I just read an excellent blog post about what makes a Jewish writer. Jeremy Rosen’s Blog: Jewish Writers
I’ve been wondering a bit about this myself. Right now, I’m looking at the comments I’m getting on the rewritten manuscript of my novel-in-progress from my “reviewers.” The book is a sci-fi novel with a very religious (read “traditional Jewish) premise…but I’m not sure that I want it to be published by a Jewish press exclusively for a Jewish audience. (Is it obnoxious to say that I want to write the literary equivalent of a Matisyahu song?) How much can I change the story to be palatable to a wider audience without sacrificing its Jewishness?
When I read a book by Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth (mentioned in the blog post listed above), I’m very uncomfortable. Yes, they are ethnically Jewish, but a lot of the content of their books is anti-Jewish in their religious/philosophical underpinnings. Is a book Jewish just because its author is?
Then again, does a Jewish writer have to write books that are Jewish in substance? If yes, are we talking culture or religion? There are books I’ve read that are not by religious Jews, but are completely consistent with Jewish ideals. On the other hand, I’ve read books by Orthodox authors that aren’t specifically religious in any way.
Any opinions out there?
6 thoughts on “Jeremy Rosen’s Blog: Jewish Writers”
When I first set out to write Yaakov the Pirate Hunter, I decided that I wanted it to have a broad appeal. I don't remember struggling with the issues you raised; they're valid issues, but probably didn't bother me for more than 20-30 seconds. Here's why. One of my goals, though not the only goal, was to sell books – a lot of books. The non-Jewish English-reading world in the twenty-first century is used to multicultural literature, and is exposed to many world traditions. There is a certain appeal to being "ethnic," and the non-Jewish reading public is used to seeing characters and settings identified as "Jewish." However, they're missing out on authentic Judaism; very little of it is out there, and their perceptions of traditional Jews are either non-existent or dreadfully stereotyped (thanks a lot, Shalom Aleichem!) When I started Yaakov the Pirate Hunter, I used a story that I had written (inspired during morning carpool, as you know) for the Institute of Children's Literature as a basis. I was already experienced at telling Jewish-flavored tales to non-Jews, my instructors at the Institute. For example, Shimon the Shofar Man was a tale of a mischievous but not-too-naughty boy running around Yerushalayim's streets and blowing his shofar for bored younger kids whose parents were in shul all day. My sense was that the non-Jewish reading public is ready for literature that presents Jews as authentic, fully developed, complex human beings imbued with solid values – Torah values – and unafraid to express those values in their life choices and decisions. We're neither the anti-Semitic caricatures presented by Shakespeare and Dickens nor the benighted, wimpy fools of "Fiddler on the Roof." We're confident, proud players on the world stage, and we make it clear as day that it's Hashem's stage. The non-Jewish world can, and should, learn from the moral example that we, as traditional Jews, set. Though we're imperfect, we recognize our flaws and strive to be the best we can be. When they read stories of Jewish characters who embody Torah values (or, at least, try to do so), the non-Jewish reading public generally is impressed by the examples that they see. Therefore, I included in my novel enough appositives and background descriptions to make the story understandable to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike. Non-Jewish reviewers have praised the Jewish material in Yaakov the Pirate Hunter. (See the book's Amazon page for examples; you may have read those reviews already). One reviewer even bemoaned the fact that the Jewish community hasn't done much to present itself to the reading public.The broader reading public barely knows that traditional Jews exist; even those who know that bagels and lox exist often don't know that Jews invented them. They've never heard of Artscroll, Feldheim, Eichler's, or Targum Press. Those who have read the books of Ruchama King, Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, Rochelle Krich, Herman Wouk, and (maybe) Chaim Potok have a decent idea of who we are and what we're about, but the list of such authors is too short. I encourage you to stand tall and to add your name to that list. Write an authentically Jewish novel that compromises nothing in terms of Torah values, isn't preachy, and appeals to any reader of any background. You'll make us all proud.
Thanks for commenting, Nathaniel!I think that some of the challenge is keeping both an observant and a secular one happy. For example, I recently read a picture book (_Light_ by Jane Breskin Zalben) that watered down the message so much to please a secular audience that it came out wishy-washy. (I actually liked the book overall, but it requires an adult to supplement the text to be intelligible.). I think the authors you list are good examples of authors who don't compromise on the Yiddishkeit while extending themselves to the general audiences. However, while their books (yours, too) are set in Jewish settings and filled with Jewish characters, but have plots that are not inherently religious.What's going on in my book right now is more like a Risa Miller book, _My Before and After Life_. The very subject matter is of a religious nature. I thought that Ms. Miller was very successful at handling the religious crisis at the center of the novel, but then I've heard some secular readers objected to the message underlying the story.The subject matter of my book-in-progress is not only religious, it has aspects that might be VERY uncomfortable for a non-Jewish audience. This is why I mentioned Matisyahu. Whether a person is a fan of him or not, Matisyahu is amazing at saying things you'd think non-Jews would be startled by, even offended by, but they swallow it. Just a few examples: the anti-promiscuity message in his rendition of "Message in a Bottle," the line "treif wine clouds the heart," from one of the songs on _Youth_ and quotations from Eicha in "Temple." Some of the lyrics pretty much cross the "preachy" line–but people still take to it like water. Pretty powerful.How does a person do it? Does the form have to be as attractive as a Matisyahu song? Does the tricky passage have to hiding among a crowd of other words that are less potentially explosive?
