This is something I wrote on April 25, 2006, as part of a final paper for my Jewish-American Fictions course, which was one of my favorite courses of my undergraduate career. It was, also, the last class I attended as an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I wanted to create some poetry for the class, even though the course was on fiction, prose, not poetry. I am also trying to track down a sort of heart-wrenching poem I have about the Shoah and being a convert.
So, until then, here you are: A little piece of me, right around the time of my conversion to Judaism under Reform auspices.
Jewish-American fiction puts pen to paper, making an image of who
we are and where we've been. It's Tova Mirvis making my heart bleed
at the makings of a family figuring out when everything started changing
and Jonathan Safran Foer making "small prayers to G-d" out of
memory and religiosity. Jewish-American fiction places faces and makes
a mosaic out of the grab bag of the things that mean "Jewish." Turning
tradition into struggle, love and survival into the trappings of figuring out
what modernity means to the tradition of remembering. Jewish-American
fiction is a window to the outside world, as Jews and nonJews, and characters
kept inside story forms make it possible to peek outside and see what we do to
be Orthodox, Reform, lapsed, born again, a believer or dreamer, secular,
sane, insane, in love and out of love, living, dying and surviving.
But above all else, when we are bound to a book below lamplight,
it’s easiest to say that Jewish-American fiction is the definition of humanity.
I ended the paper with the following, If anything, [Bernard] Malamud is using Jews as the example: Humanity at its core is Jewish. It is survival, perseverance and remembering so as not to repeat. By saying “all men are Jews,” Malamud creates a most-powerful metaphor, and an example, for all religions, races and nations. He simply is saying “here is the beginning, here is who you are, don’t forget it."
In response to my final paper (which is much longer than these two excerpts), my professor gave me one of the greatest compliments I've probably ever received from someone, and this was just as I was converting the first time around! He said, "Jewishness, Jewish culture, is a matter of putting pen to paper – you’ve got that down, too. You have what my mother would have called a Yiddishe kupf – a Jewish head. You see the subtleties, the nuances in things. You see the humor that’s enveloped in tragedy, and the tears hidden inside the laughter." Here's one Jew who knew.
A sampling of some of the amazing things we read that semester, which I definitely need to revisit are:
- "Lady of the Lake" by Bernard Malamud
- Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelman
- Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
- Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
- The Outside World by Tova Mirvis
- "Electricity" by ... I can't remember. This bums me out greatly.
- "When You're Excused, You're Excused" by Bruce Jay Friedman
- The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman
- The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick
And, if you know what's good for you, you'll purchase Bad Jews and Other Stories by Gerald Shapiro. Would I lead you astray?