Is My Book Jewish? An Afternoon with Anna Solomon

September 30, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 2 9 min read

1. “And if I perish, I perish.”
Anna Solomon is not the first person I would’ve expected to write a Jewish novel.

I met Anna seven years ago – we were both students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – and while I knew Anna was Jewish, it wasn’t the first, or second, or even third thing I would’ve expected her to mention about her identity. Writer. Woman. From Gloucester, Mass. All those would have come first.

Her fiction, back then – and we had this in common – was scrubbed of any obviously Jewish characters or themes. The short story I remember most from workshop, which eventually became “What Is Alaska Like?” (One Story, April 2006), is about a chambermaid in Blue Lake Lodge, a roadside motel on Boston’s North Shore.

“There was no lake at Blue Lake,” Anna writes in the story. “The Lodge was a stucco motel on the Clam River, about an hour north of Boston. The stink came twice a day with low tide: mud and mussel shells and half-eaten crabs baking in the sun like the darkest casserole. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the smell, but these tourists from Ohio would stuff their faces into the sink like there was an answer in there. They wore visors that got in their way. ‘Sewage?’ they’d ask me. ‘Sulfur?’ ”

Her characters are Darlene and Jimmy and Ellen Crane. Even her rivers are treyf. It feels about as far from a depiction of Jewish experience as I can imagine.

coverWhich is why, I’ll admit, I was surprised when I learned that Anna’s first novel, The Little Bride, released in September, is the story of Minna, a Jewish mail-order bride from Odessa, Ukraine, and her marriage to Max, a rigidly Orthodox Jew living on the “Sodokota” plains in the late 19th century. It’s about Am Olam, or “Eternal People,” a little-known historical movement that began in the 1800s, when immigrant Jews moved to the Western states and founded communal, agrarian colonies. Its most vivid scenes are Jewish, involving prayerbooks, teffilin, and kippot. The inscription is Hebrew: V’ka’asher ovadet ovadeti, “And if I perish, I perish.”

It’s a book that’s Jewish in its kishkes.

I sat down, recently, with Anna at a Park Slope, Brooklyn, coffee shop. We talked about her tenure a decade ago as National Public Radio’s Washington, D.C. bureau chief, when she spent 10 days in South Dakota producing a story about ranchers and the farm bill – an experience that would provide much of the scenic grist for her novel. (“I was totally blown away by the South Dakota landscape, especially the land near the Missouri River, the rolling hills – it feels like the motion is in the earth itself. And the air, how it just constantly seemed to be moving in one direction … very hot, gusting, dry air. I felt like I was in the middle of a continent.”) She recalled the afternoon she spent riding around with U.S. Senator Tom Daschle in his SUV. (“He’s just like he seems: short and friendly; speaks like a politician.”) We covered her approach to research.  (“I’m not, as a reader, interested in how many buttons a dress had in the 1970s compared to the 1920s – so I don’t care as a writer.”) But we returned, time and again, to thorny questions of Jewish identity.

“I’m still getting used to the idea of getting called a ‘Jewish Writer,’” Anna said. “What does that even mean?”

2. “My Hair Got Curly”
Anna Solomon was one of only a few Jews at my son’s bris in Iowa City. Most of my friends from Workshop who came weren’t Jewish. As it turned out, we couldn’t even find a moyle to perform the ritual circumcision. The closest one lived in Chicago, some three hours away, and couldn’t drive to our home on Shabbat, the day of the ceremony.

When I asked Anna what she remembers about that day, she recalls talking another writer through it. He had never been to a bris and was, to say the least, “very uncomfortable.”

Standing in my living room in Iowa City that day Anna was an insider.

Growing up in Gloucester, she in many ways was not.

coverAs it happens, I spent many summer weeks in Gloucester as a kid. To me, Gloucester was the Wreck of the Hesperus, the Gorton’s fisherman, and the reef of Norman’s Woe. Ten Pound Island and the Yankee Clipper fishing fleet, offering half-day trips for cod, pollock, and cusk. Gloucester was the small restaurant on the approach to Bass Rocks that my grandfather called “Goo Foo” – the d’s had long ago fallen off the signboard, and no one ever thought to replace them. I knew it as a tourist, yes, but I also knew it before Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm brought George Clooney to town, making it a permanent stop on Hollywood’s on-location tour.

