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.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer’s is a 7‑time Pushcart Prize nominee in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her new novel Journey to Merveilleux City appears with Picture Show Press.