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Excerpt: Start Without Me

Tuesday, November 21, 2017 | Permalink

The following is from Joshua Max Feldman's novel Start Without Me. The author of the critically acclaimed The Book of Jonah explores questions of love and choice, disappointment and hope in the lives of two strangers who meet by chance in this mesmerizing tale that unfolds over one Thanksgiving Day.

Adam looked up at the basement ceiling, not sure how long he’d been awake. There was no clock in the basement—never had been, for as long as he could remember. He pushed himself up on his elbows. Weak grey light filled the line of slender windows at the top of the wall. He’d been dreaming; something had woken him up. Then he heard the gurgle of a toilet flushing. A child appeared in the doorway in a corner across from the couch: a boy, five or six, in blue underpants and a Spider-Man T-shirt, dark hair matted on one side, a sour, suspicious look on his face. “Who are you?” the boy demanded.

“I’m Adam,” Adam said. “Uncle Adam,” he clarified.

The boy shook his head solemnly. “My uncle’s Travis. He lives in Texas.”

“I’m your other uncle. Your dad’s brother.”

“Why are you on the couch?”

“Kristen’s—your cousins are sleeping in my room. My old room. What used to be my room.” The boy scowled, as though none of this added up, and Adam had to admit it didn’t sound very convincing.

“Uncle Adam,” he repeated. “You don’t remember me?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Are you the uncle who smashed the piñata?”

“Jesus, that’s what you remember?” Did he actually owe apologies to the kids, too?

“The candy went all in the—”

“It was a piñata, it was meant to get smashed. And if they didn’t want me to smash it, they shouldn’t have given me a turn.”

The boy made a slow movement of his thumb beneath his chin, which, in the mental squint of just waking, looked to Adam downright menacing, like a mafioso’s throat-slitting gesture. “Nobody’s allowed to download mods on my dad’s computer,” the boy intoned.

This nonsense alerted Adam to the absurdity of the conversation: The kid didn’t even know he was awake. “It’s okay, man, go back to sleep,” he said—would have preferred to use something more personal than “man,” but he wasn’t entirely, entirely sure whether this was Toby or Sam. Still, the child wordlessly obliged. He leaned his shoulder against the wall, padded back into the bedroom, leaving the door open—a gesture Adam found unreasonably touching, as though it were proof the boy didn’t hate him, didn’t fear him, after all.

He lay back down and stared up at the pocked tiles above him. The basement had a lurking, familiar odor: plaster and lavender air freshener locked in combat with something vaguely musty. He remembered what he’d been dreaming of: Music. Playing. Some sense of the sound still filled the corners of his memory: taut, sharp notes, like from a harpsichord, tripping down a thrumming baseline: a half song, half-remembered.

Once upon a time, he’d have made the effort to recall it, tried to reach into the cracks between sleep and waking to pull the chimerical sound out—sing it into a voicemail, the way you fixed a butterfly to a board with a pin. Occasionally, what he’d listen to an hour or so later wasn’t even half-bad. More often, though, what he heard was nonsense, and even before he stopped playing he’d concluded that it was a waste of time. He wasn’t actually dreaming of music—he was only dreaming of playing it: the texture and resistance of the keys under his fingertips, the beer residue in the metal mesh of the mic on his lips, the bass rumble from the stage through his torso, and more and more lately that rarest feeling, of getting picked up and carried by the music itself: no more distinction between him and the keyboard, between him and those he played with, between crowd and band, all of them racing along with the same roar—the communion of that, the freedom.

The paisley sheet his mother had made up the couch with had gotten tangled around his thighs in the night. He yanked it up toward his chin, but without much hope of getting back to sleep. The stillness of the house was deafening somehow—like all the sleeping people were vibrating at a frequency only he could hear: his family, ringing in his ears.

He kicked off the sheet and sat up, grabbed his jeans, crumpled on top of his duffel bag, and took out a sweatshirt. He climbed the carpeted stairs as he pushed his arms through the sleeves. Above the rail to his right were taped a dozen or more crayon drawings on white paper: houses and suns, oceans and triangle-sailed boats, violent inchoate swirls that resembled things he’d seen when he dropped acid in the Mall of America before a show in St. Paul. “The fridge just isn’t big enough when we all get together!” his mother had exclaimed as she’d led him down the night before—as though he were some kind of stranger, as though she were a tour guide, explaining to a foreigner what it was like when “they” were together. But he reminded himself: If he’d been absent for so long, he had only himself to blame. Fixed on the door at the top of the stairs was more kid art: brown, hand-shaped cutouts of different sizes, with glued-on elaborations (yellow feet, red-orange waddles, plastic googly eyes) to establish that these were turkeys. “Happy Thanksgiving!” one of his nieces or nephews had written in careful elementary school cursive on a piece of construction paper, masking taped above the doorknob. For some reason, it struck him like an ultimatum.

