The Past, Present and Future of Jews in America
What does it feel like to drive the Lincoln Casey imagine being able to read the road ahead? So you can always choose the right path accessing your favorite apps with the sound of your voice being free to roam while remaining connected to the whole world. The well-connected two thousand nineteen Lincoln m KC with a suite of social tech, including ways in Amazon Alexa through seeing three app. Lincoln Lincoln connect with four G L T WI fi. Learn more at Lincoln dot com slash book review. Don't drive distracted or while using handheld devices use voice controls, the book view podcast has been around for almost fourteen years, and we would love to hear your feedback. Let us know what you think by joining our panel at NY times dot com slash the Booker view. Thanks so much. How much should we worry about the state of contemporary? Judaism, my colleague all beckerman will join us to talk about his review a five new books that look at the place of Jews in America today. How do you reconcile with the childhood of trauma? He AC Lehman will be here to talk about his new memoir. Heavy Alexander will give us an update from the publishing world. Plus, we'll talk about what we and the wider world are reading this is the book review podcast from the New York Times. I'm Pamela, Paul. Joining us. Now, my colleague all darker men who is an editor at the Booker view and the author of the book when they come for us. We'll be gone the epoch struggled to save Soviet jewelry. All thanks for being here. Thanks for having me. So gall is not here to talk about his book, although he may in future. But to talk about five books about contemporary Judaism, which he reviews in a long essay on the cover of the book review this week. I'm gonna go quickly through the authors and titles of the books, and then we will go back and talk about the bit individually and altogether. So the books are tall kind. Men's God is in the crowd twenty first century Judaism. The new American Judaism how Jews practice their religion today by Jack ver- timer ammos ause is dear zealots letters from divided land. Steve wise men's the chosen wars. How Judaism became an American religion. And finally, the Jewish American paradox embracing choice in a chain. Ching world by Robert Manoukian. All right. That's a lot of reading. It's a lot of reading a lot of books about juice. Yes. Yes. And this is something that we conceived of over the summer and looking at these books together, you were kind of looking ahead at the fall and noted that all of these books were coming out over the course of the next few months. That's right. And how are they the medically similar will they're all kind of from various angles kind of approaching this question of of a crisis a crisis in American jewelry, though, the question of of where as a community as an identity American Jews are going, but they are really all approaching it from different angles. So for example, the chosen wars is the book by Steven Weisman is is a history book, and it looks at the nineteenth century and really the moment at which American Judaism became this unique thing at the hands of reformers who decided to make it a new. Basically for for an American society. All right. I want to actually there and talk more about that. Because. How did Judaism differ in the United States for? So a win did Jews begin to immigrate in significant numbers? And and how long were they here before that influx will Jews it been here from the seventeenth century. But in very small numbers, it was a small Sephardic population Jews who came from the regionally from Spain. And then found their way here, but the larger numbers began to happen in the nineteenth century for most of the nineteenth century. There was a community that wasn't identified community, but they really numbered in the sows. And so by making seventy you had I think two hundred and fifty thousand Jews when that built up really through the middle of the nineteenth century when German Jews started to come. But the the big numbers was from eight hundred seventy about nineteen twenty a went from two hundred and fifty thousand to four million, and that's the eastern European influx that we mostly know about when we think about American Jews and their heritage. But it was that period before these European Jews came really in the nineteenth century where the kind of. The the structure the Cialis g the rituals of reform Judaism, which is still the dominant form of American Judaism was set in place. So they were coming. They were both Oscar Nause Jews and Sephardic Jews. But predominantly Ashkenazi uscca's e juice through a really oschkenat's each's, the the big numbers, the German Jews I mid nineteenth century and then the eastern European Jews at the end and into the twentieth. Century us Ghazi ju-, right? But there will maintain their their remain certain divisions. Even within the Jewish community that existed between German Jews and the eastern European Jews for sure because the German Jews who arrived really were very much set on reform on making an American and of western style religion. They borrowed a lot of kind of you know, what even at the time was acknowledged. We're kind of Christian trappings, you know. So suddenly, you had an Oregon you had choirs yet men and women sitting together you had all these things that kind of tried to adapt. The religion to to the environment of of America. And I, and I think also, and I say this essay trying to make the Jews there themselves feel less alien not just to their neighbors, but to themselves, you know, they were they had kind of the split identity where they were starting to really assimilate really become successful in America. Especially the that that German Jewish cohort, you know, became extremely successful businessman, you know, Levi Strauss, you know, there's a whole there's a whole world, including the the people who ended up owning this newspaper. Right. They came from that world, and they really wanted to become Merican. And so they turn the religion into one that would be kind of not just acceptable to others or kind of accessible to others, but they would make them feel a split in their identity. Right. So when we're there were coming from were they in both Germany, and in and in eastern Europe, predominantly reformed conservative orthodox modern orthodox to that even exist, as we know it today will those denominations really took shape in the nineteenth century and. And so they were coming from environments where I mean, there was just orthodox or traditional Jews, and in in really once, you know, about twenty thirty years after Jews going to became emancipated at the end of the eighteenth century in in places like Germany thinkers, like Moses Mendelssohn began to to the there was something called the Jewish enlightenment. That's where the reform really started this move towards reform was it predominantly in America. Then or it it started in Germany, but it really took off in America for reasons that we can all imagine America was just more of a tub LaRosa and communities of Jews were scattered here in a way that you know, that they weren't in Germany, the biggest community of Jews in America in the eighteen forties was in Charleston, South Carolina, just seven hundred but they became actually a real kind of frontline for for reform. I have to ask about the title because the subtitle is Stephen wise men's book does sound like a history. How? Judy isn't became an American religion. But the title the chosen wars indicates something else, I mean, what are the wars that he is referring to there? He's talking about the wars between the reformers and the traditionalist period, and that was a war that was really one. By the reformers, I mean, once the eastern European Jews came once that big influx that I mentioned, you know, at the end of the nineteenth century, those are people coming with a traditional ideas about Judaism. So there was still a long period of integration for them. But once they really kind of fully became Americans say their children, the children's children, they became reformed Jews too. So reform really won that war in America. And this is a history as you said. But is there a point of view to it? Is there an argument that wise minutes trying to make ballot the way in