Lois Lev­eens newest nov­el, The Secrets of Mary Bows­er, is now avail­able. She will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

There’s a nov­el I first read years ago that rang true in deep ways for me: Immi­grant par­ents work hard, and, as a mea­sure of suc­cess, move to the sub­urbs — where their old­er daugh­ter thrives in school, while the younger daugh­ter strug­gles social­ly, espe­cial­ly with her eth­nic iden­ti­ty. Intro­duced to a charis­mat­ic, and most cer­tain­ly unortho­dox, rab­bi, this younger daugh­ter immers­es her­self in Jew­ish learn­ing to steady her pas­sage through the throes of ado­les­cence. Her deep­en­ing involve­ment in the syn­a­gogue youth group imbues her with a sense of social jus­tice, and greater con­fi­dence about who she is and what she wants. What could be a bet­ter exam­ple of Jew­ish-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture?

Except, the nov­el in ques­tion, Mona in the Promised Land, is about a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly. Its author, Gish Jen, is her­self the daugh­ter of Chi­nese immi­grants. Jen grew up in Scars­dale, a com­mu­ni­ty she por­trays with an amaz­ing mix of accu­ra­cy, acer­bity, and affec­tion in Mona. Raised in a sim­i­lar sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ty and only thir­teen or so years younger than Jen and her pro­tag­o­nist, I’ve joked that I don’t need to write a nov­el about my child­hood, because Jen already did it for me.

Jen’s nov­el reminds us that Jew­ish” is an iden­ti­ty that is less bound by race or cul­ture than we might ini­tial­ly assume — Mona, after all, con­verts, mak­ing her no less Jew­ish than any oth­er Jew, even as she inte­grates Chi­nese cul­ture with her bur­geon­ing reli­gious iden­ti­ty. But does a book count as Jew­ish-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture just because it fea­tures Jew­ish char­ac­ters? Does it mat­ter if its author (unlike her con­vert pro­tag­o­nist) isn’t Jew­ish?

Com­pare Mona in the Promised Land with The Secrets of Mary Bows­er, a nov­el based on the true sto­ry of an African Amer­i­can slave. After being freed and edu­cat­ed in the North, Mary Bows­er returned to the South and became a Union spy dur­ing the Civ­il War, by pos­ing as a slave in the Con­fed­er­ate White House. From the first page of this fic­tion­al­ized telling of her sto­ry, Mary’s moth­er reg­u­lar­ly con­vers­es with Jesus about Mary’s future. Although some­what skep­ti­cal about her moth­er’s insis­tence that Jesus has a plan for her, Mary eager­ly attends prayer meet­ings with her par­ents, and lat­er, when she moves away from her fam­i­ly, seeks solace both at Philadel­phi­a’s Moth­er Bethel, the found­ing African Methodist Epis­co­pal church, and at a Quak­er meet­ing. One par­tic­u­lar­ly mov­ing Bap­tist ser­mon moti­vates her to give up her own free­dom and return to the South. Lat­er, she artic­u­lates her hor­ror at the war’s dev­as­ta­tion by doubt­ing whether her par­tic­i­pa­tion in such wide-scale vio­lence could real­ly be Jesus’ plan. Not a very Jew­ish sto­ry.

Unless you define the Jew­ish­ness of a nov­el by who wrote it: me.

There’s no doubt I’m a Jew. I’ve got the name, the nose, and the sid­dur pre­sent­ed to me by my child­hood syn­a­gogue on the occa­sion of my bat mitz­vah to prove it. I’ve even got a string of writ­ing cred­its for Jew­ish pub­li­ca­tions, from Bridges: A Jew­ish Fem­i­nist Jour­nal to The Jew and The Car­rot, where I served as the Shme­thi­cist,” an eth­i­cal food advice colum­nist. Sure­ly I’m a Jew­ish Amer­i­can writer. But does that mean my nov­el — about an African Amer­i­can raised as a Chris­t­ian — is best under­stood as Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture?

Maybe it’s a sign of my Jew­ish­ness that I see the answer as, like so much in Judaism, a mat­ter of tex­tu­al expli­ca­tion. In cre­at­ing the char­ac­ter of Mary’s moth­er, I invoked the Chris­t­ian faith that sus­tained many enslaved blacks. But when I read the gal­leys of The Secrets of Mary Bows­er I real­ized that, quite uncon­scious­ly, I also invoked my own Jew­ish sen­si­bil­i­ty. Mary’s tra­jec­to­ry is an explo­ration of what it means to be cho­sen, in ways that are direct­ly relat­ed to my Jew­ish under­stand­ing of that con­cept as imply­ing a respon­si­bil­i­ty to serve some greater good. Mary’s relin­quish­ing of her own free­dom to serve her com­mu­ni­ty implies a belief in the indi­vid­u­al’s respon­si­bil­i­ty to serve the com­mu­ni­ty through tikkum olam. It places her in a tra­di­tion of cho­sen indi­vid­u­als that includes Moses, Daniel, Esther—even the reluc­tant Jon­ah. The Secrets of Mary Bows­er is an adult nov­el, but it draws as much on the girl-heroes of When Hitler Stole Pink Rab­bit or The End­less Steppe, the Jew­ish-themed books I devoured as a child, as it does on the slave nar­ra­tives and his­tor­i­cal accounts of Amer­i­can slav­ery I stud­ied as an adult.

When I read from The Secrets of Mary Bows­er at Ore­gon Jew­ish Voic­es, a pro­gram at the Ore­gon Jew­ish Muse­um, the poet Willa Schneberg com­pared the nov­el to Sto­ry­telling in Cam­bo­dia, her book about the Cam­bo­di­an geno­cide. The com­par­i­son under­scored that for both of us, being Jew­ish writ­ers does­n’t mean writ­ing only about Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. It means draw­ing on our Jew­ish expe­ri­ence to reflect on themes of injus­tice and social action in myr­i­ad contexts. 

Read more about Lois Lev­een here.