He opened the door a crack, listened: more tinnitus quiet, no one else was up. He moved as softly as he could down the corridor toward the front hall. When he was a teenager he’d snuck out so often, and apparently so needfully, he’d been able to make this trip without turning on a single light: the twelve stairs up from the basement, left and down this hall to the front door, his hand reaching the knob in the dark by pure muscle memory. Then he’d get into his father’s car, put it in neutral, and roll down to the end of the driveway, only then turning on the engine. And from there it was off to some friend’s or to some agreed-upon clearing in the woods, bottle caps and butts littering the ground like pine needles, or if there was nothing going on he and his friends would drive around the campus of the local state college, hoping to stumble on a party, smoking weed and listening to cassettes of Mudhoney, Guster, Pearl Jam, NWA. He knew he shouldn’t look back on those nights quite so fondly. But he couldn’t help it. Yes, it was drugs-and-alcohol- laden fun—but it was still fun.

He carefully opened the coat closet; the old ski jacket that his mother had pulled from somewhere was hanging next to the blue peacoat he’d worn from San Francisco. Within sixty seconds of his walking in, his mother had declared the peacoat “too nice” for the game of touch football planned for the following afternoon, and bustled around upstairs until she produced the ancient jacket. He’d tried to tell her he’d bought the peacoat for forty bucks at a thrift store almost a decade ago, and anyway, there was no reason to find an alternative at eleven o’clock at night. But she ignored him, and when she held out the ski jacket, of course he took it, of course he tried it on, and though the synthetic fabric was so stiff with age it was almost sharp, he declared that it was perfect, and thanked her, and thanked her some more. Why? Because he wanted to be agreeable—amenable, he thought as he took his cigarettes from the pocket of the peacoat, zipped up the ski jacket to his throat.

His pair of ratty Converse was on the drip tray amid a double line of neatly ordered Velcros and snow boots. He tied his laces and pulled open the door. And the instant the door parted from the jamb, the cat appeared out of nowhere and slid outside. “Fuck!” Adam said, making a flailing attempt to grab the animal by its tail as it darted out. He lost his balance and fell on his hip, knocking over the drip tray, one arm stuck outside.

He sat there for a moment, waiting for the whole house to wake up: doors flying open, shouts of alarm. As the quiet continued, he tried to assess what key of crisis, major or minor, this cat situation represented. Was it an outdoor cat or an indoor cat? Had it ever been to the house before? If so, was it allowed to roam the yard? It was Kristen’s family’s cat. Adam could imagine her twin daughters wailing when they heard; he imagined spending the whole day searching the neighborhood for the animal, only to discover its bloody corpse fresh from the maw of some displaced mountain lion or overzealous rottweiler or whatever. In short, the day ruined, and all his fault.

The open door was letting the cold air in; that had to be against the rules. He pulled himself up, went outside and shut the door behind him. With what the cigarette had cost him, he figured he might as well smoke it. And as he lit it and sat down on the top step, there was the cat—perched erect and expectant at his feet, swishing its tail, regarding him as though it were on to him, too: He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know how to be an uncle or a son or a brother—not here, not anymore. Not without a drink. The cat sauntered up the steps; Adam opened the door and it vanished inside. “Asshole,” Adam muttered after it.

And then he smiled, because it was funny he’d called the cat an asshole. The whole thing was kind of funny, if you looked at it the right way: Uncle Adam, freaking out about the cat getting out, but the cat spent lots of time outside! It knew when to go out and come back in. Maybe proving he belonged wasn’t so much a matter of mastering every last rule for who slept where, when the cat was allowed to go out, what to do with the surplus crayon drawings, but rather knowing what it was okay to laugh about. “You’ll never believe what happened with me and that fucking cat!” he could tell them over breakfast. He took another pull on the cigarette, blew the smoke upward to try to warm the tip of his nose. The spruce trees at the end of the yard, planted by his parents when he was a kid to block the sight of Parr Street and the McReedys’ garage, were so still in the cold they appeared frozen solid. A bright layer of frost had settled over the grass of the lawn and over the slope of blacktop where the cars were parked:

Kristen and her husband Dan’s minivan; Jack and his wife Lizzy’s Tahoe; and last in line the cobalt blue Chevy Adam had rented in Hartford, because he hadn’t wanted anybody to have to come and get him from the airport. They’d offered, everybody’d offered; but again, he’d been trying to be amenable—so amenable they’d hardly notice he was there.

