March 5, 2012

Some thoughts on "Jewish" writing

When I was a kid, growing up in a heavily Catholic part of suburban New Jersey, the fact that I was Jewish made me feel...just a little different. A lot different, sometimes. My favorite "I'm different" memory was taking peanut butter and jelly on matzoh to school during Passover.  All my friends had normal bread.

And when you're a kid, different means weird, right? Uncool.

But now that I'm an adult and a reader and a writer, I've noticed something. It's a recent observation. But it's true.

I am surrounded by Jewish books. They're written by authors I admire. And they're cool!

Did it start, years ago, with Philip Roth and his new picture of Jewish New Jersey Americana? If so, then it was certainly perpetuated by writers like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer.

More recently, we've had an uptick in books about Anne Frank.  There was The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman.  Then Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander (see my review here).  Now there's a new collection of short stories called What We Really Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander.

The Holocaust even pops up where I least expect it, like in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, in which a Holocaust survivor is an extremely influential character. (I loved this one, by the way. It was creepy.)

It's true, I may be programmed to look for Jewishness in the world around me. I've blogged about my Jewish identity, and these days I wear my silver Star of David with pride. I wouldn't hide my matzoh sandwiches anymore, if only I could stomach matzoh. (I'm sorry - it tastes like cardboard.)

Because right now it's sort of cool to be Jewish, isn't it? Culturally speaking, anyway.  Fans, maybe, of bagels and lox if not gefilte fish. Perhaps not hanging out at shul, but reading the Old Testament to our children at night. Jonah and the Whale. Moses and the Red Sea.

Maybe I was a little different than most of my friends growing up, but that difference didn't restrict me. It helped me define myself. Based on the sheer volume of Jewish-themed books I'm seeing, maybe I'm not the only one in my shining silver star?

As for me, I'm writing sci-fi.  Zombies. But if you dig into my first novel (ok, it's not published...yet...so you can't dig...yet), it's no accident that you'll find a camp, medical experiments and other terrible ways to treat your fellow man.  This is what's in my head; it's what I write about. It terrifies me to contemplate the atrocities in Eastern Europe in the 30s and 40s.  I write about it so I can take something so scary, so crazy, and make it mine for the demolishing.

In my book, I do something bad to the camp.  (Charles fussed at me for having a spoiler here before.) It was cathartic.

I wonder, based on the sheer volume of books addressing Jewish themes, if perhaps I'm not the only one requiring catharsis?

I'm certainly not alone, and I feel as though I'm in amazing company.

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