Elis­sa Alt­mans sec­ond mem­oir, Treyf: My Life as an Unortho­dox Out­law, comes out this week. To cel­e­brate her new book’s release, Elis­sa is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

As I write this, I am sit­ting on a screened-in porch in a small cot­tage over­look­ing the Ken­nebec Riv­er in coastal, cen­tral Maine. My rak­ish ter­ri­er mutt, Petey, is asleep at my feet in a beige, ever-so-slight­ly worn Orvis bed that cost as much a pair of Guc­ci loafers; my part­ner, Susan, is in the kitchen, plan­ning the third lob­ster din­ner we’ve had since we’ve been here. The scene is some­thing right out of the fall L.L. Bean cat­a­log: there are small bot­tles of bug spray in every room; the cottage’s scuffed, util­i­tar­i­an din­ner­ware is dec­o­rat­ed with tiny blue light­hous­es; there is a slight edge of chill to the air — it came on sud­den­ly, with the chang­ing of the cal­en­dar from August to Sep­tem­ber — and for the first time since we arrived, I have to wear a fleece vest with my shorts and flipflops. We love it here. We love the peo­ple, the land, the water, the food, the lit­er­a­ture, the nature, the his­to­ry. We’ve been com­ing to Maine for two weeks every Sep­tem­ber for a few years now. We have close friends and fam­i­ly who live here year-round and we will, most like­ly, even­tu­al­ly make the state our home. 

So when I was asked to do a read­ing from my new book, Treyf: My Life as an Unortho­dox Out­law, up in bucol­ic Rock­port a few days ago, I was thrilled and delight­ed and com­plete­ly hon­ored. And then I real­ized that the odds of any­one know­ing what the word treyf meant — lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly; halachi­cal­ly and metaphor­i­cal­ly — were, to say the least, slim. Here, in the land of the lob­ster, the shrimp, the mus­sel, the wild oys­ter, the all-you-can-eat-fried-clam-sup­per, the bean-and-ham-com­mu­ni­ty-church-buf­fet, I would be stand­ing in front of a room­ful of gor­geous Main­ers tan from a sum­mer spent on the water — the women wear­ing nary a drop of make­up beyond a slick of lip­gloss, the men in ancient, salt-caked Dock­siders and polo shirts with fray­ing col­lars — in the least reli­gious state in Amer­i­ca, talk­ing about Shab­bos, and the time my bubbe from the old coun­try fed me boiled calves’ brains the day after I saw Young Franken­stein in 1974, the Coney Island para­chute drop hov­er­ing in the dis­tance less than a mile from the schmaltz-soaked low-rise Brook­lyn apart­ment build­ing where she lived for six­ty years.

What will you read?” Susan asked as she drove us north through Wis­cas­set, past Red’s famous lob­ster roll shack and over the Sheep­scot Riv­er, past the penin­su­la turn-offs for New­cas­tle, Damariscot­ta, Wal­doboro, Friendship.

Prob­a­bly the Lip­shitz chap­ter,” I said, star­ing out the win­dow. She looked over at me. Because, you know, it ends with cook­ing Ital­ian food. Every­body under­stands Ital­ian food. Right?”

Sure, Hon­ey,” she said. What­ev­er you think.”

Dur­ing the last half-hour of our ride to Rock­port, I began to wor­ry: this was the very thing that my pub­lish­er had fret­ted over. No one would know what the word treyf meant out­side of New York City. It hasn’t yet been dragged into the Yid­dish-Eng­lish lex­i­con, like schlep and schmuck and yutz and putz. No one at the read­ing would see the cov­er image of a three-year-old me sit­ting on the lap of the 1965 Macy’s San­ta and get the joke. I would have to go into great and exhaus­tive detail about Halachic law, and mix­ing milk and meat, and cloven hooves, and fish with­out scales. I would com­pli­cate things even fur­ther by explain­ing that treyf can also mean unclean, unac­cept­able, for­bid­den. That it con­tains with­in it a tinge of exclu­sion, of being on the out­side look­ing in, of assimilation. 

And then, for good mea­sure, I was going to read a chap­ter involv­ing a Hasidic rab­bi named Lip­shitz who tried to get me evict­ed from my long-dead bubbe’s rent-con­trolled Brook­lyn apart­ment build­ing where he was the super­in­ten­dent, and where I had moved in 1990 after a bad breakup.

With a woman. 

And this, I real­ized, is the thing that no one ever much talks about while one is in the throes of writ­ing a book that is hard-wired to a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ty and par­tic­u­lar sen­si­bil­i­ty: Will it appeal beyond its obvi­ous audi­ence? Will it make sense? Will it require great and inten­sive expla­na­tion that will ulti­mate­ly uncoil its nar­ra­tive tim­ing and humor and insight? Should writ­ers, while we are work­ing, allow our­selves to become dis­tract­ed by the fear that no one beyond our imme­di­ate world will under­stand what we the hell we’re talk­ing about? 

On the face of it, the answer is no. Writ­ers have, since the begin­ning of time, writ­ten what they know and what they live, in their own culture’s ver­nac­u­lar, with­out the hob­bling con­cern that oth­ers sim­ply won’t get it. They’ve had to: the Joe Kava­liers, Dilsey Gib­sons, Rab­bit Angstroms, Joe Many-Hors­es, and Codi Nolines of the world depend­ed on their cre­ators to write them unflinch­ing­ly, unapolo­get­i­cal­ly, with­out cul­tur­al expla­na­tion. But put to the hard test — at events, read­ings, sign­ings — where we come face-to-face with an audi­ence of read­ers to whom we and our char­ac­ters may be utter­ly alien, things become a lit­tle bit more com­pli­cat­ed. In my expe­ri­ence, read­er­ly kind­ness and com­pas­sion and an unflag­ging, almost dire inter­est in the human con­di­tion win out, every time.

My audi­ence in pris­tine Rock­port Maine didn’t flinch when I read about Lip­shitz-the-Goniff, and how he and I were out­siders in the worlds in which we land­ed: both of us, treyf, both of us try­ing to find our way in a uni­verse that isn’t always kind. When the read­ing was over, an old­er Main­er came over and silent­ly touched my elbow — the Down East sig­nal for I’d like to have a word with you.

We stepped away from the throng and she grabbed my hand.

The thing about it is,” she said, Treyf is about all of us. We are all on the out­side, look­ing in. Every last one of us. Thank you so much.”

I thanked her, this beau­ti­ful old­er lady with the sil­ver page­boy and the bright blue eyes who, with one line, con­firmed my belief: we are far more alike than we are different. 

Elis­sa Alt­man is a food and cook­book edi­tor and the writer behind Poor​Mans​Feast​.com, win­ner of the 2012 James Beard Award for an Indi­vid­ual Food Blog and the foun­da­tion for her pre­vi­ous book, Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Sto­ry of Com­fort, Desire, and the Art of Sim­ple Cook­ing.

Relat­ed Content:

Elis­sa Alt­man writes Poor​Mans​Feast​.com, win­ner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Indi­vid­ual Food Blog. A food and cook­book edi­tor and writer, her work has appeared in Saveur and The New York Times, on Gilt Taste and The Huff­in­g­ton Post, and has twice been select­ed for inclu­sion in Best Food Writ­ing. She lives in Con­necti­cut with Susan Turn­er and a small herd of animals.