which Judaism developed in this country? Yeah. I mean, he's trying to say that American Jews really came here. And in there in that attempt to really make an American religion the reshaped. Judaism, they made it not a religion that was about a kind of a separate chosen people. Sitting and waiting for the messiah to come. But people that was going to be active in this world. And particularly American society. They threw out the prayers calling waiting for the messiah the throughout the prayer hoping to return to Palestine Zion. And they said, this is our home, and our our role year is going to be almost as not waiting for the messiah, but a messianic people who are like trying to, you know, be these kind of ethical high priests and engage in social Justice, basically, it was like a social gospel, and that really gave them away to like fit into American society. And what's remarkable is that one hundred thirty years later from when this really, you know, kind of took form crystallized in America. That's still a lot of how American Jews kind of see their Judaism, or the Jewish identity of predominant number like, really, see, social, Justice and social Justice activism is being a kind of a Jewish activity. All right. Well that brings us right up to today. So I wanna talk about two of the other books that seemed to be. Focused more on contemporary, American GD ISM. And let's start with the one by Robert Manoukian who is a law professor at Harvard and his book is called the Jewish American paradox embracing choice in a changing world. What does that subtitle me? So Newton is a man who I think he's in his sixties, and he didn't have much of a Jewish identity. Growing up EC says in the book, but later in life, you began to kind of worry about his grandchildren, really, and whether or not they would feel connected in any way and began to kind of examine the question of why American Jews seem to be dwindling. And the the answer that he came up with is that the Jews in general sink of Jewish identity as one that was given by descent and Matra lineal descent in particular, if you're in Judaism, if your mother is Jewish then you're automatically Jewish. You cannot believe in God, you can never call yourself Ajuba, you're considered Jewish and is that the same in all three of those sort of meter traditions reform, conservative and. And orthodox so reform has in the last thirty years. I I don't remember the exact I think it was sometime in the eighties kind of decided to take on patrilineal descent as like as legitimate form of of of Jewish identity. So either or either or even conservative Jews, which is just, you know, slightly to the left of of reform, you know, in terms of practice and and abiding by tradition. It's taken them a really long time. I mean, they they just in the last month really west, I was writing this piece of was a news story that conservative Jewish kind of establishment finally allowed allowed rabbis to attend inter inter marriage ceremonies. Not not even officiate. But just be there. Right. Not been allowed to even be a presence. And yet, I'm curious because you, you know, there has been as you said this move towards reform. This is an anecdotal perception correct me if it's wrong, but one of the things that I've heard among people of our generation, let's not age as too much. But let's say the. Generation many of them are still part of that move towards assimilation and move towards embracing Hanukkah, for example, as a sort of full celebratory equivalent or alternative Christmas, occasionally, even celebrating Christmas to in a secular way to then the generation that grew up in in that way. But his now seeing reform Judaism kind of become more conservative that synagogues are sort of seemed to be pulling back on some of that what they perceive as as maybe an overstep towards assimilation. Is that true? I mean, I think it's complicated. I think it depends on which congregation which reform rabbi there definitely is kind of a melding together in some ways of conservative Judaism. Which was again like this kind of reaction to reform. They wanted to bring in some more of the tradition. Some more of a observance of Jewish law as like a melting of that and reform. I think is happened. So to that extent. Yes. Like reform has become a little bit. Less reform e there have been trends in the last thirty years. Let's say that that really indicate that American Jews if they want to kind of maintain a a unique identity a unique sense of themselves as a community with its own kind of particular characteristics. It's becoming harder and harder to do. I mean, I I mentioned here the rate of intermarriage of Jews marrying non-jews. It's now for the non orthodox. It's seventy two percent. And there's been plenty of studies that show that if you grow up in a household without to Jewish parents than you know, somehow, you're, you know, less Jewish -ly identified, and then you know, you can just do the math going forward. It means a very kind of dwindling Jewish population. Now, one of the things that nuke and says in his book is that we're being too doctrinaire. You know in terms of how we think of who is a Jew, right? And he wants to he has this line. We says he wants the chosen people to become the choosing people. So that Jews themselves if you decide. You wanna be a Jew? Whether you have one parents at Jewish it, which is Jewish whether it's your father or your mother, whether you're married to somebody who's Jewish and you just feel very involved in the raising of Jewish children. You get to be a Jew. So it's this kind of big tent ideas, rather than than sort of go back to the core of the theology in the identity and be sort of even stricter about that. But the opposite. And there's even some you know, there's there's been interesting into thirteen. There was pew did this. The biggest study that it's I think Pugh is ever done. But that has been done a long time about American Jews, and one of the kind of interesting aspects that was pulled out of the study was that if you if you talk to people with only one Jewish parent millennials of that, you know, who are in that category are much more likely identifies Jewish than people over sixty five in that category. Which tells us that you know, even the last twenty thirty years of trying to open up like reform, you know, in saying patrilineal lineages is fine. You know, that that has actually has an impact on how once you if you let people. Feel accepted. They actually want to be Jewish Lee engaged. So since we're talking about polls and surveys and numbers. I have to ask this question. Because it's I think it's at one of the biggest misperceptions about Jews in this country. What percentage of this country is Jewish or self identifies as Jewish so right now it's about two percent. But it's interesting to think about that number and this goes back to that pupil because they asked specifically people who are Jews whether they're Jewish by religion. Whether they think of themselves as Jewish right as opposed to say culturally or ethnically Jewish another question. Exactly. Which is another question. People can say I have a Jewish parent, but I'm not Jewish. I don't have. I'm not Jewish by religion. And that number is growing, the call them in the pew study. They call them the nuns than having no not nuns is in. And that number is interesting because among millennials it's thirty two percent. Is there something about the way in which Judaism has been practiced in the last say century or the last couple of generations in America that has led to that increasing number will years. We're my argument comes in and kind of where these books kind of prompted me to think deeply about that question. Precisely it seems to me that you know, this reform that happened in the nineteenth century was this very big moment. You know, it was it was pretty radical. You know, they throughout the theology they throughout the rituals, and they really made their own. But what happened in the twentieth century's? There wasn't really like a prompting to do that kind of revitalization. Again, there were other other ways to kind of Ankara identity. Notably the holocaust when John came for American Jews. A almost a feeling of created a feeling of obligation to the dead that you know, you can't give up this identity. You