I think this interest comes in large part from my own relationship to Judaism. Matrimony took place over the course of 20 years, and when I started to write The World Without You I wanted to write a book with a very different relationship to time, so I set the book in compressed time, over the course of just 72 hours.

Might I have been interested in doing this if I weren’t Jewish? Of course. But I do know that my own interest in time is directly connected to what time was like for me as a child – Shabbat starts at 6:32 this week, it ends at 7:35, there are two Adars this year so Passover is later. The story goes that when I was five and my parents were moving the clock forward for daylight savings time, I asked them, “Do non-Jews switch their clocks forward, too?”

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book; Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and The World Without You, published in June. He directs the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. This essay was adapted from work originally published in the Jewish Book Council Visiting Scribe Series and Myjewishlearning.com.