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Recently a man stopped by our house, to urge us to attend his church. We explained that we were Jewish. “I understand that your husband is Jewish, but what about you?” I was also Jewish. “Okay,” the man said, “but have you always been Jewish?
I am a great fan of Mr. Roth’s work, but I was offended by that disclaimer. I thought it disingenuous. And to me, it was as if he had spit on a photograph of his grandfather.
We cannot choose or change our roots. We can honor or dishonor them.
30 years ago the germ of my newest novel, The Laws of Gravity, came via a Pittsburgh newspaper article. A dying man sued his cousin for a bone marrow transplant. The cousin agreed, then changed his mind — and the case went to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. After it was over, they interviewed the cousin who had refused, the survivor, and asked how he felt. “How do you think I feel?” he asked. “I feel terrible. I feel like throwing up.”
This, it seemed to me, was the making of great tragedy. What pulls families together, or tears them apart? At a more personal level, I wondered, what of the widow of the cousin who died? What happens now at family reunions?
That was the seed of my story, which changed in numerous ways, over the years. Instead of a bone marrow transplant, I employed a legal battle over cord blood. My cousins are one male and one female, the slightest hint of a love story between them. The setting moved from Pennsylvania to my native Long Island, my other roots. But the story didn’t come to full fruition till the main characters became Jewish.
The battle in The Laws of Gravity is a struggle between ethics and law. It is a family story — about obligation and contracts, about memory, friendship, love and death. It was, I felt, a quintessentially Jewish story. Therefore universal, and particular. My Jewish characters range from atheists to a rabbi who won’t boil water on Shabbat. It involves a conversion, an adult bat-mitzvah, a Shabbos dinner. Our son jokes that you can squeeze any page of this book and a drop of Manischewitz wine will appear.
As a writer I want to get to the heart of things, to ferret out the deeper meanings. My books always feature outsiders: children, old people and Jews, along with the disabled, the comic, the crazy and the visionaries. These are my chosen people. All of us. We have always been Jewish.