Sisterhood Blog

What Does It Really Mean To Be A 'Jewish Writer'?

By Sarah Seltzer

  • Print
  • Share Share
Getty Images
Author Philip Roth

I loved Lenore Skenazy’s recent essay about how immersion among gentiles can make even the most secular Jew feel suddenly Jewish — and conversely, how being in a very Jewish environment can make us feel, well, not Jewish.

Then this week Phillip Roth insisted that he doesn’t “write Jewish”; rather, he writes American and regional.

The ongoing discussion about self-identification echoes deeply for me. Two years ago, I wrote for the Sisterhood about arriving at my MFA grad program in Vermont and discovering myself to be one of only a handful of Jewish students, none of whom were my age. This meant no bar-mitzvah jokes, no oy gevalts, no one asking me what I wanted for Hanukkah — but lots of kindred spirits despite the cultural divide.

As I expected I might, I taught my new friends how to spin dreidels and how to say “baruch hashem!” and I learned about their family traditions and holidays, too. I wore my first Christmas sweater, even.

But being in this environment also affected my writing. Even before I began my matriculation, I was grappling with the idea of white privilege in art — the concept that authors, filmmakers and so forth have license to just plunk white characters down in a work without having to allude to family, background or how they got to where they are. This is because, in western culture, white is considered neutral, the default, normalized — with everything else a deviation.

To combat this, I decided that my characters ought to have identifiable cultural backgrounds rooted to specific histories. So I began by writing a story that revolves around two friends who reconnect at a shiva call, a story in which Jewish mourning rituals all figure heavily.

The very rough draft was read by my peers at my initial Vermont workshop: we sat in a circle in a hot, sunny room with a view of the Green Mountains out of the window. While the story got a quintessential first critique (“the writing is good, but is this a story?”), I also got a real glimpse of how provincial my New York Jewish world seemed to others: Almost half of my workshop had never heard of sitting shiva. In fact, at least two thought I was referring to Shiva the destroyer, the Hindu deity. Most were extremely befuddled.

The same misunderstandings resurfaced a year later when, after a break from the Jewish stuff, I workshopped another story about a Seder. All of the symbolism I thought I’d cleverly snuck in about being in the desert and searching for the Promised Land completely failed to resonate with classmates who had no idea what a Seder was even about.

I had faced the fact that writing scenes with such a level of cultural precision would perplex unfamiliar readers. To get away with writing what I felt was the truth, then, I had to make my Jewish references so clearly understandable in context that the customs and phrases would be absorbed by readers even without prior knowledge. Could I do that without being irritatingly didactic?

I held my breath, kept going, and hoped that I could find some universality in the parochial. Because at that point I felt like I was in the middle of getting at something good in my writing, and maybe because I was a little defiant, I ended up spending the better part of my two years crafting those same tales despite the misunderstandings, forging the draft of a linked story collection saturated with Jewish themes and symbols.

As I schedule Jewish writing events and secular ones into my calendar, and submit my work to both Jewish and other publications, I have to keep in mind that art, like human experience itself, doesn’t fall neatly into a Jewish or gentile or American column. To use detail and imagery that strikes a chord with those who know exactly what we’re talking about and those who have no clue: That’s a lofty writing goal that knows no cultural boundaries.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: sisterhood, philip roth, lenore skenazy, jewish writers, jewish women

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.