Books

The Big Jewcy: Lorin Stein – Editor Of The Paris Review

The man who revitalized The Paris Review comes to the realization that George Plimpton was a goy right here on Jewcy. Read More

By / June 2, 2011
Jewcy loves trees! Please don't print!

Much has been said, both in public and in private, about Paris Review Editor Lorin Stein. He has been described as a “Party Boy,” by The New York Times, a “Macho-Nerd” by New York Magazine, and “Manhattan’s Hot New Literary It Boy,” by the fine folks at Gawker. People whisper about him at parties, gossip about him on blogs. In fact the only thing it seems like no one has yet to call Stein is a Jew. But he is one, right?

(And by asking this question, I admit I have turned into my father.)

His name’s Stein, and he has edited, published, and championed  a whole new generation of  talented Jewish writers including David Bezmozgis, Sam Lipsyte, and Joshua Cohen. But he’s also a preppy-looking Yalie who drinks martinis. What’s the deal?

Earlier this month I sat down with Stein at the offices of The Paris Review to discuss, among other things, his Jewishness or lack thereof, Jewish literature, Yiddish humor, Elliott Gould, and the de-WASPification of The Paris Review. Stein was an altogether gracious host. Over the course of our discussion we consumed whiskey, martinis, Sabra hummus, and many cigarettes. Stein’s most immediately obvious personality trait is that he is an incredibly good listener: attentive, thoughtful, and interested. As a typical Jewish man, my natural response to a person like this is to talk incessantly about myself for as long as possible. It took nearly an hour before I remembered that I was supposed to be interviewing Stein, and not the other way around. At which point I turned on my tape recorder and fired away. What I realized is that all the time I’ve spent in Stein’s company talking about myself could have been better used listening to what this guy has to say, because he is  eloquent, articulate, and really quite brilliant. As our conversation was winding down, Luisa Zielinski,  a friend of Stein’s, and a visiting scholar from Germany, joined our conversation, adding a much-appreciated Germanic perspective on all things Semitic.

Adam Wilson:  Are you Jewish?

Lorin Stein: –ish.

Ok.

Well, my father’s father was a Jew, in the matrilineal sense. Not in any religious sense. Supposedly the Steins were freethinkers even before they left the old country, Bohemia. Here they became Ethical Culturists.

The other part of the answer is that my stepfather is a Jew. A Brooklyn Jew. A real Jew. Not especially observant, but…
Most real Jews aren’t…

But he is bar mitzvah. When I was a kid I wanted to have a bar mitzvah just so we could have that in common. That’s how I discovered pretty much the one thing my four parents agreed about—the essential badness of this idea.

Do you feel a connection to Judaism in a cultural sense?

LS: I feel a connection to being mixed. Does that count? Looking back, I realize my father inherited and handed down some typical German-Jewish attitudes. About the importance, or at least the okayness, of high culture and reading. About not making a fuss over one’s identity. Above all a sense of belonging and of being, at the same time, different. There was a flap at Yale, in the thirties, when my grandfather was denied tenure in the English department. Some Jewish students claimed it was discrimination. It was routine at the time to keep Jews from teaching English at fancy schools. In any case, all his life my grandfather refused to discuss it. Really, I can imagine my father behaving the same way. It even makes intuitive sense to me, to find the whole situation embarrassing.

And then I also felt—and feel—very close to my stepfather, who has shown me a very different way of being Jewish. The other day he and my mother were invited to a birthday party where everyone was supposed to dress up as the person they’d most like to be. My stepfather was going to go as a mensch, but he couldn’t figure out a costume. So he went as Gil Hodges, who played first base for the Dodgers. My mom went as Venus Williams.

So you have championed a number of Jewish writers from Leonard Michaels to Frederick Seidel to newer writers like Sam Lipsyte and David Bezmozgis and Joshua Cohen. Do you see any through-line, or feel any connection between any of them. I feel like none of them are “big” Jewish names of their generations like Bellow and Roth or Safran-Foer and Lethem and maybe Englander, but are arguably the more exciting writers.

They excite me too. One thing you would have to say about the younger Jewish writers – with Bezmozgis being an exception – is that they do not make hay out of being Jewish. Whereas Michaels, for example, has a nostalgic strain in his writing.

Which he sort of punishes himself for.

