Authors Discuss “Writing in Jewish”: Postcard From New York City

Erika Dreifus

On the evening of September 18, about halfway between the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a panel convened at the Museum of the City of New York to consider the idea of “Writing in Jewish.” Cosponsored by the museum and the Jewish Book Council, the panel was moderated by Alana Newhouse, the arts and culture editor at the Forward, a newspaper whose 110-year history the Museum will celebrate until November 25 in an exhibition titled “The Jewish Daily Forward: Embracing an Immigrant Community.”

Speaking before a mostly older (gray-haired) audience, the panelists included Joshua Henkin, whose new novel, Matrimony, will be released by Pantheon Books next month; Nica Lalli, author of the memoir Nothing (Prometheus Books, 2007); Shira Nayman, whose story collection, Awake in the Dark, was published by Scribner last year; and Jonathan Wilson, a novelist and critic whose most recent book is a biography of Marc Chagall published by Nextbook-Schocken in the “Jewish Encounters” series.

Newhouse opened the discussion by asking the panelists if they consider themselves “Jewish writers.” And if so, how? All the writers responded affirmatively, but the “how” replies differed, growing more nuanced as the panelists tackled Newhouse’s next question, on how they approach Jewishness in their work.

Wilson, for example, said that although he writes “out of being Jewish,” when he’s immersed in the act of writing the work takes precedence; he doesn’t consider himself  “anything in particular.” For Nayman, whose Awake in the Dark explores psychological legacies of the Holocaust on children of both victims and perpetrators, and who was raised primarily in Melbourne, Australia, a city with one of the highest concentrations of Holocaust survivors outside Israel, writing has led to deeper discoveries of her Jewish self.

Lalli, the daughter of a Jewish mother and Catholic father (“lapsed,” according to Lalli, in both cases), explained that her memoir is about growing up with no religion at all. Nothing also stemmed from her motivation to write about being an essentially nonreligious person in a world in which increasingly polarizing current events seem tightly bound with religion.

For Henkin, who attended a Jewish day school on the Upper West Side and whose Web site biography mentions a paternal grandfather who was an Orthodox rabbi, his first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1997), deals more directly with Judaism as a religion and as a culture than his second. With some echoes of Wilson’s comments, Henkin said, “I’m a Jewish writer in that I’m a Jewish person.” He noted that he doesn’t consciously think about himself as a Jew when he’s writing any more than he thinks of himself in any of his other major identifications: as a male, as his parents’ son, as his wife’s husband.

Newhouse and the panelists also addressed the challenges of defining “Jewish writing.” Does that label cover writing by Jewish writers on any subject (even one that isn’t necessarily “Jewish”)? Work by any writer (even one who isn’t Jewish) on a Jewish subject?

Nayman, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology as well as a master’s degree in English and comparative literature, remarked that when she considers books with “Jewish” themes, one theme that surfaces is that of "being an outsider.” For her part, Newhouse suggested that, in a culture in which Philip Roth is the only living writer to have his works published within the authoritative Library of America series, perhaps it’s time to ask, “Are we [Jews] really still outsiders?”

Perhaps not in New York City (which three of the four writers on the panel, as well as Newhouse, call home). But Lalli reminded the group that New York City is by no means representative of the rest of the country. And the isolation some Jews still encounter elsewhere, she said, can exert a powerful effect on their identities.

Henkin acknowledged that for many American Jews today, the “outsider” theme no longer dominates their identities. Other longtime preoccupations have similarly shifted. And that translates to changes in Jewish writing as well. In Henkin’s new novel, for example, the fact that a Jewish character marries a non-Jewish one is a mere circumstance, rather than a conflict that might otherwise have loomed over the story.

What became most clear, oddly, was how very unclear “writing in Jewish” may actually be, how difficult it can be to reach a consensus on definitions of "Jewish writers” and "Jewish writing.” And that left the audience of readers and writers (myself included) with a lot to think about.