Years before becoming the super couple of the American literary world, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman embarked on a journey to connect to their Jewish roots. What began with occasional visits to the neighborhood synagogue continued with observing mitzvot and a search for their family’s Diaspora past.
It was shortly before Chabon won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which established him as one of the most important writers of our generation. At the time, Waldman wasn’t even considering writing as a profession, and it seems that something in the couple’s spirituality paved their way to the top.
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“My entire childhood,” she says, “I grew up thinking that we would be returning to Israel the following year. My father would always say, ‘Our residence in the United States is transient. We’re not Americans. We’re going back to Israel.’ And that’s how I grew up till I reached university. And even then, I had an Israeli boyfriend, and I thought, okay, fine, we’ll first of all take a trip to India and then we’ll go back to a kibbutz. Even when I was studying at Harvard Law, I thought that at the end of law school we would return to Israel and I would do my internship in Israel. And up until I broke up with that boyfriend at the age of 26, I thought that I was about to return to Israel. And suddenly, at the age of 26, I realized that there is no return and there is no Israel for me, and I’m American and I live here. Growing up like that affected me in so many ways, like in my lack of connection to the United States and my over-identification with Israel.”
This complex is still there. Waldman remains deeply connected to Israel. Decades after she left, she speaks English and speaks in sentences in Hebrew. Chabon listens and agrees that the journey has been deeper for her.
They are different, but they complement each other. He is the son of an assimilated Jewish family who was raised in a typical American environment, the kind that celebrated the Jewish euphoria after the Six-Day War. She is a lively Israeli who was born in Jerusalem before that war, and whose family immigrated to Montreal and from there to Rhode Island.
“For a while, we tried to find a Judaism that had to do with the actual religion,” Waldman says. “My parents raised me a Zionist atheist, so I never went to synagogue. There was a hatred for all things Orthodox.
“But then we went through a period where we embraced Judaism with our family. All of our kids have been Bnei Mitzvah and there were beautiful ceremonies and they were really meaningful to us as a family. And we celebrated Shabbat, and we even went to the synagogue for a little while, occasionally.”
“For a decade,” Chabon notes.
“Yeah, we tried, we did our best,” Waldman says. “And then at some point, we both looked at each other and we were like, ‘Enough.’ It was the idea of: here we were trying to force these structures of Judaism into a sort of progressive spiritually meaningful rubric, when it’s like a joke. You know, you can rewrite the prayers over and over again. The real truth is this is a religion that is all about…”
“Chauvinism,” Chabon says.
Michael, in a way your process was different than Ayelet. Was there some moment in your life when you started to feel more connected to Judaism?
“It started actually just before I met Ayelet. After the end of my first marriage, I decided to explore my Jewishness overall and try to find ways of reconnecting to it and see what those ways might be. And one of those ways seemed to be by trying to find some way of being observant that felt comfortable to me, that made sense to me, that was meaningful to me, which I had never experienced at all growing up. So I started going to Friday night services at various synagogues and so on, and then I met Ayelet and she sort of joined me on this exploration.”
“Oh, it was boring,” Waldman says. “I’m telling you, all day in a synagogue on Yom Kippur.”
“No, it wasn’t always boring,” Chabon replies. “That’s not true.”
“Sometimes it was very moving,” Waldman agrees, “but if it was shorter, you know if the services had been an hour.”
“If it was a rabbi that was an incredibly inspiring intellectual speaker and thinker, then the music was really boring and dull and horrible,” Waldman recalls. “Or if the music was incredibly moving and powerful, the rabbi was hideous, you know. So we could never quite find the right home. But while that was happening, at the same time, almost coinciding with that period, we had the rise of fundamentalism of every kind around the world. Not just the rise, but the kind of consolidations of power.”
Michael, can’t you separate between both of those things, religion, and radicalism?
“No, in the end, that’s what I decided. There’s a spectrum that runs from a Berkley synagogue that has two lesbian rabbis and they play Grateful Dead songs to a synagogue in Mea Shearim with the men and the women separated. And even way over at this end of the spectrum, I felt the presence of the other end of the spectrum. And like Ayelet was saying, what I started to feel was we were speaking these reinterpreted prayers, translated into English, that was non-sexist, non-hierarchical, that if it says ‘Hamelech’ in Hebrew, in English it would not say ‘king,’ it would say ‘ruler’ maybe. Or if it doesn’t say ‘ruler,’ it might say ‘power.’ Something non-masculine, non-monarchical, non-patriarchal. You have to avoid all those kinds of things. So you’re speaking this language that is attempting to soften all of the edges of the original Hebrew. And then you read these passages and it’s the slang of the firstborn of Egypt, let’s say. Or even worse is what precedes it, with Moses coming to Pharaoh and saying: ‘If you don’t let us out, God is going to kill all of your firstborn sons.’ And then what does it say in the Torah? It says, ‘Pharaoh was afraid, but God hardened his heart.’ So that it’s like God is intervening at that moment to say, ‘Actually, I want to kill all these people.’
