Cel­e­brate Jew­ish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invit­ed an author to share thoughts on #Jew­Lit for each day of Jew­ish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, A.J. Sidran­sky, author of For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Roth­man, Steal­ing a Sum­mer’s After­noon and For­giv­ing Mariela Cama­cho, on read­ing and writ­ing Jewish. 

I have been an avid read­er all my life. While I read the YA stan­dards of the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry as a pre-teen, it wasn’t until we moved from Rosedale, Queens, to Trum­bull, Con­necti­cut in 1970 at age 14, that Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture became the focus of the pile of books on my night table.

The move from heav­i­ly Jew­ish Rosedale to Trum­bull, a town more like May­field in Leave it to Beaver, was my first real expe­ri­ence liv­ing as a mem­ber of a minor­i­ty. Of course, not all our neigh­bors in Rosedale were Jew­ish, but in Trum­bull, none of them were. I rarely saw oth­ers who looked like me, sound­ed like me or cel­e­brat­ed my hol­i­days and tra­di­tions. Jew­ish books, Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, what­ev­er label you want to use, was my life­line to my identity.

Many of the books I read have stayed with me. Non-fic­tion works like Jews, God & His­to­ry by Max Dimont, World of Our Fathers by Irv­ing Howe, My Peo­ple and My Coun­try by Abba Eban. Fic­tion such as The Set­tlers by Mey­er Levin, The Cho­sen by Chaim Potok, any­thing by Philip Roth or Isaac Bashe­vis Singer. Two authors stand out though, one from those ear­ly, teenage years and the oth­er from adult­hood. Both have had a sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence on my own work, Leon Uris and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Uris’ Exo­dus was by far my favorite book grow­ing up. His­tor­i­cal fic­tion writ­ten for a con­tem­po­rary, paper­back, genre read­er, Uris’ work trans­port­ed me through time and space, to Pales­tine fight­ing for a Jew­ish state, to the War­saw ghet­to fight­ing Nazis, to Czarist Rus­sia escap­ing a pogrom and walk­ing all the way to Palestine.

I knew these char­ac­ters. Their sto­ries were the sto­ries of my fam­i­ly, my peo­ple, and they anchored me in a world where Christ­mas was at the cen­ter of the cal­en­dar, and the label Jew still held stig­ma. There were coun­try clubs we couldn’t belong to, col­leges we couldn’t attend and careers for which we had to angli­cize our names. That was white-pick­et-fence Amer­i­ca in the 1970’s. A place where Jews tried to blend in by not being too obvi­ous about their her­itage, cul­ture or beliefs.

As a writer, what affect­ed me most was Uris’ sto­ry struc­ture. He would inter­twine two, three, even four sto­ries into one uni­fied whole. The back sto­ries of each major char­ac­ter informed the read­er of the character’s actions and moti­va­tions in the novel’s present. Uris not only inspired me to write about Jew­ish sub­jects, themes and per­son­al con­flicts, but guid­ed me in cre­at­ing the struc­ture for my own nov­els. The mul­ti­ple sto­ry lines in my debut nov­el, For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Roth­man, and its com­pan­ion piece, For­giv­ing Mariela Cama­cho, reflect his influence.

Foer, who came to promi­nence in my adult­hood is a very dif­fer­ent kind of writer than Uris. He’s lit­er­ary and more intro­spec­tive. His books, par­tic­u­lar­ly Every­thing Is Illu­mi­nat­ed, reflect the influ­ence of mag­i­cal real­ism. What I learned from Every­thing is Illu­mi­nat­ed, and admit­ted­ly from inter­views done with Foer, is to peel back the lay­ers of a sto­ry and to see clear­ly what lay beneath. That method of delv­ing deep­er and deep­er, of seek­ing emo­tion­al truth rather than accept­ing a sto­ry as told, leads me to peel back the lay­ers of my sto­ries rather than reveal them as absolute truth.

No writer exists in a vac­u­um. We learn to write by read­ing. We learn to tell sto­ries by expe­ri­enc­ing the sto­ry-telling of others.

AJ Sidran­sky, a life long New York­er, lives in Wash­ing­ton Heights with his wife. Pri­or to that he was a res­i­dent of the Upper West Side for 25 years. He has writ­ten arti­cles and short sto­ries. His first nov­el, For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Roth­man was a final­ist in Out­stand­ing Debut fic­tion for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards in 2013.A.J. Sidran­sky is avail­able to be booked for speak­ing engage­ments through Read On. Click here for more information.