Earlier this week, Joshua Henkin talked about how he came to write his latest novel, his father and grandfather, and explored the question: “Are you a Jewish writer?” His blog posts are featured on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog Series. For more information on the series, please visit:
I want to talk a little more about my family of origin. My father, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side for 50 years and never learned English. My father himself, by contrast, eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, then fought in World War II, and when he returned he made a career for himself, first at the State Department and the U.N. and then in academia — he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law Schools for a total of 50 years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox Jewish friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.
There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home, and though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath for the sake of the family; my brothers and I were sent to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp), she never herself became observant, and the world in which my mother lived — the secular world — became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself, and so when he was saying Kaddish for his father in 1973 and he convened a daily mincha minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only 9 at the time, already understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn — be a Jew at home, a human being on the street — and it’s only now, looking back from my vantage point as an adult, that I find something strange, or at least noteworthy, in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto.
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