“So when we come to a passage like that, a very difficult passage like that, in our context we start to say: ‘Well, I know it says this and God is killing all these babies, or God is telling the Israelites to go slaughter all the Amalekites and kill all of their babies. I know it says that, but we’re going to interpret that to mean that God wants us to challenge our internal enemy and to find all of the things in us that we project onto other people as the enemy, and that’s what we have to try to kill.’ You’re always reinterpreting in this way that over time started to feel really objectionable and impossible. I would compare it to someone who’s in an abusive marriage, and they’re like: ‘I know it seems like he hates me, I know he hits me and he beats me, but he really loves me. It’s just because he cares so much.’ You’re always apologizing for God, and I got tired of it.”
Connecting to the Diaspora past
While Chabon turned away from religion, he did come out feeling much more deeply connected to his heritage as an Ashkenazi Jew in the Diaspora, and specifically the American Diaspora.
“Over the course of the same period, that’s what I became connected to, and that’s where I did find meaning, and that’s where I did find significance—in Yiddish and Yiddishkeit and in American Jewish culture and in the immigrant experience of my grandparents and great grandparents and their families. And all of that, the Jewish-American story, is what I have always felt pretty connected to.”
Did you ever feel connected to a kind of group? I’m talking about the young generation—Paul Auster, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Jonathan Safran Foer, and many others?
“Yeah, but only in a way as part of a larger group that I see myself as part of, which is in a way my entire generation of American Jews, the grandchildren or great grandchildren of the immigrants. Jonathan Safran Foer is15 years younger than me, something like that? In that area, we were the generation who heard Yiddish spoken by our old relatives, by the great grandparents and the great aunts, but we weren’t taught how to speak Yiddish. We heard the sound of it, but they didn’t want us to learn how to speak it.
“We were the generation that grew up sort of post-assimilation, because our parents were the assimilated Jews who grew up in the American suburbs and went to public schools and tried to be as American as they could and were able very successfully to assimilate and become doctors and lawyers and find lots of success, and who sort of prospered after the American universities lifted all the restrictions on Jews, and so Jews were able to go to all the great universities and get first-rate educations and really become part of the American mainstream. And as their children, we started to look around and say, well, we are the incredibly grateful beneficiaries of all of their hard work, of our grandparents’ hard work, of the incredible sacrifices that they made and the dangers that they faced in leaving their homes and coming to America and living in poverty and working really hard and saving money and moving out of the cities and raising our parents and giving our parents their incredible opportunities, and our parents took advantage of that.
“But now, here we are. We’re the beneficiaries of all that and we’re grateful, but with something lost along the way. What was sacrificed in order to accomplish that and is there anything in what was sacrificed that we might be able to reclaim for ourselves to keep or to bring back? And for some Jews, I think it’s religious practice generally. For others, it’s Yiddish and klezmer music and other aspects of Yiddish culture. And for Jewish writers of our generation, for a lot of us it has meant looking back at the narrative legacy and seeing what there is, whether it’s everything from Torah to Mishna to immigrant stories and the families’ histories or comic books and Marx Brothers movies, or whatever it might be that is part of that narrative that we can shape our own narratives when we sit down to write.”
Chabon integrated the connection to his Jewish roots into his masterpieces, including “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, “The Final Solution” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which suggests an alternative history in which the State of Israel loses the War of Independence and Jewish refugees settle in Alaska. These days, the novel is being adapted into a movie by the Coen brothers.
“My family disregarded Yiddish,” Waldman says, “we disregarded the Diaspora, we disregarded everything that wasn’t Israeli. And reaching a situation that I suddenly realized that my personal history is the history of Europe, the history of Russia, of Poland, of Ukraine, I had to overcome the great disdain I grew up with.”
“And that is an authentic Jewish story,” Chabon adds, “that I don’t need to constantly be apologizing for and finding ways to excuse the misogyny and the chauvinism and the xenophobia and all of the things that are so deeply wired into religious Judaism. They are so deeply wired in it, that even two lesbian rabbis in Berkeley singing a Grateful Dead song can’t get rid of them completely.”
Where does Israel stand in all of this?
“The Jewish community in America is probably the most consistently progressive white community,” says Waldman, “in terms of abortion rights, civil rights, the constitution, equal rights, feminism, everything from healthcare to foreign policy. And Israel is like for previous generations—my parents’ generation, for example—there was this kind of like carveout for Israel. So they would have these progressive politics at home, they would march with Martin Luther King, but they had like a carveout for Israel, which was, you know, Israel can do what it wants because there’s that kind of anxiety, the Holocaust anxiety. But the youth of America, the young Jewish community, doesn’t have that same sense of carveout. They cannot tolerate the contradiction of politics, of their expression of American politics, and Zionism.”
So basically the American Jewish youth are disconnecting from Israel in a way.
