Pho­to by Yan­nick Pul­ver on Unsplash

I con­vert­ed to Judaism more than twen­ty-five years ago, and with my con­ver­sion came a pas­sion for writ­ing — not just about Jew­ish authors like Wendy Wasser­stein and Gertrud Kol­mar, but also writ­ing as a Jew­ish per­son. I grad­u­al­ly left the world of aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar­ship and became a pub­lished poet (my first pub­lished poem is about hold­ing the Torah), then a short sto­ry writer, and then a novelist. 

I joke with my fam­i­ly that I con­vert­ed to Judaism for the food and the com­plain­ing. But the truth is I con­vert­ed because of the sto­ries, jokes, and pas­sion for social jus­tice shared by my Jew­ish friends and my Jew­ish spouse and his fam­i­ly. I also appre­ci­at­ed the stead­fast­ness of my Jew­ish friends. At my extreme­ly fan­cy pri­vate school in New York, my best friend — who hap­pened to be Jew­ish — helped me go through an enor­mous garbage can of food scraps and nap­kins because I’d mis­tak­en­ly thrown out my retain­er with my lunch items. Now that’s loy­al­ty! And it was coleslaw day! 

As a Jew­ish writer by choice, I am keen­ly aware of how mis­un­der­stood Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, prac­tices, and cul­tures can be. I grew up with non-Jews, after all. In all of my long fic­tion, I try to shed light on some aspect of a Jew­ish expe­ri­ence that is often over­looked or mis­in­ter­pret­ed. My work also speaks to the ideas and traits that drew me to Judaism to begin with. 

I rel­ish (no pun intend­ed) mix­ing humor with social jus­tice con­cerns in my writ­ing. Like­wise, food is always present in my sto­ries. Food cre­ates atmos­phere and is an object of both desire and plea­sure, both of which are cru­cial to ground­ing the read­er in a fic­tion­al world. Eat­ing is also a use­ful way to pause the action and allow for char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. And then there’s the real truth of the mat­ter: I am always hun­gry, so my char­ac­ters are, too. And, as it hap­pens, there is a going-through-the-garbage scene in my new nov­el, Jour­ney to Mer­veilleux City. Some mem­o­ries nev­er leave you, apparently. 

I’m also fas­ci­nat­ed by the num­ber of peo­ple I’ve met who have Jew­ish ances­tors and don’t know what to do with that infor­ma­tion. Here in the US and else­where in the world, we are peo­ple with hybrid iden­ti­ties; we are more than one thing. This hybrid­i­ty rais­es an inter­est­ing ques­tion. How do Jew­ish iden­ti­ties inter­sect with racial and gen­dered iden­ti­ties? These issues enthrall me, so I con­stant­ly write about them. 

As a Jew­ish writer by choice, I am keen­ly aware of how mis­un­der­stood Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, prac­tices, and cul­tures can be.

A friend of mine once said that you can talk about any­thing in Amer­i­ca except mon­ey and class. So I try to talk about them, too. The hero of my first nov­el, The Pup­pet Turn­ers of Nar­row Inte­ri­or, is a wealthy per­son who even­tu­al­ly real­izes that he is the child of Jews who hid their iden­ti­ty for rea­sons he has not yet fig­ured out. Anoth­er pro­tag­o­nist in The Pup­pet Turn­ers becomes a lead char­ac­ter in Jour­ney to Mer­veilleux City. Ali­son is a Jew­ish col­lege dropout who doesn’t attend syn­a­gogue. But she is a spir­i­tu­al per­son who feels an intense sense of loy­al­ty to the peo­ple she cares about. The mat­ter of loy­al­ty, of what and whom you care about and what you will do to help is a cru­cial theme in the book. In that way, it’s not unlike what my friend did for me in mid­dle school.

Final­ly, there is the ques­tion of social jus­tice. Social jus­tice is an impor­tant theme in my nov­el from 2022, Pre­tend Plumber, which focus­es on Jew­ish char­ac­ters in the Los Ange­les area, and asks seri­ous ques­tions about who gets to be con­sid­ered an Amer­i­can. My lat­est book is a mys­tery that simul­ta­ne­ous­ly tack­les sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal ques­tions. My feel­ing is that it’s not my job as an author to get on a soap box, but rather to use plot and char­ac­ters to invite my read­ers to think dif­fer­ent­ly, and per­haps more open­ly, about the issues of the day. And I want to use the mys­tery for­mat to rep­re­sent Jew­ish char­ac­ters who are able to do the right thing, even under chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances. One char­ac­ter in par­tic­u­lar is a hero­ic exam­ple. I’ll leave it to read­ers to fig­ure out who that is. 

Maybe in a future nov­el, I will work with a char­ac­ter who, like me, is a con­vert. But for now, I’m con­tent to write sto­ries that are seed­ed with Jew­ish val­ues I admire and Jew­ish char­ac­ters I love.