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by Dale M. Kushner
TWENTY YEARS AGO, I was completely unaware of any relationship between my writing and my experience of being Jewish. Ten years ago, I might have felt a vague stirring of the connection, but had no sense of its depth. Now, working on a second novel, I look back at what I didn’t know I knew until after I’d finished my first book, The Conditions of Love, and am astonished to discover how much “my Jewishness” influences the way I perceive and interpret the world.
Why should this surprise me? Unlike other contemporary writers of Jewish heritage whose fiction is steeped in historical and fabulist Jewish lore — writers like Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Nicole Krauss — I’ve never identified myself as a writer concerned with Jewish experience. But then, I had not looked deeply into the question. If I had, I might have realized that who I am as a writer has everything to do with my obsessions, my core concerns, my values and judgments, and these in turn are tinged by my personal and collective Jewish background. Did I really think growing up in a secular Jewish home left no traces?
Jews are often referred to as “people of the book.” The Old Testament is a compilation of teaching stories we tell and retell at ritual times across continents and down millennia. The Bible harnesses mythology, religious teachings, and history to the written word. Its sacredness is the very embodiment of the religion, a totemic object that has united a diasporic people since Moses, but it’s through the oral transmission of stories and story-meaning that the religion lives and breathes. A song sung at Khanike begins: Who can retell the things that befell us/ who can count them?/ In every age a hero or sage came to our aid.
Who can retell? Storytellers retell, and I am one of them.
MY FATHER was a great storyteller, a purveyor of jokes, a student of Torah and Talmud, Maimonides, Justice Brandeis, and a little Sholem Aleichem on the side. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Isaac and Jacob — these were not his cast of characters. My father’s stories involved figures named Yankel, Nutsy Fagin, or Velvela Rabbit. Like the great Biblical figures, his characters encountered nightmares and wild hope, made bad decisions, employed tricks, spoke prophecy and prayed to God. In other words, they were outrageous, endearing, silly, and closer than Eve to my own human heart.
My father’s stories embroidered the fantastical with the practical, and illustrated in equal parts pathos and humor, cunning and stupidity. The rich were clever and took advantage; children were innocent as were animals; the poor schlemiel got what he deserved. These were cautionary tales. Best to keep a sense of humor, since absurdity ruled the world.
When I ask myself how my Jewish upbringing influenced what I write, I see that the concerns my father wove into these bedtime stories are themes that mysteriously and subtly arise in my own work, albeit not in a Jewish context. My characters are often outsiders beset by questions of loyalty and betrayal. They wonder about fate, test moral values, try ambivalently to fit in. Their backstories reflect transgenerational trauma, displacement and exile, and while these heavy issues were inevitably woven into my father’s fabrications, never once did my child-self feel preached to since my father, as a gifted storyteller, was bent on creating an experience, not dictating behavior.
I WAS BORN in Newark, New Jersey at the Beth Israel Hospital. My parents, Claire Poles aka Poleschuk Frankel and Fred Frankel, were first generation Americans. Or so I thought. In 1998, when my mother died, I found among her effects my father’s naturalization papers. I was shocked. But even this revelation turned out not to be straightforward. Different documents listed different countries of origin — Poland, Lithuania, even England, where apparently the Frankels lived before coming to the U.S., and where it is entirely possible my father was born. I still do not know the facts. Every family has secrets, but perhaps immigrant families carry the added burden of disowning on the outside what they are on the inside, an attempt to dissolve their former identities completely. Unfortunately, secrets beget secrets. The past resembles a Russian matryosha doll in which the tiniest dolls nest invisibly within larger versions of themselves, unseen until the containing doll is cracked open.
Until uncovering his papers, I believed my father had been born in Newark, like my mother. Nothing he had ever said indicated otherwise. He had no accent, no whiff of Eastern Europe about him. Like others of his generation, my father harbored a dream of disappearing into the New World presided over by the Horatio Alger myth and the promise that anyone could achieve success if he worked hard enough.
But my father’s assimilated self existed in the outside world only, a persona he put on and took off in the same way he used a fake, gentile-sounding name when he made restaurant or hotel reservations. Fred Franks. The very sound of it makes my hair stand up. (And yet name-changing and the importance of names is a theme in The Conditions of Love.) I suppose in his lifetime my father encountered plenty of anti-Semitism, but I hated his subterfuge. I didn’t have words for it, but his deception smacked of humiliation or worse, self-loathing. I adored my parents and inwardly disapproved of their lie. I wanted them to be proud and honoring of themselves. Their shame was my shame; I knew the joke about being Fred Franks was on us.
