The following is an essay I wrote for my old website a few years ago. In the wake of the horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s L’Simcha Tree of Life one month ago — and the the current political atmosphere that has given permission for such hate to come out of hiding and act on it — I find this piece a poignant reflection of the innocence I was once privileged to feel. While the essay is about the Jewishness of my writing, it’s also a declaration of who I am, and reinforces my determination to not be cowed by the haters. And, yes, I still believe that most people are good and kind, and that we can find our way out of this current climate of hate and divisiveness — if we work together.
As I wrote that title, I hesitated. While the statement “I am a Jew” has a proud heritage of defiance and strength, I can almost hear my grandmother warning me, “Be careful, sweetheart, what details you ask others to focus on about you.” But then, she came from a time when being Jewish was a double-edged sword that gave us the protection of belonging to a rich tradition and community, while separating us out for ostracization and exclusion from society as a whole. I’m lucky to not be living in the era of her youth.
Or am I being naïve and foolish? Given the ghettoizing of women writers which implies that somehow our work is not as significant as that of our male counterparts, am I taking a chance by saying that not only I am a woman, I am a Jew? Will I now be relegated to second, or even third-class status in the literary hierarchy? Will I now be considered only as a Jewish female writer? Was William Faulkner “merely” a Southern male writer? Or, Thoreau nothing more than a New Englander tree-hugger? Why is it necessary for me to publicly dismiss my roots, out of fear of having my art and writing less respected?
Being Jewish is one of the two immutable facts of my life. From the moment I was born, I was declared and described as a female and a Jew. On the day I die, I will have lived my entire life as a Jew and as a woman. All other descriptions — daughter, sister, friend, wife, aunt, writer, photographer, poet, philosopher, mischief-maker – have and will continue to evolve, grow, diminish, perhaps disappear, maybe re-emerge, as I move through the years.
But what does it mean to be a Jew?
I’m certainly not observant. While I belong to a synagogue, the rare times I attend services are pleasurable more for the sense of community and continuity, rather than any affirmation of faith. The garbled Hebrew I mouth are rote sounds dredged up from faint memory. Any meaning the strange alliterations might have for me has little to do with language, stemming instead from a visceral nostalgia for people, some of whom I knew in my youth, others whom I can only fathom from the footsteps they’ve left. Echoes I sometimes glance in the mists of history. My history.
My sense of being Jewish flows through my life, shaping my relationships, informing my work, even as my flimsy understanding of my Judaism ebbs and flows. Like the proverbial blind men trying to describe an elephant, I touch pieces of this enormous beast — the serpentine trunk, the huge delicate ear, the stout steady leg — but can never grasp the full shape, size, weight of this thing that encompasses and defines me.
If you were to ask me what is a Jew I would say, look at me, listen to the songs of my life, read my stories, look at my art. There, and there, and there, you will see my Jewishness. Not that I create Jewish books or art, but that my personal Judaism permeates it all. It’s my foundation, affecting my perspective, the way I think or dream, see and perceive.
In my novel Jo Joe, Jewish points of reference are probably the most obvious of any of my work, because the protagonist is a Jew. Yet, I would argue that my novel, The Winter Boy is just as rooted in my Judaism, though a casual reader might not realize it. So too, is my American Hands narrative portrait project.
What are the common threads that run through these three projects? On the surface, they appear quite different from each other. Jo Joe is a highly focused, first person narrative, set in contemporary Pennsylvania, about the ultimate outsider, a girl who was the only Black and the only Jew is a small white Christian village. The Winter Boy is a world-view speculative novel, set in a post-apocalyptic society in which a group of widows wrest peace out of chaos by training the boys destined to be leaders; their methodology includes intimacy, sex, storytelling, Socratic-style dialogues and pragmatic politics. American Hands is my ongoing photographic project, for which I am creating narrative portraits of traditional tradespeople, mounting the ever-growing exhibit in venues large and small, and conducting slideshow discussions and lectures on the subject.
These books, these pictures are me, expressions of my most inner self. And, at the core of who I am are those two definitive facts. I am a woman. I am a Jew. Ever changing, as we all are. Influenced by teachers and friends, books and works of art, and yes, of course, also mass media and my social environment. All filtered through sensibilities and sensitivities that layered and built on each other over the years. But anchored by the teachings and examples of my forbearers, as well as those who brought me into this world.
So what is this Judaism that defines me and influences my work? My understanding (and confusion) about relationships and family, my belief in the need for a just and generous society, my love of small human touches that define a world, my pragmatism that human perfection isn’t attainable and perhaps not even desirable. The ache to communicate, to learn, to teach and share, to help heal a world in pain one person at a time. And underlying it all, the sense of personal responsibility.
I have been taught (and I fully believe) that the responsibility to make our world whole rests within us, as human beings and how we deal with others. I’m not referring to some global or symbolic “us,” but each individual living his or her life according to a sense of justice, compassion, ethics. In other words, it is up to each one of us how our world functions or dysfunctions. What’s more, that responsibility includes frequently questioning what is and asking what if and why not.
As I wrestle with those questions, I form scenarios in my mind, possible paths toward potential answers. People are born in my imagination to populate those scenarios. And stories form, not unlike the teaching tales my mother used to make up or read to me at bedtime. Mostly tales about people connecting or disconnecting, living in imperfect worlds that can be harsh and cruel, but can be made beautiful from moment to moment by a single touch or smile, one true human relationship, one hour walking against the prevailing wind. Plus the discipline and devotion to try to do it again and again and again, even though it is far easier to stop and rest, to step away from the struggle.
Yes, I am a Jew. And, no, my novels and photography are not Jewish art. But when you read my stories or view my pictures, you will touch a deep part of me that is formed by my essential Jewishness.