On Being a Jewish American Writer in 2018
On November 12, Erika Dreifus presented the Creative Keynote Address at the 24th Annual Jewish American and Holocaust Literature (JAHLIT) Symposium in Miami. Below is a slightly edited version of her remarks.
I started to articulate these thoughts more than a year ago, when, in collaboration with another writer—Rachel Kadish—I developed a session proposal for The Muse and the Marketplace, a three-day conference for writers in Boston. Nowhere else in these remarks will I dare speak for anyone but myself, but I feel confident in saying that Rachel shared my sense of gratitude when the conference organizers approved our proposal. This was not a solicited session or keynote; to paraphrase Theodor Herzl’s famous line, we willed it, and it turned out not to be a dream.
We also appreciated that the organizers granted our scheduling request. We had no idea how many of the seats in our assigned room would be filled, especially if other, bigger names offered sessions concurrently. But we wanted to ensure that the schedule wouldn’t automatically exclude some of the people we suspected might be most interested in attending. The Friday on which the three-day conference began last April happened to be one of the concluding days of Passover, which we knew would pose a conflict for some Jewish writers. Saturdays at writing conferences always present dilemmas for some Jewish writers, even if most conference organizers still seem to be unaware of that fact. (Even organizers who identify Jewishly often seem inattentive to these issues.) So when Rachel and I proposed our session, we asked specifically for a Sunday slot, and we received one, and for that, we were and remain grateful.
We titled the session: “Writing (and Publishing) While Jewish: The Situation in 2018.” Mindful of how the previous year’s sessions had been described, here is how we presented what we planned to cover in the 75 minutes allotted to us.
This is an exceedingly fraught moment for many American Jewish writers. Like writers of other marginalized backgrounds, Jewish writers have long confronted challenges of cultural and linguistic translation as we craft our work; we have encountered problematic reactions to us and our writings that can be grounded in ignorance, bias, and hatred. But in 2018, some are sensing a new urgency to these concerns—without a corresponding growth in venues to discuss them, despite the writing world’s general emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
We hope to foster a candid conversation in which we can air and explore dilemmas we tend to face alone. When do we declare ourselves simply to be “writers,” and when might it be important to self-declare as “Jewish writers”—and what are the implications when others do the declaring for us? Which parts of our selves are welcome in the classroom, on the page, and in the academy, and which are we expected to mute? When politics is overlaid on art, what are the costs and benefits of speaking up? Finally, what resources might help us speak freely as both artists and Jews?
The description concluded with a note about the readings to be distributed and recommended. These included a report from the Anti-Defamation League (“Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign”) and essays by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (“I Probably Won’t Share This Essay on Twitter”), Junot Díaz (“MFA vs. POC”), and others.”
It wasn’t part of the description, but during the session itself, Rachel summarized a key part of our message with a metaphor. (Maybe this is why she wins all those literary awards!) She evoked the image of a big house—one with lots of rooms, rooms belonging to specific communities within the same literary structure. I don’t recall how far she took the metaphor, but in thinking of it since then, I’ve been moved to consider the ways in which we use our spaces—to host and welcome others, to meet and mingle with friends old and new, and to find comfort and support on our own. It seemed to me that Rachel was making a crucial argument for Jewish writers to claim a “room of our own” in the writers’ house. Because it often seems as though we do not have one.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In the time that passed between proposing “Writing (and Publishing) While Jewish: The Situation in 2018” last fall and delivering my remarks in the spring, I realized that I didn’t like our title so much, my own responsibility for it notwithstanding. Words matter, and to me, these words suggested too many generalizations, too many absolutes. “The Situation” in 2018? There must be at least as many situations as Jewish people involved in writing and publishing. Perhaps even more—haven’t most of us heard the saying: “Two Jews, three opinions”?
And surely, I thought—even back then, even when what happened in Pittsburgh on October 27 was still months in the future—I couldn’t be the only one who found matters to be fluid. Then and now, it has often seemed that my perceptions and priorities shift every day, if not multiple times during the day, thanks in no small part to whatever might be happening in the world—and what is being written and published and Tweeted about it.
