My inbox contains a litany of literary nudges. A recent email from The Strand, the fabled Manhattan bookstore, includes not only an ad for several distinctly colored beanies with their logo, but also gentle prodding to read more authors of color. From across the country, the San Francisco Public Library reminds me to pay attention to “Herstory,” suggesting I check out books by female authors. Recommendations by author identity, not simply genre or topic, are clearly all the rage.
This societal emphasis on author identity prompted me to take stock of my personal pandemic reading list—something I had never done before. I’ve kept a list of books I’d completed for some time, but this stemmed more from a desire to chronicle and offer recommendations than any introspection about what I read. When friends asked for book suggestions, I’d listen to their preferences and consult my list: Nonfiction or fiction? Short or long? Lighthearted or intense? Not once had I ever asked about their preferred author’s gender, age, or religion—or thought about this for myself. Until now.
When I did my intellectual inventory, I discovered something I did not entirely expect. The authors I seemed most drawn to were older Jewish men.
This wasn’t entirely surprising, since more books have been authored by men than women—precisely why bookstores and libraries recommend other identities, in an effort to correct this historical oversight. Likewise, Jews are a particularly literary people who are overrepresented among those producing written material. There are just more books by the People of the Book.
Nonetheless, discovering this pattern in my own preferences provoked an array of conflicting emotions. I first felt validated. Friends would describe me as an old soul, so perhaps it made sense that I read older writers. After all, there’s something liberating about reading those with more wisdom and life experience than my 26 years. Then, I felt proud: Wasn’t I merely defying the typically female narratives of romance and motherhood? Guilt followed, in maybe the clearest sign I gravitated toward these authors for their Jewishness. Why was I reading people like me—in other words, Jewish and white? But at the same time, why wasn’t I reading people more like me—in other words, Jewish young women? And then the ultimate question: How much does an author’s identity even matter?
As I examined my reading list, my own response became clear: The reason I could access works by writers who were not exactly like me was because their writing could not be easily reduced to their background. Just because an author was Jewish did not mean he chose to write about Jewish themes; and even when these Jewish men wrote about Jewish events, their insights did not apply only to Jews. Far from writing parochially for a narrow niche, these older Jewish men wrote about the importance of place, what it means to believe two conflicting ideas at once, and how to change one’s mind on fundamental questions. In other words, they wrote about what it’s like to be human.
As a result, in my year of reading older Jewish men, I uncovered not only more about what it means to be a Jew, but also universal ideas that one did not need to be Jewish, male, or older than 26—or all three—to appreciate. And I realized that at their best, all writers—whether they be Jewish, gentile, female, male, Black, brown, or any other identity—have the capacity to reach beyond their own community and touch the soul of someone outside it.
My motley crew consisted of Norman Lebrecht, Adam Gopnik, Stefan Zweig, Simon Schama, Jonathan Sarna, Roger Cohen, Jerome Groopman, Mihail Sebastian, David Brooks, and Oliver Sacks. Some were alive, some were dead. Some were kindred spirits, others polar opposites. All provided me, a 26-year-old secular Jewish American woman, with a feeling of camaraderie and the balm typically reserved for self-help books, though none would likely identify as writing in that genre. As Schama put it in his book Wordy, “[They made] a place where people rethink their place in the world and rediscover, richly, what it means to be a human.” Schama wrote that passage about a British Museum curator, but could just as easily have been describing the men I’d read.
On the surface, all of these authors are indeed “older Jewish men.” But that definition oversimplifies who they are, the depth and complexity of their thoughts, and how they bring their own identity to bear on their ideas. Brooks is singular, in that he is the only author to adopt Christianity. Sebastian chose to write about pre-WWII era Romania and its emerging antisemitism through fiction, unlike the others, who were mostly nonfiction writers. Some of the men wrote in the 20th century, others the 21st. Some about Europe, others North America, and one about Africa. The group included two doctors, an art historian, a music historian, and several journalists. Some wrote on explicitly Jewish themes, others did not. Some told the stories of women. Some chose to tell their own stories. As it turns out, there’s no formula for being an “older Jewish man” writer, just as I like to think there is no formula for all Black writers, or female writers.
Even as these men’s backgrounds and subjects seemingly diverged, their insights often converged. Several taught me what it means to truly change your mind. In Jonathan Sarna’s When General Grant Expelled the Jews, I learned about how the famed Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant went from being the man who issued a deeply antisemitic ordinance expelling the Jews from his military district in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky, to one of the most emphatic supporters of Jews, who expressed deep regret for his prejudiced actions in 1862. As Sarna put it, Grant “became highly sensitive, even hypersensitive to Jewish concerns.” David Brooks’ The Second Mountain thoughtfully deals with his personal journey from a life within Judaism to one steeped in Christian values, and unpacks his motivations behind such a shift. Neurologist Oliver Sacks, in recounting his life story in On the Move, describes how he pivoted from a willingness to pursue love and romantic connection to a decision to close himself off to an amorous life—remaining celibate for most of his remaining years—before finally changing his mind again, at the end of his life. These men exemplify that no decision—even about those matters most central to your identity, like your religion and culture, the way you love, and how you think about other people—is final.
