Alle­gra Good­man is the author. Her new nov­el, The Cook­book Col­lec­tor, will be released next week. She will be blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings author blog series.

Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It can mean writ­ing by a Jew­ish author, writ­ing about Jew­ish cul­ture, writ­ing about Jews, or writ­ing about Judaism as a religion.

I don’t always write about Jew­ish peo­ple, but I am always a Jew­ish author. I don’t always treat Judaism either as cul­ture or as reli­gion, but some­times I do — notably in my first nov­el, Kaater­skill Falls (1998), which is about a com­mu­ni­ty of Ortho­dox Jews who sum­mer in upstate New York.

When Kaater­skill Falls came out, some read­ers assumed that my own reli­gious beliefs par­al­leled those of the pro­tag­o­nist, the pious and imag­i­na­tive Eliz­a­beth Shul­man. This was flat­ter­ing to me, because I loved the char­ac­ter. How­ev­er, I am her author, not her sis­ter. I did not infuse Eliz­a­beth with my own hopes and fears, nor did I share her his­to­ry. Read­ers asked: What is it like to write about your reli­gious beliefs? Again, I was flat­tered by the ques­tion. I was cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter with her own reli­gious beliefs.

Peo­ple assume that writ­ing is self expres­sion, and to some extent they are right. The tricky part is that fic­tion writ­ers express them­selves by dis­plac­ing their expe­ri­ences, trans­pos­ing their beliefs, cod­ing their feel­ings. A nov­el is clos­er to dream than mem­oir. There­fore, while my work is deeply per­son­al, it is not auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. That’s what makes my job so sat­is­fy­ing. I am not Eliz­a­beth Shul­man, the Ortho­dox moth­er of five, any more than I’m Sharon Spiegel­man, the bohemi­an seek­er in my sec­ond nov­el, Par­adise Park (2001).

Indeed, I think of those nov­els as part of a larg­er project — a kind of Songs of Inno­cence” and Songs of Expe­ri­ence” in which I explore the spir­i­tu­al lives of two very dif­fer­ent Jew­ish women in Amer­i­ca. Eliz­a­beth lives a high­ly struc­tured life, and longs for auton­o­my. Sharon lives in a wilder­ness of choice, and longs for struc­ture and guid­ance. My rela­tion­ship to these char­ac­ters? I’m both and neither.

As an artist I take reli­gion as a rich sub­ject. I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by belief, by rit­u­al, by the way that peo­ple define them­selves and search for mean­ing. Reli­gion is but one of my sub­jects, however.

My third nov­el, Intu­ition (2006), is about a group of can­cer researchers. None is par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious. The Jews among them are quite assim­i­lat­ed. This is a nov­el about belief and doubt, about trust, about gen­er­a­tional ten­sion, about rit­u­al and tra­di­tion — but I write of belief and doubt as pow­er­ful forces in sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion, about trust with­in an intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty, about gen­er­a­tional ten­sion, rit­u­al and tra­di­tion inside a lab­o­ra­to­ry. Intu­ition is a book about sci­ence and also a book about the soul.

My new nov­el, The Cook­book Col­lec­tor, is a nov­el about iden­ti­ty, par­tic­u­lar­ly buried Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. It is also a nov­el about tech­nol­o­gy and its dis­con­tents. It’s a book about the long­ing
for authen­tic­i­ty in a vir­tu­al world, about trust and betray­al and the need to con­nect. Most
strik­ing, The Cook­book Col­lec­tor is about the dis­place­ment of desire.

I’m fas­ci­nat­ed by the way we read cook­books instead of cook­ing, col­lect mate­r­i­al things instead of liv­ing, pur­sue fame and for­tune instead of lov­ing. I ask — what hap­pens when we wake up? What hap­pens when we declare, as Orlan­do does in As You Like ItI can live no longer by think­ing”? This is a human ques­tion. In the end, dreams and thoughts can’t sub­sti­tute for real life. It’s a mod­ern ques­tion. Our vir­tu­al con­nec­tions and our cyber world can’t sub­sti­tute for face to face con­ver­sa­tion. And it’s a Jew­ish ques­tion. Jews are often tagged the peo­ple of the book,” but Judaism is a reli­gion in which actions speak loud­er than words. For me, writ­ing Jew­ish fic­tion means enjoy­ing these mul­ti­ple valences.

I don’t see Jew­ish-Amer­i­can” or Jew­ish woman” or Jew­ish artist” as either/​or propo­si­tions. Nor do I view Judaism nar­row­ly as cul­ture or reli­gion or eth­nic­i­ty. As an artist I think of Judaism as an addi­tive rather than exclu­sive qual­i­ty. Per­haps you can tell from this that I am the daugh­ter of a Jew­ish philoso­pher!

Alle­gra Goodman’s new nov­el, The Cook­book Col­lec­tor, is avail­able for pre-order. Find her on Face­book and her web­site, and come back all week to read her posts for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.