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Novelist Pearl Abraham

I interviewed her this week via email ( and got her answers back July 11, 2006).

* What's the wildest, craziest, riskiest thing you've ever done (aside from murdering your protagonist 80 pages in)?

A: You mean other than leave home, family, faith to become me, and it seems I am still forever becoming, as are my characters. I've had some adventures, but writing The Seventh Beggar may have been my greatest one so far.

* The dominant emotion I feel when reading your novels is sadness verging on depression. Is this your dominant emotion? Is this how you feel when you write? Do you seek to evoke an emotional reaction from your readers, and if so, what?

A: Sad and depressed? This comes as a surprise. I think, and am confirmed in this by mail from readers, that my novels are often funny. I'm probably the least depressed (or maybe I should say least neurotic) of Jewish writers, and I think some of these Jewish writers will confirm this. You may be responding to something different (than the standard Jewish American writing) in my narrative voice or in the voice of my characters, or maybe your sadness is based in a preconception that has more to do with what you think of Hasidism. What do you think?

I look to engage my reader's interest, of course, but I'm not all that focused on the reader as I write. I'm largely immersed in my characters and they tend to grow and lead the way. When I start to see and love the characters for who they've become, then I know that they are alive, that the novel may yet live. My writing tends to be character driven, which may be why the death of my protagonist is so painful to readers. It was certainly a challenge for me, as the writer.

* What's the story of you and God? You believed as a child, but dropped this belief when you went to college? Did God ever speak to you?

A: I can't say that I believed in God as a child; I just never experienced that religious phase that most teenagers go through, that time when your classmates begin to sway and pray longer and harder than anyone else. Based on the absence of any such inner urge, I could only watch and wonder; I'll confess that I sometimes judged them as pretenders -- I thought they might be seeking a good reputation so as to beget a worthy mate in marriage.

I understood as a child that I ought to believe, but somehow, the love and fear of God missed me, despite my twice a day recitations of the O hear Israel. I knew even as a child that my Mom was very afraid (I'm not as certain of her love for God, as I am of my father's) and still is afraid of God, death, hell, and even as a child her fear felt childlike to me. I did, though, for a number of years, about 5-7, have a fear of going to sleep, which I think was a fear of obliteration. As an adult, though, I welcome sleep, and the kind of thinking I do in sleep and dream.

My interest in the concept of God came to me belatedly, and not on a religious level. I'm interested in the idea of divinity as an aspiration, a height or level of achievement, the ascetic mystic's interest, though I am not a mystic either. My goal is to attain as often as possible the divine knowledge or experience, intuitive and otherwise, that becomes available to the mystic. I may have had a few glimpses of it, in the course of my life, at work. Most people do, I think.

* When you participate in Jewish life, what encourages you and what discourages you?

A: Piety is a huge turnoff. And piety without rigor, without an intellectual grounding, is even worse. Growing up, I encountered a lot of that in girls and women who didn't have access to the education of their brothers. But I now meet grown Jewish men and women who have access to knowledge and prefer not to know. They seem to relish custom and ritual and law without quite knowing or caring what or whether it signifies. I was on a panel on Orthodoxy recently and I tried my best to set up a rigorous conversation about what orthodoxy means, and how and why it began -- it actually arrived late to Judaism, which had a long prophetic tradition, unlike its all-too-early arrival to Christianity -- and whether orthodoxy is still a viable way to live. I cited Maimonidies who said that orthodox piety is for the masses and wisdom is for the elite. Henri Corbin, the author of Alone with the Alone, writes that orthodoxy or dogma presupposes an end to prophecy, meaning individualism, an end to the possibility of an individual's attaining eternity. Who, in our day and age, would want that? Certainly no novelist. The audience and the other panelists did not want to or could not go there. They wanted to talk about the number of worshippers in Upper West Side synagogues, and they wanted personal confessionals. I should qualify this: it could have been my personal failure to communicate: I've been told that I perform better when I'm not sharing the stage with others, probably because then I take full responsibility.

I admire real scholarship. Hugely. I talk to my youngest brother approximately once a week and love hearing about the esoteric ideas he's thinking and writing about. He's a Hasidic scholar and writer, knows his way around the texts, and in tremendous contrast to most orthodox Jews I meet, he's open to the most honest and heretic conversations. Not that this is true of every Hasid, and the reverse is probably not true of every orthodox. It takes a well-read individual with an independent, rigorous mind to converse freely.

* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What crowd did you hang out with in highschool, college? Today?