Anna, meanwhile, knew a very different place, a mix of working class and patrician New England, ethnically Irish Catholic, Italian Catholic, and Protestant. Her dad was an art dealer. Her mom, a teacher. Both had doctorates in education from Harvard University. Anna, a “white, privileged female,” should have fit right in.

Only, she didn’t.

She recalls sensing this as early as kindergarten, when her teacher often asked her to write her name on the board: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. (She has since dropped “Greenbaum,” her father’s surname, to make it easier for readers.) “It was a very Jewish name to write on the board,” Anna told me. “I think at that point, I started to feel the difference.”

Anna’s family was active in the local conservative synagogue, Ahavath Achim. Her parents led Shabbat services. Her mom was the first female president of the synagogue. Anna went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah. In high school, she played lacrosse, and began to stand out in more obvious, physical ways. “All the girls had straight, blondey, browny hair, and little noses,” she recalls. “My hair got curly.”

Things like sailing and skiing came naturally to other New Englanders. Anna’s family had to work at them.

“I was aware of myself being Jewish,” she said. “And it was important for me to fit in to a non-Jewish society.”

Anna’s early short stories, she told me, reflected this.

“The first short story I published in Shenandoah, ‘Proof We Exist,’ is about a 70-year-old WASP man living in Maine, with the last name Seed,” she says. “I was writing about the people I longed to be and not the person I was.

“I was so far from writing about myself,” she continued. “It took me a long time to do that. Even when I first started writing about young women, they were not Jewish. It took me a long time to open up to that aspect of my identity.”

“In my writing, I’ve gotten closer and closer to the things that really matter to me.”

3. Russian Dolls
The Little Bride is a beautiful book. In some ways, a writer’s book, with intricate, deeply moving language, powerful symbolism (one my favorite scenes depicts Minna, a new bride, literally blindfolded during her wedding reception), and vivid metaphor.

“New York is like being in the middle of a parade where everyone has been called home, all at once, in all different directions,” Anna writes.

And: “He was thin in the way of cellar insects, as if made to slip through cracks.”

“He was the sort of man that could locate praise in a bowl of teeth.”

There is a playful, riddle-like quality to the prose that, to me, evoked Russian dolls — “She dreamed the kind of dreams that seemed to be dreams of other dreams” and “He was like a boy actor playing a man actor playing a boy” and “He was like two men, the miner and the mined … and the mined man was two men, too, one stripped empty, the other filled back up with rage” — suggestive of the selves that we hide within ourselves.

More than once, I found myself nodding along in recognition. “So a decision was made. Or rather a decision was not not-made, and she came to Odessa by not not-coming.” Sure. That’s the same way a dozen years ago I moved to Washington, D.C.

Yet The Little Bride is also a sweeping historical novel about a Jewish woman’s journey: from the crowded streets of Odessa on the northwest shore of the Black Sea, Imperial Russia’s fourth largest city — where Jews faced four horrific pogroms in the 19th century — to the vast, harsh plains of South Dakota. The middle of a continent. Where Jews were largely unknown.

The narrative is in some ways reminiscent of biblical narrative. Minna leaves the land she knows and goes forth into the unknown, just like Abraham. She struggles to conceive, like Sarah. Max’s two sons, Jacob and Samuel, evoke Jacob (the angel wrestler) and Esau (the rough hunter), respectively, and, like the biblical Jacob, each prove capable of devastating betrayal.

In Judaism, memory is an obligation. Zachor. Remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Remember to keep Shabbat. Remember the Holocaust. In The Little Bride, memory sometimes feels fungible, not quite reliable. “Like any moment one waited for,” Anna writes, “Minna did not experience it so much as she saw herself experiencing it, so that as soon as it was over her memory of it was already made.”

There were times when twisting, circular sentences left me scratching my head, grappling for meaning. “Knowing the opposite of a thing,” Anna writes, “often seemed to Minna to be the same as knowing the thing itself.”

More often, the Lewis Carroll-like prose landed effortlessly, with a flash of insight: “They were never almost anywhere but the place they’d been a half hour ago.”

It’s a description of a ship crossing an ocean. But it could be almost anything. A person seeking a job. A couple having the same old fight.

A couple of yeshiva bochers, talking about the nature of God.

4. “It’s only a cross”
In The Little Bride, Anna tells the story of Jewish characters struggling to live Jewish lives, trying to understand what that means, and in that way, her writing is much closer to her experience. These are the characters she has been waiting for. Or, maybe, these are the characters that have been waiting for her.