I have to ask myself: if I’d come from Anglo stock, if my ancestors had been Quakers, Huguenots, Mennonites, or Mormons, how might my writing be different? It’s an interesting but impossible question to answer. I can only say the taste and texture of the Jewish themes in my father’s stories sank far in.
JEWS MAY BE A PEOPLE who are admonished to remember, but there are the stories we tell and the stories we don’t tell, and every family has its secrets. Fabricator of fantastic tales though he was, my father was silent about his own history. I never heard a word about or saw a picture of his parents, who died six months after I was born. Inside the mystery of the Frankel family, their birthplace and origin, their migration from where to where, was the secret of my father’s mother’s death in a mental asylum, a fact I only learned about in recent years. As I now understand it, she’d been committed for outbursts, the “bad behavior” we now recognize as Alzheimer’s disease. Though Grandma Jenny was sequestered from my life, by way of a strange osmosis her incarceration has percolated into my unconscious. For years I have tried to write a character with mental illness; for years I’ve been hounded by an image of a lunatic woman locked away in a room.
You might say a writer is especially attuned to the unanswered questions within a family, to gaps in conversations, to the white space in dialogues where the withheld hibernates. Here is where our imaginations step up to pull a few scarves out of a sleeve or produce a rabbit out of grandfather’s fedora.
If fiction writing is your profession, long-held family secrets are the meat and potatoes of your work, sustenance for your imagination. Not that a writer’s stories are a direct translation from the actual, or fly onto the page true to their sources. Not at all. Perhaps what cooks in the creative crucible is a mixture of what is remembered and passed on, and what is forgotten or repressed. Boiled up together, the known and the unknown hold a potential to produce something unique and original — an old story with a new face.
Secrets, indeed, might be a key ingredient to any good story. It thrills me when I’m in the middle of writing a scene and something unexpected, some hidden nuance, is let loose by one of my characters. The very nature of hiddenness bespeaks something worth protecting, something of precious value.
THE JEWISHNESS of my family was not advertised to the larger gentile world. Inside our home, the private stylized rituals remained intact: Friday night candles, the Sunday bagel and lox. We were a bacon-but-no-pork-chops family, a Christmas stockings and Macy’s Christmas parade family, though an actual Christmas tree was verboten. No one, not even my mother’s mother, who lived with us until I was a teenager, told stories about over there.
There seemed to be nothing happy or praiseworthy about that other, dark world. As I child, I was hungry to link myself with anecdotes of personal courage, wise elders, heroic women who plowed fields and fought off Indians as told by my non-Jewish friends about their pioneering, homesteading great-greats. Their ancestors somehow always managed to be noble and tough despite hardships, while the recountings I heard were whispered in the kitchen among the women, sagas of dead babies, strokes, the big C or other tales of immediate personal horror. The unspoken, unsayable, and unexplained haunted my dreams, or spun themselves into philosophical questions I was too young to ask.
Like many writers, I was a child who observed everything, said nothing, and logged mental notes. I suppose it’s not surprising that my narrator in The Conditions of Love asks herself existential questions none of the adults around her wish to explore, no adult except Mr. Tabachnik, Eunice’s downstairs landlord, the only Jew in the novel and the book’s moral compass. It is Mr. Tabachnik, a wisdom figure, who speaks what might be the quintessential Jewish mantra — Terrible things happen to people... but from the terrible, beautiful can come.
Here is the drumbeat of my Jewish childhood. Here is the message of faith and hope, the luminous Divine ever-present despite horrors and suffering. This might have been what my father, Frederick (Franks) Frankel, had been trying to convey in his bedtime fables, the diamond at the center of all his concocted stories: Terrible things happen. There are tricksters, deceivers, fakers, and there is evil. But there is God’s goodness and there is Beauty. And our stories are maps for survival.
Dale M. Kushner, a graduate of the Vermont College MFA Program in Creative Writing, is the author of the novel The Conditions of Love (2013) and the poetry collection More Alive Than Lions Roaring (2008). She is the founder and director of The Writer’s Place, a literary center in Madison, Wisconsin. Her writing has been widely published in literary journals including IMAGE, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Salmagundi, Witness, Fifth Wednesday and elsewhere.