A: It shouldn't come as a surprise that I wasn't the most popular kid. For one thing, I wasn't a team player. My achievements tended toward individual ones: I was a dancer and performed on-stage, solo and within groups. In my Junior and Senior years of high school (and also summer camps), I was head of dance and I choreographed for musicals and plays. We staged a lot of these then, for some reason (I didn't attend a Hasidic school). My school hired a professional pianist and director who taught me a modicum of ballet and modern dance which generated rumors that I'd taken ballet classes. I developed a passion for dance and wanted to become a classical ballet dancer. On days off from school, I would take the local minibus to a ballet school on Main Street to study the photos in the windows. Of course, my parents would never allow me to wear tights and leotards, but in my second year of college, I signed up for dance classes, soon learned that I was too old for classical ballet, and decided to drop it. Entirely.

In college, as an undergraduate, I found parties a huge bore since everyone was stoned and I wasn't. Ditto at those final-tour Grateful Dead and The Who and Neil Young concerts. I had a boyfriend who loved The Who. I shared Bill Clinton's problem: I didn't/couldn't inhale smoke, so I tried eating pot, and once drinking it as ganga tea, experiences that left me with no love for it.

Today: do I hang out? I'm in touch with various writers and friends, and we sometimes hang; we call it lounging. My Dutch friends are especially good at downtime. Most of my writerly relationships are conducted largely via email, with only a rare face-to-face meeting. The Jewish contingent has its own ghetto dynamic going and it's especially fun when we manage to get Steve Stern, Melvin Bukiet, Aryeh Stollman and I together, usually after another bad Jewish event where we are asked to speak on what it means to be Jewish. Melvin and I have our own standing specialties: we go café hopping (I think this started in Tel Aviv), drink and smoke; I should say, he smokes, I mostly secondhand smoke -- though I smoke biddies and cigarillos, when I can get them. Best source for biddies: bum them off Paul Auster, who carries whole little boxes of them. Excellent source for baby torpedoes: my Dutch editor, Pieter Swinkels. The label on the box, "Roken is dodelijk," adds flavor. Unlike the American warning, which manages to get the optimistic word health in it, the Dutch uses the word DEADLY loud and clear. Death, for better or worse, seems to have become a motif of this conversation.

I now spend quite a bit of time upstate where my social life seems to have taken off. And I'll be teaching at Western New England College, in Springfield, MA this year. There are more of us up here these days than in New York City. I have a friend in the area who is a painter and we get together for various adventures. And Aryeh Stollman and Steve Stern aren't far away.

Having said all that -- it makes me sound well-connected and social -- I should tell you that I'm really not. I spend most of my time alone, in the company of my dachshund, Emma P.

* I find a world without God and religion depressing. I'm curious where you find happiness and meaning if everything is just going to end in nothingness.

A: Oh God. I find meaning and happiness in Knowledge (gnosis). And in good literature, which tells us about ourselves, what it is to be human. And in trying to craft decent literature. And in teaching it, which I hope will create good readers of literature.

Meaning in God? Well, yes, since my concept of God is an abstract man-made idea of a perfection to aspire to. Re: Religion? Not if it means orthodoxy, or some other conventional form of it.

And nothingness? I can trace my beginning as a thinker back to the year in high school when I studied the commentaries on the concept of tohu va'vohu in Genesis. Every novel begins with a blank page; that's why writers are so neurotic during their year of publication. They have to go back to that blank page one. That, and also their publishers serving up the usual publishing debacles, and then the dearth of good readers. What will remain, when I have returned to NOTHINGNESS, are I hope a few of my pages. And an independence of spirit and wit that I hope to have imparted to friends and students.

* Being raised in a serious religion immunizes one from falling for wacky cults such as the Kabbalah Centre, I believe. Would you agree?

A: I do agree with you. When you've had the real thing, you don't easily fall for the fakes and wannabes. Indeed you remain quite discerning and you probably don't easily embrace anything else. I, for one example, had no interest in becoming an orthodox, modern orthodox, conservative or reform Jew.

* What do you think of the contemporary "spirituality" craze? It strikes me as cheap grace. People looking for the benefits of religion without paying the price that organized religion demands.

A: The Hasidic movement would not have survived if it hadn't made itself appealing to the masses. Perhaps you could say that about the novel as well. The ascetic lifestyle appeals only to the elite, the seriously rigorous. But the question remains: Is the form that survives worthy of survival? This is a painful question that writers and artists everywhere must ask themselves every day: To survive, to actually earn a living, one must make the work easy or accessible enough for the masses, but then is the art worthy enough to be called art, to engage in?

