Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, is the author of eleven books, most recently the just-published Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. Throughout the next week, she will be sharing passages that didn’t make it into the final version of her new novel and explain the decision behind each cut. These posts are a part of Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
Because people often ask writers, “What did you leave out of your book and why?” I decided to review the original manuscript of my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, to see what ended up on the cutting room floor.
You won’t find in the book, published this week by The Feminist Press, any of the passages I’m going to share with you in this and upcoming blog posts, but the backstory behind each cut may provide a unique glimpse into the editing process.
To understand the action behind the following passage from the original manuscript, you only need know that Zach, the son of Holocaust survivors, long ago promised his mother that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. Despite a fervent search for his bashert (fated Jewish mate), he falls in love with an African-American activist and talk show host named Cleo who appears in this scene. The other character, M.J., is Zach’s neighbor and close friend.
In June 1976, as his birthday approached, Zach became fixated on the number thirty-six.
“You didn’t freak out over thirty-five, why this?” M. J. asked after Zach blew out his candles.
“It’s a big Jewish number,” Zach explained. “Mystics believe there are thirty-six righteous Jews on the planet at any moment in time and it’s only because of them and their acts of decency that our world is spared from destruction. They’re called lamed vavniks because the number thirty-six, in Hebrew, is lamed vav. Only God knows who they are.”
“But they know,” Cleo ventured.
“Nope. And they don’t know who each other is, either.”
M. J. grinned. “It’s like a secret society where the members don’t realize they’ve been tapped and nobody knows the handshake.”
“Kind of. The thing is, each of us is supposed to behave in the world as if we’re one of them.”
“Leave it to the Jews to get folks competing to be virtuous,” Cleo said.
“You think you might be one of them?” M. J. asked.
“The thirty-six?” Zach chuckled as he plucked out all thirty-six candles and began to cut the cake. “Not a chance.”
For me, this deletion was painful. The Talmudic concept of the lamed vav tzadikim (36 righteous ones), or nistarim (concealed ones), occupies true North on my moral compass. I love the notion that even the remote possibility of the welfare of the world resting on our deeds can lead us to greater acts of righteousness.
Why was the passage dropped? Some might infer that my publisher ruled a gratuitous detour into Jewish mysticism too “inside baseball” for the general reader. In fact, it was cut after an eagle-eyed copy editor, having graphed each of my characters’ timelines, year by year, discovered that Zach would actually be turning 35 at that point in the novel, not 36. The error was mine. And the number couldn’t simply be changed to 36 because Zach’s age had to correspond to the age of another key character in the book. Short of my rewriting several entire chapters to justify his celebrating his 36th birthday, the lamed vavnik detour had to go.
And so it did.
Read more about Letty Cottin Pogrebin here. And if you’re in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book on Wednesday, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81−82 St) in Manhattan.
- How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
- Charles Belfoure on Cutting Material from His Novel
- The Ones That Missed the Cut by Saul Austerlitz