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Here, then, two stories about the making of stories:
When I was eight years old, inspired by Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle books and Howard Garis's Uncle Wiggily tales, I wrote my first novel. My mother typed the manuscript for me, the top halves of the words coming out, magically, in red, the bottom halves in black, and for several months I would stand in front of my fourth grade class at P.S. 246 in Brooklyn each Monday morning and read a new chapter of the book. My novel, made up of a series of stories that recounted the adventures of a family of pigs, ran to about seventy or eighty pages, and after I had read each new section aloud—at lunch hour and recess, and on the way home—my classmates would crowd around me and ask: What happens next?
My answer: I don't know. Until I actually sat down and wrote—until I gave myself up to my characters and their lives—I never really knew what was going to happen next. I must have sensed even then what I've learned since—that in fiction, as in life, predictability is as much the enemy of good stories as it is of interesting lives; if what I was writing didn't surprise me, chances were it wasn't going to surprise anyone else either. Seventeen years later, I was substitute teaching in a Brooklyn junior high school that had a largely black and Latino population, and I was assigned to what the vice principal told me was the school's most unruly eighth grade class ("Just try to make sure nobody gets hurt," he suggested). "You the sub?" a student called out when I entered the room. Yes, I answered, and I asked the class to please take out their notebooks and to begin writing a composition about how they had spent their summer vacations. The students cursed and groaned, several of them packing up their stuff and heading for the back door, when—a survival instinct?—I shouted, "And you don't have to tell the truth!"
This stopped them. "You mean we can lie?" a student called out.
"I didn't say that," I said. "I just said that you don't have to tell the truth."
For the next half hour or so, the students worked quietly and diligently. I was amazed (as was the vice principal when he came by to see how things were going). When the students were done, they brought their stories to me, I made corrections and suggestions, they made revisions, they read their stories to one another—and for weeks afterwards when I would meet some of them in the hallways, they would ask what I had thought of their stories, and if I would read new stories they had been working on.
The dozen stories in News from the New American Diaspora all tell of Jews in various states of exile and expatriation—strangers in strange lands, far from home. But where did these particular stories, and the desire to set them down—the passion to make things up—come from?
Here, by way of another story, one answer: When I was a boy, I went to synagogue each Saturday morning with my father, and when the time came for our rabbi to give his sermon, I would often sneak downstairs to the synagogue's basement and enter a dark, narrow room at the back. The room was called the Genizah, and I would sit in it by myself, take down a copy of the Bible (the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Old Testament, the Torah, or the Pentateuch) from one of the shelves, and read.
These were my happiest hours in the synagogue. What I loved most about the book was that it was filled with stories, and what I loved about the stories was that they were about families. The families, though living in times and places far from my life, did not seem all that different from my own: they quarreled, they cheated, they sinned; they raged and argued and connived. Brother hated brother, sister envied sister, wife resented husband; jealousies and betrayals abounded, grudges went on for generations, favorite sons and scorned daughters despising one another and plotting vengeance. They may have been shepherds in the land of Canaan, and we may have been merchants and peddlers in the land of Brooklyn—still, when I read about Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, I felt as if I were reading about people I knew well.
The parts of the Bible I loved most were Ecclesiastes and the story of Joseph. I loved Ecclesiastes, I think, not because I understood it, but for an opposite reason: because I hardly understood it. What I loved was the language—the words, sounds, cadences.
And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them. I withheld not my heart from any joy: for my heart rejoiced in all my labor: and this was my portion of all my labour.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and behold, all was vanity and vexation of the spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
And when I read about Joseph turning away and weeping after he has been reunited in Egypt with his brothers, I would feel my eyes brim with tears. Now, more than a half century later, seeing myself as a small boy in that dimly lit room that smelled of old leather and mildew, what I cherish is the image: a boy being moved by language and by tale (and not by moral invective); a boy who has stolen away, is afraid of being found out, and is lost in story.
The stories I have gathered for this new collection span most of the last century of Jewish-American life. In one story, an American soldier who has survived life in a Japanese prisoner of war camp grieves for members of his family who have died in a Nazi death camp; in another, a family makes one- and two-reel films in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1915; in yet another, a Russian Jew living with his wife in post-World War II New England becomes involved with the daughter of the man who has helped bring him out of bondage; in others, elderly Jews, displaced from New York City to senior-citizen cities in present-day Florida, struggle with memory, madness, and mortality. Set in various times and places, these stories all elaborate on the theme announced in the book's title, while also, I trust, telling of that greater diaspora—geographical, emotional, or spiritual—in which many of us, whether Jews or non-Jews, now live.
