Jewish mothers, especially immigrant mothers, have particular preferences for their children and their chosen careers. Creative artists have a particularly hard time convincing their families of the validity of their choices. Nadia Kalman, a fellow of the National Endowment of the Arts and the author of the novel, The Cosmopolitans, which won the Emerging Writer Award from Moment magazine and was a finalist for the Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature, tried to follow in the engineering footsteps of the rest of her Russian émigré family.
More after the jump.
She dutifully applied and was accepted to MIT, but at the reception for women and minorities, she bolted, realizing that science was not in her future. She went on to earn degrees in Russian and English literature at Yale, but she still tried to ignore her creative yearnings. After years as a teacher and assistant principal in the New York City public schools, she finally began her full-fledged novel. Kalman was invited to speak on Wednesday to students of Drexel’s Judaic Studies Program and the Department of English and Philosophy. Her topic was: “This is Killing Your Mother: How Nice Jewish Boys (and Girls) Decide to Disappoint Everyone and Become Writers.”
Kalman highlighted the diverse experiences of several writers, some better known to the audience than others. Osip Mandelstam had a unique story, one in which his mother featured prominently. In 1909, at age 18, his mother hauled him before the editor of the best magazine of the day in St. Petersburg, Apollon, and asked for his opinion of her son’s poetry. The editor, Sergei Makovsky, thought it was drek (worthless trash) , but was softened by the young man’s “intense, agonized beseeching,” face, so he lied and said that the young man had great potential. Alas, the editor was then compelled to publish Osip’s poetry!
Philip Roth has said that he went through a series of potential careers, from lawyer to English professor , and “never dreamed of being a writer.” Kalman does not believe his protestations. More likely, she said, Roth thought he shouldn’t be a writer, so he didn’t initially thought of it as a serious career choice. She herself had thought of becoming an English professor, but she was not good at writing academic papers.
Women writers have more to contend with, said Kalman, not just husbands “laying down the law,” but from other women and their expectations of normal womanhood. Erica Jong in Fear of Flying wrote of familial censure: “There’s nothing fiercer than a failed artist and nothing more cruel, more vain…” Kalman added, “If you’re not a genius, not earning all the prizes, then it’s not worthwhile.”
After a person chooses to become a writer, then there’s the choice of topic, which also often un-nerves the family. Roth was a master of writing against parental wishes. Kalman points to his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman in The Ghost Writer whose father chastised him, saying, “You certainly didn’t leave anything out.” Nathan’s story was “not good for the Jews.” Another character, Judge Leopold Wapter, posed 10 questions to Nathan on what would be acceptable literature for the mainstream public. Number 10 was: “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?”
The dualism of Jewish realism, or what others might term Jewish paranoia, also applied to the prolific poet and activist Emma Lazarus. She dealt with the persistence of anti-Semitism by vigorously and clumsily opposing the common Jewish stereotypes. Lazarus’s father’s championship of her choice of work gave her the chutzpah to seek out the great writers of her time and solicit their advice, which she then often ignored. She was not shy, not modest, but after her death in 1887, her sisters compiled an anthology of her poems for publication that was different from Emma’s own choices. They chose poems that conveyed their Victorian ideals of womanhood.
In 1974, Grace Paley in A Conversation With My Father, wrote that her father asked her to write like Chekhov and de Maupassant. But they are so tragic, so melodramatic! Yes, Paley’s father liked the tragic, but Kalman considers a writer’s responsibility is to her character, her creation and one that “trumps her responsibility to her family.”
Kalman’s grandmother offered to translate The Cosmopolitans into Russian, but she thought there was room for improvement. So, in one scene in which the character Yana derisively refers to her sister, Milla, as “the Guardian of the Vagina,” Kalman’s grandmother translated it as “the Guardian of the Hearth.” Never, joked Kalman, would that translation see the light of day!
Rebelling against expectations, she said, was as good for the soul of the writer as it is for teenagers. She then quoted Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, in The Ghost Writer, that “literary history was in part the history of novelists infuriating fellow countrymen, family, and friends.”
Asked about immigrant literature, she said, “that many of the characters in my novel — including those who have been in America for several generations — still do not feel completely at home.” To Kalman, a sense of not fully belonging is a part of the human experience — not reserved solely for immigrants. Immigrants nowadays are more proud of their heritage, compared to those who arrived earlier who tried so desperately to fit into American society. Some parents — not Kalman’s! — forbade their children from speaking their native tongue. Times have changed, and people now seek a connection.
Writing is a lonely craft, even after one is published. Are people reading out there? How did she maintain her faith in herself? Kalman keeps a file of letters of encouragement from her friends and, on the dismal days, she takes them out to remind herself that she’s writing because she wishes to write.