In any case, as I prepared for that session, I decided to try to summarize my circumstances at that time, at that place, in Boston in April 2018. And that’s essentially what I’ve come here to do as well.
In November 2018, I am 49 years old. This means that I was born in 1969, a mere 24 years after the liberation of Auschwitz. (Think for a moment of how not-so-long-ago 1994 is for us today, how often so many of us have returned, this year, to our own recollections of events that happened even further back—to the confirmation hearings of one Supreme Court justice who remains on the bench. Or, for another example—also from my lifetime if not from my memory bank—the pervasive invocations of an earlier president’s fitness for his job, and the “Saturday Night Massacre” with which he attempted to stave off his fate.)
I was born to two American Jewish parents. My father is the only son of German Jews who escaped their native country as young adults in the late 1930s and met and married in New York. In November 2018, just this past Shabbat, we have observed the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht, or night of broken glass, which my grandmother, newly arrived in the United States, learned about from afar. What she later told me about what her parents and others endured back in Germany that night has made its way into my writing.
On the other side of the family, my mother’s mother emigrated from persecution in eastern Europe as a seven-year-old, not long before the Immigration Act of 1924 drastically reduced the number of new arrivals admitted to the U.S. As for my mother’s father, he is the one grandparent who was born in this country, to Jewish immigrants of unclear—if evidently Eastern-European- or Russian origin. He is also the one grandparent with whom I was not particularly close. (But the long-ago divorce of my maternal grandparents is not our focus today.)
I mention all of this in some detail because, in November 2018, I remain quite aware of how recently my family tree’s roots were transplanted to American soil—how I remain, in time and memory and emotion, so deeply and strongly anchored to the immigrant and first-generation experiences of the adults who were closest to me all through my childhood. I still sense myself to have been shaped by the social, educational, linguistic, and economic transformations that occurred over a fairly brief period of time, and they have influenced much of my writing, as has the awareness that those changes were engineered by flights from persecution—first, from the “garden-variety” anti-Semitism that pervaded old East-European and Russian empires, and then, from the sinister shock of Nazism.
In 2018, it is 40 years since the discrete event that somehow both crystallizes those transformations and catalyzed them even further. I was nine when my parents and younger sister and I left our south Brooklyn neighborhood, where most of our neighbors were also Jewish (and those who weren’t tended to be Roman Catholics) for a more upscale—and decidedly less Jewish—neighborhood in a New Jersey suburb. “Culture shock” doesn’t adequately summarize the experience, and in many ways I spent the second half of my childhood absorbing it. Similar to the living presence of immigrants and refugees in my life, the sense of being an outsider—something that I often see critics and commentators dismiss as no longer relevant to the experiences of today’s American Jewish writers—was strong.
In Brooklyn, I’d never heard of “country clubs.” My new town housed several such clubs; I quickly learned that these clubs did not permit Jews to be members. I learned, too, that this exclusionary rule applied to the social-dancing classes that a number of my new classmates attended. (Later, when the elementary-school graduates merged for junior high, and I met other children from more “diverse” neighborhoods, I discovered that for gender parity, the rules had been stretched sometimes to allow a few Jewish boys into those dance classes—especially if, unlike me, these were Jewish children who happened to be blond, who spoke without a Brooklyn accent, whose parents had attended Ivy League universities and taught them to ski and sail and play tennis.)
So the move to the suburbs made me feel acutely Jewish in that outsider-y way. But it also had a critical countervailing effect. In Brooklyn, although I’d begun attending Hebrew school, and we always lit the menorah at Hanukkah and attended family seders at Passover, my parents and sister and I had not belonged to a synagogue. In New Jersey, we joined one immediately. My parents opted for the nearby Reform congregation where we felt most warmly welcomed, rather than the local Conservative or Orthodox ones that their own parents or grandparents would have more likely chosen.
