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Novelist Rebecca Goldstein - The Mind-Body Problem

I spent 90-minutes over the phone with her Tuesday afternoon, April 11, 2006.

Luke: "I've read all your interviews. I'm going to try to not repeat anything [you were asked before].

"When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"

Rebecca thinks for about ten seconds. "I don't know that I really thought about it. I didn't want to be my mother. Probably a scientist from about age six. I liked rocks and stars. I read science books."

Luke: "At what age did you begin to have an erotic interest in boys?"

Rebecca: "Oh gosh. My first love affair was in second grade."

Luke: "Was there an erotic component?"

Rebecca: "No. I just fell madly in love. It was requited. We were quite the item. All we did was blush furiously."

Luke: "What about as a teenager? Were you falling in love then?"

Rebecca laughs. "You really aren't asking me any questions I've gotten before.

"I was always in love with someone or over. I met the man I married when I was 15. We married when I was 19. We're now divorced. We've been separated for seven years."

Luke: "You guys became a couple when you were 15?"

Rebecca: "I was quite Orthodox at the time but for what passes as coupling..."

Luke: "When did you get divorced?"

Rebecca: "Recently."

Luke: "Tell me about you and God."

Rebecca: "I lived Orthodox for a long time. My husband was Orthodox. Because I didn't want to be hypocritical with our kids, I kept everything.

"I was torn like a character in a Russian novel. It lasted through college. I remember leaving a class on mysticism in tears because I had forsaken God. That was probably my last burst of religious passion. Then it went away and I was a happy little atheist."

Luke: "You haven't had flirtations with God since then?"

Rebecca: "No. My agonized conflicts have been focused on why should I care so much about the Jewish people. Why do I have such a strong residual attachment to this particular people? But no, God has not entered the picture."

Luke: "What was it like being married to an Orthodox Jew? You went along with the observance but you didn't believe in it."

Rebecca: "Since I was brought up in it, it was natural to me, but it is intrusive and makes life complicated, especially since I was a professor and needed to take all these holidays.

"I don't enjoy, nor did my husband enjoy, the Jewish community.

"We were living in suburban New Jersey in a claustrophobic Jewish community. Our kids went to the day school.

"It seemed to be a wholesome warm environment to raise a kid."

Rebecca laughs ruefully. "My kids don't think so nowadays. They don't thank me at all.

"My older daughter, Yael is about to publish her first novel (in January 2007). She has warmer feelings.

[The novel is called Overture. "It is about a mother-daughter relationship written from the mother's point of view. They are in the same field -- music. I read every draft and I think it is wonderful."]

"My younger daughter is in her junior year at Brown. I don't think she sees anything positive in the [Orthodox] experience.

[Both daughters majored in Philosophy.]

"I tell myself there was a warmth and wholesome intimacy to the Orthodox community. At least for the kids."

Luke: "Were you integrated into your [Highland Park] Orthodox Jewish community [where her husband Sheldon Goldstein still lives]?"

Rebecca: "I was peripheral even though I really did walk the walk. I didn't talk the talk but I did do everything.

"People were suspicious.

"When I'd bring up to my youngest daughter, Danielle, that it was a nice warm community, she'd say, quite the contrary. Sometimes teachers would get angry at her and say, 'You think you can do anything you want just because your mother is famous.'

"They did not regard us as part of the community, which was sad.

"I thought whatever sacrifices I was making, the kids were coming out good because of this embracing community."

Luke: "Did your husband believe in what he was doing? God and Torah?"

Rebecca: "My former husband, Sheldon Goldstein, is first a profound physicist. He doesn't talk about his religious beliefs. They don't seem to really fit in with his general outlook. I don't know. He is observant."

Luke: "He never spoke to you about the Hakadosh Baruch Hu (God) once?"

Rebecca: "Oh gosh no."

Luke: "HaShem (God)?"

Rebecca: "No. Oh Lord. No. Nor does he seem to particularly enjoy life in a Jewish community. It could be just plain old stubbornness [sticking to Orthodoxy]. I don't know what it is. I lived with him for all those years and I still can't figure it out."

Luke: "How did you talk to your children about God?"

Rebecca: "They were going to [Orthodox] school. When they asked me questions, I would respect what they were learning and where they were at. My younger daughter was always very skeptical. She'd say, 'This doesn't make sense,' and we'd talk about it.

"Yael liked it. She's more gregarious. Wherever she is, she finds things to like.

"In [third] grade, Yael said to me [Yael relates the story in the 2005 book Who We Are: On Being (And Not Being) A Jewish American Writer] about some story or explanation her teacher had given, 'This doesn't make any sense. What do you think?'

"I looked at her and said, 'Do you really want to know what I think about all this?' There was this long pause. We looked into each other's eyes and she said, 'Not yet.'

