This week's reviews:
One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.
The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?
Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.
This is how we keep a head from growing inflated.
Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes Lapsed Jews, and One Man's Search for Himself. His writing has appeared in the pages (print and electronic) of the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, theAtlantic, Tablet, Saveur, Tin House, and a variety of other journals and newspapers. He is also the articles editor ofMen’s Journal magazine.
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
In honor of Haley Tanner being named a 2012 "5 under 35" honoree by the National Book Foundation, this week's "Book Cover of the Week" is the paperback edition of her novel Vaclav and Lena, published this past February by Random House. Read Haley's posts for the Visiting Scribe here and also check out fellow 2012 "5 under 35 honoree" and Visiting Scribe Stuart Nadler's posts here.
I found my first error in my book in this sentence in the introductory chapter, “Hidden Jew”: “My stepfather [Randy]…knew from very early on that my mother was Jewish. His rather conservative family didn’t, and they still don’t.”
This was, to the best of my knowledge, true at the time of my writing it. There is, in fact, a later, and longer, passage in the book devoted to this very subject: namely, that my mother was so proud about my success as a writer that she couldn’t help telling her family and friends in Mississippi about it—but she was so committed to keeping her Judaism a secret that she never told them what the book was about. (I’ve written about this online in some detail. Please read here to see what I’m talking about.)
Anyway, I recently returned from a family trip to Mississippi, where the discussion of the book was very much a dinner table topic. My step-grandmother, Anne, a wonderful woman with whom I’ve always had a great, if-not-entirely-frank, relationship, chimed in with this over our red beans and rice:
“I suppose it’s time to let the cat out of the bag,” she said, hushing everyone. “Right after your mother and Randy fell in love”—when I was about 12 or 13, or around 1986—“he said, 'Now, Mom, she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Jewish. So don’t say anything.'”
There were a couple of implications here. First, our circumspection, or downright lying, through the years had been for nothing—they had known we were Jewish. What’s more—and no one said this, but it was implied—they had known without our saying a thing, assuming it somehow from our manner, appearance, and attitudes. Which is a little discomfiting, but still amusing from where I sit. As I have always said to my mother whenever she tries on a bit of a southern accent: “Ma, you can take the girl outta Queens. But you can’t take the Queens outta the girl.”
Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes Lapsed Jews, and One Man's Search for Himself. His writing has appeared in the pages (print and electronic) of the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic, Tablet, Saveur, Tin House, and a variety of other journals and newspapers. He is also the articles editor of Men’s Journal magazine.
As this is my first post, please allow me to introduce myself: I am the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, which tells the story of a secular Jewish kid (me) who moves from New York to Mississippi, where he is forced by his mother to pretend he is a Christian. As an adult, I determine to understand what place, if any, there is in the religion of my birth for a kid who sang lead in an Episcopal school choir, studied the Bible, and took Communion. There’s more to it—everything from Jewish Catholic priests in New Mexico to my ten-minute bar mitzvah as a 38-year-old—but that’s a fair start to understanding where I’m coming from.
I sometimes struggle to explain what renewed my interested in Judaism. As I write in the book: "I visited a Holocaust Memorial site on vacation in the Czech Republic (it moved me to be sure, but not in this direction); I had children (I love them but that didn’t do it either); I lost members of my family (I miss my grandparents but I’m not [doing this] for them). The truth, banal as it might sound, is that I simply wanted to know. Or, more precisely, I needed to. Like my mother, I had my own myth to make real. Only mine, instead of entailing the abandonment of a specific and defined heritage, would require its embrace."
So I lack a simple answer for what motivated the project and process of answering my question. I do, however, remember the specific thing that convinced me to re-enter the world of Judaism, in my own way: the Manhattan eruv. Most readers of this blog, I assume, are familiar both with the concept of eruvin as well as the unique history of the one located in Manhattan (you may not, however, know, that a certain Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side holds a—admittedly ceremonial—99-year lease on the entire island, at the bargain price of just one dollar), but I didn’t, and when I happened one day some years ago to notice the wires of the Manhattan crisscrossing the avenue outside of my office, I was inspired enough to learn.