We began attending services regularly, not just for the big holidays, but every week. We began lighting the Sabbath candles every Friday. We joined in the congregation’s interfaith and social-action efforts. (The campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry is one longterm project that I remember most vividly from my tween and teen years; I suspect that that background has shaped my abiding interest in the writing of Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis, and others who emigrated from Russia or the other former Soviet states at the time.) Our family became immersed in congregational life—after Bat Mitzvah and Confirmation, both my sister and I served terms as Temple Youth Group president. In 2018, I live an hour away, with an ample choice of congregations within walking distance from my Manhattan apartment. But it’s to this synagogue in New Jersey that I return whenever I can—and whenever I must, as I did at the start of this month—#ShowUpForShabbat.
2018 also marks 30 years since my first trip to Israel, which occurred during the summer of 1988, just after my first year at college. On that trip, I met other Dreifus relatives, the widow and children and grandchildren of my grandfather’s uncle Shmuel, whose destination when he’d left Germany was British Mandatory Palestine. In 1988, the cousin closest to my age, Rifka, was beginning her required service in the Israel Defense Forces. If I’d only hazily realized it before, I became acutely conscious sitting beside Rifka that my Americanness was an accident of fate. On both sides of my family, if my not-so-distant Jewish forebears had been unable to find refuge in the United States—and it hadn’t exactly been easy for any of them to do so—their most likely, if not only, other option had been making aliyah, migrating to what was then that territory controlled either by the Ottomans or by the British.
Since that first trip, I’ve returned to Israel twice—both times traveling with fellow congregants from that New Jersey synagogue, most recently two years ago. In 2018 I am better versed in Israeli history and literature and, thanks to a midlife return to language study, in Hebrew itself, than I was in 1988. And in 2018 I have friends to visit there as well as family, friends who are writers, poets, journalists, translators. In 2018, then, I experience an enhanced—and particularly literary—sense of klal Yisrael, or Jewish peoplehood.
In November 2018, I am 15 years past receiving my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. After finishing college, working for the federal government, and entering graduate school—not in creative writing—I’d begun, by the mid-1990s, to yearn to make writing a bigger part of my life. Through night classes and summer workshops, I began to study fiction. Eventually, after earning a PhD in French history, I applied to low-residency MFA programs, joining one program’s inaugural cohort in 2001.
Which returns me to the Junot Díaz essay, the one titled “MFA vs. POC,” the one that Rachel and I referenced in our session last April. Published in The New Yorker in 2014, that essay was a condensed version of an anthology introduction. And if you didn’t happen to encounter it at the time, I can assure you that it received a lot of (justified) attention for what it depicted about the experiences of people of color—the POC of the title—in the workshops that rest at the heart of the creative-writing curriculum.
(A brief digression will illustrate again how fluid matters are. Within days of returning from Boston, I discovered a new essay by Junot Díaz in The New Yorker, a wrenching account in which he revealed a history of childhood sexual abuse. Shortly thereafter, several women writers came forth with revelations of their own. As Inside Higher Ed put it, they “publicly accused Díaz of unwanted physical contact, sexual harassment and bullying behavior throughout his career.” There’s more to this story, of course, but for now, I want to return to “MFA vs. POC,” because regardless of Díaz’s current reputation, the essay remains important in the creative-writing world. And in mine.)
For me, that essay—highlighting an array of problems that Díaz more or less attributed to what he called the “whiteness” of writing workshops—resonated. But I’ve always suspected that my identification with the essay would surprise its author.
I wonder if Díaz realizes that Jewish writers—whether presenting as POC, as some do, or not—also have our artistic choices questioned. Sometimes—as with the writers of color he cites in the essay, who encounter “shit like: why is there even Spanish in this story?”—these choices involve language. Do we transliterate the Hebrew or Yiddish or Ladino? Probably. But what about italics? Should we use italics? Should we include a glossary? And what of the German, or French, or Russian, or Persian, or Arabic, or Portuguese, or any of the countless other languages—including Spanish!—that so many Jewish writers, not to mention our Jewish characters, have spoken over the generations?
Given what Díaz writes in “MFA vs. POC” about the paucity of faculty of color, I also wonder what he’d make of my wish that my MFA program had included more Jewish faculty—not just people who happened to be born to one or more Jewish parents, but people whose Jewishness mattered in their own work. People who’d be able to recommend readings beyond the Roth and Paley stories in an assigned anthology. (Elsewhere in his essay, Díaz emphasizes flaws with MFA reading lists and canonicity.)