Mrs. Klempner,You won’t please everybody with any piece of artistic work or literature. Those who try to produce "something for everyone" generally end up with "nothing for anyone." People want to see authenticity, and I think they're tired of watered-down messages. Don't be afraid to be polarizing; the goal is to reach the readers who _would_ be responsive to your message, even at the cost of alienating some readers. You want to bear in mind that you have an important, positive message to deliver; you're wrapping it in a story to make it easier to convey and to swallow, but – ultimately – you can't lose sight of that message by diluting it. Some food analogies, since I'm a food aficianado (a "kosher" vice), would include drowning a hamburger in too much ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, and then adding too many pickles and onions. Ultimately, the eater may lose sight of the beef, and won't even think of asking where it is, let alone taste it. Here's a simplistic example from another culture, l'havdil. I recently read a book on personal finance, entitled "I Will Teach You to Be Rich." Its author is a young man who is either Indian or of Indian ancestry (or both). He says a number of potentially offensive things, like, "If you do X, Y or Z, you are a moron," and remarks that nobody likes to do certain types of calculations "(. . .unless you're Asian)." He handily "insults" Americans and other Westerners with repeated examples of "negotiating like an Indian." At one point, he asks, rhetorically, "What would an Indian do?" He also makes sarcastic quips about various aspects of the typical secular life for young people (20-35; I'm charitably close to that age range). While those lifestyle elements don't resonate with me, given the life that I've chosen, the book's basic messages still were quite effective.In my first novel (yes, I still hope to write a sequel someday), I actually did try to put in some messages about mitzvos, even including an explanation of the word "mitzvah." I also included Torah themes such as the greatness that one can accomplish when dedicated to doing a mitzvah (the children's drive to return the stolen treasure), the consequences of doing wrong thing "just once" (Dilip Sitoop's being letting the pirates rob the Sapirs), and the need to relinquish our materialistic pursuits and desires – as often happens in life – for the sake of a greater good (Yaakov's abandoning his beloved, home-built robot to save the Djerba shul's Sefer Torah). Though the story wasn't inherently religious, it was interwoven with Jewish themes such as reverence for elders and for Shabbos, a close-knit family with happily married parents, the preservation of an ancient Jewish community, and the willingness and ability to thrive as Jews _wherever_ we are in the world. Would some readers be turned off? Sure. So what? It wasn't meant for them. It was meant for the others.
Mrs. Klempner,Another point or two:You may want to check out a $0.99 eBook titled How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in Five Months. The author devised an elaborate system that I'd love to follow except that I thought of a different venture that I'm in the process of starting. Anyway, as part of his system, he looked at his Amazon reviews. He tossed the three-star reviews, because they're neither good nor bad. Then, he concentrated on the 4-and 5-star reviews and figured out how he could continue writing to the people who gave those reviews. He didn't care about 1- and 2-starrers, because they weren't interested anyway. There's a lesson to be learned: Be who you need to be, and write what and how you need to write. From your blog posts alone, it's clear that you're a talented writer with great things to say. Get your message out, and don't water it down. Those who like it will like it, and those who don't won't.BTW: Look at this disappointing news about Matisyahu: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/150706
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I deleted my own previous comment regarding Matisyahu. For more info on his recent cleanshaven appearance, see this interview: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/2011/dec/14/To Mr. Wyckoff's other comments: In theory, I'm 100% in agreement. However, when I have to carefully choose which publishers/agents/etc. to submit to, I'm not sure they'll be on the same page as me. In the frum world, many of them have very strict standards and only are interested about what is in that box. On the other hand, it's harder to persuade a secular publisher that there's an audience for a Jewish book.I'm still trying to decide whether my book would be at all palatable to the wider public, not just Orthodox teens. There's a lot of underlying hashkafah in the novel that people might find uncomfortable if they are not living a religious life. There are many details I'd have to go back and explain to the non-religious reader that might derail the narrative. I really want to see people reading my book, and I want to be true to my message, which I think is important to share with young people.