Book of Life
Literary Collection Gathers Stories About Forming Whole Identities Out Of Supposedly Incomplete Parts
"We are the People of the Book," says Laurel Snyder, the Baltimore-bred, Atlanta-based editor of Half/Life, an anthology of, as the subtitle says, Jew-ish Tales From Interfaith Homes. "I think there is something about storytelling tradition in Jewish culture. There are just good, juicy, brutal, amazing myths.
"And in some ways that makes it easier to be half Jewish than it is to be something else," continues the 32-year-old author, cradling her newborn son, Moses, while sitting in the courtyard of an east Atlanta coffeehouse. "Because there is that sense that all stories have a place in the narrative. But that doesnít mean every story is easy to tell."
Indeed, in the course of soliciting, collating, and editing essays for Half/Life (recently issued on Soft Skull Press) Snyder ran up against egos and nerves--some people who couldnít fathom a word changed and others who pulled out at the last minute because they, suddenly, could no longer imagine the Łber-personal remembrances existing outside their heads in the first place. But Snyder persisted in the project as a means not of collecting anecdotes about the past but for the purpose of continuing a dialogue about the future.
Snyder quickly learned that what makes for a successful anthology is not crafting a collection anybody will like all of but one with something for everyone. And so after the difficult process of distilling submissions from web sites (Readerville.com and such), creative writing programs, and personal acquaintances, Snyderís Half/Life came fully in to existence.
The collection features stories where identities are not singular and streamlined. Snyder, herself the product of a "mixed" upbringing and married to a husband who was raised Catholic, originally planned for 18 stories--representing the number chai, also the Hebrew word for life--but as the project took on a life of its own she found there were 19 stories she felt essential. The stories grapple with feeling excluded and searching for community, adoption and rejection, as well as the not quite kosher, even radioactive subject matter embedded in the bookís title.
"That idea of decay is what people are afraid intermarriage is doing to the Jewish community," Snyder says. "That by having halves we are losing our culture and we are losing our identity.
"But I feel like itís a defiant thing to call this book Half/Life. Going back to Genesis, when you call something by a name it calls it into being, and what it is redefines what that name is. So I want it to be understood that while there is the possibility for decay, there is also the possibility for growth. Iím not sure if the logic is implicit, but thatís what I wanted to do."
What Snyder did not want to do, however, was write a "101 Things You Might Not Have Known About Your Half-Heritage" or any other sort of guidebook. As a creative writing teacher at Georgia Perimeter College--her ongoing observations can be found at her JewishyIrishy.com blog--she wasnít looking to compile the type of succinct and punchy particulars that lead to a New York Times trend piece.
Snyder has been drawn to the literature since her Roland Park Elementary School days, but especially since a 10th grade workshop with poet Gary Blankenburg in Catonsville, where her mother still lives. (Her father lives in Lauraville.) It was in poetry--and Baltimore, where she spent her first 18 years--that Snyder, who always considered herself "100 percent Jewish with a willingness to straddle worlds," first started confronting her feelings of "everybody except me": how everyone, including her "lovely little hippie" mother, was Catholic.
Later, through college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, graduate school at the University of Iowa Writersí Workshop, and a stint in Israel--as in, once outside of her immediate Baltimore world--Snyder realized this immersion in Catholicism may not be universal. The awareness of difference, though, worked in many directions. Even within Snyderís own Reform Hebrew Sunday school there was a clique, "the Rachels," who judged othersí "true" Jewishness with a cold stare. On reflection, "the Outsider" seemed Snyderís most consistently referenced meme. And having split time, once her parents separated, between the diverse, socially conscious worlds of her motherís Corpus Christi Catholic Church and her "Jewish socialist" fatherís Bolton Street Synagogue, both in Bolton Hill, Snyder eventually realized there were other people who were both questioning their legitimacy and embracing their consciously chosen philosophical traditions, and finding a life outside the margins.
"What I learned in high school is that 10 people and a copy of the Torah, thatís a synagogue," Snyder says. "The same way my father asked himself what he had to offer Judaism and built a community of well-minded people with social justice issues at heart and an interest in Hebrew, well, this book is my way of being Jewish in the world and lending something to the religionís thousands of years of evolution."
Now, by the "rules" Snyder is not Jewish. By Jewish law her mother would be required to be Jewish to pass along the faith--a situation faced by many contributors to the book. But Snyder went to the Mikveh, made a conversion, and set about writing her own chapter in Judaismís long history of developing through dialogue. Other evolutions and assimilations portrayed in Half/Life, however, are not always as affirming.
Half/Lifeís first story is by Margaret Schwartz, who grew up, Snyder says, "looking Jewish, feeling kind of Jewish," but felt an outsider in rural Maine. Schwartz had lost her father, the Jewish parent in the house. It wasnít until graduate school in Iowa, where she met Snyder, that she set about learning Hebrew in order to say Kaddish, the mournerís prayer, so as to both grieve and reconcile this life-long gap, this missing content.
This story behind Schwartzís story is the genesis of the book. This brief story itself, "A Question in the Shape of Your Body," pinpoints the prominence of language and the craving for routine in forking oneís own connection to heritage. Several of Half/Lifeís stories take place around the Seder, or not-Christmas, or other times of ritual, and reach out to the Jewish community and another community while trying to organize without a distinct organized religion.
Indeed, Rebecca Wolff discusses how "One does not say one is a Jew. One is ĎJewish,í" part of a larger culture regardless. Wolff--Jewish by father, so in a way part of the cultureís counterculture--finds that issues of inheritance are not such a given that they can be thrown about and away like tissues. Belonging isnít always easy. Sometimes you have to explain Yahweh to children. And sometimes you have to explain time-honored hamentashen (prune-filled Purim pastries) and how you value your grandmotherís compulsions to your college roommate, as in Thisbe Nissenís "Bury the Knife in Yonkers or Bibbety Bobbety Jew," one of several stories that reveal it takes some distance to get close to issues of value(s).
And issues of belonging extend outside just interfaith marriage and how children were or are to be raised. In Daphne Gottliebís "Gifts," grappling with a gay identity is also creatively addressed. The accepting of ambiguities is one of the most empowering rituals found in Half/Life, which represents well the Jewish tradition of struggle and survival.
"People are saying, ĎWhat advice do you have for intermarried couples raising children today?í And I donít have any advice," Snyder says. "I wasnít trying to give people advice. I was trying to show people a window into a variety of experiences that have stemmed from this situation, and I leave it to them to draw their own conclusions. People are desperate for me to say it doesnít matter--that itís easy and fun and being a child of intermarriage is not confusing at all, itís just a whole new identity. Except thatís not true--it is complicated. These are things Iíve had to hammer out . . . and these are things my son will be up against.
"It requires work," she concludes. Snyder hopes to, at some point, offer an online forum for further tales. "But interfaith Jews can study the stories of the Torah, and sit with others so we can learn with them, and use conversations from thousands of years ago up to today as a point of entry to examine and find our place."
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