The presence of this massive, symbolic Jewish household suggested a few, very important things to me: first, I was in a Jewish world already and I didn’t know it; second, that world was complex and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really accept its spiritual underpinnings; and last, and most important, if I didn’t make the effort to see that house—that world—it would, for all practical purposes, not exist. Now, I wander the city doing something very un-New York: looking up, scanning the streetlights for evidence of eruvin.
Read more about Theodore Ross here.
The first title of a book that I remember with clarity is QB VII. It seemed so odd, with letters instead of words. My mother is an avid reader, and because there were no public libraries in our town, she saved every book. I grew up with bookcases lining the hallways, the shelves weighted down with novels. From the time I was very young, Mom would, on occasion, give me books she thought I needed to read. I was about 12 when she handed me QB VII, and then all the other novels by Leon Uris. Mom said that family members she had never met in Germany had died during the Holocaust, and because I did not know their names, every victim I read about in the novels became my family.
I never imagined, when I was reading Uris, that one day I would actually write – and publish – novels.
I like to joke that my first novel, A Good Indian Wife, is pure fiction…it is also purely Indian. The second novel, The Invitation, is more personal because my character Jonathan is Jewish, like my mother; is a doctor like my grandfather; and lives in Marin, which is across the bay from Berkeley, where my mother grew up. Jonathan also gave me an entrée into the Jewish Book Council. I almost did not send in my application for the JBC Network, because I feared that though I am Jewish, I had not been brought up celebrating Jewish holidays, which mirrors Jonathan’s experience, but left me feeling I wasn’t Jewish enough. I calmed down when I realized that many of my friends in the US had been raised the same way. They, too, had not been to a synagogue until their twenties.
Mom was very excited when I told her I was going to New York to make a 2 minute presentation. She didn’t ask me what I was going to say. She only said: “Be proud. I want you to stand there and be proud.”
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
I think this might be a record: two JBC Bookshelf posts within two weeks. Not all of these books will be published in the fall (it's ok August, we're letting you slip in), but they're all worth checking out over the next several months. The titles below reflect on various topics across Jewish life, culture, and history and celebrate Judaism in America, past, present, and what's to come...Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, Stefanie Pervos Bergman, ed. (August 2012, Academic Studies Press)
In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy, Michael Kimmage (August 2012, Stanford University Press)
My mother wasn’t the only Jew in our small town in India. There was Aunty Ruby and her family before they immigrated to Israel, and there was always Aunty Sarah. Aunty Sarah was a wonderful seamstress, and when I was taking Bharat Natyam classes, she made me a bag to hold the bells that went around my ankles when I danced. Sewn at the bottom, in a loop, were a string of bright blue beads. I kept the bag long after I stopped dancing, because she had parted with the beads – so precious because they were from Israel – for me, and so they were doubly precious.
When her niece and nephew visited from Bombay, I played with Rivka and Rueben. Years later, when I was studying toward my first master’s degree at Bombay University, Rivka’s grandparents, whom I called Granny and Grandpa, became my guardians (every student from out of town needed a guardian who could take care of her should the need arise). Grandpa died while I was there, and that was the first Jewish ceremony I attended. No one celebrated the high holidays; it was usually birth and death that brought out our Jewish faith.
When I came to study at Berkeley, my involvement and knowledge of all things Jewish grew exponentially. Mom’s cousin, Uncle Bob and his wife Barbara, took me to the synagogue in San Francisco, and I had my very first Passover with their family. It was at a lovely hotel, and I was starving by the time the waiters served the plates. I saw this pale green, flower-shaped puree in the middle of the plate, and popped it into my mouth. Next thing I knew, my eyes were smarting and I was reaching for water. It was horseradish…and how we all laughed, because reading about it isn’t the same as seeing it – or tasting the bitterness.
By the time I was writing The Invitation, I felt very comfortable having a Jewish character. Confession: I am very lazy about researching, but everything, from Jonathan Feinstein’s name to his sudden interest in having a Bar Mitzvah for his son, came right out of my own knowledge and experience. When I did a reading in San Francisco, Aunty Barbara came along with her caretaker. She hadn’t read the novel yet, and I hoped she would get a kick out of seeing her daughter’s name, Ellen Krueger, who appears as a minor character.