know, look at all these people. Who were who were murdered just for having it that was a very big motivator for for two or three generations up until my own. I'd say and then Israel, which which was this great source of kind of dignity and pride for American Jews. You know, I'd say certainly up until nineteen sixty seven, but even even after that, you know for for for certain generations. Well, it's interesting when you get to this idea of contemporary Judaism being associated with social activism, and we talk about our current moment relationship to Israel that has shifted again. It has. Yeah. What I was going to say was that those two anchors the holocaust in Israel have kind of become much looser f- the holocaust of people. Of course, still remember the holocaust. But the generation of survivors is dying out in Israel, as you said is become a much thornier issue. And and you really have you know, this sense that America kind of represents the kind of universalist Jew who is interested in the wider were there wider society that they're involved in their their concerns of Utah. To American Jews. You know, they might mention Israel. But they'll also mentioned immigration, the engine reproductive rights. They'll mention all these other things that matter to them about American society versus if you go to Israel. It's a much more particular side of things in and you have the society is based on that this is a place to protect the future lives of Jews. You know? So it's more kind of tribal in that sense. All right. I want to turn to Israel in a second. But let's talk first about the other both. That's really looking at how Jews practice their religion today. That's the subtitle of Jack verti- book, which is called the new American Judaism. What is he doing in this Bill? So he's a sociologist, and that book was interesting because he's really delving into you know, he he's not doing kind of quantitative study. But he was kind of qualitatively trying to understand something about how the actual practice of the religion has changed. And for me, the more interesting parts were the kind of non orthodox Jews which make up they make up ninety percent of American Jewry. And he thinks that what? We've kind of turned into what he calls. A cafeteria religion. Which is that, you know, these old denominational lines of reform and conservative, and even orthodox to some extent are kind of like falling apart, and people are just picking and choosing the aspects of of the tradition that that matter to them, and in some cases, there's kind of funny combinations. That are happening. So people who would never think to eat kosher who eat whatever they want would when a relative dies mother or father dies. They want to strictly obey the laws of mourning or a ritual practice like the mic four, which is like the ritual bath. Which really was only orthodox Jewish women. Did now is something that has kind of been turned into kind of a spiritual practice by Jews who are much much less observant. So it's kind of buffet style. Take what you will and leave the rest exactly, it's sort of a buffet style. Which which I find personally to be actually sort of hopeful because to me, it's indicative of kind of a return to that nineteenth century moment of. Saying like, okay, we are right now, you know, Americans in this country maudlin human beings, and we want we want this religion. We want this tradition, but we need to make it meaningful for ourselves. And what do we do to make it meaningful for ourselves? And maybe means kind of opening the whole thing up and saying which of these rituals actually matters to us and gives us kind of an exalted sense of of being part of something. Let's turn to the the last two bucks. These I'm grouping together because the author and the case of Amos Oz is Israeli and tall kind men American born. But also, I think either lives in Israel or has lived in surround spent a lot of time there. So let's talk first about tall comments. God is in the crowd twenty first century. Judaism. Is he talking about Judaism in a global scale? Or is he talking about it in America in Israel? His big point is that this is a guy who grew up in various simulated American Jewish household, and then at some point in towards the end of high school had kind of a feeling of kind of a revelation that he. Had to move to Israel and moved to Israel and not just moved there, but became a fighter pilot, which is was the most intense sort of military training that you can do, but then kind of became disenchanted with both societies. And now kind of jumps between them and his his feeling was that those two polls that I described, you know, one society that's kind of behold into very kind of universalist values and one that's behold into very particular values is problematic for for all Jews because he looks at this kind of earlier period of diaspora Jews were scattered all over the world before there was kind of the bipolar world that we have now and in kind of community by community Jews hot to had to balance like this universal versus particular instinct, how tribal were they going to be how much were they going to engage with the outside world. What was going to be the kind of right balance that they were gonna find between those two things that we're going to allow them both to survive and also to thrive and continue and he thinks that's kind of been lost that that that? Kind of mishmash of conversation and debate and and figuring things out which he thinks is like a beautiful aspect of Jewish tradition. And of before things kind of calcified into the way they are now. So a lot of his kind of ideas about how to to it's going to break through that seem sort of far fetched to me reading in. But he it's definitely inspired in the sense that he's trying to like return he thinks that to save both Israel and America from kind of self destructing. And he puts it in those terms they need to really engage with each other and bring a little bit of what each is managed to kind of capture. All right. Finally, let's talk about Amos Oz. Dear zealots letters from divided land. Which is translated by Jessica Cohen, most people think of is is a novelist. But of course, he writes opinion pieces he does a lot of other things. What is he doing in this book? So owes is is coming from an Israeli perspective. But he's looking at a Judaism as tradition again like Kenan that he thinks is quite dynamic that has this history of interpretation encounter interpretation and reinterpretation. The the thing that. The the phrase that I loved that. I got outta reading this book. The most is the the notion that Jews are people without a pope. There's no dogma the whole tradition is so Laden with this kind of a he calls an anarchist spirit of like constantly burning it down and starting up and questioning questioning right? So what he sees happening in Israel in his particular context is this kind of beautiful Hebrew, secular culture. And he's he says if you wanna look at where the religion continued look at the Israeli novelists look at what they're doing. You know, not at the the orthodox establishment, which is setting down a lot of laws in Israel in terms of, you know, who can be a Jew, and who can't be a Jew and quite prohibitive way. But what I took from his book is somebody who really like rejoices in the potential of change within a religion that as I say in this piece kind of needs to really think about you know, how it moves forward. I wanted to start off by talking about these books because you had conceived of this idea round the books that were coming out, which really look at very. Broad issues in contemporary Judaism. And you wrote this essay, and you handed it in and then something terrible happened in this country. The mass murderer in Pittsburgh. How did that change the way he approached us in some ways it made it made it feel more urgent what I felt after Pittsburgh was this incredible coming together of American shoes. And and a lot of warmth and a lot of a sense of resilience. And that this was a community that really kind of wanted to come together a wanted to share its values. It's it's sense value of itself that it has. But it also felt a little bit like an illusion built like the sense of being victims actually gave Jews this kind of brief fleeting moment of something that they