The ProsenPeople

How My Grandfather Shaped My Writing Style

Friday, January 05, 2018 | Permalink

Author: Sam Graham-Felsen

If one can inherit a writing style, I probably got mine from my grandfather, Leo Felsen, who was the most serious and unserious person I’ve ever known.

He was a Holocaust refugee who poured his survivor’s guilt into his work as a theoretical physicist, specializing in complex waves. He labored incessantly, publishing several books and hundreds of academic papers, some of which helped pave the way for cellular and microwave technology. But he was also a world-class goofball, who made an art out of self-deprecation. On his 80th birthday, my family threw him a small party. He was suffering from both muscular dystrophy and prostate cancer, and he arrived at our home with a handmade sign around his neck that read, “My Golden Years Are Pyrite.” On his head was a party hat that he had fashioned out of one of his adult diapers.

When he wasn’t at work on one of his interminable mathematical formulas, he loved reading, writing, and listening to rhyming verse, including hip-hop, and he even occasionally engaged me in freestyle rap battles. The point of these battles was to wittily praise oneself and snappily bash the other, and in a way, our entire relationship was like this. Until he died, in 2005, he was my most enthusiastic supporter and my nastiest critic. One day, it was “I’m proud of you, Sam. You’re really becoming a writer. Let me buy you a Boston Creme donut.” The next, it was “I’m paying for your college. You call this crap an essay?”

Speaking of the college he paid for—by the way, my grandfather, like the Holocaust-scarred grandfather in my debut novel, Green, never spent a penny on himself—it was during my junior year there that he gave me the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

I’d had my heart broken by my girlfriend, and was in a prolonged funk. My grandfather knew something about funks. His wife, Sima, a fellow refugee from Nazi Germany, was so scarred by her past that she spent much of her life in a depression, and ended up committing suicide. Sima died before I was born and my grandfather never once spoke her name to me. But I knew he was thinking of Sima’s funk, and of his own lifelong battle with heartache (he never remarried), when he shared the secret of his own resilience:

Whenever you may feel depressed,

Or of a dire mood possessed,

Instead of muttering curses,

Try some humor, phrased in verses.

I didn’t exactly take his advice; I certainly didn’t begin scribbling a humorous ditty. Most likely, I chuckled at the “muttering curses” line, thanked him, and then went back to my dorm room, where I obsessed over my ex, and muttered curses into my pillow all night long.

But that poem stirred something of a sea change in me as a thinker, and eventually, as a writer. It’s what got me to start taking humor seriously—to view it as an essential stay against darkness. My grandfather had every reason to stop living: his sister was murdered by Nazis, he was ripped out of the country he dearly loved, his wife left him in the worst way imaginable, his body was ravaged for decades by muscle-eating disease. But he pressed on. I used to think it was the big, important scientific work that kept him going. Now, I think it’s just as likely that it was the diaper on his head.

In one of his last poems, my grandfather wrote, “I am constantly amazed by the ways a wave behaves.”

My favorite books are those that behave like waves—that modulate, in the words of Philip Roth, from “sheer playfulness” to “dead seriousness.” And if my grandfather were alive today, I hope he’d read Green, that it would give him both pause and delight, and that the characters—especially the one loosely based on him—would make him laugh.

Sam Graham-Felsen is a writer based in Brooklyn, author of the novel Green (Random House, Jan 2018), and former chief blogger for Barack Obama.

Writing Jewishly

Tuesday, January 02, 2018 | Permalink

Author: Sam Graham-Felsen

Cover image of the novel Green by Sam Graham-Felsen

The writer I’ve spent the most time reading, by far, is Philip Roth. When I first read Portnoy’s Complaint in college, there was something about the style that instantly clicked with me—and it soon became clear to me that it was the Jewishness of Roth’s prose. The loquaciousness, the repetitiveness, the obsessiveness, the shpilkes, the manic exuberance about sensory experience, the tragicomic slant—it was how I talked, how my dad talked, how my grandfather talked. This was the writer of our experience.

But was it our experience? My grandfather and father—sure. But me? The older I got, the less certain I felt. As I became a writer, and fantasized about writing the Great Jewish-American Novel, I began to realize that Roth’s big theme—the Jewish boy’s quest to become American—was not my generation’s theme. Most of the Jews I knew, like me, were already exceedingly Americanized. None of us had ever been bullied for being Jews. None of our parents cared if we married a non-Jewish person. Most of us had a non-Jewish parent ourselves, had Christmas trees, and gorged on holiday ham. Very few of us even knew the word traif. In college, three of my roommates were half-Jews; none of them had been Bar Mitzvah’d or had ever set foot in a shul. Once, one of those friends saw a Bazooka Joe gum for sale at a Jewish deli, and asked the guy at the counter why he was selling gum with Chinese lettering on it. The guy laughed and explained that it was Hebrew.

So what was there to write about, Jewishly, when my generation of Jews was, increasingly, utterly assimilated? Our lives, compared to the lives of every single generation of Jews that had come before us, were amazingly frictionless. We’d made it. We’d blended in. We didn’t struggle, and without a struggle, what was there to write about?

But some of us did struggle. Some of us found that blending in wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. Some of us found that we, in fact, yearned for otherness and the communal bonds that came with it.

In Boston, where I’m from, thousands of Jews who had been raised assimilated, or who had rejected their religious upbringings, have flocked to the Workmen’s Circle, a secular progressive Jewish organization that hosts high holiday events and runs a secular Sunday school. I attended this shule as a kid, which culminated in a secular Bar Mitzvah ceremony. I didn’t learn Hebrew or study Torah, but I sang Yiddish songs and learned about the history of the bund and the Triangle Shirtwaist strikers. At the time, I hated it; I much preferred to sit at home and watch football. But those songs are still with me, and the heroic history of the Jewish left still courses through my veins, and always will. And, as it turns out, I now live in a kosher household, with my observant Jewish wife and our son, Lev. I’m not saying I married a Jew and gave my kid a Hebrew name because of the Workmen’s Circle. But growing up in a strong Jewish community—and seeing how anchoring and enlivening that community has been for my parents over the years—certainly made me inclined to build a Jewish household of my own.

The narrator of my novel, Green, Dave Greenfeld, is more similar to my college roommates. He is raised with very minimal Jewish identity, and, as one of the only white kids at his almost entirely black and Latino middle school, the last thing he wants to broadcast is that he’s Jewish on top of being white. In order to bond with his peers, he pretends to be Christian, even wearing a crucifix around his neck. But as the novel progresses, Dave begins to feel the rumblings of desire for a more authentic identity.

In his remarkable essay collection, Notes on American Literature, D.H. Lawrence writes:

Men are free when they belong to a living, organic, believing community, acting in fulfilling some unfulfilled, perhaps unrealized purpose. Not when they are escaping to some wild west. The most unfree souls go west, and shout of freedom. Men are freest when they are most unconscious of freedom. The shout is a rattling of chains, always was.

I thought about these words a lot as I wrote Green, and think about them still as I continue to work out the kind of life I want for my family. As a younger man, I fetishized Wild West-style freedom. I believed that the Portnoy-like (or Swede-like, or Mickey Sabbath-like) breakaway from the old country, from communal boundaries and familial expectations, was the ultimate aim. But the older I get, the more I crave the freedom that comes not from bucking, but from belonging.

Breaking away, I discovered, is not my theme as a Jewish-American writer; it’s breaking back in.

Sam Graham-Felsen is a writer based in Brooklyn, author of the novel Green (Random House, Jan 2018), and former chief blogger for Barack Obama.