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, Idra Novey, the author of the Sami Rohr Prize win­ning nov­el Ways to Dis­ap­pear, shares the view from Kafka’s win­dow, and the impact that his Judaism had on his writ­ing —and on her own as well.

Like many Amer­i­cans, my first intro­duc­tion to Kaf­ka was in high school with what he referred to as his bug piece,” The Meta­mor­pho­sis. My hus­band, who grew up in Chile, was intro­duced to Kaf­ka via The Meta­morphsis as well. In both Chile and in my pub­lic high school in rur­al Penn­syl­va­nia, our teach­ers gave us numer­ous bio­graph­i­cal facts we were expect­ed to regur­gi­tate for an upcom­ing quiz.

Yet amid all this grade school empha­sis on biog­ra­phy, nei­ther of our teach­ers ever men­tioned Kafka’s fam­i­ly was Jew­ish. It was not until I came home and shared my aston­ish­ment about the bug piece” with my father that I learned this life-alter­ing writer named Franz had gone to Hebrew school as well, and had also grown up feel­ing acute­ly, con­tin­u­al­ly aware, as I did in rur­al Penn­syl­va­nia, that he would always be seen as an outsider.

Sev­er­al years lat­er, in my lit­er­a­ture class­es at Barnard Col­lege, and on my own, I read more about the impact Judaism had on Kafka’s world­view and his sen­si­bil­i­ty as a writer. While liv­ing in Chile, and lat­er in Brazil and trans­lat­ing nov­el­ists from Span­ish and Por­tuguese, I became increas­ing­ly inter­est­ed in Kafka’s the­o­ries about out­sider writ­ers in minor lan­guages as the ones most like­ly to indi­cate break­ing points” in lit­er­a­ture and push fic­tion in new direc­tions. This cer­tain­ly seemed true of the Brazil­ian Jew­ish writer Clarice Lispec­tor, and I returned to Kafka’s the­o­ries while trans­lat­ing one of her novels.

Both Kaf­ka and Lispec­tor became sig­nif­i­cant influ­ences on my own writ­ing, and on the out­sider Brazil­ian Jew­ish author I invent­ed in my first nov­el, Ways to Dis­ap­pear, all of which con­tributed to my eager­ness to vis­it Prague and see Kafka’s child­hood home along the Vlta­va Riv­er for myself.

This past sum­mer, after the extra­or­di­nary gift of receiv­ing the JBC’s Sami Rohr Prize, I final­ly made that pil­grim­age. As my hus­band and I moved through the exhib­it about the influ­ence of the Yid­dish the­ater on Kafka’s writ­ing, and how often Judaism came up in his fraught rela­tion­ship with his reli­gious father, we were both sur­prised at what a Jew­ish-infused ver­sion of Kafka’s life the muse­um presented.

To have a chance to view Prague through Kafka’s win­dows was exhil­a­rat­ing and the muse­um does an extra­or­di­nary job of recre­at­ing a sense of com­ing clos­er to the untouch­able, unknow­able aspects that shape the sen­si­bil­i­ty of a writer. Tour­ing the exhibits, I kept think­ing about one of my favorite, less­er-known Kaf­ka sto­ries about an untouch­able ani­mal that lives in a synagogue.

Writ­ten in 1920, it is a wry tale whose humor didn’t real­ly come alive in Eng­lish until Michael Hoffman’s excel­lent new trans­la­tions of Kafka’s short fic­tion, Inves­ti­ga­tions of a Dog. The syn­a­gogue where the untouch­able long-necked ani­mal has cho­sen to live is a tiny one, and the synagogue’s pop­u­la­tion is shrink­ing by the year. The Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty is hav­ing a hard time find­ing the funds to keep up the build­ing. The descrip­tion brought to mind the increas­ing­ly emp­ty syn­a­gogue my par­ents belonged to in Penn­syl­va­nia and also the one I’d come to know in Vina del Mar, Chile with my father-in-law — those ever-emp­ti­er syn­a­gogues that exist in places where teach­ers will make a case for read­ing Kaf­ka by leav­ing out any men­tion of his love of Yid­dish the­ater, or of his strange sto­ry about the long-necked, untouch­able ani­mal in a syn­a­gogue who comes to know three gen­er­a­tions of Jews, more and more of whom have moved away from the tiny town where they grew tired of being con­tin­u­al­ly per­ceived as outsiders.

Idra Novey is the author of the nov­el Ways to Dis­ap­pear, win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize, the Brook­lyn Eagles Prize, and a final­ist for the Los Ange­les Times Book Prize for First Fic­tion. Her work has been trans­lat­ed into ten lan­guages and she’s writ­ten for the New York Times, the Los Ange­les Times, and the Paris Review. She’s trans­lat­ed four books from Span­ish and Por­tuguese, most recent­ly Clarice Lispec­tor’s nov­el The Pas­sion Accord­ing to G.H. She is cur­rent­ly the Writer-in-Res­i­dence in NYU’s Stel­la Adler Stu­dio of Acting.