I came from such an assimilated family that our clam chowder was Campbell’s. Nevertheless, I was raised with certain traditions. There was the “No Slacks on Yom Kippur” rule and the “Seder at Aunt Sara and Uncle George’s.” If my family had settled in Dallas or Indianapolis, we might have easily melded into America, but we lived in Brooklyn, surrounded by people whose holiday practice did not include a Christmas party under a tinseled tree.
My ignorance put me a couple of generations ahead of my contemporaries; they were able to write about the Jewish experience because they’d actually had one. Born in the ’40s, growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I came to fiction more like some of today’s young writers, the ones who encountered their Judaism as artisanal kreplach in other people’s kitchens, or as guests at their friends’ weddings: “Wisteria on chuppah! OMG!”
Like them, I was drawn to a people — my people — but wasn’t exactly sure why. Unlike the defiant kid in the Haggadah — who demands, “What does this mean to you?” — I wasn’t so much distancing myself from Judaism as unable to explain the attachment. Those million-dollar bar mitzvahs you read about didn’t reflect Jewish values. But what were Jewish values? Did they differ significantly from the random Democratic platform?
These days, there are young Jewish American writers who seem knowledgeable about their faith and/or culture: Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, even Michael Chabon. But, as the number of the unaffiliated and unschooled rises, many will be as I was: Jewish enough so that when we’re reading, any three-letter word beginning with a “J” on a page pops out, boldfaced and in 18-point font. Jewish enough to wonder whether this sports figure or that entertainer is Jewish. Jewish enough to sense we’re somehow different from Americans, if only that we never bought into all that Santa Claus business. But now that diversity and hyphenated Americanism is in literary vogue, how do you write an American Jewish novel when you don’t know very much about Jews?
There are lots of answers.