Ear­li­er this week, Joshua Henkin explored the ques­tion: Are you a Jew­ish writer?”. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The sto­ry goes that, in 1923, when my father, age five, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to speak to the immi­gra­tion offi­cials, and there was some sus­pi­cion that he was a deaf mute and the fam­i­ly would have to be sent back to Rus­sia. My grand­fa­ther kept try­ing to get him to speak, but my father refused. Final­ly, my grand­fa­ther decid­ed to ask my father a math ques­tion. My father answered the ques­tion, and the fam­i­ly was let in.

This sto­ry gets at some core truths about my father. He was excel­lent at math — he would lat­er major in it in col­lege — and he remained a shy man until his death near­ly two years ago. Yet what I remem­ber most clear­ly was how he told that sto­ry — with a trace of embar­rass­ment, it seemed to me, as if he’d com­mit­ted an indis­cre­tion. He’d answered the math ques­tion and got­ten the fam­i­ly in, but he’d been guilty of show­ing off.

My father was a law pro­fes­sor, first at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and then at Colum­bia, for over fifty years. He loved teach­ing, and for him teach­ing was also a way of express­ing love. His own father, an Ortho­dox rab­bi, cer­tain­ly expressed his love through teach­ing, and my father inher­it­ed that from him. In the first para­graph of the She­ma prayer in the Jew­ish litur­gy come the words v’sheenantam l’vanecha—you shall teach your chil­dren — and in syn­a­gogue, when­ev­er my father came to those words, he would reach out his prayer shawl and kiss my broth­ers and me.

My father was facile with lan­guage and he loved it, loved lan­guage per­haps the way only an immi­grant can, a boy whose own father lived on the Low­er East Side for fifty years and nev­er learned Eng­lish — he nev­er need­ed to — where­as he, my father, saw Eng­lish as his entry into Amer­i­ca. He used to help my broth­ers and me pass the time on air­plane trips by giv­ing us word jum­bles. And when I was sev­en­teen and the SAT loomed, he start­ed com­ing home from the office with a list of vocab­u­lary words he had run across that day. Some of these words were long and hard to pro­nounce and oth­ers were short and easy to pro­nounce, but they had one thing in com­mon, which was that they had nev­er appeared in the his­to­ry of the SAT and they would nev­er would appear in the his­to­ry of the SAT and what in the world kind of books was my father read­ing such that he came across these words? Quon­dam, for instance, which means erst­while, which means for­mer, and which I will for­ev­er asso­ciate with my father, just as I will for­ev­er asso­ciate with him the word incog­ni­to, which he once opened the dic­tio­nary and proved to me was in fact pro­nounced inc­ahg­nit­to, not incognee­to, just as he proved to me that it should be kilomee-ter and not kilahmeter (I can still hear his voice: A ther­mome­ter is a mea­sur­er of heat, but a kilah­me­ter isn’t a mea­sur­er of kilos.”)

I think of him, too, when I hear the word imper­ti­nent, which was the punch­line of a joke he once told, a joke I was too young to under­stand and don’t remem­ber any longer, a joke about an Eng­lish­man and a French­man argu­ing over which is the supe­ri­or lan­guage, Eng­lish or French, the punch­line to which is imper­ti­nent, which doesn’t mean not per­ti­nent, it means rude, the joke, as I recall, being on the French­man, or the Eng­lish­man, or both, but it doesn’t mat­ter. All that mat­ters is that I can’t read or say or hear the word imper­ti­nent with­out think­ing of my father. It’s true of a hun­dred oth­er words as well, and since I speak Eng­lish every day, since Eng­lish is the only lan­guage I speak with any mea­sure of flu­en­cy, I’m think­ing about my father all the time — can’t stop think­ing about him, can’t even lis­ten to rock music with­out think­ing about him, my father who had no inter­est in rock music but who over­heard me once singing the Bea­t­les’ A Hard Day’s Night,” and there he was, my father, say­ing, Don’t you think those young men could have come up with a bet­ter rhyme for dog than log.”


At col­lege, we had to take expos­i­to­ry writ­ing fresh­man year, and we were asked to choose between dif­fer­ent options — his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, social stud­ies, and the like. One option was fic­tion, and if you enrolled in it you would write essays about fic­tion and you would also write some of your own short sto­ries. When I men­tioned this to my father, he said, I wouldn’t begin to know how to write a short sto­ry.” And I thought, Aha, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what set me on the route to becom­ing a fic­tion writer. It seemed to me a way to carve out my own path in the world. But it was also a way of fol­low­ing in my father’s path. Because when I hear Eng­lish spo­ken, when I read it, when I write it, it’s my father’s voice that comes to me and will, I sus­pect, for the rest of my life.

Joshua Henk­in’s new nov­el, The World With­out You, is now avail­able. He is the author of the nov­els Mat­ri­mo­ny, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swim­ming Across the Hud­son, a Los Ange­les Times Notable Book. His short sto­ries have been pub­lished wide­ly, cit­ed for dis­tinc­tion in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries, and broad­cast on NPR’s Select­ed Shorts.” He lives in Brook­lyn, NY, and directs the MFA pro­gram in Fic­tion Writ­ing at Brook­lyn Col­lege.

Joshua Henkin is the author of the nov­els Mat­ri­mo­ny, a New York Times­No­table Book, and Swim­ming Across the Hud­son, a Los Ange­les Times Notable Book. His most recent nov­el, The World With­out You, has been named an Edi­tors’ Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chica­go Tri­bune and is the win­ner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award for Jew­ish Amer­i­can Fic­tion and a final­ist for the 2012 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. His short sto­ries have been pub­lished wide­ly, cit­ed for dis­tinc­tion in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries, and broad­cast on NPR’s Select­ed Shorts.” He lives in Brook­lyn, NY, and directs the MFA pro­gram in Fic­tion Writ­ing at Brook­lyn College.