Novelist, memoirist, and poet Leigh Stein is a writer whose work evinces the feeling of having coffee with a funny, with-it friend who knows more about pop culture than you do. Her latest book of poetry, What to Miss When, captures the essence of living during the pandemic — not just the painful aspects, but also the moments of clarity and redemption, often sparked by classic eighties movies, snacks, and the internet.
Stitched into these pandemic staples is Stein’s relationship to Judaism, which her recent marriage rebooted. What to Miss When explores the essence of living a paired-down life of the mind in 2021. What does it mean to be a millennial with an old soul? How can we carry on, knowing what we know? Will poetry save us from TikTok? And, finally, what would Anne Frank do?
Emily Stone: Could you tell me about your upbringing and how you first became interested in writing?
Leigh Stein: I grew up going to Unitarian Universalist church with my mom. My dad is a non-observant Jew (his ancestors were German Jews, merchants, who immigrated to Wisconsin in the 1800s). I always felt drawn to my Jewish heritage, and wanted to learn more about it, but I didn’t have many opportunities to get closer to those traditions (I was one of two Jewish girls in my middle school). I read every book on the Holocaust I could get my hands on; I read Nazi Doctors in eighth grade. I dropped out of high school due to depression and anxiety, and started taking classes at the community college, where I was much happier. I took a Holocaust literature course, which exposed me to Maus for the first time. A couple years later, I got a job working for Françoise Mouly, cover editor of the New Yorker and Art Spiegelman’s wife. When no publisher knew what to do with Maus, Françoise published it herself, serialized, in their comics journal RAW. I was hired to work on their comic book easy readers, TOON Books, published under the umbrella RAW Junior. Working for Françoise for five years taught me a lot about how to make a career as an artist — she is someone who makes things happen, who doesn’t take no for an answer.
ES: Your work spans a trajectory from memoir to fiction to poetry. How do these writing experiences differ emotionally? (I recently heard Amy Jo Burns say that memoir was the most gut-wrenching.) Do any of these categories hit closer to home? What made you want to write this book of poetry as opposed to, say, another novel?
LS: Memoir was the hardest, emotionally, to write because I had to put myself back into the scenes with my ex-boyfriend in order to tell the story of what happened to him, to me. All of my books begin with an obsession — with my memoir Land of Enchantment, I found myself obsessively telling people about my ex-boyfriend’s motorcycle accident, and how we’d once lived together in New Mexico, but every time I told the story, I walked away thinking, I didn’t get it right this time, either. Writing the book was the only way I could tell the full story, and I wrote against his voice in my head, what he used to say to me: “You only tell people the bad parts.”
After that experience, I needed a good time. My novel, Self Care, was probably the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book. All my friends knew I was writing a satire of the wellness industry and they would send me insane products they found online (cannabis-infused cellulite cream). About a year into writing the novel, I realized what I was doing: building a Trojan horse. On the outside, it was this fluffy millennial pink satire of the wellness industrial complex, but inside I was writing something much darker, about the way social media rewards confession and victimhood.
My new poetry collection, What to Miss When, would not exist had I not stopped drinking alcohol two weeks before my state went into lockdown in 2020. When I stopped drinking, the light in the poetry room of my brain turned on and I wrote the whole book in six months. It was a combination of the isolation of lockdown and the pressure to document the surreal early stage of the pandemic. Writing poetry is a very intuitive, spiritual experience for me.
ES: You recently got married — mazel tov! I noticed on Instagram that one of the sourcebooks you used in planning your ceremony was Anita Diamant’s The Jewish Wedding Now. What led you toward Jewish rituals during the pandemic? Was it writing these poems, or had your interest been bubbling to the surface for a while?
LS: Our rabbi recommended that book to us! During the pandemic, I found myself craving tradition and ritual, and I loved learning the history behind Jewish wedding traditions. At our wedding, I invited all our guests to recite the seven blessings in unison. We got married in June of this year, right before the Delta variant surge. We were unbelievably lucky with our date (an Israeli friend of mine kept telling me not to change the date — it’s bad luck!). To be outdoors under the chuppah, and to hear our friends and family blessing our marriage, was incredibly moving.
Also, my husband is Jewish, and his grandparents are survivors. His grandmother, who just turned ninety, was at the wedding. As a child, while riding a trolley, she saw Hitler. Brian wanted to put that in the wedding program under “fun facts” but I vetoed that …
Instead of vows, we took turns reading our ketubah passage aloud. When I got to my final line, “We will remember why we fell in love,” I started to cry, and Brian leaned into the microphone and said, “This is what she’s like when she watches The Bachelor.” A true bashert.
All of my books begin with an obsession — with my memoir Land of Enchantment, I found myself obsessively telling people about my ex-boyfriend’s motorcycle accident, and how we’d once lived together in New Mexico.
ES: In your recent New York Times opinion piece, “The Empty Religions of Instagram,” you write: “Twenty-two percent of millennials are not affiliated with a specific religion. We are known as religious ‘nones.’ … Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology and Dolly Parton. And we’ve found a different kind of clergy: personal growth influencers.” Where does Judaism fit into this whole crisis of faith for millennials?