"So, on some level, I guess she knew.

"I wasn't trying to cause dissonances."

Luke: "What about disciplining? Would you say, 'God doesn't want you to do this'?"

Rebecca: "Never."

Luke: "God says, 'Respect your parents.'"

Rebecca laughs. "I should've used that one a little more.

"I tried to reason with them. Or, 'This is the way we're doing it in the family.'

"They never questioned too much the laws. All their friends were doing it. It was a social thing. We're completely indifferent to food in the family. Kashrut never bothered us. For a long time, the girls and I were vegetarian. On Shabbos, they were off with their friends.

"Yael remained Orthodox until she left for college. Danielle left it much earlier. I had no quarrel with her leaving it."

Luke: "From Yael's essay [published about three years ago], she does not believe in God."

Rebecca: "No? I think she did in highschool. We wrote something together -- The Ashes of the Akedah. She was taking an Orthodox line there."

Luke: "Are you an agonized atheist?"

Rebecca: "No. The universe is fine the way it is.

"I never liked the idea of an afterlife. Everlasting consciousness is not for me. Let's just get it over.

"I have lost a lot of people I love, including my sister. I find myself thinking, 'How could such a huge thing as that spirit disappear?' I find myself puzzling over it.

"I adored my father. I believe he was a believer."

Luke: "How much of The Mind-Body Problem is autobiographical?"

Rebecca: "The most autobiographical part is my father. I wrote it right after he died. His dying had a great deal to do with my turning to writing fiction.

"Renee Feuer was not me. She was not even me philosophically. I was a happy [intense] graduate student. I did the sort of philosophy Renee didn't do and hated."

Luke: "Were you married to a genius [as Renee was]?"

Rebecca: "He's awfully smart. I was never asked what's it like to be married to a genius. He wasn't a public genius. It's only in his old age that he's become more prominent. After that book was published, he was teased. People asked him what it was like to be married to a genius."

The first line of The Mind-Body Problem is: "I'm often asked what it's like to be married to a genius."

Rebecca: "He's definitely not Noam Himmel.

"Renee is frivolous and narcissistic. I wrote that book after I had a child. I was a serious devoted professor and mother and not running around as she was. Renee had more fun than I ever did.

"When Shelly [her ex] first read the book, he said, 'Renee's so funny. Why can't you be more like her?' I'm more solemn."

Luke: "Did you have any second thoughts about taking your husband's name?"

Rebecca: "Funny you should ask. I didn't want to take my husband's name. He asked me to. I was touched by his asking me to and I did it and always regretted it. I don't like the name Goldstein. It never felt like mine [her maiden name was Newberger]. It's a cliché.

"My latest book [Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity] I wanted to publish under Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. I had visited my father's ancestral schtettle this past autumn and I discovered that Newbergers had lived in the area back to Napoleon.

"Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is on the back cover. They won't put it on the front cover.

"I just got a Guggenheim prize. The Times had the list of people who had it and it's listed as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. That's my first public appearance under that name."

Luke: "Are you a feminist?"

Rebecca: "I don't know. What does that mean?"

Luke: "Whatever it means to you."

Rebecca: "What do I believe? This is complicated."

Luke: "You don't believe in God, feminism..."

Rebecca: "There are statistical differences between men and women including in our emotional make-up. We shouldn't be surprised. We play different reproductive roles and evolution is very sensitive to reproductive matters. Still, if individuals don't fit the statistical profile they shouldn't be forced to. I don't believe we should be circumscribed by our gender.

"I've always been in classes and places where I'm the only woman. I feel like I belong there because my interests lead me there. Maybe there are some statistical differences but we shouldn't judge the individual by those differences."

Luke: "Do you think Judaism is any more rational than any other religion?"

Rebecca: "It certainly puts a high premium on thinking, at least for men. Notice the slight bitterness. Talmudic thinking is rational and logical. Obviously you're not questioning [the premises]. Whether the rational basis [for Judaism] is any more rational [than for another religion], I don't think so.

"I admire its view of the good life, that it doesn't ask you to renounce anything good in life but to go with the conflicts. We're not asked to renounce sensual joys but to make them kosher. It asks us to wrestle with the contradictions in our nature."

Luke: "Do you find more to love [in the Jewish tradition] than to hate?"

Rebecca: "Yes, especially when I'm not living in a Jewish community."

Luke: "Do you have any close friends who are Orthodox?"

Rebecca: "My sister. Do I have any Orthodox friends remaining? Probably not."

Luke: "Were there any Orthodox Jews in the departments where you taught?"

Rebecca: "No."

Her brother is an Orthodox rabbi serving a traditional congregation.

Luke: "Do you discuss philosophical issues with him?"

Rebecca: "No. He only calls to remind me we have a yartzheit [memorializing the death of a family member]."