“The best-case scenario is organizations like J Street, because J Street is overtly Zionist for the State of Israel, and they believe in the two-state solution. The truth that most American Jews experience is a complete disconnect, even Jews who desperately want to have a relationship with Judaism. I always feel like Israel has made this terrible error in vilifying J Street, because J Street is the best-case scenario. The next level is kids like my children, who just don’t want to hear about it. They don’t care, they’re not interested. Their values as Democrats in America cannot be aligned with what’s happening in the occupied territories, and thus they disconnect. We’re bringing two of our younger kids to Israel for the first time. I offered my older kids. They were like, ‘No.’ They would rather go anywhere else in the world. Completely disconnected. They don’t want to hear about it, to think about it, nothing.”
What about coming to see you working with Breaking the Silence?
“Yeah, so they’re proud of that. They look at me and the work that I’m doing with Breaking the Silence and the work that I’m doing with Peace Now, and they think that I’m moving deckchairs on the Titanic. But there are other kids, like the ones who are currently protesting at AIPAC. Israel should be embracing those kids, because those kids love Israel. They want there to be an Israel. My kids, honestly, they grew up with an Israeli mother and I raised them with this kind of—for lack of a better word—Zionism, for all that they wouldn’t bat an eyelash if Israel was just shut down and everybody deported to North Dakota. Each of them has said to me, ‘Hey, that would have been a better solution.’
“From my point of view,” she adds with a half-smile, “it should have been Berlin. Those are the people who murdered us. We are city people. Jews are urban in our souls. They should have just given us Berlin. Can you imagine? A wonderful Jewish city-state.”
‘No longer feel comfortable in the US’
While their comfortable home in California is far away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they still feel the need to get involved. A new book, “Fifty, 1967-2017,” which is being published these days, compiles essays by writers from around the world about the occupied territories. The writers include Nobel Prize laureate Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, Colum McCann, Geraldine Brooks, Colm Toibin and others. The Chabons also wrote about their experiences from a visit to the territories with Breaking the Silence. They were not happy with what they saw, but you won’t see them supporting the BDS movement. They are in favor, however, of boycotting the occupied territories.
What do you think about the new anti-Semitism?
“I actually think there’s been an up-tick in anti-Semitism,” Waldman says. “I think what there has been is an empowerment of the Right, a specific fringe right that’s very unusual. For example, I got a Twitter picture sent to me. It was like a Nazi caricature—someone spent a lot of time drawing it—of me with like fangs and claws and horns.”
Do you know who sent it?
“Just some random right-wing crazy person. And I do think that before Trump, there was a feeling among people like that, that they had to be silent. I think there was a feeling that it was not acceptable to speak the way they speak. And Trump has given permission to a kind of racism and anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim (sentiments) that we haven’t seen before in modern times in this country. I think it’s like the viciousness that people kept between themselves, they now spill out to other people.”
And you think that the fact that Jared Kushner is his son-in-law is not helping?
“You know, Jared Kushner is Trump’s pet Jew. There’s always been that character, like there were facilitators in the death camps and in the ghettos too. There’s always the Jew who will facilitate the agenda of the anti-Semite. I don’t think that Trump has a coherent ideology. I think he’s personally an anti-Semite, and you can see that with the things he says. Like when he says, ‘You people and your money’—I mean, those are anti-Semitic tropes, right? I think he cares only about personal power, and you don’t see anything wrong with striking a bargain with overtly anti-Semitic people. I think we’re lower on his list than Muslims, but I do think that that kind of vicious anti-Semitism now has permission to flourish. I feel safe in California, but I no longer feel comfortable in the United States.”
Is Ivanka and Jared Kushner’s position actually damaging the Jewish community in the US?
“Eventually I think it will. The vast majority of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton. They also voted for Obama in something like 76 percent.”
So where do you see Judaism going now?
“Fundamentalism is still on the rise,” Chabon says. “To me they’re all the same. Islamic fundamentalists are the same as Jewish fundamentalists are the same as Christian fundamentalists. It’s just a matter of who hates who and who’s more efficient at killing people and oppressing women.”
“When David Be’eri runs over a child in the road,” says Waldman, “it’s exactly the same thing as an Islamic terrorist on a suicide bus. The only difference is he’s not killing himself, he’s only killing the children. When the government gives him the Israel Prize, it’s fundamentalism as sponsored by the state, and that is no different than ISIS.”
Do you see yourself in some way writing prose about Israel?
“It’s funny,” Waldman replied. “Michael and I were just talking about this, and he said if his background had been my background, he would have already written about it, that he’s focused on the past and on history and on family, that he would have written the stories that I have not written.”
“It’s a goldmine, you’re sitting on a goldmine,” Chabon says.
Well, Jonathan Safran Foer just did it.
“Yeah, and she could have done a lot better,” Chabon jokes.
“Despite not wanting to feel this way, despite rejecting its claim on me, in Israel, I feel a sense of home that I don’t necessarily feel anywhere else,” Waldman says. “It’s curious to have that sensation. And I don’t mean like the El Al flight is landing and everybody’s crying and singing ‘Hevenu Shalom Aleichem,’ but like it’s real.”
By Ynet News