really are losing a density or unity density in a sense of shared identity. And and it made me feel like yes, I need to need to talk now about what does that identity? Look like, and it can't be the cultural ethnic. Identity. It certainly can't be victimhood. You know, we don't want shootings to have to be the thing that that makes Jews feel kind of solid in their in their identity. And so to me that the the the kind of source that was sitting out there for that identity that you know, has not been fully exploited. I think in the last hundred years was the religion in this thing that actually can give meaning it's it's built to give meaning, but that had, you know, in a way been neglected, and that all these books were kind of addressing that question of, you know, what do we have to do to actually pump some life into this thing? So rather than finding meaning in something like Pittsburgh to really find it in the source material Judaism itself. Yeah. I think so. All right, Akron. Thank you so much. Thank you. This is Debbie Hamlin. Crossword columnist for the New York Times something the times crossword is like entering another world where your mind can stretch its legs. The wordplay column has your back if you need some help and soon you'll want to solve every day. Start a puzzle over breakfast and finish it by bedtime. It's everything a habit should be fun relaxing and able to go anywhere with you. Download the app or start playing online at NY times dot com slash solve to experience life in the grid. This is Samson food editor of the New York Times. Whether you're just starting out in the kitchen or looking to up your game. And why t cooking is here with more than nineteen thousand times tested recipes and all the help you need to cook them. Well subscribed today at NYC cooking dot com slash podcast. So here's a request for our listeners. I get lots of feedback from you some complaints. Lots of kind words, really appreciate it. You can always reach me directly at books at times dot com. I will write back, but you can also if you feel moved to do so review us on any platform where you download the podcast whether that's tunes or Stitcher or Google play or somewhere else. Please feel free to review. And of course, Email us at any time. Ben. I did not want to write to you a wanted to write a lie. I did not want to write honestly about black lives. Black thaws. Black loves black laughs black foods like addiction black stretch marks. Black dollars black words black abuses, like blues black belly buttons, like winds, black bins like bans black consent like parents or black children. I did not want to write about us. A wanted to write an American memoir a wanted to write a lie. I wanted to do that old black work of pandering in Lyon, folk who pay us to pander to them every day. I wanted to write about our families relationships too simple carbohydrates Defra meets in high fructose corn syrup. I wanted the book to begin with my way and three hundred nineteen pounds and end with my way and one hundred sixty five pounds. I wanted to Pepita book with acerbic warnings to us fat black folk in the deep south and sacri- sentimental exhortations from mom did not want you to laugh. A wanted to write a lie. I wanted to write about how fundamental present black fathers responsible black mothers magical, black grandmothers and perfectly disciplined black children to our liberation a wanted to send a a something a someone who wants us dead and dishonest a one at white Americans who have proven themselves even more unwilling to confront their lies to reconsider how their laws lemon our access to good love, healthy choices and second chances. I wanted the book to begin and end with the assumption that if white Americans reckon with their insatiable appetite or black Americans suffering, and we reckon with our insatiable appetite to unhealthy food. We could all be ushered into a reformed era of American prosperity. I wanted to create a fantastic literary spectacle. I wanna go literary spectacle to ask nothing of you grandmom or me of an an art. Here's to a low carb diet limited sugar weightlifting twelve thousand steps. Day gallons of water and no eating after midnight. A wanted you to promise did not want you to remember. I wanted to write a lie. I wanted a lot to be titillating a wrote that LA it was titillating, you would've loved it. I discovered nothing. You would have loved it. That was key AC Lehman reading from his new book. Heavy an American memoir. He has joins us now from Mississippi Cascais. Thanks so much for being here. Thank you for having me so happy to be here. So this is about that has just inspired so much praise from critics from readers. There's a lot of excitement around it. Let's start with why you decided to write a memoir in the first place you'd written a novel. You've written a book of essays. Why did you want to write a memoir? I'm mean started trying to write this memoir at well. When I didn't even really know what memoir was and I sort of needed to write the novel that I wrote, and I need to write the book essays to get me to a place where I felt like confident enough to even try to write a memoir like this, which is about memoirs directly addressed to my mother about laws. We told each other secrets we were supposed to keep and what I feel like is like the the fracturing of like what I call it American promises. A lot of promises in this book to just broken over and over again. So I just couldn't I couldn't I couldn't do it until this point in my life, and I needed to get those other two books sorta behind me just packed up the skills needed to pull it off when you say like take to get ready for it. And you mentioned skills like was it about the writing itself for was it about feelings of emotionally ready to to write about yourself in that way. Things are just tied. Right. So when I thought about writing this book for years, I couldn't I couldn't hear who. I was writing two hours right into a general reader, and I couldn't understand what would be different in need in this memoir. That was then when I did my essays, for example, the novel was really different kind of writing. But this writing I think needed a particular kind of urgency when I was thinking about writing for years. I didn't think oh if you directly address it to your mom, it'll have a necessary urgency at also have a seri- pauses and gaps the she could feel and that the in that the reader can hopefully feel like F E L through her. So yeah, just had to you know, had to try to right? The second the second person essay in my collection of essays when I wrote about children a lot and my novel. And I think just thinking about children's perspective since abilities and thinking about the way, they simple words and thinking about the way parents at least in my community. He's tried to police dot assemblage of words for fear that we would be terrorized by white supremacy. More all of that just helped me get ready to write on the finish level of like this, which is which is, you know, one level very heavy on the mobile dark, but also sort of plenty comical to me. But but really it's writing into the creases of things that I was told that definitely shouldn't write or talk about you also wrote that you wanted to write an American memoir that that would be a lie. And yet the book is subtitled in American memoir, and I'm interested in what does that mean to you the idea what isn't American memoir? Well, I think the, thankfully, there's so many different kinds American wise. But I think the kind of American memorial, and I was encouraged to write by lots of different people was really an American memoir progress like this book started out being about weight loss. Like, I was gonna lose one hundred fifty pounds talking about mother and my grandmother about their weight gain and their relationships food. And I luckily also have been judge. Lots and lots of memoir contests over last three years. And so I mean, I get to see a lot of people are doing, but I'm also get to see how I think writers believe that their readers want to believe there's progress or deliverance a resolution on the other end. And so I wanted to talk about when I talk about the American memorial in this in this beginning I'm talking about that urge that we want to see like the protagonist win. We