Raleigh, South Falls­burg, New York, John Margolies

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.