Posted by Nat Bernstein
Thursday evening Stephanie Feldman, Liana Finck, and Boris Fishman sat down with a microphone and a moderator at Greenlight Bookstore for a panel discussion on Jewish Life and Literature. Author and journalist Carmela Ciuraru facilitated the event, prompting the authors with questions of identity, community, and the writing process.
Stephanie, Liana, and Boris are all participating authors in the 2014-2015 JBC Network, a Jewish Book Council program that connects current writers and Jewish community organizations as a means of furthering Jewish book fairs and literary events throughout North America. Having embraced this particular market in promoting their respective works—A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, Liana’s graphic novel rendering of Abraham Cahan’s famous column in Forverts; The Angel of Losses, a novel by Stephanie exploring the legend of the White Rebbe; A Replacement Life, Boris’s debut novel about a young man embroiled in the Holocaust retribution cases of his grandparents’ generation—the three authors in conversation named a number of enduring questions and quandaries about themselves as writers, as artists, and as Jews.
Asked how she feels about being a “Jewish writer,” Liana described the changing landscape of the literary and artistic world, and her personal transition within it: “I’m in a place where I love niche—I feel like it’s become this whole postmodern thing,” she observed. “There’s a lot you can do as a niche writer that you can’t do as a 5’10” white man.” The audience, Liana feels, for labeled writing has also changed rapidly between generations. “The people reading pigeonholed books are a lot smarter, and it’s going to become an honor to be a pigeonhole author,” she predicts.
“Readers respond to what you give them,” Boris followed up. He added emphatically that “craft goes beyond classification,” that readers will remember a book in its own right—independent of marketing labels—if the writing is good and the story is well-told.
The story must be also be well-researched. Liana described her struggles with depicting historically accurate fashions and facial expressions in the artwork for A Bintel Brief, noting that the most informative and most enjoyable piece of the process was reading Abraham Cahan’s biography, “one of the greatest American stories ever written—second only, maybe, to Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography.” Stephanie shared her initial inspiration for The Angel of Losses, how she had intended to follow the Gothic tradition of the Wandering Jew—only to discover that the lore is a strictly Christian narrative, with no Jewish basis or context. (For a full account of how Stephanie expanded her search of sojourning sages in Jewish history and mythology, read her 8 Favorite Wandering Jews blog post on The ProsenPeople Visiting Scribe series.)
Boris’s research process hit much closer to home, involving frequent and difficult interviews with his grandparents. On top of the generational divide and reticence to talk about the past, Boris articulated his struggle to spend the necessary time in his immigrant grandparents’ company: “In ex-Soviet families—Jewish ex-Soviet families, especially—there’s this idea that your children are supposed to be your friends, which is impossible, because you’ve brought them to a country that’s made them completely different people from you.” The expectation of tacit intergenerational connection placed a heavy strain on Boris’s visits, but perhaps nothing was as challenging as the discomfort faced as soon as the research reached its end, with no objective remaining to drive Boris to his grandparents’ home.
The relationship between the authors and their upbringing held particular interest to their audience at Greenlight Bookstore—and to the authors themselves. The first question from the audience raised the role of rebellion in the three novels and their composition. Liana acknowledged the “literary tradition that a character rebels against the religion they were raised in,” but experienced her own religious trajectory as more of a placid progression from the Judaism instilled in her childhood; Stephanie “started the novel on the idea that rebellion is impossible—how frightening it is when you can’t rebel.” Boris, however, pointed out that writing is itself an act of rebellion, especially in his case: “If you are going to write about the Holocaust, you need to find new forms; those forms have to be by definition rebellious because reverence alone for the Holocaust doesn’t work anymore.”
Just before the panel discussion came to an end, the authors turned the conversation back to their audience. “Can you be a narrowly cultural Jew—can there be a strictly cultural Judaism—without a religious context?” Boris pondered. The crowd chimed in, sharing a diverse array of opinions, experiences, and anecdotes on Jewish identity, religious practice, and community participation. Stephanie reflected on the response to her colleague’s question, concluding the event with an observation on the vast and differing customs and traditions between Jews across the world: “The thing that is universal about Judaism is this idea that Jewish identity and religious practice can be separate. How we structure identity is so vital in Judaism, and as a novelist I think that Judaism will consequently continue to inspire and influence me—even if the story isn’t Jewish, the character isn’t ‘Jewish.’”