Looking Jewish

I’ve just returned from a lecture trip to South Carolina. Among other things, I gave a talk called “My Memoirs Made Me Jewish,” a paradox I’ve rehearsed here recently. The visit went well, although I was perplexed when during the Q&A a woman in the audience seemed unclear about what exactly I mean by the conceit (note to self: make this crystal clear in the next iteration).

At La Guardia we caught a cab and headed home. I was exhausted from the visit and the early flight so I huddled in the corner, eyes closed, lips sealed, hoping to nod off, while the driver engaged my husband in conversation. In the past twenty years or so, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single Jewish cab driver (as he would prove to be), let alone a driver fluent in English. By this I mean the driver who would immediately start talking the moment you entered the taxi and never stop. He’d be full of opinions and sure he was right on all topics.

But today when the driver, who was from Ukraine, ascertained that my husband had been a professor of literature, and proceeded to engage him on the subject, I knew we had encountered a cultural throwback. The driver held forth on the relative merits of Victor Hugo (whose work he had read at age eleven) and Balzac. And of course War and Peace read in Russian at age twelve. After that our autodidact emigrated to America and reading was replaced by television. Did we remember The Twilight Zone? He was shocked that Sandy (when quizzed) said he had never read Pushkin (though I almost piped up to correct the record: we had seen Eugene Onegin at the opera).

I had also been tempted to ask about Ukraine today, tell him my grandfather had been born there in the nineteenth century, that I had traveled to his country a few years ago on my “roots” journey, but I was afraid to start down that road, even though I had noticed his name on the identification plate, Kirschner, and thought it might be Jewish.

MI0000029004Mercifully, despite the rain and the traffic, the ride finally came to an end in front of our building. As I went to get my bag from the trunk, eager to escape any further attempts at conversation, the driver looked at me and uttered a phrase from Yiddish I hadn’t heard since my father died in 1989: “Zei Gezunt.” I was too stunned to comment.

What had led Mr. Kirschner to bid me stay healthy in Yiddish?

I was forced to conclude that my memoirs had succeeded beyond anything I had dreamt of in “making me” Jewish, as if I didn’t look Jewish already.

Be well!

 

My Memoirs Made Me Jewish

In the year 2000 I received a phone call from a real estate broker who informed me that I had inherited a small plot of land on the outskirts of Jerusalem from my paternal grandparents. The phone call led to years of research and traveling because it opened the door on a family history I knew nothing about. What I found―and didn’t find–ultimately made me want to write a book.

This is the first paragraph of that book: What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past.

When my father died, I became a middle-aged Jewish orphan. It wasn’t that I wasn’t already Jewish, of course, or that I had set out to say Kaddish for him―I had no idea how to do that, even if it had been a daughter’s place. But now that the last keeper of my Jewish past was dead, I began to worry about the future of my Jewish self.

TOOJEWISH

“Triple Silver Yentl (My Elvis)” copyright  Deborah Kass

It was only when I read this passage aloud while giving my first book talk that I realized I had used the adjective “Jewish” four times in three sentences. I had reread and rewritten the paragraph many, many times in the editorial process, and never noticed. And what could be more important in a book than an opening paragraph? But it was too late. I was Jewish in print. Repeatedly.
Thinking about the paragraph now in retrospect, I would say that my unconscious was telling my writing self that I was anxious about whether I was Jewish ENOUGH to justify the book’s subtitle– “pieces of a Jewish past.” True, I had grown up immersed in Upper West Side New York Jewish bagels and lox culture, and I had archival proof of my origins, but my Jewish self and my writing self belonged, I had always thought, to separate domains. What They Saved made me understand how they were joined.

I composed Breathless: An American Girl in Paris a decade before publishing What They Saved, and when I returned to that story almost immediately after the “Jewish” book I saw for the first time that the “American Girl” who went to Paris, was not simply an American girl, à la Jean Seberg. The girl whose adventures I had narrated was, as we used to say, “a nice Jewish girl,” and what she wanted to leave behind in New York was the Marjorie Morningstar fate that had become shorthand for an entire generation of girls. The memoir could well have been called: A Nice Jewish Girl in Paris, but the publishers thought that was, well, “too Jewish,” too niche.

NKMLN

Birthday card from Lorie Novak, with self-portrait by author.

What’s not Jewish enough and what’s too Jewish? I learned from What They Saved and then Breathless that I could only solve the Goldilocks problem–the “just right” of Jewishness–through writing itself, in other words by not solving it at all.

 

 

Can we forgive them? Jews in the news.

Back in New York for a few days, and reading the Times (on paper, of course), I’m reminded how publicly Jewish a city New York is―compared, say, to London or Paris, the only other cities I know well, where Jews and Jewishness do not (except for Israel and Palestine) make news.

In Monday’s paper, Anthony Weiner on the road to public forgiveness was the subject of a longish piece, “Courting Group of Voters With a Strict Moral Code, Weiner Faces a Challenge.” 

The article frames a striking photograph of Weiner, sitting at a long table in profile, wearing a yarmulke, looking like a slightly overgrown, penitent Bar Mitzvah boy, surrounded by at least ten black-hatted, payes-wearing, bearded rabbis solemnly debating his political future. Oy, not only has he exposed his crotch (almost) on the internet, his (betrayed) wife is not Jewish! A difficult case.

To my astonishment, I learn, Weiner is doing well in the polls, but the votes (and moral approval) of the ultra-Orthodox would solidify his lead. A woman, “an Orthodox Jew accompanying her mother to [a senior] center,” summarized the more “forgiving” view: “What he did was harmless. It wasn’t like it was embezzlement. Let’s forgive the guy.” If “we” could forgive Clinton and move on, why punish Anthony Weiner? Especially if he has been helpful in the past to the “community.”

“A Question of Forgiving” is the title of a column in Sunday’s Metropolitan section about Eliot Spitzer and his run for city comptroller (in a self-financed campaign). Spitzer is asking for “forgiveness,” he has said in public, in order to qualify for the position. The column compares his situation with that of Norman Mailer who ran for mayor nine years after pleading guilty to stabbing his wife at a party. In that case, it seems, even feminists (!) forgave him since Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem advised him on the campaign because they believed in his vision for “urban revitalization.” So since they were able to “compartmentalize”―set aside their dislike of his personal behavior, shouldn’t the rest of us be ready to look past Spitzer’s indiscretions and admire his vision of a less powerful Wall Street?

As a Jew, I mainly feel embarrassment that these two quite ridiculous, hubristic Jewish men are the topic of so much serious attention, and might even have a chance to display their arrogant personalities in an official capacity. But beyond that is my feminist memory of how Geraldine Ferraro was treated in her role as the first woman nominated for national office. Ferraro was vilified for the dodgy financial schemes of her husband, and then hounded for her position on abortion because of her Catholic identity. This gutsy woman could not get a break.

The analogy isn’t perfect, I realize, but there is something to it: why do “we” find it so easy to excuse men for their…imperfections, but impossible to forgive a woman (think Hillary and her cookies)?

Anthony Trollope pondered these questions in Can You Forgive Her, one of his arguably feminist novels. Check it out if you want a satisfyingly long summer read.