want to make a hero out at a protagonist. And I kind of wanted to show the reader early on that there might be resolutions. But then they're gonna be breaks. And then they're going to be you know, there might be discoveries. But then those discoveries are going to seem false. And so I just wanted to prepare to read it for this desire for resolution and never comes a lot desire for deliverance and never come. And but also in doing that wanted to broaden what I consider the American memoirs possibility, you know, wanted to make this book part of the American did not just let her a cannon. But just part of what American memoirs can be while. L criticizing what America ask of our memoirs. Well, one thing that's very hard. It can be helpful. But also, I think really difficult for anyone working at a memoirs to read other memoirs. It sounds like you read a lot of them with are things that you you saw on. You said you knew what I'm not doing not. And were there any any models are anything that inspired you? I think I read every member on it came out through last two or three years because I was jet an LA memorial ward. And I was judging the pen or at the LA times for two years. So what I loved about what most people were doing was that there was there was an obvious appreciation of what writers called home. And I was really interested in like how people went into hall. Did they go to through food smell through sound? And what I wanted to do was go into home through words, and how my mother and people around my community believed that words were just as important as like behavior like how you spoke when you spoke. And so I wanted to do that in also. So I just read a ton of memoirs about what we now. Call black lives matter because you know, there's a lot of been wise that have come out no ashes in a fire by Dr no more, for example, was one of the memorials. I think that a really great job of bringing in like the ultra political ultra geographically specific historical with lake something really personal. And so when I started now did that I was like, okay. So there's a history Jackson. I keep on trying to think about how to bring that history of Jackson into the book. And because he did it. So well, I was just like, you know, what let's bring the history Jackson into the book through bodies right through my mom's body into my grandmother's body, and and leave a lot of that social political history sort of out or sexual. I I learned a lot about what I wanted to do. But I also saw some people do things better than I could do them if they could do a lot better. Like, all right. Let me just try another way. One thing you did. That was really distinguishes it from a lot of memoirs as you wrote in the second person. Why did you do that? Again. I wrote this book three or four times before. And I couldn't figure out who I really wanted to talk to. And then I mean, I actually figured out. I was scared. I was just really afraid to write to the woman who taught me how to read taught me how to write punish me for not reading correctly punishment when I ride incorrectly. That was my mother. So I wanted to Senate his book to be like, you know, a black woman from central Mississippi from a rural black town who love words, but also, you know, love the idea of parenting more than the actuality parenting. I wanted that to be the Senate and to make that the Senate could have written about my mom, but a lot of memoirs do that. So I just really wanted to write it to my mom telling her what I saw to when I appreciate and telling her really think we can be better. If we if we use words more effectively to talk to one another from miss worth in this point forward. Also, it seems elevates the relationship and away over the individual the relationship that you had with your mother. Absolutely. I wanted to give the reader the fill filling. They were be listening to my voice, but also peaking into a relationship on every single page in in how a relationship communicative -ly like changes as Tom goes on tell us about your mother and about that relationship. Yes, my mom. She had me when she was a sophomore Jack state university. She graduated early. She went to graduate school where she was a grasp willow went back and forth between floors, Mississippi and Wisconsin, and we initiate was really dedicated Mississippi. She was just one of these Mississippi kids who really believe that like those people who can lead Mississippi, probably should not probably should try to stay and fight. So she tried to stay in fight way. She knew through political science teaching organizing shadow Johnson, central Mississippi, and she just really believed that reading and writing the things that we're going to save her son from the worst parts of the country where she believed would worst parts of our state, and you know, like a lot of parents. She rushed about a young parents. You know, I saw her make a ton of mistakes and at different times, she was like my best friend in the world in different time. She was my arch enemy, and, you know, even though I've written a book still think we've actually between best friend. Ours enemy. I think she's really proud of the of of the book, I wrote, I think she. Really probably wishes that I would not have revealed so much about our relationship or me or her. Yeah. I mean that was kind of one of my main questions did you show it to her before here? We'll because I was trying to do this other project. I which was talking to her about her relationships the food and body like the book is really based off conversations I had with her story. She told me and stories, my grandmother told me, and you know, some of those stories I knew were just you know, sort of hyperbolic or not true. And they were honest. They were like we're telling you this version because we don't want you to put the real version in the book. So I probably need to try to write y'all a real version of my memory, then part of the process, you know. So I didn't give her veto power over everything. But there, but most of the things that she says she did not want in a book, I took out at a book. How hard was it for you to get to the real version to your real version because you're hearing all these other stories and memories, obviously tricky, and you have to people who are in this story who are obviously personally invested in it it was hard. But again, my mother the thing that she thinks she gave me in my life that I think is most important is like the gift of revision like I had to write and revise before. I could do anything. I'll play lots of sports when I was young before I could do in my head to actually write and revise. I'm just really indebted to her. So it was highly like fourteen or fifteen drafts to realize. Okay. I'm writing this to my mother, and then I had to rewrite the whole thing. But again, I think is important, and it took revision to get to that point. Right. Because she gave me that MENA book really is about revision much more than. Is about progress. How did she feel about you writing about? I mean, I'm just be up front about it. Some of the more abusive and really tough kind of parenting that she did. That's a tough question. Because I mean, I left out. I think. I left out a lot of thing. I think could be seen as most sort of violent or abusive, not just from my mom, but a lot of different people involved. And I think you know, when I left high school, and I started to write how I wanted to write publicly for my newspaper in college. My mom in like what I was doing with that tire. She didn't she's not like like what I do with my writer Lee practice for a long time. But she likes it. I have readily practice. So she knew I was gonna write a book she was not gonna there's gonna make her squirm. A bit. She saw exactly what I was doing. She was just like he I don't think you're gonna be able to work after this. You know, because I'm a teacher. Right. And she comes from school generation where like, you know, your students you see you as you know, the impenetrable point of a pyramid. And if they see your life and like complicated layers, they might not give you an electoral currency. So she worried about my professional life. When she read the book mirrors, a lot of her sort of wave of raising you of trying to protect you and ensure that you were both strong and perceived