Some of my (ever-evolving) ruminations on how to define what makes a book “Jewish” stem from my own writing, especially my short-story collection, Quiet Americans, which is inspired largely by the experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. But I’ve also considered the subject more broadly (for some examples, please see “further reading” links at the end of this post).
Helping me shape my thoughts along the way: a website I discovered thanks to one of the innumerable “Jewish newsletters” I subscribe to. At The 5 Legged Table, educator Avraham Infeld’s teachings frame a discussion of the question: What is being Jewish all about? The underlying principles impress me as applicable to a related question: What is a Jewish book all about?
Briefly, the 5 Legged Table comprises the following elements:
My hypothesis: To the extent that the subjects are the “legs” on which a particular book stands, that book is “a Jewish book.” A book need not necessarily include all five legs. After all, tables normally stand on four. But I take pride in realizing that, to varying degrees, all five are woven into Quiet Americans.
Memory: The book itself stems from the transmitted histories of my grandparents and their families, and how all of that accumulated history is remembered and continues to influence me. Which leads to Family: Family relationships are at the core of virtually every story in my book.
What about Covenant? Here, I think especially of one story in my collection, “Lebensraum,” and the role that Jewish ritual plays there. Moreover, in a small gesture of tikkun olam, I am donating portions of the proceeds from book sales to The Blue Card, a nonprofit organization that aids U.S.-based Holocaust survivors.
Hebrew words—albeit transliterated—are sprinkled throughout Quiet Americans. And Israel is very much on the minds of many of my Jewish-American characters, whether they are watching Golda Meir speak on television after the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, or anguishing over the Second Lebanon War (and international condemnation of Israel for it) nearly 35 years later.
These days, when people ask me what I think defines a “Jewish book,” I am likely to respond with a reference to the 5-Legged Table.
How about you?