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Aaron Hamburger’s Americans abroad are not so innocent

Stephen Vider
October 10, 2005

Aaron Hamburger, born in West Bloomfield, Michigan, spent a year in Prague, the setting for the collection, The View from Stalin’s Head. Some of its characters, gay, Jewish, American, or all of the above, read like mirrors of Hamburger, but others voice more foreign perspectives. Faith for Beginners, his first novel, finds Hamburger looking to Israel, where Jeremy, a college student still recovering from a near-fatal combination of Xanax and vodka, falls in love with a half-Muslim, half-Christian Palestinian, while his mother cheats on her cancer-stricken husband with a rabbi.

A lot of times when I tell people the plot, the first thing they say is, “Oh, did you have a problem with drugs, and then visit Israel with your mother?” Which is pretty far from who I am. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life—I can’t stand smoking—and I would never pierce my nose with a safety pin or dye my hair green or any of those things. So I’m always interested in people who are very performative and public, and have no boundaries and no shame. Or maybe they do, but express it in an outward way.

I was just interested in getting into the head of someone who doesn’t approach things the same way that I would. The one thing I think in which we are similar is that we both came from more religious backgrounds, and were both turned off by religion in our adolescent years.

What was it exactly that turned you off?

The focus of Judaism seemed to be one round of bar mitzvah parties after another. And lots of these speeches about no mixed dating, and if you marry a non-Jewish girl, it’s like helping Hitler—all this kind of stuff. And also there seemed to be a lot of empty commitment to Judaism. It was distressing to me, because I really loved the books of Judaism, and the spirit of Judaism, people like Hillel, and I felt like that spirit was absent in a lot of ways from the community in which I was living.

There’s also an extent to which I rejected Judaism in favor of being gay for a short while. I thought, Oh, this is my identity, and this is why I feel like I don’t fit in: It’s because I’m gay. And then, you know, the longer that I sort of came to terms with that identity I realized being Jewish, being gay, all these things—it doesn’t determine what kind of person you are. At a certain point, you have to say who are you, not who is this grander identity, that the more you buy into what it’s supposed to mean, the more you erase yourself.

What was it like to write from the perspective of a 57-year-old mother?

It was actually very natural. I don’t know why it worked out that way. I guess it’s part of just the alchemy of the writing process. Like, E.M. Forster was so good at writing about women. The writer I’ve become increasingly obsessed with, Sholem Asch, when he writes from a woman’s perspective, it’s so convincing, it’s so naturalistic. It was harder to write Jeremy’s perspective than it was to write Mrs. Michaelson’s.

Why do you always refer to Jeremy’s mother as Mrs. Michaelson?

It goes to her belief in manners, her belief in please and thank you, and if we all observe the rules of decorum at the proper times and do things in the proper way, then the world will run more smoothly.

When I was writing her, I was thinking about Mrs. Bridge, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret Schlegel in Howards End, Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India—all these wonderful middle-class heroines of fiction who I think for centuries have held up Western civilization. You know, they are the backbone. They think very deeply about moral issues in ways that their husbands who are often busy with work or more worldly concerns don’t. I wanted that kind of presence in Israel—a woman who really wants the right thing; she wants justice, she wants everybody to play nice, she wants everybody to behave at the party. And I think that kind of mirrors our American confusion with the world right now.

Language is a central problem in your books, because your characters come from different cultures.

I’m really interested in how you communicate to someone when you have fewer words at your disposal, and how you reduce concepts or break down concepts into other ways. And that’s the kind of writing that I like as well. I think my first real love was The Sun Also Rises, and it was amazing to me how with so few words you could get across so much.

Why then did you decide to make George, one of the novel’s only Palestinian characters, deaf?

I actually met somebody when I went to do research for this book who was deaf—he wasn’t Palestinian. It was really interesting: We were talking back and forth with each other on paper, and so we were writing notes to each other. And that was another linguistic challenge that I thought was really interesting.

And you know, how to make yourself clear, particularly in a region—whenever you’re talking about Israel, it is so difficult to make yourself understood and whatever you say can be misconstrued or get you into trouble. And so I think the difficulty of communication and misinterpretation is I think a central theme to anyone writing about Israel.

You’ve written that you were hesitant to tackle Israeli politics.

I’m interested in politics privately, but as a writer I’m primarily interested in telling a story, and getting to know specific characters. I am interested in the intersection of history and private lives.

But if you’ve ever been in Israel, politics just come up. It’s like, the minute you get off the ground, everybody wants to talk about politics; everybody has their peace plan for the Middle East, and they all offer it to you, and then you find yourself chiming in. I mean, the kind of water that you drink in Israel is political—particularly in 2000, it was very political. If you drank a certain kind of water, that meant you supported this group of people because it came from the Golan. If you drank water with a pink label, that meant that you were supporting Yasir Arafat. And on and on and on. If you were drinking water from France, oh my God, well, that’s like the great Satan.

So I think part of the experience of being in Israel is people have to say what they think. And for me, it’s another opportunity to tell you who are these people and what they believe and how their beliefs show you who they are as a person. To me, that’s more important than what they think, because I think the political opinions are mostly pretty disposable.

Isn’t George’s deafness meant as a metaphor for Palestinians in general?

I guess the deafness could be read as more of a sign of some kind of disadvantage you happen to be born into and that you have to overcome, and clearly if you happen to be born in Ramallah versus Tel Aviv, you start at a disadvantage. Yet George isn’t just a lie-down-and-take-it victim. He’s found a way for himself in the world, though he gets into trouble, of course, but not really of his own making.

Do you find it hard to create foreign characters?

Not really, for the same reason that I don’t feel that it’s hard to write from a woman or from any other perspective that isn’t mine. Until very recently, I was teaching English as a second language part time, so I met a lot of immigrants from all over the world. It doesn’t matter if your class is Chinese, Arabic, Russian, or Spanish—there’s the class clown, there’s the brain, there’s the tattler—I’m talking about adults here—you see the same things again and again.

I want to be able to write about universal issues, but through my particular perspective. Just as Sholem Asch wrote the definitive novel about the Russian Revolution, Three Cities. It is the novel about the Revolution, and it’s really a crime that it’s not more read today. He wrote it in Yiddish, and he’s a Jew writing about the politics of Russia, and all his characters are Jewish but he’s writing about all of Russia. And there’s no reason that that can’t happen. But we tend to want women to write books that are around the house and in the yard, we want Hispanics to write books in the barrio, we want gay people to write in the gay ghetto, and so on and so forth. There have been plenty of examples in literature of people who don’t obey the rules and come up with really interesting results, so let’s have it all.

Your next novel takes place in Berlin. What is it about?

Most people think of Berlin and they think about Nazi Germany, but in the past ten years, there’s been this huge influx of Russian Jews into Germany who’d been taking advantage of the liberal asylum law. So the Jewish community of Germany has gone from something like 10 or 20,000 to like, 250,000. And there’s an American expatriate couple who befriends one of these Russian Jews. He sort of takes a very charismatic role in both their lives.

You were asking before about writing about a foreign country, and I always tend to write—like I wrote about Prague after I came back from Prague, I wrote about Israel after I left Israel, and I’m trying to write about Germany while not being in Germany, and I think that distance is really important.

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