And what would Díaz make of the fact that when reading lines in which he detailed how “another young sister told me that in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved,” my memory again summoned the graduating-student reading in which one of my classmates, a not-Jewish writer of color, introduced the audience to the greedy real-estate people—she’d named these characters “the Kleins”—who paid her protagonist’s family far less than their property was worth.
I could go on. My point is that I’ve been tempted to write my own essay, one titled “MFA vs. JEW.” If I ever manage to write it, I’m sure that I’ll invoke the concept of Jewish “off-whiteness” as explained by Helene Meyers, who has suggested that “positioning the majority of US Jews as off-white (rather than non-white) seeks to avoid disavowing white privilege while also leaving room for discussions of anti-Semitism, historical as well as contemporary forms.”
So let’s return now to the contemporary.
In November 2018, I am no longer writing the Holocaust-inflected, family-history-inspired fiction that dominated my writing in my MFA program and appears in my short-story collection Quiet Americans. I am writing poems, with many of them generated through a more recent undertaking: the serious and inspiring study of Jewish texts—primarily from the Tanach (the texts of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings). In November 2018, I am, in fact, trying to find a publisher for my first full-length poetry collection, which is tentatively titled Birthright. (Leads are welcome!)
These days, I am also writing essays—recent ones have spotlighted my aforementioned efforts to learn, or re-learn, Hebrew, and my relatively new practice of reciting the Modeh Ani prayer each morning. And in both poetry and prose I am writing about Israel, the Jewish state—which, along with Jewish prayer, and ritual, and the texts, and the imperative to strive toward making the world a better place, and the legacy from those whose Jewishness forced them to flee for their lives—is embedded in my identity.
In 2018, my published writings appear frequently in what might be called “Jewish media”: magazines and newspapers and websites that focus on Jewish content and are aimed toward a Jewish readership. This wasn’t always the case; I think that there are many reasons for this shift in a more pronounced “Jewish” direction.
For one, I am not a writer who fears what some others call “ghettoization.” I do not anguish over the possibility of being “pigeonholed.” Just as writers whose work is grounded in identities and experiences quite different from mine evidently hope and expect that I will make the effort to read and appreciate their work, I welcome all readers.
At the same time, I recognize that some of what I write is grounded in, and responds to, ongoing discussions and debates within and between Jewish communities; if we’re a ghetto, we’re a large, diverse, and not infrequently argumentative one. We are fortunate that there exists a vibrant Jewish-media landscape, one that I’ve come to know and value more deeply over the years.
And then there’s this reality: Over time, I’ve experienced a variety of disillusionments with many publications, often in connection with the ways they present Israel and/or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To borrow from the powerful, provocative—and, to my mind, on-point opening lines of a piece that author Dara Horn has just published, in the November 2018 issue of Smithsonian magazine: “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”
Here comes what is now the American Jewish writer’s standard disclaimer: I no more believe in Israel’s immunity from criticism than I believe in America’s. In other words, I understand that not all criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic.
And yet. I often recall the words of former Harvard president Larry Summers. You, too, may remember his warning, back in September 2002, of developments on campus—including calls for the university to divest from Israel and fundraising activities undertaken by a student group, the Harvard Islamic Society, that were “anti-Semitic in their effect if not in their intent.”
I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to be certain when Israel criticism crosses over into anti-Semitism. But both my Jewish identity and my academic training push me toward breaking points when I read the distorted, de-contextualized, and flat-out untrue material about the world’s only Jewish state that I so often see published, in so many venues and genres, and then enthusiastically disseminated via social media.
What do I do when I reach those breaking points? Sometimes, I vent. Offline, to family members. To friends. To writing colleagues in a private online group. Sometimes, I write and publish something. A letter to the editor. An essay. A poem. And, notwithstanding the title of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s memorable essay, I typically do share that work on Twitter, which I use to educate and inform as much as I do to entertain and engage. Occasionally, after voicing my concerns to little avail and much additional aggravation, I’ve even resigned from a literary organization, or simply left a listserv.
