A couple of years ago, Diane Martin, an editor at Knopf Canada, told me a story about an acquaintance of hers, a Jewish man living with a gentile woman who had become so fascinated with her partner’s cultural background that she had taken the plunge and converted to Judaism a couple of weeks earlier.
While the man had no ideological objections to a decision that could do nothing but make his parents, if not happy, at least happier than they had been about his relationship, he was concerned with a far more fundamental problem. According to Diane, he took his wallet from his pocket – – he was a writer and Diane was his editor – – flipped the photo holder open and showed Diane a picture of a California blonde in a bikini. “She doesn’t look hot to me anymore.”
Whatever this couple’s relationship had been, it owed too much to the woman’s forbidden quality, her psychic role as bacon and eggs in briefs and a bra, to survive her passage into kashrus. The man was alienated by the idea of a woman who wasn’t an alien and the couple split up not long afterwards.
“Nu, Michael,” asked Diane, who’d discovered the Yiddish word only a short time before, “think you could do a novel about something like that? About a non-Jew who finds out that they’re Jewish and how that affects their marriage to a Jew?”
“Of course,” I said.
I lied. But not completely. I could have written that book, but I didn’t. I turned Diane’s idea inside out. An attempt to look at the nature of intermarriage became an examination of what it means to be Jewish in circumstances where Judaism has more to do with feeling than with religious observance or belief; what it means to be Jewish in a society like ours, where such phrases as “Jewish atheist” or “Jewish Buddhist” are no longer seen as contradictions in terms.
As I did more and more work on the book, though, I noticed strange things happening to me. The more I wrote, the less consistent my opinion of the photo that I keep on my desk: the then-future Mrs. Wex in sash and bikini during her reign as Miss Camp Sheynvelt.
Come back all week to read Michael Wex’s blog posts. His new novel, The Frumkiss Family Business, is now available.