Okay, maybe Hamlet never pondered that question (what would you expect from a guy who has treyf right in his name?).
But many writers, and literary critics, can’t help but wonder what it means to be a Jewish author. In “Funny, You Don’t Book Jewish,” I explored the question by comparing a novel by Chinese-American author Gish Jen about growing up in Jewish suburbia with my own first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, which is based on the true story of an African American woman who becomes a Union spy during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. I made a nice argument for the “Jewishness” of my book, despite its definitely-not-a-member-of-the-tribe protagonist.
And yet, the question of what it means to be a Jewish author loomed even larger as I wrote my second novel, Juliet’s Nurse, which imagines the fourteen years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet, as told by one of Shakespeare’s most memorable “minor” characters (the nurse actually has the largest number of lines in Shakespeare’s play, after the eponymous teens — which makes her a pretty major minor character. She’s such a yenta I knew she deserved her own book).
So what’s a nice Jewish writer doing re-imagining Shakespeare’s best known and most beloved play?
The part of me that earned a Ph.D. in literary studies might argue that the question of identity is already at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. In the most famous scene, when Juliet wonders, “wherefore art thou Romeo?” and then insists “a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet,” she’s plumbing how much of who Romeo is depends on who his people are – in his case, the Montagues, or as we might say, the whole mishpucha. I could draw some analogy from the question of family identity to the question of Jewish identity, particularly the dynamic combination of culture and ritual that defines what it means to be a Jew in contemporary America.
But in truth, that’s not how I think I enter into Juliet’s Nurse as a Jewish author. I come to it by way of Passover, and the Talmudic tradition.
Why Passover? It’s not like I do some Shakespearean seder, reciting the ten plagues in iambic pentameter (although maybe next year in rhyming couplets …). But both as an author and as a reader, I’m drawn to first-person fiction. I like the immediacy of imagining myself in a particular time and place. A reader asked me about this, about how I can take on a character so different from myself and tell her story, and in trying to explain the process, I thought of the Haggadah’s instruction that we recount the story of Exodus every year as though each of us ourselves had come out from Egypt.
When you think about it, that’s a little weird. Why celebrate a holiday by imagining ourselves living in a different, and difficult, historical moment? I suppose from a ritual perspective, it connects us with a distant Jewish history in a way that’s meant to make it truly ours.
From an author’s perspective, this kind of telling-as-if-it-happened-to-you is the only way to create a convincing world for your character. To write Juliet’s Nurse, I had to imagine what it would be like to experience fourteenth-century Italian life as a woman who, well let’s just say the amount she is so-not-Jewish might be measured by her tendency to over-identify with the Virgin Mary. But for me to write in that character, to tell her story as if it happened to me, feels totally Jewish.
Then there’s what I’m calling the Talmudic tradition part of writing Juliet’s Nurse, which is my Jewish shorthand for encountering a text that is at once authoritative yet often either oblique or opaque about important questions. The Bard may not be the Bible, but in reading and re-reading Romeo and Juliet, I took the Talmudic approach to revering yet questioning the text.
My novel began with questions I thought Romeo and Juliet raised but didn’t answer:
- In Shakespeare’s play we learn that the nurse, whose name is Angelica, had her own daughter, born at the same time as Juliet, who didn’t live. What would it be like to lose your own infant and immediately be given another baby to nurture in such a physically and emotionally intimate way, yet always be a servant in her household?
- At one point in the play, Angelica describes Juliet’s cousin Tybalt as the best friend she ever had. But Tybalt and Angelica never appear in a scene together in the play, and they are separated by huge differences in age, class, and gender. How would their friendship have started, and what would it have been like?
- Angelica serves as the go-between in Juliet’s secret romance with Romeo, even helping Romeo sneak into the house to consummate their illicit marriage. But when she comes back onstage later in the same scene, Anglica suddenly tells Juliet to forget Romeo and marry another suitor instead. What happens while she’s offstage? What does she learn, and why doesn’t she tell it to Juliet?
- And of course, the biggest question of all: Angelica comes to the household as Juliet’s wet-nurse. But Juliet is nearly fourteen years old when the play begins, and has been weaned since she was three. Why is Angelica still hanging around the house?
I may not be a rabbinic scholar, but this process gave me the seeds from which my novel grew.
One of the strange things about creative writing is that ideas and themes and characters and scenes emerge in your work from sources you don’t consciously realize your drawing on. It’s sort of magical and sort of terrifying, because you can’t force it, you just need to trust that it will happen. And for me, it’s fascinating and reassuring to realize that my Jewishness will always be one of those sources, regardless of what I’m writing about.
So if I were to take on the guise of Hamlet — or maybe Kasha Knishlet — to ponder “To be or not to be a Jewish author,” my answer would be, “yes, inevitably!”
Read more about Lois Leveen and her work here.
- Essays: On Writing Jewish Literature and Being a Jewish Writer
- The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America by Jacob Gordin
- The Banished Heart by Libi Astaire
- Essays: Writers on Other Writers and Books