Monday, January 18, 2010

Read This Book: My Before and After Life by Risa Miller

When a woman's father becomes suddenly very Orthodox Jewish, she's forced to confront everything she ever felt about belief, faith and family in Risa Miller's My Before and After Life. Miller, the author of Welcome to Heavenly Heights, agreed to let me ask her some questions-thank you, Risa!

I’ve read a few articles, notably one in the NYT, which label you as an Orthodox writer. Both your first novel, Welcome to Heavenly Heights and My Before and After Life deal with Jewish Orthodox Religion which informs, changes, and transcends the characters’ lives. Do you think labels like these are confining, or do you simply feel that our subjects choose us, rather than the other way around?

My first impulse is to quote Popeye, “I yam what I yam”. But that doesn‘t really answer your question. No, I don’t feel the orthodox label is confining; it’s more like defining. Oh, so maybe “ I yam what I yam” does answer the question: My characters and subject matter always boil down to people searching for meaning, especially in religious context, or in the case of the characters in My Before and After Life, searching for meaning in-- at the very least--a metaphysical context.

One of the things I most loved about the novel was that Honey Black, a lawyer who deals in black and white, views her father’s conversion to Orthodox Judaism as a kind of temporary madness, which he needs rescue from, yet gradually she comes to see the wonder and surprise of belief herself.How do you think people come to believe in what they believe and how do you personally see the face of Judaism changing in today’s world?

For almost 35 years I have lived in a community full of intelligent and idealistic co-religionists. Many are returnees to Judaism and converts from other religions. They’re parents of large families, community volunteers and often high functioning professionals too: professors, physicians, teachers, lawyers, social workers, (my Torah study partner developed the navigation system for the Ethiopian air force.) It’s been my observation that some people come to religion through trauma, such as the death of a parent. Or, some people-- like me-- come to religion because of a constant existential gnawing. I don’t mean to sound like Thomas Wolfe with that crazy infant memory in the crib, but I do remember being two years old and freaking out about death, infinity, and my place in the universe and possibly an ongoing universe where I didn‘t exist in physical form. Then there are the extremely mind-driven people like my husband whose undergraduate major at Johns Hopkins was logic. He proceeded to acquire belief by proof and rational argument. By the way, among the believers I hang with, belief is not something you acquire like a new set of clothes or a second skin. This is where my character Honey gets it wrong by mislabeling her father a ‘born again’ Jew. Acquiring belief is an ongoing process: growth, personal best, self management in order to fulfill your best intentions and be the person you want to be--all the while standing up for truth and justice. It’s really hard work to be a believer. Oh and as far as Judaism in today’s world, I worry that the demographic charts might be right: that assimilation is such a natural process (especially natural and easy in such an open country as the US) and that commitment to traditional, i.e. Torah Judaism, might at some point be the only identity card carrying forward.

Religion is also seen as a divisive force in the novel. It separates Honey and her father and it also separates the community, which is arguing over the expansion of an Orthodox School. Do you feel there can be a real separation of church and state, or do you feel that religion is such a part of many peoples’ lives that it impacts every decision?

I don’t usually think about separation of church and state. Though I do sigh extra hard every time my real estate taxes go up because the local elementary school needs another renovation--meaning the school I never sent my kids to because I chose parochial schools. On the other hand, now and then I do feel social attitudes acutely--partly what I was writing about in My Before and After Life. For example, in the 1980’s, in our self-consciously enlightened and diversity committed town of Brookline, we and several other families in the community were indeed expanding a n orthodox Jewish day school and building a new building in a commercial zone just at the corner of Beacon St. The neighbors associated and complained bitterly. These were the same people who embraced the expansion of a restaurant at the same corner (with all the increased parking needs at a corner with very few spots). The neighborhood association had the nerve to draw a red line around a neighborhood map and said we will ‘let you‘(sic) build if you promise not to put another Jewish institution in this space we’ve outlined. I’d thought that exclusive and quota driven living had gone out by 1968.

You teach writing at Emerson College. How does teaching impact your writing life?

Aaah-- I’m tempted to use another quote, this time from Anna (The King and I), but I‘ll spare you and summarize: I learn from my students. When I‘m in the classroom, the bubble over MY head is full of a-ha moments--sometimes of great illumination, and often about some craft insight or knot that I‘ve been working on for years. I do love my Emerson students and of course my dear graduate writing students at Bar Ilan University.