He smacked his fingers against his palms, finally fixed the cigarette at the corner of his mouth and stuck his hands under his armpits. Smoking without your hands was one of the easier things you could learn to do at a piano. He should’ve found a pair of gloves in the closet, though. Even when they weren’t squeezed in his armpits on a freezing New England November morning, the joints of his fingers ached when he first woke up. He’d met an older jazz guy in Miami who’d had to stop playing altogether because of the arthritis. All things considered, though, you had to have a pretty lucky career for arthritis to force you out, and not the mile-below-the-poverty-line money, or the burnout from the road, or the booze and the bars, not to mention all the harder stuff you could get with as little as a mutter to the right promoter, hanger-on, somebody-on-the-bill’s girlfriend. He remembered at a party after a Kiss and Kill show in New Orleans, in some sweltering shotgun crash-house, he’d wandered into a back room and stumbled on a shirtless, comically mulleted guy poking at the thighs of a glassy-eyed redhead, her jeans around her ankles. It took Adam a moment to register the syringe clasped between the dude’s teeth. He looked up at Adam and grinned around the syringe like the fucking Cheshire cat.

“What about you, amigo?” he asked, taking the syringe from his mouth. “You’re in the band, you want one on the house?”

Earlier in the night, he’d introduced himself as a friend of Johanna’s. And maybe he was. You could never guess who her friends would be—where they came from, what they wanted. Adam couldn’t say whether he’d been too smart, or too scared, or simply plain lucky to have refused that offer—that and the thousand others like it, escaped all those choices even worse than the ones he’d made to make it back here: the steps of his parents’ house, on Thanksgiving morning. The juxtaposition of the two moments—heroin in the back room, the sleepy home on Thanksgiving day—somehow made both of them seem ridiculous, maybe made him seem ridiculous, too, with the clumsily stitched-together persona he’d carried on with for so many years: the rock keyboardist, the nice suburban kid from western Massachusetts.

But what did he care if he’d turned out to be ridiculous? He ought to be thrilled to be nothing worse than ridiculous! And he wished he could explain something like that to Jack, or to his dad, or to any of them—that he was grateful, grateful almost to tears, to be here: sober for nine months and four days (as of this morning), invited back for a family holiday. From the moment they closed the door behind him, though, it’d been awkward. His mother giggled painfully after she asked him if he wanted anything to drink. His father kept announcing how glad he was to see Adam while clasping his hands together and shaking them in front of his chest, like a politician pleading for racial harmony. The only other person who’d waited up was Jack, and Adam couldn’t help wondering whether his older brother had stayed up on the chance Adam would show up blotto, and they’d need to throw him out. When Adam said after five minutes he was exhausted and just wanted to get some sleep, he could tell they were all relieved.

He put the cigarette out on the bottom of his shoe, slid the butt into the pocket of his jeans. As he opened the door, he saw above it was hammered a strip of sanded wood with the words “The Warshaws” painted in blocky purple letters. The loneliness he felt looking at that sign was at once so predictable and so unaccountable all he could do was stand there. Then he went back inside.

He took off his sneakers, righted the drip tray and the scattered shoes, hung up the ski jacket, and went into the kitchen. The table was already set up as the children’s table: orange paper tablecloth, paper plates with cartoon Pilgrims, the centerpiece a fan-tailed, leering paper turkey. He surveyed the family photos on the shelves above the sink, images spanning from his and his siblings’ childhoods to the birth of Kristen’s twins. There were a few photos of him playing: a recital when he was six, looking freakishly tiny at the keys of a six-foot grand; the time Kiss and Kill played Late Night in the Conan era. (His mother must have cut the photo to leave Johanna out; pretty tactful, he had to admit.) The most recent photo of him was maybe five years old, some solo show he’d done: his back bent, his face down near the keys, eyes shut, lips curled in concentration—the Artist at Work, or trying to look that way. He’d lost weight since then—his face at thirty-five narrower, the angles of chin and cheek sharper. He had an impulse to hide his pictures behind the others, but his mother being his mother would notice, and he’d have to explain what he’d done. Why should he feel humiliated? she’d want to know. She had the pictures out because they were proud of him (which, of course, was the most humiliating part of all).

He dropped the cigarette butt into the trash can under the sink, and shook the can so the butt jiggled under a banana peel. He pulled opened the refrigerator, looking for he wasn’t sure what. The shelves were stacked with casseroles and tin-foil-covered pots, ready to be reheated. A couple green glass bottles sat wedged in the door: sparkling cider, he saw from the labels. He had a hunch they’d even gotten rid of the cough syrup.

He imagined making himself useful—tidying up, putting away. But everything was spotless: the countertops wiped down, the cereal boxes on top of the fridge lined in descending order. A piece of yellow legal paper was taped to the handle of the dishwasher, on which one of the kids had written “Clean!” Adam lifted the paper. On the back was “Dirty!” with some comically grubby plates and glasses, flies buzzing around them in the air. He smiled again. He loved these kids.

