There were no Jews in the first four books I wrote.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I wrote those characters. Maybe I wanted to separate my work and myself as much as possible so no one could accuse me of essentially writing an autobiography. More accurately, though, I think it’s that I rarely saw Jewish protagonists in books that didn’t center on World War II. For the longest time, I assumed we didn’t have contemporary stories to tell. That our stories had already been told, and all of them were tragic.
When I started writing You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, I knew I wanted to write Jewish characters. And yet at the same time—and even now—I wondered if I was even Jewish enough to tell this story. I’ve never had a bat mitzvah. I grew up celebrating most Jewish holidays, but not all. My family went to synagogue for a few years, but then we stopped. I took a couple quarters of Hebrew in college, but I don’t remember much. I think I own a menorah, but I’m too much of a wimp about fire to light it. I don’t go to Friday night services (but am constantly wishing I would), and I’m not sure what year it is on the Hebrew calendar.
To me, Judaism is about more than prayer and holidays, and that is what I’ve always loved about it: that every Jewish person has a completely unique definition of it. To me, Judaism is the spark in my belly when someone tells me, “I’m Jewish, too.” It’s feeling like I belong when I am in a synagogue, even if I can’t read the Hebrew and only know a handful of prayers by heart. It’s being awed that people have been speaking this beautiful language for hundreds of years. It’s knowing what tastes best with latkes. (Applesauce, of course.)
It’s a feeling of intense alienation every holiday season. Of being made to feel Other every time someone tells you “Merry Christmas” and you wish they wouldn’t just assume. It’s finding someone else who feels alienated, too. It’s being different together.
It’s realizing that makes my book even more important.
So here it is: my very Jewish book. It’s not the Singular Jewish Experience, because no book can claim that. In many ways, it isn’t my experience. But it is a Jewish experience. I still don’t know if I’m Jewish enough to have written it. But I’m learning, and with every book, I come closer to my own truths about Judaism and identity.
Here’s a very Jewish passage from an early chapter of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone. Tovah, one of the twin protagonists, and Zack have crushes on each other, but they’ve been too shy to confess their feelings.
Zack changes the subject. “Happy New Year, by the way.” Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is tomorrow. My family will spend hours at our synagogue, both morning and evening, to observe it.
“You too. Doing anything for it?”
One of Zack’s moms is Jewish, but his family is pretty secular, while I was raised Conservative Jewish. We have this running joke that he’ll never be as Jewish as I am. Obviously it isn’t an actual competition, and if it were, well, I’ve already won.
Conservative Judaism isn’t at all related to American political beliefs; “conservative” simply means we conserve Jewish tradition. We obey halacha, Jewish law, but we’re flexible enough to adapt as society progresses. “Tradition and change”—that’s the motto of the movement. My family and I keep kosher, observe Shabbat, pray multiple times daily, and attend synagogue weekly, though much of our spirituality takes place outside of that. We’re a people with a history, thousands of years of culture and traditions.
There’s this phrase “klal Yisrael,” which means “all of Israel,” that all Jews are connected. I’ll admit I’m drawn to Zack partially because he’s Jewish too, one of fewer than ten kids in my thousand-person school who are.
“I get presents,” he says. “Does that count?”
“Barely.” Gift giving isn’t a typical part of Jewish holidays. Some families exchange gifts on Chanukah because of its proximity to Christmas, but we haven’t done that since Adina and I were kids.
“Then I’ll have to impress you with my Hebrew,” he says, and I lift my eyebrows, a challenge. He clears his throat. “L’shanah tovah . . . Tovah.”
“Kol hakavod,” I commend him. “And nice pronunciation.”
L’shanah tovah means “for a good year.” My name means “good” in Hebrew, hence the double Tovahs. Adina’s name means “delicate and refined,” which is painfully accurate. My name’s definition is boring in comparison.
L’shanah tovah, Tovah. I like the way he said it. Maybe good isn’t so bad after all.