When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the years following World War II, like most lower-middle-class Jews whose families had recently arrived in America, I lived on the margins of two worlds, one Jewish, the other American. Both sets of my grandparents, and many of my aunts and uncles, were born in that region of Russia and Poland that is now the Ukraine. My father's family (he had eight brothers and sisters, all married, all with children) were Orthodox Jews. They kept kosher homes, ate only in strictly kosher restaurants, and observed the Sabbath and all Jewish holidays. On these holy days they did not ride, write, cook, use the phone, turn lights on or off, or perform anything that might be considered work.
My mother's family (she had four sisters and one brother, all married, all with children) was nonobservant, and my mother was fierce in her belief that religions were the cause of most of the world's ills. Although I attended synagogue each Sabbath and, from the age of thirteen, prayed in our living room each morning alongside my father—first putting on my talit (prayer shawl) and tephillin (black leather straps I wound around arm and head)—I also, on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, cooked, wrote, turned on the radio and TV, used the phone, rode the subways, played ball, went to movies, and worked at part-time jobs.
In my neighborhood, distant by about a dozen blocks from the Crown Heights neighborhood in which most of my father's family lived, I was the most observant of my (nonobservant) Jewish friends; when I visited with my father's family, I was the least observant of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. Thus, not only was I endlessly navigating the borders between the Jewish and American worlds into which I was born, but within my Jewish world, I found myself continually moving back and forth between two very different worlds, and so I wondered always: Which world was, or might be, mine?
It is the tension between these worlds—between their secularity and religiosity, between the rituals and laws of my Jewish inheritance and the worldly (American) freedoms of the street—that defined much of my childhood and that, I suspect, has informed my fictions: What does it mean to be a Jew—and what does it mean to be a Jew in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and (a question Rabbi Saul Gewirtz, in the title story, asks) how carry forward values that have come down to us for five thousand years when, physically and spiritually, not only is the threat and reality of exile, as ever, a constant, but when the Jewish community is (or seems to be) losing its essential power and coherence to the riches, seductions, and vagaries of a more homogenized American life.
Feelings, thoughts, and dreams that were engendered in my childhood by living in several worlds but feeling at home in none of them—these, along with the discoveries and joys that came from the reading and making of stories—shaped me as profoundly then as, six decades later, they do now. To be able to imagine worlds that existed before I was born, or that had not yet come into being—to be able to live lives that were not mine, and to do so in places I had never visited—to be a rabbi, a violinist, a filmmaker, a linguist, an old woman, a young mother, a Russian emigré, a devout Jew or a convert or an Israeli exchange student—and to be able, in my imagination and prose, to travel anywhere in time and space, endlessly crossing and recrossing the border that divided the Old Country from the New, the insular world of my Jewish family and neighborhood from the larger American world beyond—this, now as then, both saved my life and gave me life, for the worlds that lived in my imagination were rich—safe somehow—in ways the actual world was not, even if what they were rich in was often misery and madness.
There was this too: my imagination seemed the best, truest, and most real place in the universe because living in it I didn't have to tell the truth. When I was reading stories or making them up, though I might, as here, be writing about loss, I never felt lost. Though I might write about death and sorrow, I could, in the people, landscapes, and tales I created, delineate discrete points of light—moments that suggested the fact or possibility of joy or of happiness.
In recent years, I have published several nonfiction books wherein I write directly about my actual life. But precisely because I am not often aware of where, in my life, my stories have come from—because, that is, they rise up from wells of memory and desire I often didn't know existed until I wrote the stories they helped generate—they are often, like remembered moments of dreams, more vivid and more deeply felt—more intense and resonant—than my nonfiction.
Whatever else I have written since I wrote that early (and lost) first novel—memoirs, screenplays, essays, reviews, novels—I have through the years, as here, returned again and again to my first love: the making of stories that can be read—or listened to—in a single sitting. And sometimes, as in the tale with which this book ends—of a family making a one-reel (silent) film on a frozen lake in New Jersey in 1915—the stories, though lodged in the details of a particular moment, are also about what, first and last, continues to inspire, and what, I hope, will please readers: the sheer magic and joy of storytelling and of story-making.
New York City, 2004