In ret­ro­spect, I feel as though I was born to write. My third-grade teacher Mrs. Zimet asked each stu­dent to tell the class about their spring vaca­tion. My class­mates described beach­es in Mia­mi and the Caribbean, ski­ing in Ver­mont, and sight-see­ing at muse­ums in Europe. By the time my turn came around I felt embar­rassed to tell them about my five days with my grand­par­ents at Lefrak City in Queens. So, I made up a sto­ry. I regaled them with a trip to Dis­ney­land though I’d nev­er been.

A cou­ple of weeks lat­er my moth­er was at a PTA meet­ing and Mrs. Zimet asked her about our trip. She was quite shocked, and, to her cred­it, I wasn’t pun­ished; I was ques­tioned as to why I lied. That con­ver­sa­tion is for the therapist’s couch. Clear­ly though, I was able to write fic­tion from a young age.

Nine years lat­er I was a senior in high school, on my way to col­lege that fall. My par­ents asked me what I want­ed to study, and I told them I want­ed to study Eng­lish and write nov­els. In uni­son they shook their heads and replied, NO, NO, NO. Not a good choice for a Jew­ish boy, AND you’ll nev­er make a liv­ing.” Of course, my mind went to Leon Uris, Philip Roth, and Her­man Wouk. But being the good Jew­ish boy I was, I end­ed up in the real estate finance busi­ness for near­ly thir­ty years. And I was miserable.

A lot hap­pens in thir­ty years; I mar­ried, we had a son, and I had career highs and lows. At the age of fifty-one, I found my career in sham­bles. The busi­ness as I knew it was gone due to the Great Reces­sion. In addi­tion, I had begun to ques­tion the very struc­ture of my life, and so began my mid-life cri­sis. My iden­ti­ty was wrapped up in my career, my abil­i­ty to sup­port a fam­i­ly. I wasn’t sure who I was, or where I belonged.

Shalom felt as if he had been drained of poi­son. He took a very deep breath in a way he hadn’t in years. It was as if he was final­ly able to breathe freely, with­out fear of being heard by the ghosts around him. He took three tis­sues from the box on the small mahogany table next to the reclin­er and wiped his face…He pushed back the reclin­er, the foot stool ris­ing and extend­ing his legs. They felt light.”

Shalom Roth­man, For­giv­ing Stephen Redmond

We had moved to Wash­ing­ton Heights from the Upper West Side a few years ear­li­er. Once known as Frank­furt-on-the-Hud­son, it was the home to many Jew­ish Ger­man refugees in the late 1930s. It is also the home to the largest pop­u­la­tion of Domini­cans out­side the Domini­can Repub­lic; dias­po­ra is a con­cept I am very famil­iar with as a Jew.

With my career effec­tive­ly over, I had to fig­ure out how I was going to move for­ward. I was work­ing on my debut nov­el, For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Roth­man. My per­cep­tion of myself shift­ed to the very thing I had always seen myself being: a writer. I decid­ed it was final­ly time to fin­ish my novel.

The silence of the jun­gle suits me…I breathe in the warm, moist air. It smells of gua­n­a­bana, and the sea. I feel at home here. The under­brush, still wet from last night’s rain, scraped against my feet. I had trad­ed two pairs of leather shoes in Puer­ta Pla­ta for san­dals like the Domini­can men wear, along with some local cloth­ing. The oth­er set­tlers thought I was insane. Going native,” they called it…

Max­i­mo Roth­man, For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Rothman

For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Roth­man is part­ly based on the expe­ri­ences of my uncle, Max Grun­feld. He escaped from Nazi Europe with his wife, my aunt Helen, in 1940. They found asy­lum in Sosua, Domini­can Repub­lic, with 854 oth­er Mit­tleu­ropan Jews; it was estab­lished as a haven for Jew­ish refugees through the Evian Con­fer­ence of 1938. Con­se­quent­ly, I was no stranger to the Domini­can Repub­lic and its peo­ple. We had vis­it­ed there in 2002 and I had the unique expe­ri­ence of say­ing kad­dish for my father who had died a few months ear­li­er, in the syn­a­gogue my uncle helped build, over a Torah scroll he car­ried from Genoa, Italy, in 1940.

Free of the con­fines of a job, I became involved in the local Domini­can com­mu­ni­ty. I vol­un­teered to work with a group fight­ing child­hood obe­si­ty. Health and well­ness had become my new obsession.

I joined a gym and there I made a kind of friend I hadn’t had in decades. In Span­ish the term is un ami­go de alma, a friend of the soul. In fact, my friend William became like a broth­er. We began work­ing out togeth­er every morn­ing; at the gym, oth­ers referred to us as los mel­li­zos, the twins. We look noth­ing alike. We became inseparable.

In those months after los­ing my last job, I spent more and more time with William. He had an unusu­al effect on me. He taught me how to be tran­qui­lo, calm. My end­less neu­ro­sis began to sub­side; was it the result of William, exer­cise, my exit from the high­ly com­pet­i­tive world of New York busi­ness, or a com­bi­na­tion of the three?

