Ear­li­er this week, John Ben­ditt pon­dered whether or not Proust was Jew­ish and wrote about iden­ti­ty and writ­ing. The Boat­mak­er is his debut nov­el. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Some peo­ple have said that my nov­el, The Boat­mak­er, is a fable, that it has a fairy-tale qual­i­ty, that it is a fan­ta­sy. I sup­pose that’s alright, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it can equal­ly well be read as reportage, street-cor­ner soci­ol­o­gy, direct from my lit­tle cor­ner of the world, which is called South Williams­burg. In my neigh­bor­hood there are three social groups, each on its own tra­jec­to­ry. One is grow­ing. One is dig­ging in. One is being dis­placed, slow­ly but sure­ly. The high-end gen­tri­fiers are grow­ing in num­bers. Their incur­sion was slowed by the finan­cial col­lapse that began in 2007, but it’s resumed with renewed inten­si­ty as the econ­o­my has rebound­ed. The His­pan­ic com­mu­ni­ty here is on the oppo­site tra­jec­to­ry: on their way to oth­er neigh­bor­hoods, a lit­tle at a time. The ones who are dig­ging in are the Cha­sidim. Prop­er­ty val­ues on Kent Avenue along the riv­er have gone up so much that it is dif­fi­cult for them to buy up prop­er­ty and build more of the hous­ing they pre­fer. But they aren’t going any­where. Each of these groups speaks its own lan­guage. They can speak to each oth­er if they want, but most­ly they don’t. In fact, for the most part they don’t even see each oth­er. Of course I don’t mean phys­i­cal­ly. They see each other’s cor­po­re­al exis­tence well enough; they’re not blind. But social­ly, as human beings, they don’t exist for each oth­er. The groups pass by and through each oth­er with­out real­ly touch­ing. Usu­al­ly. One Fri­day evening as I went out, a man approached me on the street near my build­ing. He was one of my very Ortho­dox neigh­bors. Could you come up to my apart­ment?” he said. Why?” I said. I’ve lived in New York too long. I don’t do any­thing just because some­one asks. Accord­ing to our laws,” he said, I can­not oper­ate any machines. Even the light, which is a machine. I need some­one to turn off the lights inside.” Alright,” I said. I went in. It was the first time I had ever been in one of the hous­es with the barred cages around the win­dows, where in the fall the lit­tle huts appear sud­den­ly in the rain, like the last fruits of the sea­son. On the way out, he thanked me. So you need­ed me to be the Shab­bos goy,” I said. He looked sur­prised. You are Jew­ish?” Yes.” Your moth­er and your father both?” Yes,” I said, both of them. And also I had a bar mitz­vah. I would be hap­py to tell you my Torah por­tion if you like.” Again, he seemed sur­prised. A lit­tle con­cerned. We looked at each oth­er for a moment, each man in his own thoughts, one ques­tion hov­er­ing over both of us like a record­ing angel: Who is Jewish?”

John Ben­ditt had a dis­tin­guished career as a sci­ence jour­nal­ist. He was an edi­tor at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can and at Sci­ence before serv­ing as edi­tor in chief of Tech­nol­o­gy Review. Read more about him and his work here.

Relat­ed Content

John Ben­ditt began as a poet. He stud­ied with Adri­enne Rich at Swarth­more Col­lege and was award­ed the John Rus­sell Hayes Poet­ry Prize by Robert Cree­ley. He went on to have a dis­tin­guished career as a sci­ence jour­nal­ist. He was an edi­tor at Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can and Sci­ence and served as Edi­tor in Chief of Tech­nol­o­gy Review, pub­lished by MIT. The Boat­mak­er is his first novel.