And sometimes, they taught me, life may not be as clear-cut as transitioning from one thing to another: A single person can hold two conflicting viewpoints, and two seemingly incompatible ideas can coexist at once. Jewish Romanian writer Mihail Sebastian, in For Two Thousand Years, described his admiration for and kinship with individuals who also harbored deeply antisemitic views. He even recruited one such prejudiced friend to write the foreword to his book—which was stripped from later editions. “There’s a character in me who loves tension and the whirling tumult of raging winds,” he wrote. “And there’s another that likes cold ideas, precise distinction, reserve and waiting.” Harvard physician Jerome Groopman’s Anatomy of Hope relayed how a patient could accept the statistical unlikelihood of recuperating from a terminal illness like cancer, while also maintaining the conviction that they still might live. Roger Cohen poignantly recounted his family story in The Girl from Human Street, including a family member’s conflicted disposition: “Try therefore to allow for his occasional appearance of detachment. I know that he feels with passion.” A person, whether Jewish or not, can be both passionate and detached. Hopeful and fatalistic. Prejudiced and friendly. Tumultuous and subdued.
I certainly felt many of these things at once amid the pandemic, with its alternating aspects of anxiety and relaxation, yearning and despair. It was during this time that I moved from San Francisco—a place that had always seemed as though it would spit me out at any minute like a vending machine rejecting an incompatible dollar bill—back to New York, a place that would always take me back, no matter how hard I tried to reject it. Ironically, in reading male Jewish expatriates, I better grasped the importance and visceral nature of home, for perhaps it takes being forced to leave to truly understand what a place means to you.
In The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig’s memoir depicting pre-WWII Europe that he completed just before committing suicide in Brazil, he writes longingly of his native Vienna. Zweig’s passages about his former home make details about his life in exile all the more heartbreaking by comparison. “Vienna, as everyone knew, was an epicurean city,” he wrote, “however, what does culture mean but taking the raw material of life and enticing from it its finest most delicate and subtle aspects by means of art and love?” Of his native Romania, Mihail Sebastian writes:
I will speak of the Bărăgan and the Danube as belonging to me not in a legal or abstract sense, under constitutions, treaties and laws, but bodily, through memory, through joys and sorrows. I will speak of the spirit of this place, of its particular genius, of the lucidity I have distinguished here under the white light of the sun on the plain and the melancholy I perceive in the landscape of the Danube, drowsing to the right of the town, in the watery marshes.
Similarly, Adam Gopnik, in Through the Children’s Gate and At the Stranger’s Gate: Both titles refer to Central Park, and both serve as longform love letters to New York City.
These Jewish writers often wrote in a secular register, but that did not mean they did not teach me something about my own Jewishness along the way. The Jewish experience peeked out between the pages, sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly. Sebastian, for example, wrote, “I ... belong to a race that can’t accept things and shut up.” (I felt seen.) Lebrecht’s book, Genius and Anxiety, was predicated on the notable lives of Jews, and the many ways one can live as a Jew. Sarna’s work pondered the experience of American Jews in the Civil War era.
For others, the Jewish element seeped through more subtly, as when Groopman talked about the importance of spirituality in his professional life. Or when Sacks emphasized the role religion played in his family, including the unwillingness of his religious mother to accept his sexuality, which reminded me of some of the limits of a culture and religion I value so much.
When these seemingly disparate books were put in conversation with each other, they helped me better understand what it means to be a Jew—to take shape as a deeply humanistic, inquisitive person. To fit in, and to stand out, empowered by one’s difference while also feeling uncomfortable in it. To persevere during times of struggle. To remember the importance of stories. To relay them down the chain to future generations.
So, does an author’s identity matter? My year of reading old Jewish men proved that some writers, at least, are more than their demographics. Indeed, even when they were writing about ideas deeply entwined with their Jewish experience, their insights proved universal. These men may not have been entirely like me, but that’s part of why I loved reading them.
Unlike the authors on my reading list who were more like me—other Jewish American women writing about the experience of young Jewish women, like MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her memoir, The Empathy Diaries, or Princeton poet Esther Schor in her biography of Emma Lazarus—when reading older Jewish men, I was offered a reprieve from the parts of being a young woman that perpetually imposed themselves on my consciousness: the unique tension faced by ambitious women who are devoted to leading big lives, full of new ideas and experiences, while simultaneously making space for love and family.
Those challenges are deeply important to me. But they are also present in the fabric of my daily life and pervade my conversations with female peers. By reading men more detached from some of these experiences, I was able to explore other meaningful aspects of my identity removed from the distinct pressures of womanhood.
In this way, though they never would have imagined it, this unlikely group of older Jewish men served as a modern-day minyan of sorts for this secular, female, young Jew.
Claire Leibowicz leads the AI and Media Integrity Program at The Partnership on AI and is a 2021 Journalism Fellow at Tablet.