Writing for The Massachusetts Teacher in the 1970s, I helped sneak a headline into the magazine that would bring complaints. The one-paragraph item reported that the United Arab Emirates would be funding a Maryland school district. A coworker had submitted it with the gag headline, “Uh-oh. There Goes the School Hanukkah Festival.” When no higher-ups noticed or objected, it ran that way.
Letters arrived. Most fittingly, a member of the Arab Defense League wrote to say that our headline, with its assumption of Arab anti-Semitism, offended him, and he was, of course, exactly in the right. Less expected were two letters from Jewish readers. They complained, not because they recognized an offense to their Arab brethren, but because we had made a joke in bold-face type that—as best as I could interpret—had a Jewish…what? Word? Punch line? Invitation to discriminate? Suggestion of passivity?
It taught me this: People are touchy about words on the page and happy to tell you about it. I left education journalism for fiction, and didn’t hear too many complaints about the political content of my hardly political novels until The Inn at Lake Devine, which begins with a 13-year-old narrator saying, “It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal: They had a hotel; they didn’t want Jews; we were Jews.” Years before, when I’d sent that opening and a few pages more to my editor, she called and said, “This is it. This is your next novel.” I said, “But it’s all I have. I don’t know if I can sustain it.”
“You have to,” she said.
I asked why.
“Because no one’s ever written about anti-Semitism in comedic fashion,” she answered.
Random House published the novel in 1998 and Vintage in paperback a year later, its cover an archival postcard depicting Adirondack chairs by a lake that apparently evoked everyone’s favorite vacation memory. Booksellers told me that The Inn at Lake Devine was on the schedules of temple sisterhoods and Catholic-school PTA book groups alike. Apparently the world was ready for, in one friend’s description, “an upbeat Gentleman’s Agreement.” Invitations followed, and a speaker’s bureau took me on. November, I soon learned, was Jewish Book Month, revealing a circuit unknown to me over the life of four previous books.
I also learned that my novel’s true subject was not the settling of anti-Semitic scores but rampant intermarriage. First to complain was a woman at an Andover, Massachusetts, synagogue’s book group who announced that she would not be recommending my novel to her teenaged daughter because of its message.
“Which one?” I asked.
“That it’s acceptable to marry a gentile!”
“The book is on a lot of school reading lists,” I squeaked, accustomed to and spoiled by literary compliments from bookstore audiences. A woman to her left voiced what would become the ubiquitous scold: “Don’t you think you have a social responsibility to make Jewish women marry Jewish men?”
No, I do not. I have a social responsibility to tell an interesting tale. I explained, “Since it’s not a story about a couple who meet through a Jewish singles network, might you at least agree that a fitting punishment for an anti-Semitic innkeeper is to lose her sons to Jews?” Add to that the loss of her inn. Her empire. Like Hamlet!
No takers. I pleaded sociology: Mixed marriages to the left and right of me, long and successful ones, family, friends, neighbors. I grew up in a city with a large Catholic and Greek Orthodox population, which is to say, I went to dances at the Transfiguration Church and to my senior prom with David McCarthy. I married a Jew with the same degree of religiosity as my own, which is negligible. We raised our son in Northampton, Mass., where the Unitarian Society delivers Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Easter, and election sermons. I tried to explain my position, that people should marry for love in this century, to the women—it’s always women, and it’s always (please don’t write me) Jewish women—who want me to rework my plot into something more Red Tent. I dug down for my best kinderlakh anecdote: I told them that our son came home from school one day complaining, “I’m the only kid in third grade who celebrates only Hanukkah.”
“It’s true,” I said. “He actually was the only kid…” Etcetera. I asked if they didn’t see themselves as, well, let’s be frank: prejudiced? No they did not. I appealed to their famous Jewish open-mindedness. Would anyone in this room be saying such things if the bias were racial rather than religious? I add, hoping to broaden the topic and get myself off the hot seat: A novel about a Jewish family is a Jewish novel. (I named a few.) One cannot bring forth an American novel about the Everyman Family and name them the Shapiros unless one is making a point. Ethnicity, religion, and race can’t be dropped casually into a novel as if casting a television commercial with a multicultural aim.
During one particularly bracing night as keynote speaker for the Central Massachusetts Jewish Federation’s annual banquet, a woman seated next to me at dinner announced that she found my portrayal of Jews in the Catskills more anti-Semitic than that of the anti-Semitic Vermont innkeeper. I gasped. Of course she repeated this later and louder in front of hundreds of women. I was flummoxed. A braver author might have snapped, “I don’t defend the content of my books.” Instead I tried to explain that sometimes there is a fine line between faithfully reporting what one observes in the Catskills and what might be perceived as, ouch, stereotypes. When the mixed-marriage critics inevitably weighed in, I tried the writerly high road: Didn’t they see that the story needed tension, and the characters needed obstacles? Their fond wish for everyone marrying under a chuppah was not my story but theirs.
No one said, “I get it. It’s not my daughter. It’s a book.” I asked them what I used to ask my Hampshire College creative writing students who hated to see a female character tossing a salad or burping a baby: “In other words, you should follow the character into a voting booth to see what lever he pulls, and if you agree, it’s a good story?” No one used to back down in that workshop of the intensely politically correct, and no one gave an inch after I made my case for artistic freedom. I tried: “If one Jewish woman ever fell in love with one Lutheran man, are you saying I couldn’t write their story?” Then, “Can a novel be about Hitler? Are you offended by mysteries that involve murders? Are you mad at Tolstoy and Flaubert for those adulterers they dreamed up?” I quoted as best as I can from memory (now from a document I carry with me titled “Bring to Book Groups”) what Flannery O’Connor once said, that “everybody approaches the novel according to his particular interest—the doctor looks for a disease, the minister looks for a sermon, the poor look for money…if they find what they want…then they judge the piece of fiction to be superior.”
Two months later, the lovely rabbi who gave the eulogy at my mother’s funeral invited me to be the keynote speaker at his temple’s sisterhood banquet-cum-raffle. I replied wearily, “Under one condition: That no one gives me grief about the intermarriage in The Inn at Lake Devine.” When I got off the phone, my husband said that I am answering the intermarriage challenge wrong. The right response, he pointed out, is “Your question presumes that I agree with you.”
I continue to accept invitations. For every challenge from the floor, there is redemption in the book-signing line, private moments out of peer-pressure range. This is when women tell me that they converted to Judaism or married a gentile or adore their Japanese daughter-in-law. The wry ones lean in to confide, “I loved this book. Thank you for coming. My husband married a shiksa: Me.”
I laugh. I open their copies to the title page and write gratefully, “To Mary Margaret”—or Kathleen or Maureen or Christine—”kind soul and brilliant critic, who restored my faith in my People.”