As I get deeper into the life and experiences of Reenie, the main character in my new novel, Digging to China, I find I am reflecting more and more about my own life and identity. Back in January, 2014, I gave a talk at Temple Beth El in Madison on “The Heroine’s Journey” as part of the Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation’s Everywoman’s Journal Program. Something moved me recently to revisit and expand on some of that material for an article that’s just been published on Blog-Shmog at Jewish Currents.
I do find it so strange and mysterious that I should be exploring “my Jewishness,” whatever that is, in relationship to my writing, but I suppose what we imagine to be our identity is a bit like strata shifting over time. I’m delighted that Jewish Currents decided to share my ruminations with its readers.
I’ve pasted the opening paragraphs to the article below. You can read the full article at Jewish Currents.
Twenty years ago, I was completely unaware of any relationship between my writing and my experience of being Jewish. Ten years ago, I might have felt a vague stirring of the connection, but had no sense of its depth. Now, working on a second novel, I look back at what I didn’t know I knew until after I’d finished my first book and am astonished to discover how much “my Jewishness” influences the way I perceive and interpret the world.
Why should this surprise me? Unlike other contemporary writers of Jewish heritage whose fiction is steeped in historical and fabulist Jewish lore—writers like Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nicole Krauss—I’ve never identified myself as a writer concerned with Jewish experience. But then, I had not looked deeply into the question. If I had, I might have realized that who I am as a writer has everything to do with my obsessions, my core concerns, my values and judgments, and these in turn are tinged by my personal and collective Jewish background. Did I really think growing up in a secular Jewish home left no traces?
Jews are often referred to as “people of the book.” The Old Testament is a compilation of teaching stories we tell and retell at ritual times across continents and down millennia. The Bible harnesses mythology, religious teachings, and history to the written word. Its sacredness is the very embodiment of the religion, a totemic object that has united a diasporic people since Moses, but it’s through the oral transmission of stories and story-meaning that the religion lives and breathes. A song sung at Hanukah begins: Who can retell the things that befell us/who can count them?/In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.
Who can retell? Storytellers retell and I am one of them.
My father was a great storyteller, a purveyor of jokes, a student of Torah and Talmud, Maimonides, Justice Brandeis, and a little Sholem Aleichem on the side. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Isaac and Jacob—these were not his cast of characters. My father’s stories involved figures named Yankel, Nutsy Fagin, or Velvela Rabbit. Like the great Biblical figures, his characters encountered nightmares and wild hope, made bad decisions, employed tricks, spoke prophecy and prayed to God. In other words, they were outrageous, endearing, silly, and closer than Eve to my own human heart.
My father’s stories embroidered the fantastical with the practical, and illustrated in equal parts pathos and humor, cunning and stupidity. The rich were clever and took advantage; children were innocent as were animals; the poor schlemiel got what he deserved. These were cautionary tales. Best to keep a sense of humor since absurdity ruled the world.
When I ask myself how did my Jewish upbringing influence what I write . . . [read more]