He didn’t know which one had made the sign, so he felt his love for all of them collectively—felt it as a form of relief. He switched the sign over to “Dirty!” and opened the dishwasher. But as he took out the first pair of clean plates, he realized he didn’t know where anything went. There was a coffee pot in the top rack; the coffee maker was plugged in on the counter. Okay, this he could do. He could make them coffee. He could fill the house with the smell of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. Who could object to that?

He took the glass coffee pot from the dishwasher and set it on the counter by the coffee maker, took out the plastic lid and the filter basket. He opened some cupboards, got lucky and found the filters. The coffee was right there in the freezer, like he’d guessed. So far, so good. He slid the filter in the basket, spooned in the coffee grounds, snapped the basket into the coffee maker, and poured in the water. He even imagined himself doing it all with a certain finesse—the practiced grace of his hands. And maybe this idea made him careless, or maybe it was something else, but as he tried to snap the pegs of the lid into the holes of the pot, the pot slipped from his hands. It made a balletic turn on the counter and spun off the edge.

He didn’t even bother to watch whether it broke, only listened, with hope that bordered on prayer. Silence followed the shattering sound. Then he heard from somewhere in the house, “Dad!” And then the same voice, more desperately, “Moooom!” And he heard doors opening. He knew he ought to pick up the larger pieces of glass, find a broom and a dust pan, be there to warn anyone who appeared about the shards and apologize for depriving them all of coffee on a holiday morning. He ought to do a thousand things that real members of a family would do without thinking. But he found he lacked the will to do any of them. He went back to the closet, put on his peacoat, and went outside. Sunlight was slanting through the needles of the spruce trees. Maybe he should go out and get coffee—that would make up for all of it. “Don’t worry, Uncle Adam got coffee from town!” Someone would clean up the glass; surely, no barefooted child would step on the pile of glass, need stitches—shit, for all he knew, lose the foot.

This was called catastrophic thinking, he’d been taught at Stone Manor, the Maine rehab he’d been through at the beginning of the year: His mind had a compulsion to seek out the worst possible outcomes. Why did it do that? Harder to say. But the point was, he shouldn’t trust his fear that breaking the coffee pot would lead to one his nephews losing a foot. He could have another cigarette, and in a minute he’d go back inside and clean up the glass—and explain.

But that was the part he couldn’t summon the energy for: the explanations. Having to say, over and over and over—to Jack and his mother and father and Kristen and Dan and Lizzy and Emma and Carrie and Toby and Sam and the baby whose name he forgot, and hell, to the cat while he was at it—tell them all about his meager hopes of making them coffee, and how with his graceful hands, he’d fucked it up.

No, he couldn’t do it. Not after one cigarette, not after a hundred. Not sober. He dug in the pockets of his peacoat and found the keys to his rental car. He walked across the lawn and got in, put the car in neutral, rolled down the drive, stopped at the bottom of the hill, and started the engine.

From Start Without Me. Used with permission of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Max Feldman.

The Path From Inspiration to Art

Tuesday, February 03, 2015 | Permalink
This week, Joshua Max Feldman—the author of The Book of Jonah, just released in paperback from Picador
blogs for The Postscript on the mystery of inspiration, its sources, and the path from inspiration to art. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Joshua at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

Writers get asked a lot of questions about inspiration. Where do the ideas come from? How are characters created? Are plot twists or dramatic reversals invented or drawn from real life?

If you ask a writer such questions, though, you'll likely get some mealy-mouthed response about process and imagination versus articulation or something like that.

As a writer, I want to state that we aren't trying to be evasive. There isn't some secret website filled with great stories and crackling dialogue and compelling characters that you can pull from as soon as you get the URL and pay the membership fee. The truth is that inspiration is a mystery—and I think to some extent, the more time you spend writing, the more profound the mystery reveals itself to be. I can't explain why when I go to sleep wrestling with some structural problem in a story, I'll sometimes wake up in the morning with an elegant solution. I wasn't consciously thinking about it; I wasn't conscious at all.

Some part of our minds that sits outside of our awareness is at work on nights like that. And it's this part of our minds that generally offers up the best ideas. But how to feed this shadowy part of ourselves? That, as they say, is the question.

I think the best approach is to trust your instincts: surround yourself with art—books, movies, music, anything—that you like. And if you can't say why you like it, all the better. Liking something without knowing why means that the invisible corners of our minds are singing its praises. When the time is right, they'll send a message regarding why you like it, or at least what you ought to do about it.

The origin of my novel, The Book of Jonah, was very much this sort of experience. The novel is a modern retelling of the biblical Book of Jonah, a text I liked a lot without being able to understand fully why. I'm interested in spiritual matters, but I'm not especially observant; there are other books in the Bible that provide more obvious material for a contemporary recreation. But there was something about the story of a man getting a message from God, ignoring that message, in the course of trying to escape it getting swallowed up and spat out by a giant fish, finally fulfilling his duties to great success, but ending up pretty grumpy about the whole experience nonetheless—something in that story inspired me. In many ways, writing of my novel was a way for me to answer the question of why I liked the Book of Jonah so much. What I discovered is that it speaks to the contradictions and quandaries of faith in the modern world with unusual clarity.