“She learned to concentrate on not concentrating,” Anna writes of Minna, “to let her mind spread out, puddle-like, far enough from the body that the body was forgotten. Or at least silenced. A calm fell over her limbs. She wondered if this was prayer. If prayer was nothing more than a giving in, like sickness — if you weren’t required to believe, only to stop struggling.”

Reading this, it’s impossible for me to not hear echoes “Is My Toddler More Jewish than Me?”, a recent article Anna wrote for the Jewish parenting website Kveller.com, in which Anna writes about her conflicted relationship with Judaism, made more acute as her toddler, Sylvie, embraces Jewish ritual with the passion and joy of a zealot.

“Maybe we’re complicating what could be simple, if we stopped trying to figure it out,” Anna concluded in the blog post. “Maybe, instead of working so hard to protect Sylvie from our own experience, we should open ourselves to hers. We, after all, are the ones who sit or stand in synagogue now and have no clue where we are. We focus on the cantor being too operatic or the siddurs too outdated because we are new to the synagogues, yes, but also because we are scared of just being there, not as Sylvie’s parents – thinking, figuring – but as ourselves.”

Stop struggling.

There is a scene, toward the end of the novel: an accident has destroyed the family’s sod home, leaving it in ruins. Minna and Max are taken in by a German couple, Christians. Living in their home, Max feels assaulted by the cross hanging above the door.

“They expect us to look at this little man,” Max says, indignant.

“Motke,” Minna says, “it’s only a cross. … There is no little man.”

In Minna’s rejoinder, as in Minna’s name, I recognize Anna.

“Why am I Jewish?” Anna told me in Park Slope. “Why am I here and not in church? I don’t know that it matters if I come to religion as a Jew or a Catholic or anything else. I do it as a Jew because I am a Jew.”

This is, at its core, a novel about Jewish questions, Jewish experience.

But it is also, as with some of Anna’s early stories, more broadly about choice. Specifically, Minna’s choices. Whether to leave Odessa. Whether to stay with Max. Whether to return to him.

Thinking about this, I’m reminded of my favorite definition of theme, from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Theme, Burroway explains, is not what a novel is about, but, rather, what about what it’s about.

The Little Bride is a novel about choice. But what about choice?

“She had a choice,” Anna writes. “Which Minna used to think was the same as freedom.”

In fact, The Little Bride suggests, paradoxically, the opposite may be true. Max, who lives by a strict set of rules — God commands: what to eat, what to wear, how to act; there are few, if any existential questions — may just have more freedom than Minna.

By way of explaining, Anna posits the following scenario. Say you are teaching a creative writing workshop. You could tell your students: “Just write for 15 minutes. Something. Anything.” This, though, can be paralyzing. So instead, have them write for 15 minutes describing a barn from the point of view of a man whose has just learned his son has died – the classic John Gardner exercise.

“They suddenly have parameters,” Anna says. “They can just go.”

“You could love anyone, [Minna] thought, if you needed to,” Anna writes. “And in a curious way, not in spite of her need but because of it, because she was hungry and trapped, she felt safe.” Safe, in a moment when there are no decisions to make. Trapped, and therefore free.

To Anna:

“I am fascinated by people who join up — it could be Orthodox Judaism or the hard core punk scene — but they join in a very extreme, very intense, total way, and the idea is about following the rules. There’s a lot of liberty in that — a lot of comfort in it … I have a deep understanding of the appeal that kind of faith and fervor can hold.”

Here, Anna segues.

“In my early years as a writer,” she says, “I felt like I had to write. But some part of me wanted to stop. There was a real appeal for me to do something where the answers were provided … just to have a job or be in a community where it was clear what I was supposed to do. That would’ve been easier.”

“At its base, there’s this relationship to writing itself. Writing is so scary and unknown. When writing fiction, no one tells you what to do. There’s terror in having freedom.”

The Little Bride is, in this way, a novel about writing. Which brings me back, Russian doll-like, to the Anna I knew in the first place.

’s debut short story collection, Pulp and Paper, won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, selected by Yiyun Li. His stories have won the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Prize, and have also been published in Harvard Review, Bellingham Review, Western Humanities Review, and Gulf Coast. Rolnick serves as fiction editor for Unstuck, a new, independent literary annual, and publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an MA from Johns Hopkins, and divides his time between Akron, Ohio, and Brooklyn, New York with his wife and three sons.

2 comments:

  1. I loved this essay- Rolnick’s flowing language is a delight to read and his insight into both the book and the authorial experience are quite enlightening.

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