Religion & Beliefs
Life as a Non-Jewish Jewish Novelist
In my last post I wondered if my unlikely career as a non-Jewish Jewish novelist began with the religious environment in which I was raised: with parents who broke one of the Catholic Church’s most distinctive rules simply by bringing … Read More
In my last post I wondered if my unlikely career as a non-Jewish Jewish novelist began with the religious environment in which I was raised: with parents who broke one of the Catholic Church’s most distinctive rules simply by bringing me into the world, where else should I look for religious rebellion? But that’s only half the story. The other half is this: For three years after college – just as I was getting it in my head that there were stories worth telling about the odd place of religion in American culture, and that I might make a life’s work of finding them – I worked for an organization that collected used Yiddish books. I took the job mainly because I could find no other, but it turned out to be the perfect writer’s education. A few times a month we’d leave our warehouse in Western Massachusetts and drive north, to Montreal, or south, often to New Jersey, mainly to New York: Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Co-op City. Wherever Jews grew old, they were afraid of leaving their books as orphans, so they called us, and we came. Most of the books we collected were saved only to die among their own; destined not to be distributed to a university, but to crumble on our bookshelves. Nevertheless the books’ owners always seemed gladdened by our efforts. At least once every trip I heard the same grateful sentiment: The very fact that we cared enough to come for the books proved that Hitler hadn’t won; that young Jews came for the memories of the old and the lonely ensured continuity. We were, it was often said, "the future of the Jewish people." Who me? The extent of my Jewish bonafides at the time were only that I had studied religion as an undergrad, picked up some Hebrew, read Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, and generally developed a Judaic literacy totally alien to my French-Irish-American upbringing. All of this together brought to me an interest in that other Jewish language, and that was what opened the door to becoming, as my coworkers occasionally said, "functionally Jewish." Without thinking too much about it, I ended up a Catholic moving through a Yiddish-speaking world. Early on I made no effort to conceal myself.
One old man laughed when I told him my name, "S’iz a modne yidishe nomen…" Peter is a strange name for a Jew, he told me – to which I shrugged and answered, "Ober bin ikh nisht keyn yid." Well, I’m not a Jew, I said, which is so unlikely a sentence to hear in Yiddish that he stared at me, blinking for a full minute, before he switched to English and told me which books to take and which to leave behind. At best I was seen as a curiosity. More often I was greeted with suspicion, sometimes hostility. Once, while picking up books in a Montreal elementary school, I was accused of being a missionary, sent to convert the children of Canada’s hasidic community. What to do in the face of such a bizarre accusation? What else could I do? Following the time-honored assimilationist tradition, I learned to pass. Just as in my high school French class I was not Peter but Pierre, in the Yiddish class I was then taking I was known as Pesach. It didn’t take much to begin using this name on all my book collecting trips. "Vi heystu?" they’d ask. "Ikh heys Pesach," I’d answer. Beyond that I said very little. It was assumed I was a Jew and so, in a way, I was. I never meant it as a deception. Yet through a combination of shyness, an eagerness to please, and a desire to fit in, I was just as surely passing as any Jew who became an Episcopalian to join a country club. One recent, mostly negative review of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter calls such an act "shameful." Granted, in the book the character who passes does so for the sake of bedding a sexy baal t’shuva, which is surely more morally dubious than passing just to hear stories. But still I wonder if there is anything truly wrong with being someone else for a while, if only in other people’s eyes. Shameful or not, that might be the definition of what it is to be a novelist, Jewish or otherwise.