Typically, though, the path from inspiration to art is more circuitous. An image grows into a novel; a lyric in a song becomes a movie. Inspiration does not have to come exclusively from art, of course, either: a look, a texture, a certain slant of light—it's all the stuff of words yet to be written.

One of the wonderful things about making art of any kind is that you appreciate how many sources of inspiration there are out there. You can find a hundred novels walking out your front door.

Every Word Counts

Friday, January 31, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Max Feldman wrote about why he chose to write a novel based on the Book of Jonah and who would be on his Jewish Mount Rushmore. His debut novel,The Book of Jonah, will be published on February 4th by Henry Holt and Co. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I began my first post with a Sarah Silverman joke, so let me start this one with a more traditional example of Jewish humor: Once upon a time in the Shtetl, a rabbi was in his study, pouring over the Talmud, when all of a sudden he noticed something he'd never seen before: A new word. Now, this rabbi had read the Talmud dozens of times, he practically knew the entire thing by heart, so for him to discover a new word was like a chemist tripping over a new element in the back yard. He ran out to tell his wife, dragged her in to look at the new word, and only when she brushed away the fly that had landed on the page did he realize what had happened.

I tell this joke not only for the opportunity to write, "Once upon a time in the Shtetl," but also because the tale is emblematic of a prominent feature of Jewish thinking: The borderline manic attention to individual words. Jewish scholarship examines texts on the most granular level, with the belief that each phrase, each word—even, in Hebrew, the letters making up the words—contain multiple layers of meaning that, like light refracting through a prism, can be revealed through careful study. We are very much the People of the Book in that for thousands of years we've been reading the same books—the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible—over and over, wrestling with and arguing over and reinterpreting the finest nuances. You can draw a fairly clear line from the Mishneh Torah to contemporary debates over whether genetically modified food is kosher.

As a writer, I'm often asked about "my process." As a Jewish writer who just completed a novel loosely based on a book of the Bible, I'm often asked about the role of my religion in my writing. I can answer both these questions by pointing to this tradition in Judaism of granting the highest esteem to each and every word. I'm an inheritor of this tradition, and it is fundamental to how I write. Simply put, when I write, I do my best to give every word the attention I believe it deserves. "God is in the details" is an old saying that both nicely sums up my aesthetic view and points back to the scholarly tradition that shaped it. For a writer, it's in the details where the mystery and majesty of art can be found; for a Torah student, it's in the details where the mystery and majesty of the divine can be found.

So how does this belief in the value of individual words play out in practice? Well, here are the first few sentences of my novel, The Book of Jonah:

Jonah knew the 59th Street subway station well enough that he did not have to look up from his iPhone as he made his way among its corridors and commuters to the track. He felt lucky as he came down the stairs to the platform to see a train just pulling in—he boarded without breaking his stride, took a seat by the door of the nearly empty car, went on typing. A crowd of people flooded in at the next station, but Jonah felt he’d had a long enough day that he need not give up his seat. But then an older woman—frumpy, blue-haired, with a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose—ended up standing directly before him, and Jonah decided to do the right thing and he stood.

I probably rewrote that paragraph dozens of times in the course of the two or three years I worked on the book. At various points, Jonah was looking at a Blackberry and not an iPhone; the name of the subway station was omitted, then specified, then moved from Union Square to up to 59th Street; a dash grew and was cut and then grew again between "empty car" and "went on typing." The older woman in an early draft didn't have "a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose" but rather "a grandmotherly sweet button nose."

I won't get into the thinking behind these many changes, and I certainly won't argue for the relative degrees of mystery and majesty the various drafts achieved. My point is that I write with the idea that even the slightest variations in a word or its punctuation can create ripples across the entire sentence, the entire paragraph—really, when you come right down to it, the entire book. The context, needless to say, is different, but like a yeshiva student, I try to respect the layers of every word.

Now, I should add that a lot of writers have this mindset, many of them non-Jews. But as I think about the connections between my religion and my work, this attitude toward words is one of the first things that comes to mind. I should also mention that there's a real downside to writing this way: My writing process is a slow one, filled with constant reconsideration and reevaluation. Many times, I've felt like that rabbi in his study—believing I've stumbled onto something great, only to discover that I've been mistaken.

Like they say, God is in the details.

Joshua Max Feldman is a writer of fiction and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, he graduated from Columbia University, and has lived in England, Switzerland, and New York City. The Book of Jonah is his first novel. Read more about him here.