* I've heard the novel described as a bourgeois medium primarily suited for entertainment. Yet you make considerable demands on the reader in The Seventh Beggar. Do you think most of the readers of that book are up to that task? I notice that interviewers love asking you fancy shmancy questions about the various intricacies of the book and I can't help thinking that these intellectual concerns, stylistic concerns, otherness and being concerns, are miles removed from the average bloke picking up your book and hoping to have a good time.

A: Your question comes at a moment in which I am preparing for a lit class titled "The Development of the Novel," so this may come off as pedantry, but I don't mind joining the ranks of pedants such as Don Quixote and Charles Kinbote.

The novel as a genre began as an anti-authoritarian form, in reaction against the epic with its heightened language (verse) and false or idealized heroics, and also against the prose romance (chivalric or pastoral/Arcadian) produced for entertainment. From the romance, the novel took prose and refined it, from the epic it took worthiness, or a higher purpose. Yes, the form is based in the town square, it embraces the carnivale, or aspects of parody, but it is not and was never intended as mere entertainment. That remains the task of romances such as Harlequins and thrillers and mysteries and spy sagas. The word 'novel' still means new, though it's been around a few centuries now, and when all is said and done, the novel, to continue calling itself a novel, ought to attempt something new, to react against what came before it. Unfortunately the general public has not been informed of this. What's happened is that the publishers aiming to earn as much as possible have sold the literary novel as entertainment, which it can be, though it isn't mere entertainment or easy entertainment, and so has created a false set of expectations. Don Quixote, probably the first modern novel, was an immediate bestseller, sold as a parody of the chivalric romance, but the book isn't an easy read (it's over 900 pages long), and it isn't funny, though most readers who come to it expect it to be. Nabokov famously called it crude and cruel and it is that: it's filled with cruel prank after cruel prank. And with plenty of pedantry. But Don Quixote lives, both in and out of its 900 pages.

That said, The Seventh Beggar is entertaining -- my publisher forgot to tell you that. Its best readers are the ones who relax and go with the flow without looking so hard for meaning. The book is intuitively organized and intuitively coherent -- it is after all a mystic's story -- and it takes a relaxed, confident reader to allow intuition to do the work of understanding. Younger readers do well with it. Non-Jewish critics, especially from overseas, did better with it then Jewish ones, which means what? That American Jews are no longer the people of the book? But I think we've already established that.

* At what age did you begin to have an erotic interest in boys? I assume your family and religious community put a squash on this. Did you run wild with the boys when you got your freedom? I'm sorry to be so vulgar, but there's very little wank material in your works.

A: You're wrong about the "wank material" in my work: Joel engages in an orgy of wanking in the first third of The Seventh Beggar. And Rachel of The Romance Reader has her fantasy variations on love, if not sex. And Deena, of Giving Up America, well, she's in the mode of renouncing love along with much else. At the age of, maybe ten, I had a crush on a friend of my brother's, Ari Weinstock, who taught me to ride his banana handle banana seat bicycle. My parents didn't fuss about it. Then I fell out of love with Jewish boys and in love with fictional MEN. Oddly enough, I didn't read much secular Jewish fiction. I was reading classics, such as The Scarlet Letter and Wuthering Heights and A Tale of Two Cities, as page turners! By the time I was in my teens I was spending most of my time with women and though I didn't develop a crush for anyone in particular, I was the crush object or crushee (a word?) of various girls, usually a few years older than I, usually at summer camp, where we'd sit in a gazebo in the dark, and look at the stars. I must not have been erotically engaged since I found it rather vapid, didn't know what to say. The value of these crushes, I think, was more in being beloved rather than in the act of loving.

* How do you feel about the chutzpah of people such as Steve Stern writing in English trying to imitate of Yiddish when they are neither literate in Yiddish nor Hebrew? Shouldn't there be a license to do this?

A: Thing is, when I read [Steve] Stern and [Dara] Horn and [Nicole] Krauss, I don't have to go beyond page one to know that their knowledge of Yiddish and Yiddish culture is based in books (Henry Roth) and legend, and in an immigrant culture long bygone. The nostalgia and cornpone alone is a dead giveaway. I hear that sort of corn from every upper westsider who had a grandmother or father who spoke some Yiddish. They distort and mispronounce words (see Isaac Bashevis Singer on the impossibility of writing Yiddish in America), for example, "patchkeying," an Englishing of the word "patchkeh" -- the most recent one I've heard. To them, Yiddish is sad and funny, though ask a real speaker of Yiddish in Williamsburgh whether his language is tragicomic and he'll think you're from the moon. If there's wit, it's in the speaker's skills, in succinct and witty phrasing, which is true of every language.

