Sara Lippmann’s writing first grabbed me at a virtual reading during the slogging days of COVID. Her prose was full of music, inventiveness, humor, and stunningly precise similes. Take this sentence from “Wolf or Deer,” a story set in a Jewish summer camp: “We sat in a circle, knees touching, passed around potato chips that fit in our lips like duckbills.” That night, I read every other story by Lippmann I could find on the Internet.
Her new novel, Lech, is about the potential sale of a property in the Catskills during the summer of 2014 and its repercussions on the lives of five people. It’s a book that manages to say many wise, brash, and original things about bodily autonomy, motherhood, addiction, ritual, inherited trauma, and antisemitism. Her approach to the Jewish American story is refreshing — it is without agenda or sentimentality. Lippmann doesn’t rehash history, and her gaze expands beyond the Jewish community. Yet Jewish concerns still hang heavy over her work.
During our conversation, I asked Lippmann the almost stock question: What does the label “Jewish writer” mean to her? She answered, “I’d argue that my writing has a certain ‘Jewish’ sensibility, meaning the voice tends to pingpong through past and present. There is a movement some might call ‘scattered,’ but to me these interjections make sense. Can we call it ‘Jewish’ to never be fully present in the moment, but to constantly be carrying a pain of the past and an anxiety about the future?’”
Avner Landes: To begin, what drew you to the story?
Sara Lippmann: About a decade ago, I had this idea for a somewhat voyeuristic story about a guy who rents out his property to a young mother — a story of obsession, as all my stories tend to be. I was really interested in how we affect people’s lives indirectly. How things like proximity and serendipity and other incidental or seemingly inconsequential factors can have lasting effects. At the time, I was reading a lot of James Salter, and because I consider myself a story writer, I automatically assumed it would be a story. But I never wrote the story version. Years passed, and as much as I tried to ignore it — most ideas just come and go, evaporate before they’re ever written — this idea kept gnawing at me. So one month, I purchased a couple of legal pads and scribbled out what I felt, instinctively.
Around that time, I was going up to Wayne County, PA — about an hour and change from Sullivan County, where this book takes place — to teach Jewish literature at the same camp I attended as a child. It was there that I realized this story was larger than I’d conceived. The region is fraught. It was tense in the eighties when we were kids rafting down the river, and it was even more tense now. And then there was no going back. There were more perspectives to tell.
AL: It seems like all Jewish writers are asked what it means to be a Jewish or Jewish American writer, and I’d like to take this from a slightly different angle. I’m curious whether you think this is even an interesting question.
SL: When I was in grad school, I wrote a nonfiction thesis (to accompany my fiction thesis) on contemporary Jewish writing. I interviewed Myla Goldberg, Judy Budnitz, and Nathan Englander, to name a few. Englander pulled into a McDonald’s when we were on the phone, as if, I thought, to make a point of eating treyf. But he was not disavowing his Jewish identity. He was saying that our conception of Jewish identity is sometimes too narrow. I’ve also been called a “dirty writer” or “sex writer” — which is another pigeonhole.
I am absolutely a Jewish writer in the sense that my cultural background, history, and identity have a huge influence on my narrative sensibility. But I’m not exactly gonna go over with the synagogue sisterhood making matzoh balls in the shul kitchen, and that is fine. I’m allowed to be Jewish and something else.
AL: You are not afraid to show Jewish characters in their natural habitat, to present them without comment. Each reader will approach and interpret the book differently based on their familiarity with various Jewish subjects. The writing suggests you welcome such engagement. Personally, I think this approach enriches the novel, leaving it open to multiple interpretations.
SL: I want it to have that kind of midrashic openness. All of writing is decision-making, and I made the clear decision not to explain certain things, because that would be a different book. Ideally, you get a reader who is interested enough to “buy in,” even if there is somewhat of a private language at play — even if they don’t follow every reference. When I miss things, never do I think, “This book isn’t for me.” To think that way is painfully narrow. What is reading for if not to open us up and expose us to other worlds?
AL: Let’s talk about the title, Lech. One of the book’s epigraphs is taken from the biblical verse, “Lech, lecha,” which you translate as, “Go forth. Go for you.” In this novel, characters are at various stages of fulfilling this commandment. Some see “going forth” as an attempt to discover better versions of themselves. Some have gone forth but still appear to be mid-journey. Then there are the Hasidim, who have reached the Promised Land that is the Borscht Belt. But “Lech” can also be a noun, a person who acts in a predatory or lecherous manner. Is the act of “going forth” inherently lecherous? Does it always come at someone else’s expense? The locals. for example, certainly feel displaced by the Hasidim.
SL: Lech lecha, to the extent to which it is a commandment, is my attempt to provide a moral compass in an amoral novel. There is something quietly beautiful about the call to look inward before you look outward — to try to break free of what limits you, to live your best life.
Still, there is the presumption that if God said it, then it’s righteous, and my biggest beef is with the notion of righteousness. There is no righteousness. There is no piety. There is only humanity. And humanity is pretty screwed up. So I bristle against God as any sort of justification for entitled behavior.
Humans are animals. We are self-driven and predatory and calculating. But we are also capable of teshuvah. So I hope the characters do some reckoning and then tread forth more thoughtfully, with greater concern for their fellow humans by the end. But that doesn’t mean their patterns won’t be chronic, or they won’t be repeat offenders, either. I don’t want it to be so cynical, I guess. Even as we screw up, we don’t stop trying.
There is something quietly beautiful about the call to look inward before you look outward — to try to break free of what limits you, to live your best life.
AL: Of course, there’s a third meaning to the novel’s title. Lech is also the nickname of Ira “Lech” Lecher, the novel’s protagonist. The chapters alternate between the five major characters, yet it’s Ira’s nickname on the cover. What did he do to earn this distinction?