Why the Book of Jonah?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Max Feldman wrote about who would be on his Jewish Mount Rushmore. His debut novel, The Book of Jonah, will be published on February 4th by Henry Holt and Co. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When you write a novel called The Book of Jonah, when you base that book on the Biblical Book of Jonah, one thing is for sure: People are going to ask you why you wrote a novel based on the Biblical Book of Jonah. Why not, say, Job? Or Daniel? Aren't there some juicy parts of Kings? (Yes, there are.)

For the record, I think there are many stories in the Bible that could form the basis of a successful novel, or play, or poem, or what have you. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a nearly matchless compendium of human drama, portraying our mythic forebears with far more recognizable fallibility than we typically acknowledge.

But ever since I first encountered the Book of Jonah—probably as a third grader in Hebrew School—I've been especially intrigued by it, and the more I've returned to it, the more intrigued I've become. There is quality to text that defies easy interpretation—and I believe it is just this quality that makes it particularly well suited to our own times.

While the Book of Jonah is grouped among the Prophets, the text in fact contains only five words of prophecy. The bulk of the story chronicles a sort of on-going feud between Jonah, a most reluctant Biblical protagonist, and God: When God orders Jonah to "preach against" the distant city of Nineveh, he promptly flees in the opposite direction; when Jonah finally does acquiesce to God's instructions, he does nothing but complain about the outcome. The story follows Jonah from one end of the ancient world to the other, with a sojourn in the belly of a "great fish" (not, in the original Hebrew, a whale) in between, and features characters as varied as kings and cattle, sailors, and worms. The story is rife with humor, satire, ironies, and ambiguities.

Tellingly, the book is also rife with questions: Every speaker in the book poses at least one, and often several. And just as most of these literal questions go unanswered, the Book of Jonah by implication raises far more questions than it answers. Why does Jonah flee from God's commands? Why do the Ninevites repent so dramatically when Jonah finally delivers his prophecy? What are we meant to make of the strange analogy with which the book ends, in which God compares a dead bush and a city?

While the Bible is generally thought of as a font of certainties, the Book of Jonah stands out as tantalizingly equivocal.

Predictably, scholars and sages of many religious stripes have done their best over the centuries to fill in the book's perceived blanks. Jonah has been characterized as heroically self-sacrificing or hypocritical and cruel; the story has been read in the context of ancient Judaic political concerns or as a prefiguration of the narrative of Jesus. More recent thinkers have argued the book should be treated as fable, or allegory, or parody, or parable.

To me, the reason these interpretations ultimately fail in their attempts to dispel the book's central questions is the same reason the Book of Jonah has remained so compelling over the two-thousand-plus years since its composition: The Book of Jonah's ambiguities, its gaps, its questions, are neither incidental nor resolvable. Rather, they are integral features of the work as a whole. Like unresolved chords in a symphony, the omissions are what give the book its power. This is a tale that embraces uncertainty, that acknowledges the unanswerable.

And this is precisely why I think the Book of Jonah is so relevant in our time. Like Jonah, we can't escape a confrontation with the complexities of our world—be they moral, political, scientific, or spiritual. We are bombarded every day through a myriad of technologies with examples of injustice across the globe: sin going unpunished, virtue unrewarded. That many, Jew and Gentile alike, are unsatisfied with attempts to account for all this within a theological framework can be seen in the dwindling participation in religion generally.

The Book of Jonah offers the reassurance that perplexity at the world around us is not new, nor is it irreligious. It is, rather, a sometimes inevitable part of engagement with the world. Further, in Jonah's troubled relationship with God, the story suggests that our relationship with the divine will always be characterized by some degree of incomprehension. The Book of Jonah does not present lessons to dispatch spiritual dilemmas. Rather, it affirms their essential mystery.

These are the qualities that drew me to this particular Biblical story—and these are the qualities I tried to bring out in reimagining it in our own, so frequently confounding age.

Joshua Max Feldman is a writer of fiction and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, he graduated from Columbia University, and has lived in England, Switzerland, and New York City. The Book of Jonah is his first novel. Read more about him here.

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The Jewish Hall of Fame

Monday, January 27, 2014 | Permalink

Joshua Max Feldman is a writer of fiction and plays. His first novel, The Book of Jonah, will be published on February 4th by Henry Holt and Co. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I once heard Sarah Silverman tell a joke about the pride Jews inevitably take in the accomplishments of other Jews. To paraphrase, she said there are even Jews out there who will state, with nodding satisfaction, "You know the Son of Sam killer? A Jew!"

It does seem that for us Jews, every accomplishment casts a glow of achievement on the community as a whole. Albert Einstein didn't revolutionize our understanding of the mechanics of the universe—we did! Maybe it's because there simply aren't many Jews out there—just under 14 million globally, as compared to, say, 1.2 billion Catholics—and every triumph strikes us as a feat of chutzpah over demographic gravity. Or maybe it's because Jewish history is pocked with so many attempts to terminate Jewish history, every Nobel Prize or even Golden Globe stands as an affirmation that not only are we still here, but, hey look!, we’re thriving. I can't fully explain the phenomenon, but I certainly share in it. And I believe it's one of those particularly Jewish traits that cuts across all flavors of Jewish identity. When a Jewish child wins a spelling bee, it's like every Jew from Boca to Crown Heights to Beijing wants to both give the kid a hug and brag about what great spellers the Jews are.

