What constitutes a cultural identity? Is it connected to home, to language, to being part of a group, to being on TV? Is it tied to history? Can history be rewritten? Novelist Michael Chabon and culture critic Daniel Mendelsohn have both published books in which they look at identity and its representation through the lens of an Eastern European Jewish heritage. Chabon and Mendelsohn both happened to be speaking in Amsterdam last week, and the two friends agreed to a joint interview.
As American Jews, they both feel relatively free to play with their cultural heritage, picking and choosing elements of that heritage to combine with their other interests. For Chabon, those include myth, comic books, and popular culture. His new book “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a mystery novel set in an imaginary Yiddish-speaking colony in Alaska.
Mendelsohn was a classical scholar specializing in Greek tragedy before he became a journalist. In 1999 he published “The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity,” about relationships among gay men. In his 2006 book “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” he describes his attempts to discover the fate of his great-uncle, great-aunt, and four young cousins in a small town in Poland during the war. “We both wrote detective stories,” Mendelsohn says. “But we also wrote about language, about narrative, about options that are available to one as a writer, to choose.”
Daniel, in an interview for your previous book, about the gay community, you said, “An ‘identity’ is something we all yearn for but which is bound to elude us, because it is a creation of our desire and fantasy about who we want to be.” Does that apply to Jewish culture as well?
Daniel Mendelsohn The gay “culture”—I don’t like to use that word, but the gay whatever and the Jewish whatever—function similarly in their relationship to the larger culture. There are the same issues of the possibility of assimilation, the desire to remain different; within each group, there’s a perceived form of “extreme” identity statement and a “modified” identity statement. To me, the two things were totally concentric. And that’s how I thought about them; and it has been a very useful way for me to think about culture in general, about the possibility of stance. How can you position yourself with respect to the larger culture? And in that respect, both Jewishness and gayness are metaphors for a way to relate oneself [to the dominant group]. The same debates rage within both cultures: should we assimilate? should we remain outside? What are the benefits? What are the compromises involved?
Michael Chabon Should we allow ourselves to be valued for the things that the larger culture values us for while at the same time it’s devaluing us for many other reasons? The things that Jews, or gays, are reputed to be “good at”—should we accept those labels because they’re positive, or should we reject them completely because they’re being used in a dubious manner?
Mendelsohn Every time there’s a really queeny character on a TV show, there’s 500,000 people saying, “Isn’t it great? We’re on a TV show!” and then there’s 500,000 people saying, “It’s horrible, because most of us are just lawyers and doctors, and we’re not all queeny decorators.” So as a producer of culture, you’re always aware that no matter how you make it, someone’s going to be miserable. When you’re writing, you’re part of the machine of cultural production. And someone’s going to be saying the same thing about you. “How could you make Jews this way? How could you make Jews that way?” It’s always a vexed issue.
Michael, I was interested in how you talk about home and homelessness in “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” I don’t live where I’m from, and I moved around a lot as a child. I found the most poignant parts of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” to be the ones where you’re wondering whether or not you need a home to be yourself, even to be a person.
Chabon I’ve always found a lot of meat in the aspects of Judaism that deal with not having a home, longing for a home. The Diaspora, the period of wandering, is what lies at the center of interest for me in Jewish history.
I moved around a lot too when I was a kid. Then in 1970, when my family finally settled down, we moved to a place called Columbia, Maryland. Columbia at the time was a brand-new city. It was being built from scratch, and it was very much being done along Utopian principles from the 1960s: racial equality, religious, ecumenical, people worshipping together in the same building, sharing one building regardless of what faith you were, trying to ease class disparities in the way housing was designed. And my parents bought into Columbia not just because they could get a nice house for a reasonable price, but because they believed in it. And I grew up very much believing in it; that was my home.
I had this sort of idyllic childhood there, in this Utopian place, up to a point—and that point was when my parents separated and then divorced [when Chabon was 11]. And after that it was sort of broken, for me.
From then on, [I had a] period of feeling homeless in some way, and moving back and forth between my parents’ houses. And then I became a teenager, and was moving all over, and I moved 22 times in 14 years, I calculated it once. I had almost had this moment of being at home, being in this place that was like a kind of New Jerusalem, and then losing it and leaving it—that partly explains why I feel it so strongly.
Mendelsohn It’s always something you write about with tremendous emotion. I still remember reading Kavalier & Clay, and there’s that part at the end where he gets the crate [containing the Golem of Prague], and he smells the waters of the Moldau, and I just was heaving.