as strong absolutely did that worry you to like writing about these things that are I I mean anyone would feel vulnerable about whether it's about, you know, wait right about gambling lot of things in here that the do make you open an honorable worry that much about that part of it is I just didn't want to hurt people. You know what I mean? Like I wanted to us about the crap. I want wanted to us like the art to kind of texture every character in that. Well, almost every character in that. And I worry I worry most about hurting people in and and I also wanted to had to keep more revising because I didn't want to write this book out of resentment. So there were people who I know Howard me, whether it's my mom or somebody else. I didn't wanna put it out there when I was filling resigned needed to right through that. And also been wanna capitalize on like, my hurting other people, you know, what I mean like I didn't wanna like I didn't wanna make a spectacle of the harm that I'd done to myself, but also to other people, but I wasn't too worried about professional. You know, like I had ten year. When a when I started the book, you know, what I mean, and I teach literary not fiction like I teach a temporary black. It's a it's always talking to my students about how we are fully excavated who we think we are in who we are. So in some this book is a model and some of the work that I want my students to be able to do I'm not saying they need to do it. But I wasn't worried about the professional stuff. I'm just worried about harming people. The title of the book. I wanna talk about that obvious thing that one thinks about giving what you described earlier is about physical weight. But it seems like it's a lot more. And there was one passage which I wanna read and would love to hear you talk about. This is also from very close to the beginning of the book, you write this summer. It took one final conversation with grandma for me to understand that no one in our family and very few folk in this nation has any desire to reckon with the weight of where we've been which means no one in our family and very few folk in this nation wants to be free. It's it seems like you're writing that heavy is about all kinds of burdens. Oh, absolutely. I mean, and I wanted to think about how the bodily burdens are tied to a lot of the national burden. Right. Like at least where I'm from like, there's this. There's this belief. They like if you're lighter, you are necessarily freer and in my life. You know, when I was what I when I was my lightish. You know, I I wasn't. I was eating one meal every few days, I was working out obsessively, but a hell you for, you know, assault. What the nation tells you you can feel if you're lighter. And so I really just wanted to write about the paradox of lightness like literal lightness and also the paradox of like heaviness and early in the book, my grandmother, you know, she's she's talking about how important it is to be happy for her for her happiness was a communal thing. You know, like if our arms locked together, we're heavier than we are if we're if we're just singular and the book is also about how the nation in some ways tries to blow away people who are who are like, you know, an instant so often succeeds in breaking and blowing. Folks. So I wanted to talk about I wanted to locate a lot of that in the body in mill while also critiquing again traditional American notions of education of a progress of success. Well, let's talk about that that latter part the politics of it. We're having this conversation shortly after the midterm elections. This book is coming out in two thousand eighteen we're very particular moment in time, but you've been working on this book for a long time as you said, you know, in your mind since you were twelve years old, how did it change in recent years, given what's been going on in this country? A great question. So the next final dress at a book. There was a lot more explicit Trump stuff in the book like Trump's name was in the book. And and then I just realized you know, I'm talking about the country that may Trump came. This is what that's one of the lines. I say not necessarily like Trump because Trump is to me a huge problem because he in some way in bodies, everything we're supposed to aspire to is this gender. Leninist culture. You know, you wanna grew up with two parents you want to go to the best schools all of that kind of stuff. And then I'm looking again like what America tells us success looks looks like on the surface. Trump looks like a success right to me. Trump is a as an abysmal failure. As like an American boy became an American, man. I wanted to say all of that without using Trump. You know, I wanted to talk about the way America sometimes encourages the wrong kind of win at the expense of a lot of truth. But also at the expense of a lot of people Trump is and living in body of that. But again. Even though I think he had help a lot of American in this country. We happen to be white one at that guy to be president. Right, right. If you make it about that one person it in a way, kind of reduces our excuses Lutely in my in my editor green. And she was like we don't even wanna put that dude's name in the book. We wanna you know, we want to talk about what the the the worst parts of this culture that enabled him that needs to be in a book. And I do feel like in a book, you know? And worst part is embodied by me often. And worst part is confronted by me. But this notion that you never looked backwards. You refused to look back and take responsibility and care for who you become in. What you've done, and who you left in your wake, shrimp and Americans particularly white Americans. Just most of those who voted voted for him look at that kind of man was like that's the kind of man, we want to be the symbol of our country. Who are children looked to as president which says everything about this nation? This is everything about like who we become and how we become and like the consequences sometimes of being successful American. Man. Do you know like that's what I wanted to to write about because we don't have a president who's modeling a kind of like liberty toy reflection. We gotta have artists who try to do it. So that's what I thought. Do you feel like in the end, you wrote the memo you did wanna right? I got close to write in the memoir. I really wanted to write. And I didn't I didn't I didn't completely pull it off. But I got really close and the mistakes that I made are the failures that I have in that book that I couldn't pull off and try to pull off the my next project. So I didn't get all the way there. But I got really close to the next one. I have to say this is one of those books where there are times a review runs in the New York Times. And I've got people around the newsroom emailing me saying how's that book? We want to read that book to a coffee, and this was one of those. So thank you so much for joining us. He SE layman's new book is called heavy an American memoir. Joining us now to talk about what's going on in the literary world. We have Alexandra alter Alexandra. Hi, hi, Pamela. What's new? So this week the the final awards in the long that our award season where announced as the national book awards, and it was a exciting ceremony as always, and it was a little different this year because they had the translation prize, which was newly reintroduced this year. So that was I think people were quite excited about that. In Nick, Offerman was the host said there was a little bit of celebrity or around it. He told a lot of off color jokes that I couldn't put into my copy and nice story. But I think the I think the crowd enjoyed it. And so there was some interesting choices this year. I it wasn't sort of the usual suspects. They were kind of more under the Isabel Allende also. Yeah. Layer remarks, I think that was like the biggest applause line of the night when Isabel Allende who received a lifetime achievement award. And it was actually the first Spanish language author to ever receive it which I thought was fascinating she noted during her acceptance speech that she is still having sex ejb seventy six and everyone cheered, which was nice. So some of the other sort of surprises and exciting moments of the night, the big award, of course, as always fiction, and it