I touched on this collective pride in individual achievement in my novel, The Book of Jonah, in describing the protagonist's outlook on his own Judaism. The Jonah of my book, an ambitious young lawyer who is suddenly beset by inexplicable visions, never goes to synagogue and has only the vaguest ideas about God. Not atypically, though, he still thinks of himself as fully Jewish: "He liked the community of Judaism: the instant bond he felt toward any -berg, -man, or -stein he encountered—the connection he could claim to the familiar litany of distinguished Jews*."

The familiar litany of distinguished Jews is what I want to try to catalogue in this post: the go-to list of folks that Jews most often name when they're blowing the shofar of Jewish accomplishment. These names get tossed around so often in synagogue and at BBYO regional events, there really ought to be a Passover song for them—maybe to the tune of Chad Gadya. I can't offer that, but I can at least compile their names. Think of this as one's man's effort to chisel out the Jewish Mount Rushmore.

(One caveat: I chose to limit myself to Jews who made their mark in the 20th century or later. I did this, first, because the names I most often hear fall into this category, but more so that so that I wouldn't get angry Tweets from rabbis for including the Rambam but not the Ran or something.)

Albert Einstein: The undisputed champion of the world of Jewish pride. I mean, he's popularly regarded as the smartest man who ever lived: That's going to win you some acclaim in the tribe.

Sigmund Freud: The father of psychoanalysis. You really can't overstate the impact Freud has had on the way we think—and if you disagree, I think you have daddy issues, and ought to be in therapy.

Golda Meir: Before there was Hillary, before there was Margaret, there was Golda, one of the first democratically elected female heads of state, and further proof that yes, your grandmother could if given the opportunity win a war.

Sandy Koufax: In the galaxy of Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax is the sun and seven of the planets. Bonus points for that time he didn't pitch on Yom Kippur.

Bob Dylan: Probably the most accomplished musician of the twentieth century, Robert Zimmerman also owned his Jewfro like no one before or since.

Philip Roth: On the short list of greatest American writers of the last century and the source of innumerable awkward book club conversations.

Stephen Sondheim: Okay, okay, I know this is an idiosyncratic choice, but if you care about Broadway, you—right, moving on.

The Coen Brothers: Even the movies you forget when you're listing all their movies (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, A Serious Man) are classics. Walter Sobchak gives them the edge on this list over Woody Allen. Shomer Shabbos!

So, that's my list. Who did I leave off?

*I made a slight edit to this sentence to avoid redundancy, but hey, it's my sentence, right?

Joshua Max Feldman was born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, he graduated from Columbia University, and has lived in England, Switzerland, and New York City. The Book of Jonah is his first novel. Read more about him here.

Interview: Joshua Max Feldman

Thursday, January 23, 2014 | Permalink

JBC's Nat Bernstein recently sat down with Joshua Max Feldman to discuss his debut novel, The Book of Jonah, which will be published on February 4th by Henry Holt and Co. Check back next week to hear more from Joshua Max Feldman for the Visiting Scribe series.

Nat Bernstein: What about Jonah and/or his story in the Hebrew Bible stood out to you enough to inspire a new novel?

Joshua Max Feldman: Ever since I first read the Biblical Book of Jonah, which was probably third grade in Hebrew school, it’s been a book that’s really fascinated me, and the more I returned to it as an adult it’s fascinated me. There’s something about it that stands out to me as being very honest in its portrayal of the relationship between Jo­nah and God: something very honest, something very funny, something very human. In Jonah’s decision to resist God’s commands I see a relatable relationship to the Divine—and one I think a lot of modern people can relate to. If you can imagine yourself in the Biblical Jonah’s position—going about your business, having an ordinary day, and then all of a sudden God is giving orders—I think a lot of people would do just what the Biblical Jonah does: run screaming in the other direction. So I found something about that really intriguing, in the con­text of the Bible, and it was something I wanted to play with more—and the more I played with it, the more it grew.

NB: I’m curious about the opening encounter with the stereotypically oracular Hasidic man in the subway station. What is crucial about his message, and why did you feel that his role needed to be cast as a Jewish caricature?

