Journalist Michael Orbach asked me a few questions for "Jewish Action" and I thought I'd share the Q&A:
Q: Was it difficult leaving Israel?
A: I remember my last day there, I felt like my stomach was getting ripped out of me. Iíll put it this way: In Israel whenever I got in someoneís daled amos, their four cubits of space, I could almost hear a song under the breath. There was this uplift, this musicality that was thrumming through Israeli life. When I came to America it felt a lot saner but there was just so much less beauty. I didnít feel that underlying spiritual bass rhythm.
Q: Both your main characters seem flawed. What is it that attracted you to write about them?
A: I think that, if Iím honest, Iím very attracted to writing about failed men. Men who are on the verge; Isaac is the almost person: he almost became a rabbi; he almost married the woman of his dreams; he almost started a yeshiva. [Iím interested in] people who strive but are not quite there. People who are successful donít always strike me as interesting. Theyíre not in a state of yearning because often a person who is successful has already arrived, at least in his or her own mind, and so theyíre just boring to me, fairly or not.
Thatís why Iím also attracted to singles, especially older singles. Theyíre in limbo, not there yet, whatever Ďthereí means. With a younger man, if the woman heís dating doesnít seem compatible, he can always change the channel; go out with someone else. But when youíre older you canít so easily keep telling yourself: wrong person, wrong person. You have to start looking within. In general, I find the motif of matchmaking irresistible. Itís so much more than guy meets girl, especially when itís overlaid within a frum framework. Itís lineage meets lineage, destiny meets destiny. So much depth and drama are staked on these outcomes.
The biographical antecedents to these characters are probably my father. He was talented in all these areas: composing songs, painting, writing, dance, storytelling, a great conversationalist, but he was somebody who was an assistant in a blueprinting shop. My fatherís lack of success weighed heavily on me as a child and it pained me. Thatís something thatís imprinted itself on me in the men I write about. In a funny way Mustafa and the Isaac character are twins of my father. Of course I had no idea of these layers when I wrote the book. If I had, I probably wouldíve dropped it cold. I do find it takes me a couple of years to really understand why I wrote a book and what itís really about.
Q: How has the reaction been to the novel in Jewish circles?
A: I get a real kick that Jews of such different stripes are gravitating toward the book ó say, a rebbe in a Yeshiva on the one hand, or an ultra Reconstructionist synagogue on the other that decided to adopt the book for its One Book, One Community Read. A rabbi from my seminary days noted how impressed he was that I was able to show romance in such a clean way. And yet, even though there is no kissing or anything, the tone of it makes it an adult book. I always say, read it first, and then decide if you can share it with your kid.
Sometimes I get people who are annoyed at me for having depicted a sympathetic Arab character. Then there are people who think I depicted Arab society way too harshly. Iíve been trying to develop hippo skin, to not get undone by the praise or the nitpicky complaints, like the Hasidic woman who said, ĎWhy did you have to make the Hassidic teenís face purple with acne?í She was joking, I think.
Q: Youíre Orthodox and a good writer, given the state of fiction in Jewish bookstores that seems to be a dearth of good Orthodox writing.
A: Whatís happening in the Yeshivish world of writing is actually exciting. You know how in the yeshivas, they throw so many boys at the Gemara text, a few stars are bound to emerge? Same here. Walk into any Jewish book store and youíll see tons of novels, serials, short story collections that speak to a Yeshivish reality. A few are really wonderful. My beef is itís not happening in the Modern Orthodox world, not by a long shot. Walk into any Jewish book store and youíll see. Or actually you wonít see fiction written from a Modern Orthodox or Centrist perspective. If you do, itís either coming from Israel or written from a sour perspective; you donít find the authentic fiction that reflects the richness of a modern Orthodox life, with its beauty and blemishes. I think in the yeshivish world you have a captive audience: theyíre not likely to read anything else out there so youíve got a cottage industry of people wanting to read about themselves. Modern Orthodox arenít as limited. The whole world is their library. Thatís great, on the one hand. But so few will bother to write fiction.
Iím upset that Jewish Action does not publish fiction. If not them, then who will? They should run contests with real monetary incentive. Believe me, the writers who supposedly donít exist will come out of the woodwork. Because If we donít encourage [writing], youíre going to keep on getting sour work written by defectors or those written by people who mainly want to expose the hypocrisy of the system. What is the Modern Orthodox kid going to be reading on Shabbat? Heís not going to be reading about a kollel life or the drama of a Lakewood shidduch gone awry. Itís simple. If you donít create literature about your own world youíre not serious about preserving that world.