There are many self-punishments in his writing. Bezmozgis knew Michaels and loved him, but among those writers you mention he’s a special case. Bez’s family remained observant, even in the Soviet Union. They came to Canada partly to practice their religion. He writes a lot about this. For him, the Jewish religion is still a live topic, as it is—in very different ways—for Englander, or Shalom Auslander, or Allegra Goodman.

The other writers, the ones who are our age—for them it’s a fact of life that doesn’t need to be celebrated particularly. It almost sounds odd to call Lipsyte a Jewish writer. We call Proust a Jewish writer, I think, because he wrote so much about being Jewish. (Plus—if you can claim Proust, you claim Proust.) We tend not to call James Salter a Jewish writer, because he doesn’t. Let’s say those are the two poles. What makes Sam a Jewish writer? Maybe something about the sound of his prose? Something he teases out of Elkin, something he gets from Michaels? Is he able to tap into those writers, does he have the license, because he’s Jewish? I don’t know. But there is something that helps him hear American English with a Jewish ear.

What was your relationship with [Leonard] Michaels?

I never met him. In high school I read the essay “I’m Having Trouble With My Relationship” in a Best American Essays volume and loved it. Then I encountered him again in college. And then read him again at FSG, when I found Shuffle in the house library. The story “Journal,” in that collection, is still my favorite.

Then I found out that two young writers who mattered a lot to me—Bezmozgis and Wyatt Mason—had met through Michaels, that they had both known him when he was teaching in California. In fact Michaels introduced them. (And Wyatt introduced me to Bez.) So Michaels became a sort of tutelary spirit in the office. By the time we reissued Michaels’s books, of course, I discovered that there was a vibrant Michaels cult. Take Lipsyte, for example.

Yeah, Lipsyte turned me on to him. It was a revelation for me. Because my father was a Bellow scholar. For me, at least, I felt like Roth and Bellow were my father’s territory. And when I read Michaels, I felt like this was the Jewish New York that I wanted to discover—and Grace Paley too.

They sit in their groove—Michaels and Paley—they sit in their groove and they listen. With Bellow, he’s always actively trying to invent a demotic that does not yet exist on the page. You don’t feel that with Michaels and Paley. You feel that they’re receptors, and are comfortable bringing the news of what they’re hearing to their readers. They don’t need to prove so much. With Bellow’s generation, you get the sense that they’re trying to lay claim to an American tradition that, itself, is slightly off the beaten path It’s an American tradition that includes the transcendentalists and Melville. And for Bellow, he’s doing it through this crazy auslander-speak. He’s giving America back to itself through his own urban demotic.

This is a digression, but I love to think that Melville exists for us thanks to the interest of Socialist Jews in the early part of the 20th century. These Lefty Jews rediscovered Melville, for us, the way Charles Lamb rediscovered Marlowe for the Romantics.To take a very different example, my grandfather Stein loved Henry Adams. Adams was a terrible anti-Semite. Maybe my grandfather didn’t care. Who knows. At the same time, that’s the way you lay ownership to the country. And why would you not lay claim to the tradition that matters to you? You and I have that luxury. It’s fun to see those New York Intellectuals of the 30s, the 40s, and 50s, doing it in an outrageous way.

Even Bellow—“I am an American Chicago born”—there’s this implied parenthetical, which is, “So fuck you for calling me a Jewish writer.”

Exactly.

And I feel like the difference now is that if this is post-racial America, maybe it’s also post-Jewish America where Sam Lipsyte doesn’t need any implied parenthetical.

My colleague Sadie Stein calls us post Annie Hall. I think she may mean those of us who grew up in mixed families. For me, the time it all changes is when Altman casts Elliott Gould as Trapper John. [in M.A.S.H]

Huh.

Trapper John—he’s a football hero from Dartmouth! But he’s Elliott Gould in a Jewfro and handlebar mustache!

Gould also plays Marlowe [in Altman’s The Big Sleep]

Exactly!  You read the coverage of Gould at the time—it’s all about how he’s a Brooklynite, how he’s a street kid—but that’s not what the movies are telling you. The movies are telling you that in the better America we are now inhabiting—and in which we get to rewrite the history of the Korean war and redo Raymond Chandler—Elliott Gould is an American. Brooklyn born, but American. That America is, in its coolest and freest and most aristocratic stratum, maybe partly or secretly Jewish. It all comes together in that first scene where Elliott Gould reaches into his army parka, pulls out an olive jar, and drops two olives into his martini. What’s that line? A man can’t really savor his martini without an olive.”  Those olives put the mix back in mixology. They’re miscegenating olives. In interview Altman liked to pretend that he himself was “half-Jewish.” He was a philo-semi-Semite.