Chabon And it’s not just a Jewish thing at all, it’s very much an American thing: rootlessness and restlessness and moving on.
Mendelsohn It’s interesting to be in Europe talking about these books, since my book is about the desire to recuperate a history by somebody who had no history, in the way that Americans uniquely are allowed, or can choose, to have no history. Because you grow up in a suburb that didn’t exist until six months before you were born.
And the idea that we’re all haunted by this parallel life, the life that could have been, the European life, the one you would have had if your grandfather had decided to stay in you know, “Vashkovitz on Fruit” —one is haunted by it, if you have any imagination. It doesn’t matter if you’re a novelist or not, this is something you grow up with. There’s always that floating around: the other life, the alter-life. And so that yearning for home is also a yearning for history.
Michael, did some of Columbia, MD, get into Sitka, the Alaskan Jewish settlement in your book?
I think so, just in the idea that you could take this empty space and fill it, with a city, and say, We’re going to do it, and we’re going to do it like this, here’s where the people are going to go, and … So much of it was about making maps and plans, the building of Columbia, and I got this very potent demonstration of how you went about imagining and then building a place. It happened right before my eyes, and it all started with this map of Columbia. And you know, the books that I loved reading at the time were full of maps. And so the idea that there was this power in imagining a place and mapping it and dreaming it up and then either writing a novel about it, like “The Chronicles of Narnia,” or even actually, if you had all the resources of money and will that the developer of Columbia had, to actually make a real place; that such a thing was possible. I’m sure it fed into my even imagining that I could write a book like “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”
Language is another important part of identity, and the most important language in both of your books, although they’re written in English, is Yiddish. For example, Daniel, you transcribed parts of your interviews in the original Yiddish.
Mendelsohn To me it was important, because I wanted the reader to hear the sound of Yiddish, as a kind of artifact. My book is a book about evidence. You’re surrounded by evidence, and it’s visual, and it’s narrative, and it’s aural.
But I grew up hearing Yiddish. It was a very strong component of my Jewish childhood, because I was surrounded by old people whose mother language was Yiddish. It’s an element of this lost civilization that to me needs to be presented, like an artifact in a museum. Because nobody—none of the people who are my kind of people speak Yiddish anymore.
Chabon It’s being lost all over again now, in that not only is there no more Yiddishkeit, no more world of Yiddish—that was lost when we were kids already—but now all those people that passed it on even in the fragmentary way that they did to us are gone, or going, very soon. I’m very conscious of that for my kids. What they know about Yiddish is again an order of magnitude less than what I knew about Yiddish. If my core vocabulary that I had as a kid, just from what I heard [from his grandparents], was, let’s say it was 150 words that I was confident I might know what they meant, for my kids it’s 20 or 25. There’s nobody to get it from but me, and—it’s like in a post-apocalyptic novel, where little fragments of civilization are handed on, but every time they’re handed on another piece is forgotten…
Mendelsohn …is rubbed away a little bit. But that reminds you: the meaning of the word culture, you know, is deeply connected to the life of living things. That’s what culture means. And that’s why I always say, and I get in trouble for saying: you can’t talk about gay culture. Because nobody is born into gay culture. They don’t grow up in gay culture. They don’t have, largely, although it’s changing, children to pass a culture on to. If there are no living people to transmit the object, then it fades away. And that’s what Yiddish means to me.
Look, I’m a student of dead languages. Yiddish is unique in the history of the world to be a language that died in six years. To have a language that is completely in the prime of its health—
Chabon It was at its peak.
Mendelsohn —at its peak, both as a language and as a literature, and then not to exist six years later, is a thing unique in the history of the world, as far as I know.
Chabon In a way, if you have the desire to live in a world where Yiddish is still powerful, vibrant, strong, and all around you, you either have to go where Daniel went or—you have to go where I went.
Mendelsohn Another way of saying that is that if you are not a novelist, the only place you can go for thriving secular Yiddish culture is in the past. And the other place you can go, if you are a novelist, is in the parallel present. And to say that is to say a deeply tragic thing.
Last night [at Mendelsohn’s reading] I was telling the story of a Ukrainian boy I saw in Bolechow [his uncle’s home town] who was playing in the Jewish cemetery. We asked our interpreter, “Does he know what this place is?” and he said “Yes, it’s the Jewish cemetery.” And we said “Does he know what a Jew is?” And he said no. And that just always destroys me. That’s extermination, when people don’t even know what a Jew is anymore.
Amsterdam, September 19, 2007.