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Out of Character

Eytan Kobre

This gaping gap in my would-be wordsmithery niggles

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

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F

or the past year, New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art had featured a participatory exhibit entitled A Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful. Museum-goers were invited to post small pieces of vellum paper on a wall, their anxieties written on one side, their hopes on the other.

Reading about the Rubin exhibit, which closed last week, led my thoughts back to a couple months ago, when Mishpacha published a small booklet for its writing staff’s edification and enjoyment. In it, we swapped so-called “secrets of the trade,” giving our responses to ten questions about various aspects of the writing craft that is our joint profession and shared passion.

I trust that so long as I don’t name names, my revelation of its very existence won’t scandalize and get me blackballed from future participation. And no, I can’t get you a copy for your sister-in-law who’s the biggest Mishpacha fan ever. 

And so, there I sat, leafing through this little publication of ours, this Baedeker for the bookish. I open to the first of the ten questions, which asked respondents to complete this sentence: “I’d be an even better writer if I had…” I was struck by how many respondents cited a shortage of time to spend on polishing their writing or rued their inability to benefit from a writing course, a coach’s tutelage, or wider reading.

One response completed the sentence with “…traded in my dog-eared Webster’s for anything by S.J. Perelman or Ogden Nash.” Who is that guy? Oh, me (and at this very moment some readers are nodding vigorously at that idea of losing my Webster’s). 

I move on to the third question: “When you write fiction, do you start with characters or a plot? How does this impact the story’s creation?” I begin to shift uncomfortably. My head starts to itch. What exactly do you mean by, “When you write fiction…” I don’t write fiction, or to use today-speak, I don’t do fiction. Never have, and barring a lobotomy, frontal or otherwise, never will.

If I sound proud, even defiant — I’m not. This literary lacuna, this gaping gap in my would-be wordsmithery… niggles, gnaws. No, it downright aggravates. 

But what can I do if I just don’t have what it takes? In response to the question, “What do you consider the surest sign of a good writer?” one writer offered that a good writer gets her “to care deeply about people who never existed.” Precisely. I cannot bring myself to care deeply about make-believe people, let alone write words that cause other, actual people to care about them.

As I read through the responses, I considered how it is I don’t even get what these people are talking about, with characters who “tell their own story” and writers who “get into the character’s head.” Don’t these folks know the “people” they’re talking about are… pretend, imaginary, feigned?

One writer, responding to the question about starting with plot versus characters, writes that she begins with “Characters! I watch them come alive and then sit back and observe where they’re going and why.” Now there’s an experience I can relate to, that I’ve actually had. On Purim.

I know if I’d put characters down on paper, they’d just sit there, not budging. I could offer them a snack or suggest splitting my writing fee with them and they’d just yawn and slouch and stare at me blankly. 

I’ve wondered: Is it a deficit of imagination? I’m not uncreative, but perhaps not imaginative in the way one needs to be for the fiction-writing endeavor? Do I prefer hard facts to malleable narrative? I love stories, hearing them, telling them, writing them. In my feature writing, I’m often telling tales of a sort, true ones, and sometimes they can make fiction look tame.    

Or might the fictive gene lie dormant within me? A few years back, I did write a short story in this magazine. Very short, more like a bloated paragraph. It went unremarked, probably because it was unremarkable. There went my scholarship to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. No Pushcart Prize nomination for me. Neither Chekhov nor Maugham trembled in their graves.

But just now, I went back and read that plaintive little piece again, my fiction oeuvre. And I began to cry. Maybe there’s something after all to what these writers do.  

 

ALWAYS BELOVED

A note to writer Michael David Lukas on winning the 2018 National Jewish Book Award for fiction.

Dear Michael,

Congratulations on receiving this important award for your novel. I haven’t read it and can’t say I will, but I admire the achievement of taking top honors in a stiff competition.

Back in December, you penned a New York Times opinion piece entitled “The Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,” which garnered more attention in Jewish media than perhaps even this award has. Your essay minced no words, describing “a holiday that commemorates an ancient battle against assimilation [yet] it’s the one holiday that most assimilated Jews celebrate.”

You wrote that in Jewish America, Chanukah is “a minor festival pumped up into something it was never meant to be so that Jewish kids won’t feel bad about not having a tree,” and I take your point. But I also must tell you it never was nor is it even now a minor holiday.

Even today, in a very secular American society, for large numbers of knowledgeable, proudly observant Jews, it’s a big deal indeed. They study and experience Chanukah’s lessons in depth, coming away spiritually enriched. Like everything in Judaism — and all of life — it’s about knowledge, commitment, and passion. The more of all three, the richer our experiences.

But I sense there’s something else at the heart of your essay. Writing that the “Maccabees won out in the end and imposed their version of Judaism on the formerly Hellenized Jews,” you ask rhetorically, poignantly: “What am I if not a Hellenized Jew?” To you, it’s “pretty clear that the Maccabees would have hated me… because I’m assimilated….”

I ask your forgiveness for what I’m about to write. In calling yourself a Hellenized Jew, you display such self-honesty, dropping the defenses so many Jews erect. You spurn the post-hoc rationalizations for your Judaic commitment, or lack of it, that some of our contemporary Jewish brethren offer as they try to square a Judaism that should be countercultural with their full embrace of surrounding society’s secular values. Good for you.

But it also seems to me that in presuming the Maccabees’ hatred for you, you’re saying, albeit not in so many words, “I’m a ‘bad’ Jew, and the ‘real’ Jews would’ve hated me for that.” You may call them a “group of violent fundamentalists,” but I sense they’re your fundamentalists, the real Jewish deal, and you’re “not quite Hellenized enough” (your words) to deny that.

And when one feels rejected by his own, there’s a tendency to want to reject them right back, and maybe that’s why there’s a part of you “that wants to skip out on Hanukkah altogether.”

But I’m a modern-day Maccabee, who lives and thinks like they did, engaging in the same study and practices. And I can tell you they wouldn’t have hated you, assimilated or not, and neither do I and my community of committed Jews.

To be sure, they’d have adjudged the Reconstructionist movement you affiliate with as Jewishly ersatz, tenuously connected to the beliefs of the Judaism of the ages. Every Jew a Jew, they’d say, but not every movement a Judaism. And even if you don’t agree, you’ve already shown yourself to be someone who won’t melt upon hearing that. 

But what you should know is that those Maccabees, they would have loved you, because that’s how Jews practicing an authentic, passionate Judaism feel about every other Jew. The same goes for today’s observant Jews, although we’ve fallen far short in conveying a sense of that love.

So keep grappling with the challenge of how to be a good Jewish father, who sneaks his kids “an extra piece of chocolate gelt and break out the presents.” And come next Chanukah, the biggest present of all will be a dad who’s experienced some of its depth and can share a taste of that with his family.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 745. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

 

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