Don’t Know Much About Semitism

Susan Isaacs Explains How She Got to 'Goldberg Variations'

Assimilated Author: Susan Isaacs grew up in a less-than-observant home, but coming late to the party informs her Jewish fiction.
Courtesy Susan Isaacs
Assimilated Author: Susan Isaacs grew up in a less-than-observant home, but coming late to the party informs her Jewish fiction.

By Susan Isaacs

Published October 22, 2012, issue of October 26, 2012.
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You keep your Old Country name or, if necessary, revert from Robinson to Rabinowitz.

You write a snappy book about characters with Jewish names, drop a schlep here, a shmendrick there and wind up on somebody’s Top 10 Books for Hanukkah list.

You study what you weren’t taught and try to capture the culture and traditions of your characters. If you’re really gifted, like Peter Manseau, author of 2009’s “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,” you’ll offer an examination of coming to America as valid and moving as Abraham Cahan’s seminal novel of 1917, “The Rise of David Levinsky.” If you’re a more pedestrian writer, you’ll contribute another one of those generational sagas that oozes schmaltz — with a noble Orthodox button sewer in a sweatshop, his Weather Underground atheist-radical grandson and the grandson’s noble architect daughter, who makes aliyah and designs playgrounds in which Israeli and Palestinian children can romp together.

You mimic or, more politely, offer an homage to other writers’ American Jewish fiction. You’ve read so much of it over the years that you know the turf. Recycle the basics: the immigrant experience, alienation and belonging, anti-Semitism and self-hate, the Holocaust.

You ask yourself “Who needs this?” and simply write an American novel that has little or nothing to do with Jews. Edna Ferber had a stellar career from the 1920s through the 1950s writing epics like “Showboat,” about a Mississippi riverboat theatrical troupe, and “Giant,” about Texas cattle and oil barons.

I must have been yearning for some Jewish content beyond my genetic makeup because soon after my 21st birthday, I noticed I was no longer dating WASPs. As Johnsons were giving way to Bernsteins, even I (at that point, a woman who believed the unexamined life was well worth living) understood that I wanted to marry a Jew. I found a lovely man and, along with love and a wedding ring, I found myself with two sets of dishes. We joined a Conservative synagogue. I began learning through engagement, rote and reading. Suddenly I belonged… well, to the extent that a novelist can ever feel she is part of a group; we may be part of a minyan, but we’re not fully merged into the community. Whether it’s simply social unease or existential isolation, apartness is how we live and how we make our living.


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