My Night With 3 Half-Jewish Writers, and One 3/4, at Makor

I want to say more about my literary evening at Makor the other night, and about the four authors who read from their contributions to the book Half-Life: Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes.

Laurel Snyder ran the show. The book is her brainchild. She’s a tall pretty woman, 32, with high strawberry-brunette coloring and a strong narrow face. She’s a go-getter. She got the book idea at the Iowa writers’ workshop, as she informed us, and it is a good idea (though she’s not the first, my friend Wendy Marston got in on the HalfJew stuff years ago).

You’d think because this is a religious subject, Laurel Snyder might be a spiritual person, but you’d be wrong. She doesn’t speak in spiritual terms. She’s a busy networker— editors of collections often are—and her talk was full of her networking experiences.

How she met so and so in Iowa. How she once worked for Bust magazine. How she emailed Thisbe who emailed Maya. How she’s read half of Katharine’s new novel and it rocks. How she’s been to Haifa and Hillel. Laurel Snyder has got a lot of plates in the air. All of them are spinning, amazingly, but none has a very spiritual character.

She networks religions the same way she networks literary life. She says her mother’s Christian and has gotten devoutly Catholic. Her father’s Jewish and has gotten more Jewish. Baltimore where she’s from is Catholic. She herself looks Irish but she’s chosen to be Jewish, thus her website Jewshyirishy.com and she’s going to raise her child Jewish, even though the father isn’t Jewish, and she had the bris in the hospital because she didn’t know how her nonJewish inlaws would react to the ceremony. (The recipient of the bris was in the audience, in the arms of Laurel Snyder’s mother.) But nothing about the spiritual heart of Judaism. Nothing about rachmones, or fairness, or respect for workers and animals, or love of the underdog. Just ¾ Jewish and Corpus Christi Church and my bat mitzvah, etc.

I should admire Snyder’s energy and enterprise more, having a baby and getting out a good book and going on tour, all at once. I think I was annoyed because she’s a natterpuss. When she was quiet, we got to hear from the panel’s belletrist: Katharine Weber. Weber is older (my age) and accomplished. In fact, she had set cards promoting events for her new (and very-well-received) book, Triangle, a novel about the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory fire, on each of our seats ahead of time. That can be excused; writers have to be “hustlers and caterers,” as John Updike once said in the New Yorker, and Weber was hustling. My problem with her was she didn’t sing for her supper. (The event had cost me $15). Her essay for the book was a piece reprinted from the Op Ed page of the Times that had gotten a lot of attention, about buying a Christmas tree as a 5-year-old girl with her father. It was ho-hum and I thought madeup in its perfect tiny moments. Just what you’d want on the Op-Ed page. Not in a book about religious/spiritual issues you read on the couch.

The piece did not address the question Laurel Snyder had framed, Half-Life, headon, so Weber vamped on it for a bit. She informed us that she was ¾-Jewish. Her mother was half Jewish, and that Jew was “a Warburg.” I know that because she said it twice. “A Warburg.” This is a pretty rarefied form of self-namedropping. If she said it a third time I was going to ask her for money. The other thing Weber said was that even though her children are only 7/8 Jewish, her children would be “cramped into the cattle car” along with other Jews.

Holocaust-dropping by privileged Americans gets my back up. Muriel Spark had a great name for people like this, back in 1956, in her first (religious) novel: “fireside martyrs.” Webber’s a fireside martyr, 60 years on. I don’t think she had one spiritual thought to impart. She did say that when a child brought a friend home with a metal wristband that said, “Live Jewish,” she objected strongly to it on grammatical grounds. The belletrist.

There isn’t much to say about the one guy on the panel, Jeff Sharlet. The piece he read felt like a goofball entertainment, which in no way prepared me for his thoughtful statements during the panel discussion about such issues as fundamentalist Christianity. Sharp well-informed statements. Sharlet’s got a better mind than he shows on paper. He reminded me somewhat of myself at his age, about 35: doesn’t exhibit much self-awareness, isn’t really a writer yet, the way my boss Peter Kaplan always intones “writer,” like it’s Yiddish: a RITE-uh: someone who knows what he feels and knows how to say it. Sharlet has to leave the cork out for a while. But again, he had not much to say about his spirituality, which is why I was there. Much more about ideas.

The fourth writer was Maya Gottfried. I mentioned her the other day, apropos of My Jewish Problem. She’s a big woman with a wide face and tumbling blond hair.

I was only half-listening when she began to read. She told the story of going to a seder as a teenager and getting into a quarrel without meaning to with her uncle who suffered from mental illness. She had talked to him about a paper she’d written for class that said Nixon’s early traumas accounted for his actions as an adult, and the uncle went into an angry state and chanted, “Nixon is a very very bad man.” Only later did she learn from her father that Nixon was one of the people her uncle fixated on. Gottfried didn’t really mind the unpleasantness; she was glad to let her uncle vent.

The Passover scene ended with this line: “None of us knew that a few years later I would be diagnosed with the same illness.”

A light true crazy line of prose. After that, my idle thoughts ended abruptly, I sat riveted. Gottfried was clearly engaged with spiritual issues, and boy can this chick write:

“I knew that although I had the genetic pedigree of a half-breed, I didn’t truly have knowledge of the meanings of either faith. This filament of self-doubt grew and finally erupted in unison with my first manic episode. Following a very disruptive and disturbing few-months-long crash course in mental illness, I returned to identifying as a half and halfsy.”

Her narration ended with the episode of her going to Passover as an adult at the home of a rebbetzin, a rabbi’s wife, and her encounter with the rebbetzin on the couch. “‘You’re not Jewish,’ [the rebbetzin] said without a glimmer of kindness.” Said it twice. Till then Maya Gottfried had felt that she had the best of both worlds. After that, she said, “I no longer felt half Jewish, I felt like nothing…” Notwithstanding the fact she had three Jewish grandparents, this encounter brought about a basic reexamination of her religious identity. She felt that she had been “perpetuating a lie about my religious identity and I didn’t want to be a liar.”

In a small hall, this was a tough performance: personal, not prescriptive, hard-won. So no one really wanted to talk about it. In the ensuing Q and A most of the questions had to do with practical issues, like How do you raise the children in a mixed marriage. Etc. Laurel Snyder is a smart, practical woman, and she took this on practically, with various bromides and poultices that I now forget. And this is also when Katharine Weber—who I believe may be related to the Rockefellers—told us about how her 7/8 kids would be “cramped into a cattle car.”

Finally someone said something to Gottfried, and she said that her halfsy-story ended with her decision to be baptized. In her search for meaning, she said selfmockingly, she had become a Wiccan for a week, and one thing the Wiccans say is that you’re on your path and have to follow it. She felt like she’d been reaching out to Judaism and the rabbi’s wife had rejected her, and that was her path. She moved on.

I thought again about Muriel Spark, who resolved her half-Jewish spiritual conflicts about the same time in her life, in 1954 or so, by converting to Catholicism (and in years to come could be a pain in the ass as a proselyte, as the late Brendan Gill reported in Here at the New Yorker).

Thanks to Laurel Snyder—yes, you have to hand it to a good networker—I now know about Maya Gottfried. I gather from Amazon that she’s written children’s books. I can’t wait to see what she writes next for adults. Because everything she had said was real, precise and full of meaning. The rejection by the rabbi’s wife, the Wiccan wisdom about her path, the identification with her uncle’s mental illness, the feelings of nothingness, these were all spiritual moments. Nothing about religious organizations or Warburgs or cattle cars, just a soul fumbling to find words. What more can you ask from a RITE-uh?