So if Bellow had this chip on his shoulder, that’s where it ends?

That’s where it ends. At least for Hollywood. Or at least in my fantasy life.

Of course it all happened before I was born.

I think the disconnect between writers of your generation and the previous one is the same disconnect between me and my father, where I’m constantly like, “Get over the holocaust dad!” He still—he reads these books—basically he’s become obsessed with the historical Jesus. But then he’s also reading these books like, “Hitler and Yahweh”, and I’m just like, it’s over! Let it die! But he’s still trying to prove that Jesus wasn’t actually the Messiah. He thinks he can find physical, scientific evidence.

Funny, even I found it unnerving to read Gopnik’s piece in The New Yorker about Christ. Not that it revealed anything one didn’t know, or hadn’t thought, but … Christ wasn’t an actual guy? We’ve all spent so much time thinking about what happened on that third day. Or didn’t. He is such a tangible character to me.

Ha, tangible—no pun intended.

It’s strange to think about how much is expended on religion in America.

Well it’s strange to you and me, but not to most of America. If we weren’t Jewish, or partly Jewish in my case, I don’t think we would have to scratch our heads over it. During the presidential debates my sister and I had a lot of foreign friends in town, and we’d all meet up at bars with big screens in Fort Greene. You notice how religious—really, how Christian—we are when you watch Europeans grappling with all the God stuff. But you simply cannot do politics in America without being able to talk religiously. The Europeans associate God with the Right. For the Left religion isn’t a matter for civil society.

That is one of the ways that Europe has…

…Done better? I don’t know. I thought the religion speech was the best speech he [Obama] ever gave. Not just the way he talked about the black church, as a way of talking about blacks and whites in general, but the way he let his own person stand for the country. The metaphor struck me as very Christian, so audacious and humble at the same time. And it reminds you of William Jennings Bryan, miming a crown of thorns, miming the cross. I can’t help loving that stuff. I listen to gospel every day.

I sort of feel the same way though, in part, for me, because it’s the other. But in part, because I was raised to think that Judaism is a euphemism for agnosticism for the most part. My father calls himself a Gnostic, actually. I don’t know what that is.

Is he really!

I don’t know if he actually is. I think he just likes saying it to piss off my mom.

Luisa Zielinski [a German friend] arrives.


So here’s one you can both answer. Leonard Michaels tells a joke in one of his essays that he claims is the exemplar of Yiddish humor. And I want to know if you think it’s funny, and if you can explain it.

How does it go?

The Rabbi says, ‘What’s green, hangs on the wall, and whistles?’
The student says, ‘No idea.’
The Rabbi says, ‘A herring.’
The student says, ‘Well a herring could be green and hang on a wall, but it definitely doesn’t whistle.
The Rabbi says, ‘So it doesn’t whistle.’

LS + LZ: [Loud, prolonged laughter]

LS: No comment.

LZ: No clue.

LS: No comment because it works.

In that same essay he talks about how his sentences are intrinsically Yiddish because they end on a shoulder shrug. “It doesn’t whistle” has an implied shoulder shrug.

I remember my father being very surprised by a New Yorker profile of Roger Straus, the founder of FSG. In the profile Roger used Yiddish—Yiddish words, Yiddish phrases. This was absolutely foreign to my father. No doubt it was foreign to the Strauses. My father didn’t understand that someone like Roger might invent a self that could lay claim to that kind of humor. Maybe it was, in some way, foreign to Roger. I’m sure he didn’t grow up with it. But WASP society was foreign to him too. So why not? These days, you don’t have to be a Polish Jew to know how to deliver the punchline, ‘So it doesn’t whistle.’ Even a German could say that, right? [to LZ]

LZ: [Shakes head no.]

LS: [to LZ] But if you were telling the joke, how would you tell it?

LZ: [Indecipheriable German]. Probably like that.

LS: So it doesn’t whistle.

Final question. We’ve been discussing post-Jewish and post-racial America. Would you say the Paris Review, in its current incarnation, is post-WASP?

LS: What—you’re telling me Plimpton was a goy?