went this year to Sigrid Nunez for the friend, which I think was kind of an under the radar quiet novel. I mean, I think critics really love her and have been following her work in this novel about tremendous reviews. Dwight garner reviewed it for us. And it sounds like a very sort of a servic story about a writer who adopts a great Dane after her friend commit suicide, and she's a cat person in a tiny apartment. So she has this giant dog. So there's a bit of humor. And also, you know, a lot of human emotions about dealing with death and loss who is. She like is this how many books does she wrote numerous she's hellish a number of books. I think people have been fun. Knowing her career closely, but as as I sort of detected from her acceptance speech, and you were there too. She seems like we were kind of typical writer Lee introverts. So I'm she was saying that the reason writing appeal to her was that it gave her away to basically be alone in her room but still connect with the world. So she wasn't a marquee name and his out and about kind of in the literary world. So I think people will be paying a lot more attention. I'm certainly gonna I bought the book right away. And I'm going to start reading it. Some other interesting winners last night, I always loved the poetry award. Because that's you know, feel that I have to confess I don't follow super closely. And so it's often the person who wins often is sort of new to me and this year. I think the person who went was noodle. A lot of people is Justin Phillip Reed, and he won for his collection indecency, and he gave a lovely speech. Just sort of he seemed incredibly humbled and excited. And and I think he, you know, I it seemed like something that he'd three MD would have in. But he was still stunned by lots of credit to his mom. He's it. I always liked the mom shot. I think. Those are very good sign of character. As a mother the other winners were Jeffrey c Stewart he won for his Bagger fee of Elaine lock lane. Lock was a philosopher who is very close with a lot of important figures in the Harlem renaissance, including Zora Neale hurston. And he said something interesting in his acceptance speech to which was that, you know, laying lock was closeted game in and he wouldn't have you know, he didn't have a family, but he sort of created this family of artists around him. And I thought it was very interesting to sort of connect Elaine locks personal life with this movement that he was so influential in shaping. I'd never thought of it that way, and that was the new negro which was published by Oxford University press, which I think at two finalists, you know, as interesting this year, I felt like they the nonfiction finalists were more reflective of slightly more obscure subjects from academic presses. Whereas in the past couple of years, we've seen a lot of big politics kind of looks sort of tapping into the national conversation and this year, I felt like these were sort of quieter books, but important one so. That was that was interesting about kids kids is always a great category. And this year people were really excited because the price went to Elizabeth Esa Vado for her novel the poet ax which won for young people's literature. And it's a novel written in verse about a teenage girl from a Dominican family who's kind of struggling with you know, rites of passage idle essence, and and sort of figuring out who she is. And I think, you know, this is an interesting form because it sort of lends a little bit of poetry with some pros. She gave a lovely acceptance speech where she spoke about the joy of having readers approach her and say, I've never seen my life reflected in a book before I've never read a book about someone like me, and that was very meaningful for her any surprises like anything else. It sort of happened outside of the awards that you know, that was interesting. I'm always kind of glued to my laptop to on us. And I'm not necessarily picking up the gray gossip that I know is swirling around the rim because this is really the one night of the year where the entire literary and publishing world comes together in one big room. And so I'm sure there was amazing gossip that I wasn't able to eavesdrop on his close because they'd have liked you know, I will say kind of, you know, the award caps the end of the fall big literary whereas season, and it was kind of a Downer this year, but it was kind of quiet. I mean, the Novell was cancelled because of the sexual misconduct scandal the Swedish Academy, and that was I think kind of a big bummer for publishers and writers and literary world because that's such a big deal. The Booker was was you know, kind of quiet this year. It was sort of a writer Anna burns that people haven't been following. And it's great her career. But it wasn't like a big surprise. She's from Northern Ireland, and it was kind of like your classic Booker sort of win. So I would say, you know, this was sort of a quieter national the chords too. I think in the last couple of years we've seen people get up and give. Kind of fiery political speeches, and there's been sort of I guess more of a theme. Attic coherence that. I didn't really pick up on last night. But but why not make it about the individual books, which I think, you know, each one kind of shines in that way. So unless saying this was the first year where there was a prize for fiction in translation. Yes. And I think people were very enthusiastic about that. It's a funny thing because it definitely shifts kind of the purpose of the awards. They're supposed to celebrate the best in American literature, and this is broadening that definition quite a bit. And the prize was opened this year or two books that were published in America in translation from abroad. So the wouldn't include overseas authors writing in English and the winner this year was yoga to WADA for the emissary and her translator Margaret SUNY who gave a little bit of the acceptance speech get to what couldn't be there. She did send a lovely note with a friend to read. So all right. Well, congratulations to all. Thank you, Alexandra. Thanks finless. Johny us now to talk about what we're reading. We have my colleagues, Emily Aken, Tina, Jordan, and John Williams. Hi, guys. Pam wright. Emily, let's start with you. I reading a book to my ten year old daughter that is just wonderful. It's called the evolution of Cal Purnea Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. It's a middle grade novel that won a Newbery medal in two thousand and ten and the author is an interesting person. She was born in New Zealand grew up in on Vancouver island. Eventually moved to Texas where the novel is set and before she became a writer. Apparently, she practiced medicine and went to law school. So she's clearly a person of abundant intellectual curiosity and all of that is channeled through her heroin. This twelve year old girl named cow Purnea Virginia Tate known as Kelly v who lives on a ninety acre pecan farm in rural Texas in eighteen ninety nine Cal. Hernia is a budding naturalist, and she's just a brilliant. Observer of the natural world and her family, she has five brothers. But at the center of the novel is help hernias relationship with her grandfather, this Christie, civil war veteran who has a laboratory in which he does mysterious things on the property. And it turns out he's fermenting pecans to make some kind of liquor, but he's actually also a Darwin, Ian, and he introduces cow Purnea to Darwin's ideas, and the novel just takes off and they're off on these adventures, they're discovering new species of plants and sending photographs of them to the Smithsonian. It's just a wonderful witty adventure of an awful sold. All right. What about you? All right. So I'm in the middle of a book that parl just reviewed for us. It's called my sister, the serial killer, and I'm going to mangle this first name. So I think I'll spell it. Oh, why I n K N? I shall we say that. Oh in con- Braithwaite. It's a darkly comic thriller set in Lagos. And the main character is young woman who's a nurse whose sister is a serial killer. And I love this title and cover more than anything else coming out in December. So let's describe the cover it just shows a woman wearing sunglasses and reflected in the sunglasses. Somebody's raised knife a dagger. So her