SL: This book took years to write and began with Ira Lecher. The title is trifold: Lech as Ira, sure; but lust looms large over all of them (whether it’s lecherous, predatory, or simply outsized desire). Most of all, it’s their embodiment of lech lecha— going inward into oneself in order to go outward — that cemented the title for me.
AL: Something that separates Ira, the protagonist, from the other characters is that he appears at the novel’s outset to be done with personal journeys. He’s “gone forth,” moved away from the city. He’s got his house by the lake where he’s content to live out his final years doing light drugs.
SL: He’s done the physical part, maybe, but not the emotional part. He’s retreated from the city, dropped out of the hustle and of Man’s World magazine, ostensibly to discover his soul in the country — but he is hardly Thoreau. He is a man of great loneliness. (Aren’t we all?) He’s too much of a narcissist to self-erase or disappear. As for what he’s after? It is E. M. Forster’s aphoristic “only connect.” That being said, he has a twisted, often toxic way of going about it. I don’t know if he knows what it means to connect; he can’t seem to get past himself, but he keeps trying. Throughout the story, he is haunted by and obsessed with death. By the end, though, he becomes more comfortable with its inevitability. On the “we are but dust and the world was made for us” spectrum, he starts to understand the dust. He gains some humility by reckoning with his own fragility.
AL: Most of the tension in the novel materializes when the desire for change brushes up against ritual, tradition, habits. In a nutshell, people can’t quit their lives, no matter how disastrous they’ve become.
SL: Ritual is a paradox. On the one hand, it provides that connection to family, to the past. It becomes a kind of identity-shorthand for belonging and comfort. Therein lies a form of love; and how beautiful it is to disappear into a whole, to be a part of something that’s larger than you. On the other hand, ritual can be a hindrance to the real internal work that is required of an individual. It offers a path, but the path can be too narrow, leading one to accept complacency and settle passively into routine.
Beth, another major character, is drawn to it. She has a ritual of list-making and a sort of fetishistic obsession with religious women. She longs for someone to tell her how to live, for the clarity of service to a “higher calling.” Characters Paige and Noreen have their rituals, too — drinking, returning to bad boyfriends. We all have habits, and they can either anchor us or lead us astray.
There is so much yearning caught up in ritual. The hope — the superstition — contained inside the compulsivity, the sense of causality. We want to believe our actions result in direct reactions, because it’s too scary to imagine otherwise. Maybe we cling to ritual because the notion of a world without at least the pretense of free will or order is too nihilistic.
AL: The setting has such a strong presence, and it represents something different to each character or group. For Beth it represents rejuvenation. For the Hasidim it’s a place of spiritual safety. And for many characters, it’s a source of change.
SL: Maybe I read too much Irish literature in college, but it has always been important to me to represent land as a character. I think of the “tel,” a word I first learned on archeological digs in Israel. It’s the idea that history lies on top of history; that places, like people, carry fraught, violent pasts.
AL: The tone of the chapters told from the point of view of Tzvi, the Hasidic Jew who deals drugs out of the bowling alley, is quite striking. The humor is gone. The sentences tighten and turn minimalist. The reader feels his suffering and the bleakness of his existence. At one point, he asks, “What G‑d? … Where is G‑d now?”
SL: The Tzvi sections were the last I wrote. I knew I needed to go there, but I was trepidatious to venture so far outside my experience. I ended up writing his part as flash because his voice came to me elegiacally, as a form of music, like Eichah. He doesn’t have the same narrative scope as the others, and yet his story pulses — hopefully — like his mother’s. There is no humor in him, because his is the song of lamentations.
AL: To me, Viv, Ira’s ex-wife, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Tzvi. She seems quite content with her New York City life; she is the one character in the book who doesn’t yearn.
SL: Viv has her feet on the ground, perhaps the most out of everyone. She’s the standing-in-line-behind-you-at-Zabar’s kind of New Yorker, absent of sentimentality when the wet-eyed guy at the slicer who’s been serving the community for fifty years tells her he just sawed up his 10,000th salmon. She just wants hers sliced thin and wrapped.
AL: We haven’t talked much about Beth, who is recovering from an abortion in a house she has rented on Lech’s property for her and her son. What’s fascinating about her character is that she is “going forth,” but it’s hard for the reader to discern whether she’s headed to a better place.
SL: Will she go off on her own? Will she return to her husband? Whatever she decides, she is far more capable than she’d previously given herself credit for. And that is not nothing. It’s easy to glom on to a narrative you’ve been given about yourself, or a narrative you’ve spun about yourself independent of its veracity. It’s much harder to break free of that narrative and create a new one.
AL: I want to close with a question about craft. Your sentences are so playful, so funny, so riotously bleak: “When life gives lemons, sure, but wasn’t it wrong to lemonade someone else’s tragedy?” The writer Matthew Sharpe talks about sentences that are not only funny but also make the reader wince — which is the perfect description of your writing. How do you approach writing humor?
SL: I wrote this story during such a despairing time. Things were pretty dark in my head when I started, and the book took years. At times, it felt particularly hard to continue, especially through the election and Trump era. But I guess that misery may be a prerequisite for comedy.
I can’t claim to know anything about craft, and there is certainly a lot of functional, workmanlike prose here. But in general, I’d say that sentences that reveal character or advance the story in some way — sentences that deepen a theme or excavate an emotional landscape — are going to be the ones that feel most dynamic on the page. Life is absurd, and the attempt to capture any of it in two dimensions is even more absurd. So to embrace some of that inimitable life stuff without completely losing the reader — that’s the whole stink.
Avner Landes is a writer living outside Tel Aviv. His debut novel is Meiselman: The Lean Years (Tortoise Books).