Luke: "How have your looks affected your work? If you were even more beautiful, would you have done so much work?"

Rebecca: "I don't think it's affected me. I'm interested in the phenomenon of beauty. A lot of my characters are beautiful. I've been criticized for that. I had the very ugly one in The Dark Sister. It's interesting to me the power that beauty has over other people and the opportunities it opens up."

Luke: "Has your body bothered you?"

Rebecca: "My body?"

Luke: "Were you obsessed or unhappy with it?"

Rebecca: "I've been lucky with my body. I'm very fit."

Luke: "You've never been obsessed with your appearance?"

Rebecca: "I don't think so. I've been accused of being vain by my daughters. I love physical exercise."

Luke: "Most of your characters are either brilliant or beautiful or both. Surely that's more fun."

Rebecca: "It is more fun."

Luke: "It's certainly more fun to read."

Rebecca: "I'm interested in the inner life and brilliant characters have more inner life. There are more ideas and more conflicts. There's no way I can be interested enough to write about a character who doesn't have a tremendous inner life going on. That's all that really interests me in my writing."

Luke: "Is there anything you want from your kids aside from their happiness?"

Rebecca: "I want them to be good people. It would upset me if they were unkind or selfish. They're not. They're lovely. I want them to be productive. My greatest happiness in life comes from my work."

Luke: "What's number one? That they be happy? Good? Jewish?"

Rebecca: "Jewish is not on there. That's their choice. At one point, I said, 'As long as you are conflicted about it, that's all I care.' Happiness and kindness [are her twin priorities]."

Luke: "Did any of your philosophical training help you raise happy mentchy kids?"

Rebecca: "Yes. I believe in objectivity, in trying to see one's own life as objectively as possible, and not give too much weight that you happen to be yourself and want the things you want, but to be trying out different points of view and seeing how things look to different people."

Rebecca recommends Thomas Nagel's book The Possibility of Altruism. "Nagel may be the preeminent philosopher of his generation.

"At whatever level the [children] were at, I would share more of my ethical outlook. I never mentioned where it came from.

"When Yael was in her sophomore year at college, she took a tutorial that was exclusively on Nagel's moral theory. She called me up one day and said, 'Did you raise me according to that book?' I had to confess I did.

"When I told Tom Nagel, he didn't seem all that pleased. Perhaps, he didn't want anyone to take his moral philosophy that seriously.

"Her intuition was so in line that she could always guess the next move, better than the guy who was teaching it."

Luke: "I was amazed that you almost gave up writing after Mazel got mixed reviews."

From the Nov 8, 2000 Princeton Alumni Weekly: "I had decided to give up writing. I was very demoralized by the reaction of some critics. To me they just felt malicious and cruel. I felt so exposed to ill-will, which is something I avoid like the plague in my life."

Rebecca: "I said that after [2001's] Properties of Light too. I haven't written a novel since then. I felt that this is not a rational thing to keep doing, to keep writing these novels. Since then, I've written two nonfiction books: Incompleteness: the proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, published last year, and the forthcoming Betraying Spinoza.

"I do keep having ideas for novels. Some day.

"The novels I was interested in writing were getting more and more complicated.

"People have talked about adapting Properties of Light for the stage or the movies.

"You are so exposed [when you write novels]. It's excruciating. It gets worse and worse. I get more and more sensitive."

Luke: "You've seen a bit of Jewish life around the world and around the United States."

Rebecca: "I've even been a scholar in residence at various synagogues."

We laugh.

Rebecca: "I always feel like a terrible fraud."

Luke: "Judaism's in trouble.

"What fills you with optimism and what fills you with pessimism when you see Jewish life firsthand?"

Rebecca: "Things seem to be getting better for women. Some of the best new Biblical criticism comes from women. There's also a move towards fundamentalism. I don't like to see Jews not wrestling with faith. I don't like to see them withdrawing from the world. The minimizing of conflict is a bad sign. As much as one believes, it's always a bad thing to lose the ability to imagine what the world is like for someone who does not share your belief."

Luke: "When you say that you wished Jews wrestled more with their religion, you are wishing that they'd be more like you. Only intellectuals struggle with these things."

Rebecca: "Maybe. Jews have an intellectual religion."

Luke: "Only a minority of intellectuals will want to struggle about their religion."

Rebecca: "To the extent that you don't struggle with your religion, that's not a good thing. There's an absolute statement. When it just becomes a set of answers... Certainty doesn't belong in religion except for the moral laws between man and man. Frankly, I don't think we need religion for that. We need the possibility of altruism."

Luke: "Very few people want to lead lives filled with conflict."

Rebecca: "True. That does sadden me. Any attempts against ghettoization make me happy. It may not increase our comfort but rather our humanity."

