After spending another wonderful weekend in Milwaukee, I am more in love with my gorgeous niece, Raya, than I ever thought possible. In a matter of weeks, this adorable little creature has swiftly become the most important person in my life, and I simply can not get enough of her sweet face. Neither, it seems, can I seem to get enough of the joy I get from spoiling her rotten. I have become a crafting maniac, going to insane lengths to complete ambitious and complicated blankets, toys, and nursery art for the most scrumptious baby in the world.
See—isn’t she scrumptious?!
The occasion for my most recent Midwestern sojourn was Raya’s baby-naming ceremony. The object of a Jewish baby-naming ceremony is to officially present the child with a Hebrew name, usually honoring a loved one who has passed on. In this touching ceremony, a new Hebrew name is affectionately given to the baby in his or her parent’s arms, along with ecumenical ceremonial input from grandparents and immediate family members. I’m not a very religious person, but Ido have a strong pride in my heritage and my Jewish community. I have to admit that, though I’ve only been to synagogue a handful of times over the past few years, it felt really good to sing those familiar prayers and to share my family’s undeniable love for Raya with our extended community.
At the small, intimate event, our rabbi led a very simple and beautiful ceremony at Temple Shalom, which included a welcome prayer, description of the ceremony, an explanation of the names chosen, a blessing for Raya, and a blessing for everyone. As with most of our Jewish traditions, there was a lot of laughter and many bittersweet tears. Those two are always a hit with my people. And after the ceremony, we had a lovely brunch with—what else—bagels and lox (although finding good bagels in the Midwest continues to be a bit of a struggle, and J and Lorraine Langdon are kind enough to fly to Milwaukee bearing amazing New York bagels for such occasions to keep us all satisfied).
Lately, my personal life hasn’t been the only realm in which my Jewish identity has begun making its way to the surface. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my role as a Jewish author over the last few weeks, and even though I no longer really consider myself a practicing Jew, I can’t deny the sense of responsibility I feel to give the matter some careful consideration.
Jewish American writers like Amy Bloom, Anna Soloman, Kevin Haworth, Gary Shteyngart and Irving Berlin are establishing a new spectrum on which Jewish writers can find themselves. I have to admit that aside from exploring my feelings about Jewish mourning rituals throughout my memoir, A Real Emotional Girl, I hadn’t given much thought to my role as a Jewish American writer until recently.
At last month’s AWP conference, I attended a panel discussion titled, “Beyond Bagels and Lox: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century.” The panel explored the idea that Jewish-American fiction has long been seen as a literature of emigration from the shtetl, assimilationist angst, and overprotective parents. I began to think about how American Jewry’s more than 350-year history inspires plot/setting, and how writers today are influenced by Judaism’s rich multilingual and spiritual legacy. The panel was eye-opening, quite serious at times and uproariously funny at others, and prompted me to think more seriously about the Jewish themes and characters I’m currently working on in my YA novel.
I’d wanted to offer some kind of message about modern Jewish identity through one of my main characters when I set out to write this book, but I wasn’t clear with myself what the nature of that message would be. And as I set about clarifying precisely what kind of message I want to send, my whole approach to these characters and themes began to shift. I can no longer portray the complicated situation between Israel and its neighbors in a way that simply serves my story—I have to do much more than that, be so much more careful than that.
In light of the often frightening state of the world in which we now live, I realize how important it is for me—for all artists—to speak on the challenges and beauties of our world. I realize, with great force and determination, just how remiss I would be to not speak on what I see.
Thank goodness I hadn’t yet tackled the bulk of these Judaism-oriented plotlines at the time of the AWP conference, or I would have had to go back and rewrite large chunks of now-undesirable and unusable content, and there’s just nothing worse than throwing away hard-won chunks of writing. (In writer-speak, we call such a process “killing your darlings.”)
I’ve always believed that as writers, we have an opportunity to shape society’s perception of the world around us and hopefully—at least a little–shape that world itself. It has not been enough for me to simply write good lines or good stories. I’ve settled into the habit of constantly asking myself, “Okay, but what else—what else are you going to do with this?” As my writing life takes a firmer rooting in my life and in my soul (I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true), I find that I have an ever-stronger urge to say some things that I think are important enough to be heard.
Having a niece has brought a life-changing resettling of priorities, including a heightened awareness of exactly how I’d like to try to shape society’s perception of the world if not the world itself. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway’s manifesto on bullfighting (that is really, for the most part, about a writer’s life), Hemingway wrote the best summation I have ever encountered of how it feels the shoulder the burden of asking oneself that troublesome and precious question, What else are you trying to accomplish with these words, that brush stroke, or this image? I’m comforted to know that even Hemingway, master of the simple but extraordinary story, was never satisfied with his work or his place in the world. Though my process and mental health are vastly more stable and enjoyable than the late master Hemingway’s, I am inspired by his need to speak out.
As long as I can push myself forward, and up, and all around in my writing, for the sake of whatever generations will follow me, I’ll have—at the very least—the nascent beginnings of some answers to that question.
I’m responsible for the world in which Raya will live, and I want to give her the tools she’ll need to navigate that world, and sometimes that means speaking up when it’s easier to be silent. We are all responsible.
We’ve seen it all go and we’ll watch it go again. The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole it it’s made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it. No. It is not enough of a book, but still there were a few things to be said. There were a few practical things to be said.