He invit­ed me to vis­it his home in the Domini­can Repub­lic when he was going for a week to cel­e­brate the first birth­day of his youngest child. My first response was that I couldn’t go off to the Domini­can Repub­lic just like that. Why, he replied, You don’t have a job. He was right — I went. That first trip to San­to Domin­go was trans­for­ma­tion­al, the world I found was the polar oppo­site of the world I left.

No one has much mon­ey in San­to Domin­go, yet they make do just fine. No one ever asks you what you do for a liv­ing. It’s con­sid­ered rude, since what you do is a clear indi­ca­tor of how much mon­ey you make, the rude ques­tion you can’t ask. It’s one of the first ques­tions we Amer­i­cans ask each oth­er when we meet. It’s our ice breaker.

One thing that struck me was how close Domini­can peo­ple get to each oth­er phys­i­cal­ly. Their per­cep­tion of per­son­al space is dif­fer­ent than ours. I wel­comed this. My immi­grant fam­i­ly was the same, we Hun­gar­i­ans are very touchy peo­ple. Amer­i­cans, on the oth­er hand, keep their dis­tance. I missed that inti­ma­cy, and I hadn’t real­ized it until that moment.

My buddy’s house is in what’s called in Domini­can ver­nac­u­lar, un patio. It’s a lit­tle neigh­bor­hood of any­where from ten to fifty fam­i­lies liv­ing togeth­er in small hous­es and apart­ments. A patio is off the road, one enters from the street through a gate, and there are no cars. Often, blood, mar­riage, friend­ship, or all three, con­nect the fam­i­lies. It was very famil­iar; I was back in my child­hood neigh­bor­hood where my entire fam­i­ly lived with­in five blocks of each oth­er. I had redis­cov­ered this world I had lost, this world I pined for with­out ever real­iz­ing it.

William took me to places tourists don’t vis­it. Beach­es lined with restau­rants blar­ing Sal­sa, filled with the locals at sun­set, the first stars appear­ing over­head; a sight of remark­able beau­ty. Bars deep in the bar­rios, the sound of Bacha­ta reach­ing into the black­ness of the night, the walls appear­ing to move with the sway­ing hips of the dancers. As if by some mag­ic, I was trans­port­ed back in my mind to the tales of my uncle, as if I was stand­ing there with him as he plunged head­first into the Domini­can world some sev­en­ty years ear­li­er. I under­stood now what he missed, what he lost. I under­stood what I missed, and what I lost.

The week I spent there changed me deeply and trig­gered some­thing in me that led to the next phase of my life. When we returned, I began to write in a new way. Sub­se­quent trips solid­i­fied the effect and I’ve returned every win­ter for the past twelve years. I rev­el in the cadence of the place.

Each vis­it fur­ther pro­pelled me to tell the sto­ry inside me. The result: For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Roth­man. And after that: For­giv­ing Stephen Red­mond and For­giv­ing Mariela Cama­cho. It was in this warm, sun­drenched place, so full of human­i­ty, so far from the world I had lived in, that I found myself, again. It had tak­en forty years, but it had hap­pened. I became a writer. I also became tran­qui­lo.

It touched him as well, though he didn’t under­stand the words. The pas­sion of the music alone was enough. The sweet whine of the gui­tars and the vocals sparked his Russ­ian soul, the soul he teased about end­less­ly. It often brought tears to his eyes for its sim­ple emo­tion­al hon­esty. He real­ized after a week in this warm, close place, where every­one touched every­one all the time, that there was less sep­a­rat­ing him and them than con­nect­ing them to each oth­er. He real­ly didn’t need the lan­guage. He need­ed only to respond to a smile with a smile. He was some­thing by birth — Russ­ian, Jew­ish, an immi­grant Amer­i­can who learned to love base­ball. He was nev­er sure. But he knew now what he real­ly was. He was Domini­can by choice. He would hold this place in his heart forever.”

Tolya Kurchenko, For­giv­ing Mariela Camacho

A. J. Sidran­sky lives in Wash­ing­ton Heights in Upper Man­hat­tan with his wife. His debut nov­el, For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Roth­man was short­list­ed by the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards for Out­stand­ing Debut Fic­tion in 2013. He is the author of The Inter­preter, short­list­ed by Next Gen­er­a­tion Indie Book Awards for Best His­tor­i­cal Fic­tion 2020. For­giv­ing Stephen Red­mond was released in Jan­u­ary 2021 and short­list­ed by Next Gen­er­a­tion Indie Book Awards for Best Region­al Fic­tion, 2021. He is a dyed in the wool New York­er, born in the Bronx, and a life-long Yan­kees fan. He trav­els to the Domini­can Repub­lic every win­ter to unplug. Learn more about his work at www​.ajsidran​sky​.com.