Luke: "Only intellectuals are going to go for that."

Rebecca: "I have a high estimation of people's abilities. People need encouragement. Marching to the beat pounded out by our leaders...this absence of all questioning is having a bad effect."

Luke: "You think people are not questioning because George Bush and our political leaders don't question much?"

Rebecca: "It's reciprocal. They need one another.

"It's a scary time.

"Twenty years ago, when I was teaching philosophy, the cultural outlook was different. Now in my philosophy classes I have to take the changed political and social climate into account when addressing my students.

"There seems to be a retreat away from large questions. It particularly upsets me when it comes from Jews, chauvinistically more. I'm still a chauvinist when it comes to Jews."

Luke: "How much of your life have you been happy?"

Rebecca: "For most of my life, I was fairly miserable. I was only happy when I was deeply involved in a book or in work. I'm a workaholic. When my children were young, that made me very happy.

"I'm very happy now. I feel like I'm living an honest life now. Even though I could tell myself I was doing [Orthodox Judaism] for high-minded reasons, I was living a tremendous lie and not able to say it because it would embarrass people I loved. I finally feel like a complete grown-up. I'm making my own choices.

"I have very few close relationships but the ones I do are very intense. But most of all work [as a source of happiness]."

Luke: "What are the qualities of your closest friends?"

Rebecca: "They have vastly different intellectual attainments. They're all funny. I prize a sense of humor ridiculously high. They don't take themselves seriously. They take other things seriously. I like a little bit of earnestness.

"I'm earnest. I'm not postmodern.

"I have a partner. He's very funny. He doesn't take himself seriously even though he has every reason to. His lack of self-aggrandizement is all the more laudable. He's very kind."

Luke: "Why do you ask so much of your reader?"

Rebecca: "I love novels that are always giving you more each time you read them. I'm only interested in novels that I would want to reread. It is my great hope to produce novels of that sort. There's a great moral quality to paying attention to something that is not yourself. Art ought to demand great outputs of attention."

Luke: "You're really demanding."

Rebecca: "I'm not going to apologize for that."

Luke: "I want an apology."

Rebecca: "Sometimes a piece of art takes a tremendous amount of attention and it's not worth it. I hope that is not the case with my work. Maybe that's why I stopped writing novels.

"I stopped reading a lot of novels when I started writing them.

"I love and hate what writing novels does for me. You're magnificent when you're writing one and a petty little creep when you publish one."

Luke: "The Mind-Body Problem was linear, but then you became increasingly nonlinear."

Rebecca: "I don't know why the stories took that form. I've always been interested in time. When I was interested in the philosophy of physics, that was one of my major preoccupations -- time, linear time, relativistic time and the emotional aspects of time. Perhaps that's why so many of my novels have become nonlinear."

Luke: "Were you cognizant of how much more difficult that made it to read your books?"

Rebecca: "Sorry."

She laughs. "Now I really am apologizing."

Luke: "I could sail through The Mind-Body Problem. All the others, I'm pulling my hair out."

Rebecca: "When I wrote The Mind-Body Problem, I was primarily a philosopher and I just took this fling and wrote this novel and tossed it off. I wrote it in eight weeks."

Luke: "It was so fun. That's my favorite of your books."

Rebecca: "Thank you. Oh God, that doesn't make me feel good."

Luke: "It was linear."

Rebecca: "Then I wanted to do more and more [experimentation]. I didn't want to write philosophy in the way I had been trained to write it but hoped that I could do something philosophically interesting by writing novels. That I could bring some of my philosophical passions to bear. My novels became more and more reflective of the philosophical ideas that I am interested in. Maybe that is why they became more and more..."

Luke: "Difficult?"

Rebecca laughs. "Now I'm trying to bring what I learned about novels to writing about philosophy, meaning I write heavy novels and light philosophy."

Luke: "I have a friend in academia who argues that the Holocaust has made linear narrative impossible. Has the Holocaust changed literary structure?"

Rebecca: "I don't think the Holocaust is reflected in everything that everybody writes, not even everything that Jewish-minded Jewish writers write, though it weighs heavily.

"When I wrote Mazel and a few short stories that refer to the Holocaust, I was influenced by Aharon Applefeld who never writes about the Holocaust, only before and after. Also, Ida Fink.

"It's too enormous to deal with directly."

Luke: "Did you get dissed by your philosopher peers for being a novelist?"

Rebecca: "Yes. I had a promising philosophical, but when I wrote The Mind-Body Problem, I couldn't be taken seriously. I'm not sorry that it prevented me from having a linear academic career."

Luke: "Did you get tenure?"

Rebecca: "I did not. I believe the novel had much to do with that."

Luke: "Thank you so much."

Rebecca: "You didn't ask any questions..."

Luke: "That had already been done."