Ear­li­er this week, Talia Carn­er defined tzedakah and wrote about grow­ing up as a a sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion sabra among the Sec­ond Gen­er­a­tion of Holo­caust sur­vivors in Israel, there­by inher­it­ing a piece of their lega­cy of remem­brance. She is the author of four nov­els, includ­ing the recent­ly pub­lished Hotel Moscow, and has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’sVis­it­ing Scribe series.

My last two nov­els fea­ture strong Jew­ish themes. Yet read­ers are often sur­prised that not only am I not reli­gious, but I do not even attend syn­a­gogue ser­vices, yet my writ­ing tes­ti­fies to being very Jewish.” 

Indeed I am very Jew­ish, but in Israeli fash­ion: I was born in Tel Aviv to a sec­u­lar fam­i­ly that, like most Israelis, did not prac­tice reli­gion. My par­ents played Canas­ta on Yom Kip­pur. My grand­fa­ther, who stud­ied at his syn­a­gogue for two hours morn­ing and two hours in evening, did not wear a yarmulke, nor was my grand­par­ents’ kitchen kosher.

We nev­er doubt­ed our Jew­ish­ness because the coun­try pos­sessed then — and still does — an unmis­tak­ably Jew­ish cul­ture, where even minor hol­i­days are cel­e­brat­ed: On Shavuot, an agrar­i­an hol­i­day root­ed in the his­to­ry of the Tem­ple destroyed 2,000 years ago, peo­ple get togeth­er for a fes­tive dairy meal of blintzes. The mitz­vah of invit­ing peo­ple for a Passover seder who do not have one became a nation­al mis­sion when, in the 1990s, one mil­lion Russ­ian Jews arrived. Tens of thou­sands of Israeli fam­i­lies opened their homes to intro­duce the new­com­ers to this most cel­e­brat­ed hol­i­day, com­plete with the read­ing of the Hagadah — in Hebrew, of course. In the shop­ping mall, every store sports a mezuzah on the thresh­old. Upon fin­ish­ing com­bat lead­er­ship train­ing, the IDF gifts a bible to the each new commander. 

I stud­ied that Bible all of my twelve years at school, manda­to­ry by the sec­u­lar state cur­ricu­lum. I loved its rich­ness of lan­guage and poet­ic rhythm in the book of exquis­ite lit­er­a­ture that was nev­er pre­sent­ed as the word of God, even as He was present on every page. The Bible was a com­pi­la­tion of liv­ing his­to­ry, vivid­ly recalled when I dined at a restau­rant at the port of Jaf­fa, from where Jon­ah had tried to escape God’s mis­sion, or when I drove through the Elah Val­ley, where David had defeat­ed Goliath. In sixth grade I won a Jeop­ardy-like bible con­test, yet, when vis­it­ing France at sev­en­teen and asked about prayers, I knew none. I was unaware that the dozens of pas­sages I could cite in my sleep were prayers, because I had nev­er been to a synagogue. 

My friends’ par­ents who were Holo­caust sur­vivors claimed that God died in Auschwitz.” And while the Nazis were slaugh­ter­ing our brethrens, my Sabra grand­par­ents’ and par­ents’ gen­er­a­tions cre­at­ed the mir­a­cle of the State of Israel. How could we take kind­ly to the Ortho­dox sec­tor that gave God all the cred­it? No. This was our Jew­ish coun­try, rich with our new cul­ture of a revived lan­guage and of new songs cel­e­brat­ing every Zion­ist mile­stone, start­ing with the first swivel­ing sprin­kle head that brought water to the desert. Our new humor was nour­ished by the stum­bling nascent bureau­cra­cy, by the expe­ri­ence of idio­syn­crat­ic mil­i­tary ser­vice, and by the dozens of accents immi­grants spoke Hebrew. In the absence of Hebrew curs­es, we bor­rowed them from Ara­bic, Russ­ian, and Pol­ish. We baked under the hot Israeli sun in our shorts, took juicy bites from our home-grown oranges, and defend­ed our new coun­try with our lives for our­selves and for world Jewry. 

My New York­er pro­tag­o­nist in Hotel Moscow, Brooke Field­ing, doesn’t have all that to cre­ate Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, not unlike many sec­u­lar Amer­i­can Jews I’ve met. Hav­ing grown up in a sad home of Holo­caust sur­vivors, Jew­ish his­to­ry for her had no depth before the 1940s. When Brooke vis­its a syn­a­gogue on Yom Kip­pur she is unin­spired by the prais­ing of God and His jus­tice or fear of His wrath. She is all too famil­iar with both His jus­tice and His wrath. New Age spir­i­tu­al­ism — shaman­ism, sacred” scarves, God­dess Earth cer­e­monies, or mys­ti­cal stones — seemed pagan to her. It is only in Moscow, where Brooke encoun­ters unabashed anti-Semi­tism, that she finds an answer, not in faith so much as in her Jew­ish values. 

When Gol­da Meir was asked if she believed in God she respond­ed, I believe in the Jew­ish peo­ple, and the Jew­ish peo­ple believe in God.”

I, too, believe in the Jew­ish peo­ple, and am com­mit­ted to their future while pre­serv­ing their past. I am very Jewish.”

Talia Carner’s fourth nov­el, Hotel Moscow, was just released by Harper­Collins. It is the sto­ry of an Amer­i­can woman who trav­els to Rus­sia short­ly after the fall of Com­mu­nism, becomes embroiled in inves­ti­gat­ing a busi­ness crime, and when fac­ing anti-Semi­tism, comes to terms with her par­ents’ Holo­caust lega­cy and her own Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. For more about the author and the book, please vis­it www​.Tal​i​aCarn​er​.com.

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