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What Lies Beneath

One author thought moving to New York meant severing her small town roots. Then she started writing fiction.

Jami Attenberg
July 19, 2006

If I had to come up with a list of nouns to describe myself—and I realize no one has asked me to do this, but play along—the list would begin something like this, “Writer, woman, Brooklynite, traveler” and somewhere down the line, maybe fifteen words later, “Jew” (followed, perhaps, by “non-practicing”). I was raised Jewish, went to Hebrew school, attended High Holiday services, had a bat mitzvah—the whole nine. At some point in my adolescence—and I’ll get to this in a bit—I rejected organized religion, and the accoutrements of being a Jew. And for nearly twenty years I’ve thought very little about it when I’ve set pen to paper. It was something maybe in the background, another thing that informed how I had become who I was, like growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, or reading Joyce Carol Oates for the first time when I was 15 years old. So it was with great amazement that I looked at my first book and realized: There are Jews all over the joint.

There are definitely people better qualified than I to write about the Jewish experience. I can barely remember any Hebrew, except for certain prayers connected to holidays. (To be fair, I also took four years of French and Spanish each in high school and remember nothing of those languages except how to order drinks.) I haven’t set foot in a synagogue since the early 1990s, and that was because I was forced to go to a cousin’s bat mitzvah. Passover passes without me attending a seder, not even one of those hip ones all the 30-year-old urban Jews seem to be having, the kind where everyone smokes weed at the end of dinner. I have dated maybe three Jewish men in my life, and it would never occur to me that Judaism would be an important factor when choosing a mate. I am one of those people who says, “I’m a bad Jew,” or, “I’m Jew-ish.” Those are flip comments, I admit, easy ways to deflect the thorny subjects of identity and religion, but the fact is, I have always believed that I didn’t believe.

But oh how my parents worked to create a Jewish community in the suburbs of Chicago, for themselves, for their children, and for others. In 1969, when they first moved to Buffalo Grove, my grandparents said to them, “There aren’t any Jews there. Why are you moving so far out?” It was a small town then. In the summer, all of us neighborhood kids played in the cornfield that ran along the backyards of our houses, until it got dark and our parents called us home. There were pickup trucks parked in many driveways, and people ate bacon every day for breakfast, to our great fascination.

At the time there was only one congregation in the area, and my parents were among the first 50 families to join it. My father started the Men’s Club, and my mother was a member of the Sisterhood Board. At first, they held services in a nearby church, then a local high school, and then finally, when I was a child in the early 70s, they broke ground on the synagogue itself. It took more than ten years to complete it.

Over that decade, as the community began to expand dramatically, everything, it seemed to me, became about money rather than faith. I realize, of course, that there’s a lot that goes into starting a synagogue or any house of worship. But the fundraising in our congregation seemed endless, as did the construction. My parents were always writing checks. And suddenly we needed tickets for High Holiday services (which appeared in an ominous envelope a few weeks before the holidays), a record to show that dues had been paid. The idea of having to pay to pray struck me as very wrong.

In the end the synagogue was beautiful, and all of the members were very pleased. But I still stared at the majestic stained glass windows and wondered if it was all worth it. We had the building, yes, but if I—and, maybe, others—felt isolated from the community, had they succeeded?

And I remember this from when I was eight years old: sitting one chilly Midwestern Fall morning in my parents’ station wagon, waiting for it to heat up, watching the frost melt on the windows, while my mother rushed inside, frantically searching for our tickets. She wore perfume on those mornings, the last thing she put on before she dashed out of the house, and it smelled so strong to me. We were all wearing uncomfortable clothes—my brother and I—and we were up too early, and we wished we were anywhere but in that freezing car, heading to Yom Kippur services. It was an obligation.

My parents, of course, enjoyed the obligation. It was part of who they were, what they needed to do in order to be whole people. They are Jews without question, which is to say they were raised as Jews and it never would have occurred to them to be anything but Jewish. They sought to marry the same and educated their kids as they were educated. They grew up in the aftermath of WWII—my grandfather actually fought in the Battle of the Bulge when my father was an infant—and, though they’ve never said as much, I’ve always felt the still-vivid specter of the Holocaust instilled in them a belief in the importance of carrying on a Jewish tradition, no matter what.

Not that they were different than anyone else of their generation and background. And I, like most members of mine, grew up questioning tradition. My parents weren’t happy that I had rejected Judaism, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. In the end, they let it go. I was still their daughter, and they still loved me, even if I didn’t live my life like they lived theirs.

So off I went to college in Baltimore, where there were plenty of Jews—and I successfully ignored them. In fact, in all the cities I lived in over the years—from DC to Tampa to Seattle—I managed to ignore them, the other Jews, only stopping to think about my own Jewishness when someone else bothered to mention it. At one point I attended a Catholic wedding in San Diego, a wedding so white I was the token minority. Someone actually said to me, “I heard you were Jewish. Say something Jewish!” I uttered “Mazel tov” to the bride through gritted teeth. In Seattle one of my neighbors—a snowboarder from Northern California who had moved to Seattle to become the next Eddie Vedder—chided a tightfisted friend to “stop being such a Jew.” I didn’t blink before ripping him apart, but later I remember thinking how weird it was that I was the one called up for active anti-defamation duty.

Finally I landed in New York City, first the East Village, and now Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is where I started writing short stories, which, as I’ve said, I believed had nothing to do with my religious or ethnic upbringing or identity. These stories—still to my amazement, trust me—arrived last month in bookstores, collected under the title Instant Love.

The book chronicles the lives of three women—two cynical sisters, Maggie and Holly Stoner, and shy, stuttering Sarah Lee—from their teens to their mid-30s, as they fall in and out of love, while criss-crossing the country. I am proud of this little world I built from scratch.

But when I read the final galleys last fall, I noticed a surprising theme, subtle maybe to some, but loud and clear to me. Holly is a self-described “quarter” Jew, who only finds real love once in the book, with a nice Jewish real estate agent who tries to transform her into a woman his not-so-nice Jewish mother would like. (He fails.) Maggie works one tortuous summer in an all-Jewish country club. And the sisters’ father was raised Jewish—at one point Maggie recalls seeing his bar mitzvah photo—but rejected religion in the 1960s, right around the time he started smoking a lot of pot.

Holy cow, I thought. Here I thought I was writing a book about sex and love and loneliness, but on top of that, at least in small part, I was writing a book about how I felt about Judaism. There are all of these characters who dance around it, hide from it, reject it, but still it’s there somehow, present in their lives. I could move to every city in the country and never talk to another Jewish person again, and it would still seep into my writing. It’s a part of me.

In Williamsburg, I live in a lone loft building in the heart of the neighborhood’s vast Hasidic community. My windows face a girls’ yeshiva. Some mornings, I wave to the young students in their matching jumpers, and they enthusiastically wave back. Everywhere I turn, I find buildings in various stages of construction, buildings being built to house the nine million babies the Hasidic women seem to be constantly popping out. They are a tight-knit community, of course, and I am foreign to them, I know. But I want to tell them, I see what you’re doing—I’ve seen it before—even if not on such an extreme scale. It’s not for me, but I recognize what you’re doing.

Back in Chicago, my parents still attend services at the same synagogue, though now just once a month. It’s something they do with their friends, a night out on the town to pray. I tell my mom I’m writing this essay and she tells me about all of the new services the temple offers. (Yoga classes!) And then she says, proudly, that 38 years later she and my father are still considered founders. This is what they built; they were a part of something permanent, even if it’s important only to them. “I understand,” I tell her. And I do understand that part of it, at least: The intense satisfaction of building something that will, with a little luck, last forever.

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