LS: “Jewish identity” is unique because it’s ethnic, cultural, and religious. No one is ethnically Christian — Christianity is predicated on faith. Most of the millennial Jewish women I know are culturally Jewish but fall under the “new belief system” I outline in my opinion piece: they’re into feminism, therapy, wellness, and astrology. Religious observance is occasional, for High Holidays.
After that opinion piece ran, I received a few invitations from Christians to attend church. Some of these invitations were very kind; others were extremely aggressive and dogmatic, exactly the kind of approach that has alienated so many people from the church. But no invitations from Jews! That made me love Jews even more. They’re not seeking converts. I did make some new friends, including Tiffany Shlain, who mailed me a copy of her book 24/6, which has helped me keep up my new habit of Tech Shabbat.
ES: Do you follow any Jewish influencers and if so, are any of them Orthodox?
LS: I would love to follow more Orthodox influencers! Give me names. On Instagram, I follow @modern_ritual (“two rabbis bringing you fresh, beautiful, feminist Jewish living”) and @thefrocknyc, a modest fashion brand created by two Jewish sisters — I interviewed them for a piece on modest fashion I wrote for Elle. My friend @gilapfeffer is a Jewish influencer — she lives in London and every Friday she DMs me Shabbat Shalom, and that’s my reminder to turn off my phone.☺
On Twitter, I follow Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt—she has done great reporting on the movement to raise awareness of the Orthodox women who are denied gets by their husbands. During the pandemic, I’ve become friends with Batya Ungar-Sargon, the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek and the author of Bad News, a book about how mainstream media has abandoned the working class.
I didn’t know a lot of other Jews when I was growing up. I didn’t live in a Jewish community. All I had were books. Anne’s diary, and the play adaptation, made a huge impact on me.
ES: We are coming up on two years of the Covid era — about which my mother, whenever I complain about it, always says, “It’s not the Holocaust!” Tell me about your Anne Frank poems. Start with your childhood Anne Frank fantasy and poems such as “Incurable Chatterbox” or “Catastrophe Tourism.” Was the fantasy exacerbated during quarantine? What about her death by typhus?
LS: I agree with your mother: it’s not the Holocaust! And the Americans who are adopting the language and the imagery of the Shoah to describe their persecution as anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers is hyperbolic, surreal, ignorant, and deplorable.
As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot of other Jews when I was growing up. I didn’t live in a Jewish community. All I had were books. Anne’s diary, and the play adaptation, made a huge impact on me. Like millions of other people around the world, I felt close to Anne through her voice on the page. This is what all great memoirs do: make us feel we intimately know the narrator.)
When I was twelve years old, I looked a lot like her. I auditioned for two community theater productions of the play. Both times I made it to callbacks, and they cast other girls, who weren’t Jewish. One director called me on the phone to let me know I was too serious. Not fun enough to play Anne.
Years later, when I read Francine Prose’s Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, and learned the history of the play, I understood that it had been adapted for the vibe of postwar America. Optimism! Chutzpah! Look on the bright side!
Most people don’t know that Anne wrote her diary for an audience. After hearing a radio broadcast by the Dutch minister of education asking Dutch citizens to keep the “daily material” of the war, Anne rewrote the diary she’d been keeping for a year and a half, while at the same time producing new entries. She finished her revision three days before the Gestapo found them.
I reread the diary during the first phase of the pandemic. I was struck by how disoriented Anne was by the passage of time, just as we were in lockdown. I wouldn’t compare my experience in lockdown to Anne’s in the annex. I will say I was inspired by her instinct to keep a record, to document everything — down to the details of bathroom routines and the tedious ration diet — and by her hope that one day, her pages would become part of history.
ES: Your poem “Heretic” is a paean to the meaning (and emptiness) of prayer in our current American moment. Is this more of the syncretizing of spirituality practices you talked about before, or is it something more visceral? Why do we cry when we hear people singing Amazing Grace? Does God live there?
LS: This poem was the warm-up act for my Times opinion piece. I found myself crying during the televised funerals in the summer of 2020 whenever I heard clergy speak or a chorus sing. The pandemic further splintered an already divided country. So much of the monologuing on social media is intended to signal which side you’re on — identity formed around who your enemy is. Influencers often reinforce this mindset of war (us vs. them) because it’s good for engagement. The content that performs online is fueled by outrage and I’ve become numb, desensitized to it.
Religious leaders, people of faith and integrity, have shown me an alternative, when they speak and write of what we have in common, instead of what makes us special snowflakes. I cried at the inauguration when Garth Brooks sang Amazing Grace — I wasn’t crying at him singing, I was crying at everyone singing along with him. My copy of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times is covered in sticky notes.
ES: Did your concept of God shift over quarantine? Did you find yourself wanting to participate in Jewish religious ritual practices — Shabbat, the high holidays — after your wedding? Why? How do these rituals contribute to our lives?
LS: I’ve always believed in God, but prayer has become a bigger part of my life. I pray more often, but I also welcome the prayers of others. I used to rebel against people praying for me — maybe it’s because I’m so resistant to asking for help! But the pandemic has humbled me. It’s a relief to admit to God how weak, helpless I am. My ego is like, Don’t tell them that in the interview!!!
ES: Shtisel or The Sopranos?
LS: The Sopranos.
ES: What’s next for you?
LS: I’m working on a gothic novel and practicing my challah baking.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is the author of Did Jew Know? (Chronicle Books).