Author Pho­to by Ungano Agriodimas

In Sloane Crosley’s lat­est nov­el, Cult Clas­sic, Lola, a New York­er in her thir­ties, begins to encounter a dif­fer­ent ex-boyfriend every time she’s in a cer­tain area of Chi­na­town. Soon she real­izes that this is by designshe and the men are brought togeth­er by a force ema­nat­ing from a build­ing near­by. Once an ornate syn­a­gogue, the build­ing has fall­en into dis­re­pair: All the win­dows were board­ed up except for a stained-glass Star of David in the cen­ter, with some of the panes miss­ing. The low­er part of the façade was dec­o­rat­ed in graf­fi­ti, the top in pigeon shit, as if both species had come to an arrange­ment.” And it is now home to a cult­like orga­ni­za­tion run by Lola’s for­mer boss.

In the fol­low­ing con­ver­sa­tion, Crosley delves into the sig­nif­i­cance of the decon­se­crat­ed syn­a­gogue at the core of her wit­ti­ly observed and ever-sur­pris­ing book.

Bec­ca Kan­tor: At first glance, the exte­ri­or of the for­mer syn­a­gogue looks almost anachro­nis­tic to Lola — it’s an archi­tec­tur­al rel­ic sand­wiched uncomfortabl[y]” between two mod­ern build­ings. How does the struc­ture reflect Lola’s feel­ings about deal­ing with her per­son­al history?

Sloane Crosley: She describes the syn­a­gogue as look­ing as if it came sec­ond, almost as if the mod­ern build­ings have allowed it to exist by their good graces. That is what a lot of the syn­a­gogues in Man­hat­tan look like to me. They almost appear to be fight­ing off encroach­ment. Wedged in. And this is so much of who Lola is as well, some­one who is made to feel claus­tro­pho­bic in her rela­tion­ships (or who brings that feel­ing upon her­self). There’s also that who came first” con­fu­sion for her. She has become so over­whelmed with the idea of alter­nate paths and choic­es in her roman­tic life that she’s lost her cen­ter. What parts of her per­son­al­i­ty are struc­tural­ly sound and what parts are in dire need of repair? The first time she’s led to the build­ing, she doesn’t want to go in. She doesn’t want to con­front the secrets of this place. But as the book goes on, she runs to it like an embassy on for­eign soil.” Because it is, in so many ways, her.

BK: Did you have real-life inspi­ra­tions for the building?

SC: Yes, there are one or two Low­er East Side shuls that inspired it. One in par­tic­u­lar has been owned and occu­pied by the same man since the ear­ly 1970s. I don’t know what the inside looks like because he’s under­stand­ably finicky about giv­ing tours of his home to strangers. I did speak to him once. He used to get mugged on a week­ly basis; he repairs the place him­self — I think he’s sor­ta earned the right to not open up his home to gawk­ers, includ­ing writ­ers. Espe­cial­ly writ­ers. But I know he’s con­vert­ed much of it into an art stu­dio space of sorts. So I imag­ine we’re deal­ing with a pew-free zone, like in the nov­el. But I like to think there are lit­tle touch­es of the past, per­haps some angled holes in door­ways where mezuzahs once hung.

BK: Is there a con­nec­tion between Lola’s Jew­ish back­ground and the fact that the cult is housed in a for­mer synagogue?

SCA friend in Cal­i­for­nia who works for a Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tion read the book. When we dis­cussed it on Zoom, I could see her eyes bulge as she said, You are work­ing through some stuff, even if you don’t know it.” There’s so much about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and mys­ti­cism and moral­i­ty and sac­ri­lege in the book, plus some Jew­ish imagery, and I think there’s some­thing uncon­scious about how I employed these themes — I didn’t real­ly see it until the end. What I did see were the jokes, par­tic­u­lar­ly a scene with one of Lola’s ex-boyfriends who could not unhook his jaws from a string of bad Holo­caust jokes. But hon­est­ly, it nev­er occurred to me to set the nov­el in any oth­er kind of build­ing. As much as I feel guilty about not being an obser­vant or edu­cat­ed enough Jew, I am obser­vant of that guilt. I know it well.

BK: The synagogue’s loca­tion — at the cross­roads of the Low­er East Side and Chi­na­town, next door to a bode­ga — evokes a spe­cif­ic New York land­scape. Do you feel there is a quin­tes­sen­tial New York” qual­i­ty to Lola’s sit­u­a­tion or to Cult Clas­sic over­all?

SC: I am some­one who’s gen­er­al­ly known as a New York writer,” but I push back against that when I can. Inter­nal­iz­ing that stuff can become a prob­lem — there’s the dan­ger of walk­ing around with this solip­sis­tic only in New York” atti­tude, as if, for exam­ple, no one ever runs into their exes in Kansas City. It starts as a kind of pride-of-place but it can get dark. And turn a per­son into a bad writer.

Hav­ing said all that, the Low­er East Side is one of those neigh­bor­hoods that just aren’t trans­fer­able. My grand­moth­er lived on Orchard Street in the 1950s, so I feel an extra con­nec­tion to it. Per­haps the most salient exam­ple of this quin­tes­sen­tial” qual­i­ty in the nov­el is the scene when Lola first enters the shul. As the door shuts behind her, before every­thing goes black, she sees a cou­ple of peo­ple across the street try­ing to see where she’s going. Like, Why are you allowed in there and I’m not?” It’s a com­bi­na­tion of FOMO, anger, and real estate envy. No one expe­ri­ences that like the peo­ple who live on this island. 

Bec­ca Kan­tor is the edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and its annu­al print lit­er­ary jour­nal, Paper Brigade. She received a BA in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and an MA in cre­ative writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of East Anglia. Bec­ca was award­ed a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to spend a year in Esto­nia writ­ing and study­ing the coun­try’s Jew­ish his­to­ry. She lives in Brooklyn.