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What’s Jewish American Fiction Anyway?

In the last few weeks I’ve participated on a couple of panels on the state of American Jewish fiction, and it was only thanks to the deftness and intelligence of the moderators and my fellow panelists that we managed to avoid getting embroiled in the question, "Do you consider yourself an American Jewish writer?" Other times, though, on similar panels, I haven’t been so lucky. It seems the question is close to unavoidable. I am, I would say, a not unreasonable yet curious writer to ask to participate in this discussion, and the fact that I’m both not unreasonable and curious points to what I think makes such panel discussions often less illuminating than ideal. I am not an unreasonable choice in that I am an American and a Jew, and an American for whom being Jewish is not merely an incidental part of his identity. I was raised in a religiously and culturally complicated but nonetheless modern Orthodox Jewish home, I went to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp, I spent a year studying Talmud at a yeshiva in Israel, my wife is a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and my older daughter has recently started Kindergarten at the Hannah Senesh Jewish Community Day School in Brooklyn. Although the rabbis who taught me when I was growing up would likely be disappointed by many of the personal decisions I’ve made, I remain in my own way an active part of a Jewish community, and being Jewish is such an essential part of who I am that to imagine not being Jewish would be a little like my imagining not being male: I would be an utterly different person. Then there’s my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, which is a book that’s very deeply about Jewish identity. Two boys, adopted from different birth mothers, are raised as brothers in a modern Orthodox Jewish home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They’re adults now and are no longer religiously observant when one of the brothers is contacted by his birth mother who informs him that, contrary to what he’s been told his whole life, he wasn’t born Jewish. By any defintion, Swimming Across the Hudson would qualify as Jewish fiction if your defintion of Jewish fiction is fiction that engages directly with Jewish subject matter. But what about Matrimony, which, being my most recent novel and the reason I’m invited to participate on these panels, is what I’m expected to talk about? It’s much harder to argue that, by the definition I’ve just offered, Matrimony is Jewish fiction. Yes, Mia, the female protagonist, is Jewish, and yes, there’s a brief period, covered in about three pages, when, as a young teen, she becomes Orthodox. But aside from that, she’s Jewish, as the old joke goes, on her mother’s and father’s sides only. The subject of Jewish religion or Jewish culture hardly ever comes up. Mia marries Julian, a WASP, and the question of intermarriage doesn’t get broached. It’s simply not an issue for them. It’s this last fact that has raised some eyebrows at synagogues where I’ve read and prompted some people who care about such things to ask whether I really consider myself a Jewish writer. I have to admit, the question leaves me flummoxed. Yes, I consider myself a Jewish writer, in the same way I consider myself a Jewish father, a Jewish husband, a Jewish basketball player, a Jewish home owner, a Jewish music listener, etc. I’m Jewish–it’s one of many things I am–and it’s hard for me to separate it out from everything else I am, nor would I want to. It’s not as if when I write about a Jewish character I put on my Jewish identity cap. In any case, it’s a little unseemly, I think, and not particularly fruitful, to measure Jewish fiction by the number of Yiddish phrases that appear in a novel, or by the number of times someone shows up at a synagogue. There’s an intermarriage in Swimming Across the Hudson and there’s an intermarriage in Matrimony. In the first book, it’s a matter of deep anguish for a number of the characters, while in the second book it doesn’t cause a ripple. Is one book more Jewish than the other, and was I more Jewish in the writing of one book than I was in the writing of the other? I certainly don’t think so. And if writing Jewish fiction means writing about the Jewish experience, then there are many different kinds of Jewish experience when it comes to intermarriage, just as there are many different kinds of Jewish experience when it comes to any subject. Some Jews won’t intermarry; some will intermarry with great regret; some will intermarry without giving it a second thought. But these are all things that Jews do, and thus, arguably, equally Jewish. What frequently happens on these panels is that there’s an (often unacknowledged) sliding between "Jewish writers" and "Jewish writing." If Phlip Roth’s next novel were to take place in fifteenth-century Denmark among characters who had never heard of a Jew, it would still probably be looked at through the lens of Jewish fiction because it’s Philip Roth. In light of where he grew up and what he’s written about so far, Shalom Aulsander will probably inevitably be thought of as a Jewish writer no matter what he writes in the future. But does that make his work automatically Jewish? Is Allegra Goodman, an Orthodox Jew, writing Jewish fiction by dint of that fact, or does it depend on what she writes? If it turns out that all of I.B. Singer’s work was ghost-written by a Presbyterian living on a farm in Indiana (as improbable as that may seem), is "Gimpel the Fool" a less Jewish story? To my mind, the whole category of "American Jewish writer" (or any other hyphenated category) feels limiting. I’m a writer, period. Sometimes I write about one kind of person and other times I write about another kind of person. I write about who and what speaks to me at the moment. Although I know others who disagree, I think there’s always the whiff of qualification when someone speaks of Jewish fiction or African American fiction or women’s fiction or Latino fiction. You don’t see in the course catalogue at colleges and universities courses called "Twentieth Century White Male Fiction." Part of the issue is that ethnic writing is a niche market with potentially large sales. To take the case of Jewish fiction, the Jewish Book Council coordinates the annual Jewish book fairs held at hundreds of Jewish Community Centers across the country. It’s quite a gravy train if you can get a seat on board. Every year for three nights before Book Expo, the JCC book fair representatives sit in a large room while writers of everything from novels to fitness books to cookbooks make two-minute presentations in which they flaunt their Jewish bona fides. It’s known among writers as the meat market. But a writer does what she can to sell books, and this is an avenue open to Jewish writers (and/or Jewish writing) that few want to pass up. Not long ago, I gave a reading with Andre Aciman, and he was asked whether he was a gay writer. His answer was (more or less), "Sure–if it will make you buy my book."

Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here for some of next week too!  Stay tuned.



Not to toot my own horn (OK, I will, if only briefly), but the book was a 2007 NY Times Notable Book, and the way this is relevant to you is that I’m offering a free copy to three lucky Jewcy readers. All you have to do is send me an email at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu with the subject "Achin’ for Matrimony" and you’ll be entered in the drawing. For more about the novel, click on here, and for those of you who want to skip straight over the foreplay and buy the book for yourself, your friends, your cousins (Chanukah isn’t far away!) here’s the place for you. Finally, a note to book groups. I’ve been participating in a lot of book group discussions of Matrimony, so if you’re in a book group, or know people who are, and would like a visit from the author either in person or by telephone, get in touch with me at the aforementioned email address or through the book group link on my website. 

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