What are you working on now and what’s your daily life like?

I have many daily lives: There’s the daily life before book launch when all I seem to do is email and scheme and talk--and double up my efforts to remind myself Who controls outcomes. There’s the daily life around Jewish holidays or the birth of a new grandchild which puts me in high domestic mode. Then, what I think you’re really asking about is my daily life as a writer. Then: I get up, have coffee, say morning prayers and writer for three to five hours. With many interruptions and many more coffee breaks. And sometimes when I’m stuck I go take a shower and it clears my head. Depending on my teaching schedule I do that four to five days a week.

Right now I’m working on the story of two brothers, one religious and one not. And at the heart of the book is a literary mystery--as crazy as it sounds--a true mystery about plagiarism involving George Elliot's Daniel Deronda and a 19th century German Jewish writer. I'd made the discovery some years back and I was asked to research and write about it for George Eliot scholarly journals. But I decided to write it the way I do best, that is, into a book. As of now, I don't yet know who plagiarized whom and bets are on.

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask?

No mortification required, but you didn’t ask: How do you manage to have a professional life--and the self generated, always at home professional life of a writer-- with all the cooking, entertaining, homemaking, community roles, kids, grandkids that orthodox lifestyle brings. Well, just for the record, I hate cleaning the house and I have a genetic defect when it comes to things like ironing clothes , but I do enjoy the other domestic stuff. It‘s not required, by the way but part of orthodox life enhancement and yes, many men share domestic life equally. I happen to love cookbooks and food magazines and planning menus and cooking. I always look for opportunities to put out big four course meals, homemade from soup to nuts--for holidays and Shabbos. What a concrete focused and meaningful sense of satisfaction, especially compared to the fuzzy achievement of writing. My husband has a routine when he takes the first bite of my home made challah bread--all my children and guests know what to do to--and he says, “MM mmm mm Dee-licious”. Which always reminds me of the old Campbell Soup commercials. How good is that!?


Ken Matthews said...

Great interview! The book sounds fabulous; I'll have to check it out. I'm reminded of the sociologist Peter Berger's book, THE SACRED CANOPY. He asserts that humans have this innate need to surround themselves with a system of symbols, beliefs, and rituals that help them make sense of the world around them. This set of symbols, beliefs, and rituals becomes their "sacred canopy." In most cultures, that's really the essence of what defines a religion. Of course, a canopy separates you from other people, so as you pointed out, it can be divisive at times.

Unknown said...

I want this book! My first employment was with a Jewish owned company and I was so young the only concept I understood was that we didn't work on Jewish or Christian holidays. Many years after the business closed, I read the rabbi series by Harry Kemelman and found I dearly loved getting a glimpse of Judaism. On an added note, Mr. Gitenstein, my friend and former boss, now lives in a nursing facility here and our visits are consumed by conversations of those long ago work days and his faith and mine; the latter two subjects my younger self would have found much too intimidating. I am looking forward to reading Ms. Miller's novel; this was an outstanding interview.

Jessica Brilliant Keener said...

I love this book! I love Honey's great dilemma with her dad and conflict within herself and her idea of what it means to be a Jew or a religious one. Risa brings us into a world many of us (Jew and non-Jew) want to know more about but we've been either too afraid to ask someone to help us get there, or don't know who to ask in the first place, or maybe we've asked but have been laughed at or derided. What is "conversion" all about? How does one see the light, get swept up in a huge way by the spirit? No one else is exploring this the way Risa is--with heart and humor and great intelligence.

Dory Adams said...

Another wonderful interview! Caroline, be sure to check in at "She Writes" this week. I've chosen your blog as one of three I've reviewed as the "Curator of the Week" in the "Bloggers: Let's Make it Work!" group.

Caroline Leavitt said...

Dory! Thank you so much! I've been lost in page proofs but will go right now!

Bookpod said...

Caroline, I liked your interview with Risa Miller a lot. You (and your blog readers) might be interested in listening to this short "audio essay" Risa did with me for Bookpod, an audio podcast I produce about "writers of lasting value:"

BTW, your work looks very interesting. Would you consider participating in Bookpod? Among the writers to date: Philip Gourevitch, Phillip Lopate, Julie Salamon, Terry Teachout, Mark Bowden and many more.

Barbara Finkelstein