sister who's the beautiful one. You know, who doesn't hold a job who's whatever she has a problem and keeps killing men does. This have anything to do with the fact that their father used to beat them senseless with a cane, maybe I mean, they're definitely nature versus nurture questions explored here, but the main character because she's a nurse, and she's very good at cleaning. Always gets her sister out of these crime scenes just want to read you the first few lines. I bet you didn't know that bleach masks the smell of blood must people use. Bleach indiscriminately, assuming it's catchall product Leech will disinfect, but it's not great for cleaning residue. So it use it only after I first grubbed the bathroom of all traces of life and death quite arresting. It is. And you know, it's not quite like anything. I've read before I think you were saying John was a really big deal when it was published in Nigeria in Paros review, or at least, maybe she and were discussing it outside the review, she said that that it got a really big advance in Nigeria. So at the time, it was published there at a lot of buzz that sounds very TV ready to does. It's ready to be a you know, a limited series. I feel like I'm combining Emily mentioned the civil war and tina's book is fiction, but it's preoccupied with death. I'm reading something that combines those things that's we just passed the hundredth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War One. And I actually have a very large shelf of books at home about World War run. I've only read a handful of them. But I kind of collect them for one day. I guess and I also have a little shell. Of Geoff Dyer's book. So to this kind of overlaps the to it's Dyer's book called the missing of the some which I think was published something I thought it was more recent than this. I think it was nineteen Ninety-four is the copyright date on it. And it's it's a slim book, and in typical Jeff Dyer fashion. It's very ruminated and not highly focused. He just talks a lot about remembrance and the way that people thought about the war, and especially how the British memorialize their dead, and he visits sites of memorials and graveyards and battle sites and talks a lot about the World War One poets. And so I'm making my way through it. It's it's a lovely little book. And I think it probably won't send me running to the thicker books. I have about the war quite yet. But I would recommend it. What about you panel? Well, I've been reading this anthology that was published in nineteen Seventy-three, but it has been subsequently reissued called the science fiction hall of fame volume to a the greatest science fiction novellas of all time chosen by the members of the science fiction writers of America. Data S F hall of fame, which is kind of a mouthful I have a number of these at home because science fiction is a category that I just have not read enough of and the few times that I've read it I've loved it. I only sometime in the last ten years read twenty thousand leagues under the sea. And so I've been meaning to turn back to some of the classics and settled on this because my husband who's better read in science fiction. He said this is the one to start with because some of the greatest science fiction is actually not in the form of novels, but in the form of novellas and short stories, so these are called novellas, they're more like short stories and the first two that I've read I've been particularly good the first one in the collection is called call me. Joe by Poul Anderson, many listeners who are science fiction people probably know all about this story. But I had never heard of it which is about a paraplegic man who psychically sort of teleport's down to a genetically engineered creature on. On Jupiter from a satellite that is going around Jupiter, and sort of has a life in in inside this creature and eventually as the story unfolds becomes more and more keen to be in the body of this sort of Jovian monster than in his own physically limited body back in the satellite, and I'm reading it. And I'm thinking, this is avid tar this is avatar like how could this not be avatar? So of when I finished I up naturally went to Google. And in fact, the minute you put in call me Joe into Google avatar pops up, and when the movie came out, there was a lot of discussion that he should have credited pool Anderson with this idea. So I I sort of gave myself a little Pat on the back for like someone who knows nothing about times fiction, actually, come to the coming to this conclusion. But then I was sort of swiftly brought back to earth with the next story that I read which is. Called who goes there by John Campbell? It's a great story in which there are scientists in Antarctica who come across what is clearly a crash site of some spaceship from another world, and among what the what they find. There is a big chunk of ice with a creature within the ice frozen solid that they of course, bring back to their station and let it defrost even though they can see through the ice that it has three hate filled evil is and worm like green hair that is moving even as it is still frozen. And there is the natural debate. Among the scientists biologists wants to thaw the creature out slowly, this is a one in a lifetime opportunity to analyze this creature from another planet are there's are not so sure that this is a good idea. So I when I was done. I was like, wow, I can't believe this hasn't been made into a movie. And of course, dot it has three times the most famous of which is probably the thing by John carpenter's, nineteen eighty six or eighty two film, which I then started to botch and was very disappointed. You know, now, I know why fans of science fiction are often let down by the movie and incarnations of their the work because it didn't follow the narrative at all. And you know, my kids afterwards are saying well, but how did they handle the Norwegians in the story? I'm like there were no Norwegians in the story. And I just was completely different from the story itself. So I urge people to go back and read it, I don't know about watching the thing 'cause I I stopped out in a huff because it diverged too far from the original tax. So that's what I'm being. We'll hopefully you'll have a few more to tell us about because it's been collection. Right. It is it is I've got nine more novellas. I know you're just beginning your excursion into classics. Science fiction. But I'm curious have you met any female characters? Well, no, not yet. An interestingly this collection is kind of collection. That would probably never come together. Today was it was done in nineteen Seventy-three by this group of science fiction writers before the nebula words on the Hugo awards of took off. So this was their way of saying. Well, hey now, we have this annual award. But there was so much great stuff out there before that went on recognized. So let's gather it all together and vote on the best. But it's all Madden is is this is what I remember when I was much younger and getting interested in science fiction, and I went back to the classic books by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. I couldn't find any female characters. Well, that's why the Madeline landfills wrinkle in time was so pivotal for me as a girl, and it's interesting to and I wrote an essay for the book review will I don't know maybe ten years ago about this that I didn't continuing science fiction after reading what was that a trilogy because that was sort of all there was for me. Or that was written for me or that felt accessible to me. And I don't think that the industry overall even contemplated that girls might be interested in that. So the books were like not marketed in a way that would be friendly to you know, a twelve year old girl. Although now, I just have to say there's so much great science fiction written by women with kick ass women characters. All right. Well, then you can all read these in future and discuss them. Thanks, guys. Thanks final. Final. Remember, there's more at times dot com slash books. And you can always write to us at books NY times dot com. I write back. The book review podcast is produced by pater Asada from head stepper media with a great help of my colleague, John Williams. Thanks for listening for the New York Times. I'm Pamela hall.