JMF: Well, I hope he rises a little bit above caricature: I didn’t want him to be so—you use the word “oracular,” and I understand why. I wanted him to be a little slippery, I wanted him to have one leg in that traditional, stereotypical, “Oh, here’s a guy who’s so wise and so educat­ed, and he thinks he has all the answers,” but another leg in something that maybe Jonah doesn’t really trust. There’s something about him that seems a little off. That moment was actually inspired by a real incident: I was walking down the street and a Hasidic Jew came up to me and started talking, and we had this conversation, and I would flip back and forth between, “Wow, this guy really has some insightful things to say,” and, “Wow, this guy might just be completely nuts.” So I wanted to cast a little bit of ambiguity. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether what you’re hearing is a voice of wisdom, and sometimes it can be hard to tell whether the voice you’re hearing is divinely inspired or just something you misunderstood because you, you know, had a weird drug experience or whatever it might be.

NB: Is there a “Belly of the Whale” moment for this Jonah, and when would that be?

JMF: For me, the image of the whale—or, you know, being swallowed by the giant fish—presents an image of being completely ensnared in circumstance, completely trapped in what’s happening around you, and for me that comes when Jonah’s in Amsterdam, toward the very end of that section. What is interesting to me about moments like that—and one of the reasons the image of being swallowed by the fish is so reso­nant with people—is that it’s something people can identify with: we’ve all had that moment of feeling completely overcome and completely overwhelmed by circumstance.Those are the moments when we’re really capable of changing our path, when we’re really capable of changing as people, and that’s what I tried to show happening with Jonah. When he reaches rock-bottom in Amsterdam, then he’s able to say, “Ok, I’m going to try to look at this in a different way; I’m going to try to address what’s happening to me in a new way,” when he wasn’t capable of that before.

NB: You only really get inside the heads of Jewish characters in this book—Jonah, Judith, and even, briefly, Zoey—but not anyone outside of The Tribe. Was that intentional?

JMF: No, that’s a great observation. I didn’t think about that. I guess it’s no surprise that the two main protagonists are Jewish, because that’s how I associate with the Book out of which they came to be. I didn’t think about not having a chapter in Sylvia’s head, for instance, but part of the reason Zoey has her own mini-chapter is because I loved the character, and I wanted to explore her a little more. So I wasn’t intentionally leaving anyone out: it’s just where the story took me.

NB: It felt like in that one mini-chapter you mention, Zoey finally got some sort of justice from the book—we get to see at least one scene from her perspective. I really appreciated that.

JMF: I’m glad! As a writer, when you have a character you’re fond of, you often decide that you want them to find justice, too.

NB: You mentioned that the two main protagonists, Jonah and Judith, grew up with strong Jewish identities, but Judaism means something very different to each of them: Jonah’s knee-jerk definition of his Jewishness is “I feel guilty on Yom Kippur”; Judith, before losing faith, finds something spiritual and inherently Jewish in scholarship of any kind. Were you posing two different paradigms of Jewish identity?

JMF: Certainly with Jonah I wanted to show the highly-secular-but-still-strongly-Jewish identity, which really exists for Jews of my generation and even for my parents’ generation, too—and actually, now that I think about it, for generations before that. There is an idea in Judaism that is pretty unique among religions, which is that you can be strongly part of your religion without really practicing any of the religious components of it as such. Jonah doesn’t necessarily think of himself as “less Jewish” because he doesn’t go to synagogue.

And with Judith, her family’s not super devout, but she’s certainly more interested in the specifics of the religious practice than Jonah is, and certainly sees it as more of a spiritual enterprise than Jonah does.

NB: It’s only mentioned once, but Jonah’s mother is not Jewish. Why is this a necessary facet of his character, when it’s barely explored?

JMF: That’s an interesting question. I wanted him to have a certain am­bivalence with regard to religion: at the start of the book, he’s in a place of “Well, I could take it or leave it,” but by the end of the book religion is something that he’s forced to engage with, and he’s thinking much more seriously about religious questions.

NB: Is the Age of Technology an age of sin, or is it more complicated than that?

JMF: I think it’s not as simple as yes or no—I doubt you were looking for a yes or no answer, anyway. Modern life presents a huge new ar­ray of challenges to any religion, and to the way we relate to the world. I believe religion needs to find ways to answer those questions, the questions that are raised by modern life—which are really unique to any period of history, because technology has advanced so quickly over the last even ten or fifteen years. I think people do feel a certain bewilder­ment as they look around the world, and I think faith has a lot to offer in that context.

NB: What’s next for you?

JMF: I am going to enjoy this period of the ramp-up to the book coming out. It was a long journey writing the book, and I’m thrilled to be answering questions about it and sharing it with people. I am work­ing on a new novel—I’m not ready to talk about it yet—but I’m feeling good, and this whole process has been a wonderful one for me. As a writer, every book starts out in a very solitary place, and if you’re lucky enough to have people pay attention to it, it feels really great.

Joshua Max Feldman is a writer of fiction and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, he graduated from Columbia University, and has lived in England, Switzerland, and New York City. The Book of Jonah is his first novel. Read more about him here.