SIGNIFICANTLY, though, this immigrant nostalgic Yiddish is what general readers recognize, and the nostalgia and corn confirms them in what they already feel about Yiddish, which makes them feel good, and so they prefer reading this to reading a version that is unfamiliar, perhaps more than they want to know.

Non-Jewish readers, if they bother at all, come across all this nostalgia and corn and walk away confirmed in what they already think: that Jews and Yiddish are full of oy veys and other kvetches, that if this is art, it's art on a Chagall level. You'd never know that fine poetry, by say Yankev Glatshteyn, was once written in this language. At the end of the day, working in this nostalgic joking vein, keeping the Yiddish and Yiddish culture just light and funny and easy enough to please, is a kind of sellout.

* What did you think of Wendy Shalit's January 2005 essay in the NYT book review about Jewish novelists writing negatively and unfairly about Orthodox Judaism? I noticed she did not mention you.

A: Wendy Shalit was asking a valid question -- she asked whether this is art, and the answer is that much of it is merely entertainment -- but her conclusions were entirely obtuse, astonishingly confused. Good literature and bad literature have nothing to do with religion. Stereotypes, caricatures, and sentimentality are easy crowd pleasers, and make for easy reading. These writers are finding a market niche-Jewish Americans seeking entertainment disguised as literature -- and filling it. Even if the work shows some craft, it doesn't necessarily qualify as art. Enduring art features authentic characters that live on the page, and walk off the page and continue to live for 400 years, as Don Quixote and Hamlet have. Such characters come from the writer's ability to enter deeply and empathetically into these characters, from what Keats famously called "a negative capability," which is an ability to become the OTHER. Shakespeare's characters are particularized humans who can think and change, and, after Harold Bloom, "overhear" themselves.

The controversy helped the writers sell books. And they all took full advantage of it with responses. I like to think that I was excluded because I didn't suit Wendy's thesis. For one thing, I write with empathy and sympathy for that world. And I hope my characters aren't caricatures, and I hope they live. Only time will tell, and so we'll have to postpone the question for a century or so.

* What do you think of this? Ted Solotaroff's comment in a 1988 New York Times Book Review essay that "[a]s assimilation continues to practice its diluting and dimming ways, it seems evident that the interesting Jewish bargain or edge in American fiction will be more and more in the keeping of writers...who are anchored in the present-day observant Jewish community and who are drawn to the intense and growing dialogue between Judaism and modernity under the impact of feminism, the sexual revolution, and the Holocaust."

A: It's an attempt at prophecy but it's blinkered and in any case, has already been proven false. All sorts of unforeseen things happen. For one thing: Jews are no longer one of the interesting minorities and, I'll take a leap here, we, perhaps I should say I, aren't even all that interesting to ourselves, never mind to others, except perhaps to the Christian Right writers of the Left Behind series, who want to co-opt our biblical history. The sophisticated Jewish reader looking for something to read is skipping Jewish work that is too anchored in the subject of Jewishness. Irving Howe, btw, attempted some similar predictions re: Jewish writing, and was wrong since he also didn't foresee that there would be a new wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia.

In music, the crossing of genres and cultures has been extremely fertile. Think of Steve Reich, whose Tehillim takes the rhythms and chants and forms of African music and sets Hebrew texts to them. Or Osvaldo Golijov, who crosses Spanish and Jewish strains. I don't see why hybridity shouldn't do as much for literature. It already is doing it. Talented assimilated Jews will find ways of expression that reflect their varied influences. Hybridity makes for some of the greatest work: Don Quixote, which crosses the epic with the prose romance, is again a perfect example. The Seventh Beggar has something of this hybrid impulse, with, the bluegrass/Hasidic festival, with the golem and Cog, with a tale that crosses Nachman's Seven Beggars with the "sevens" of other fairy tales.

Luke: "I'm sure you've been interviewed over 100x... Who was the best and the brightest?"

Pearl: "Dutch journalists are far and away better than American ones, more literary or something, at least the ones I've encountered. Jan Donkers who interviewed me for NRC was very good, not only literarily but also skilled at use of tape, at getting things right, no misquotes, nothing out of context, Really on, and uses the interview form with some panache. He got a full front page, so that may have helped. Also in the Netherlands, even the mags, such as beauty mags, have better educated, smarter, good writers/journalists. Dutch Elle for example has Ilonka Leenheer, who interviewed me and wrote up a really smart piece. And she was given enough space too."