Complication of the Jewish Writer Question
Earlier, Daniel Torday wrote about Jewish novella-writers. Daniel’s novella “The Sensualist” won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. 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:
About three days after my second daughter, Delia, was born, I got a call from the editor of a novella I’d published the previous year. She said, “Congratulations!” I thought she was talking about the new baby. After three long minutes of my bumbling about diapers and sleeplessness she said, “You don’t know, do you? You won the National Jewish Book Award!”
My first response was: Holy Oh My God! My second was: I mean, G-d! And my third was: Wait, so, does this make me a Jewish Writer? Because some part of me doesn’t know what that means, and what that means for me.
So here are some facts:
My father was bar mitzvahed one year before I was. My grandparents both converted to Catholicism in Budapest in the ‘40s to survive the war. I have not been to shul in a very long time. I teach undergraduates, and when a seminar falls on Yom Kippur, I generally fail to cancel class. I have written and published short stories about a kid who makes a brother for himself out of duct tape; a guy who is being tortured for not believing the day is 30 hours long; an affair between two non-religiously affiliated adults who have an affair on or around September 11. My second daughter, Delia, who I mentioned above, definitely has an Irish name.
But then here are some concurrent facts: I was bar mitzvahed after many years of Hebrew school, and went on to be confirmed in the shul I attended all through my teenage years. I know what the word “shul” means. I fast every year on Yom Kippur even if I’m teaching — and would probably cancel class if I had the foresight when writing a syllabus. Though my grandmother died too afraid ever to admit she was Jewish after the war, having lost almost everyone in her family, my grandfather told us his family’s history long before he passed a couple summers back. My novella has a major scene that takes place at a Passover Seder. I did not have to do “research” in order to find out how a seder goes, to look up the Hebrew for the Four Questions — my memory has them. The book I’m finishing now, a first novel, is in part about a Jewish teenager who is forced to leave his home north of Prague before the war and who ends up piloting a Lancaster bomber for the RAF. My first daughter, Abigail, has a name derived from the Hebrew for “a father’s joy.”
Which is all to say: Am I a Jewish writer? I am Jewish. I have now written two books with decidedly Jewish themes. I have spent time drafting stories and other books wholly absent Jewish themes. Earlier this week I posted a blog here about my favorite “Jewish” novella writers — Roth and Bellow, both of whom are widely thought of as Jewish writers. And who are among my major influences. But then I also love James Salter, who was born James Horowitz. And E.L. Doctorow. And J.D. Salinger. All of whom never quite got that moniker.
Which is all to say again: Am I a Jewish writer?
Here’s one more fact:
Last summer I was assigned a review of the New American Haggadah, translated by Nathan Englander and edited by Jonathan Safran Foer (Jewish writer; Jewish writer). And so for the first time in many years I sat down and read Genesis and Exodus. When I did, I had a feeling not of learning, or of readdressing, but of a bone-deep memory that put tears in my eyes by the end of my reading every day. Jewish writer? In many ways complicated. Jewish reader? I’ll own it without equivocation.
Daniel Torday’s debut novel, “The Last Flight of Poxl West,” will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015.
The Jewish Book Council is a not-for-profit organization devoted to the reading, writing and publishing of Jewish literature. For more Jewish literary blog posts, reviews of Jewish books and book club resources, and to learn about awards and conferences, please visit www.jewishbookcouncil.org.
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