I try to keep all of this in perspective. Although I am certain that I’ve burned some bridges, I consider myself fortunate that to date, the cost of speaking up hasn’t been exorbitant. Some professional opportunities have, I’m sure, vanished. There have been unpleasant exchanges with other writers—including, by the way, some Jewish writers and editors who are also, at best, vocal critics of Israel or, more distressingly (at least to me) full-fledged anti-Zionist activists or BDS adherents. And then there’s a general, sad sense of distance from writing and publishing communities where I once considered myself to be a genuine participant.
A sense, if you will, of being forced out from the house.
Relatedly: When I read certain anti-Israel petitions and boycott calls and see names that I also recognize from mastheads or award announcements or featured-presenter lists my brain instinctively makes a mental note. Many of these names belong to influential people in the literary world. It seems especially ill-advised—perhaps both needlessly provocative and a waste of time for all concerned—to send along any of my work, let alone any Israel-focused work, no matter how closely it might hew to an announced theme on, say, war—or migration—or geography—or travel—or family. And should I even bother sending in my poetry manuscript for this prize or apply for that fellowship if so-and-so is the judge, or on the jury?
And how many times must I register and pay for the privilege of attending a writing conference keynote or panel session only to have my heart skip one beat, or several, by a presenter’s dubious invocation of Gaza, or “the wall” (which I would call “the security barrier that was put in place as a response to terror attacks”)—only to see a much-touted commitment to sensitivity and inclusion extended to everyone except me? And how much time remains before the boycott battles that have beset the MLA and the AHA, to name two organizations I belonged to in my earlier, more “academic” life, arrive at the doorstep of the professionally-relevant Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).
My judgment is that the creative-writing world—and the academic and publishing worlds with which it is so closely bound—present an extra challenge to that majority of American Jews who share so many of their left-leaning inclinations. As the lawyer and scholar David Schraub wrote in Haaretz back in March of this year: “Put bluntly, in the United States the anti-Semitism that is most likely to put a bullet in my brain emanates from the right. That matters, and nobody should be in denial about that raw and sobering fact. But on a day-to-day basis, left-wing anti-Semitism is far more likely to obstruct Jews from joining movements we want to join, or force us out of communities and spaces which are very much ours.”
And so we arrive at the morning of Saturday, October 27.
I was in my Manhattan apartment. It was Shabbat. I was adhering to my practice of staying off social media, but I was working, sitting at my desktop computer, revising this talk. I was reaching the end of my comments. I wasn’t sure how to wrap things up. I was stuck.
So I did what I often do in these cases. I switched windows, and I checked my email.
Which led me to switch on the television. Because I’d just discovered that something very, very bad was happening. At a synagogue. In Pittsburgh.
You know the rest.
I think it’s still too early to know how the events of October 27 have affected or will affect American Jewish writers. I can only share with you my own perspective.
Did October 27 make me begin to think about any security protocols at this conference, for example? No. Because I’d been wondering about that since the moment I was invited here. I’ve always felt just a little more at ease speaking—or for that matter, simply attending events—at synagogues or JCCs or other institutions where I can see security measures in place, rather than in bookstores or bars or—yes—conference hotels. But after October 27, I did vocalize my concerns to our hosts.
Also not new, but reinforced: I find myself thinking that we need an entire conference, not one presentation here or a single first-time session at The Muse and the Marketplace, to even begin to map out all that can be said about writing and publishing while Jewish today, to acknowledge the many reasons American Jewish writers have to celebrate and be grateful—and to address equally valid concerns and yearnings for improvement.
It’s curious—as I’ve said, Jewish journalism is robust. That you are all here, and that the annual Association for Jewish Studies conference is imminent, and that we’ve met up in the past on discipline-specific panels and in the same academic pages, points to a solid infrastructure that supports Jewish scholarly writing. But there’s a dearth of that kind of community, and those kind of resources, for those poets and memoirists and novelists for whom Jewishness is both personal and professional.
We need that room in the house.
Maybe, if more of us will it, it need not remain a dream.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories, which was named an American Library Association/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Moment, The Forward, Jewish Journal and many other publications.