Yael Goldstein Interview
I call Rebecca Goldstein's eldest daughter in New York Monday morning, April 17, 2006.
I emailed Yael's father Sheldon April 11, 2006:
I got no response from Sheldon.
Luke to Yael: "I'm rolling tape. Everything you say will be used against you."
Note to self: Never say this again to start an interview. It casts a pall.
Yael: "Thanks for the warning."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Yael: "A balancer [her ambition between the ages of two and five]. Someone who balances. I really liked to balance on things."
Luke: "Can you make a living at that?"
Yael: "I don't think that's a career, but my mother was too kind to tell me there was no such thing."
Luke: "From age six onward, how did your ambitions change?"
Yael: "I wanted to be everything there was -- certainly writer. In highschool, I wanted to be a [philosophy] professor. Pretty lame. Everybody in my family studies philosophy."
Luke: "Did you have philosophy classes at your [coed Syrian] yeshiva [in Highland Park, New Jersey]?"
Yael: "God no. I discovered Descartes on my own [around age 15] and I tried to reconstruct his arguments. I found a notebook where I had tried to do this a few years ago and it was amazing what a muddle I made of it. Nonetheless, I got a lot of out it on an emotional level."
Luke: "What did you love and hate about Orthodox Judaism until you were 18?"
Yael: "I loved all of it. It's a great way to raise kids. I felt safe. I never felt pressured to do anything I didn't want to do. I never had to contemplate sex or drugs before I was ready to contemplate them. I loved the education. I loved studying the Bible. I loved how social it was. You could wander around and find everyone your own age and go from group to group. It just so happens that I don't believe in the things one has to believe to be a part of that community. I wouldn't feel comfortable doing it now."
Luke: "Your mother said, 'We were living in suburban New Jersey in a claustrophobic Jewish community.' Did you feel you were living in a claustrophobic community?"
Yael: "Not at all. I liked the smallness of it. Now I would probably find it claustrophobic. As a kid, when everyone is in each other's business, that doesn't seem bad."
Luke: "Your mother said: '"It seemed to be a wholesome warm environment to raise a kid. My kids don't think so nowadays. They don't thank me at all.'"
Yael: "My sister [Danielle] certainly doesn't. She really hated it. There's nothing I regret about having grown up there. Maybe I'm not as cosmopolitan as I would've been otherwise but it is not clear to me that I would rather be cosmopolitan than to have had a happy childhood."
Luke: "Did any of your teachers say to you, 'You think you can do anything you want because your mother is famous'?"
Yael: "No. My sister had to deal with more of that. I don't know why. I think in part because my sister made clear that she didn't like being a part of the community. I can't think of any time that a teacher was mean to me because of that."
Luke: "How are you ever going to be a writer if you can't think of examples of suffering?"
Yael laughs. "Luckily, I can imagine them. I think I'm supposed to be truthful here, right?"
"Your mother said to me, 'They did not regard us as part of the community.'"
Yael: "That's definitely true. That I definitely picked up. Every Shabbos everyone else's parents would be invited to everyone else's houses and we were never invited anywhere except for my cousins. I was definitely aware that my family was not a part of the community in the way that everyone else's family was a part of the community."
Luke: "How could that have not bothered you?"
Yael: "I liked my family. I like that they had these other interesting aspects to them. The other families seemed boring to me. The parents all talked about boring things at the dinner table. They gossip. My family talked about interesting things and had interesting people over for dinner parties. That compensated."
Luke: "You're basically a happy person?"
Luke: "Which period of your life would you say was the happiest?"
She sounds intrigued by the question and thinks for a few seconds. "Maybe college [she graduated from Harvard in 2000 with a degree in Philosophy]. I just loved every aspect of my days. I loved going to classes and having knowledge put into your brain as you sit there. I was dating a guy that I was crazy about. There were always friends around who were interesting to talk to. It seemed like everything was perfect."
Luke: "When did you develop an interest in boys?"
Yael: "I've always had one. During nursery school, everyone has an interest in the opposite sex. You all have your little boyfriends and girlfriends. I had a string of three who I was madly in love with.
"In first grade, people start to lose that interest. I never lost it. I always had a desperate crush on someone. I remember telling myself, 'You have to wait this out.' I wanted to talk about my crush to my friends but I knew they weren't going to be receptive. I waited it out for a few years because I knew starting in sixth or seventh grade, everyone else will redevelop an interest.
"I don't think I never had an interest in boys."
Luke: "Were these interests requited?"
Yael: "In the fallow period when people weren't interested in the opposite sex, they were probably unrequited because they probably felt that girls were gross. My nursery school romances were incredibly successful."
Luke: "What does that mean?"
Yael: "We planned to get married. These were the first men, maybe the only men, who were willing to make solid commitments to me."
Luke: "Was the love of your life in college Jewish?"
Yael: "No. He had an Irish-Catholic name and he was raised in an Irish-Catholic community. It turned out his mother's mother was Jewish. He was the most unJewish Jew you could imagine."
Luke: "How would you compare dating identifying Jews to dating non-Jews?"
Yael: "I haven't dated that many people. I'm a serial monogamist. Since I was 18, I've had three relationships [two identifying Jews] but I've never been out of a relationship for longer than a month.
"I'm dating someone Jewish now and it's easier because I never have to worry that anything he says is anti-Semitic."
Luke: "How old were you when you first published?"
Yael: "I was 17. It was a dialogue I wrote with my mother -- The Ashes of the Akedah, The Ashes of Sodom in the book Beginning Anew: A Woman's Companion to the High Holy Days. I was still in my Orthodox phase. It shows up in the dialogue in embarrassing ways.
"I published on my own in Commentary in 2004."
Luke: "What kind of crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"
Yael: "There wasn't much of crowds. The Ashkenazi kids hung out together. By the end of school, all the kids in honors classes hung out together."
Luke: "Were you always a teacher's pet?"
Yael: "No. I wasn't always a great student as far as being well behaved. If I was interested in something, I would really put effort into it. When I wasn't, it was really hard to get me to put effort in. I'm very talkative. It was hard to get me to shut up in class."
Luke: "How did your mothers novels affect your life?"
Yael: "When her first book came out, people were definitely talking about it. I wasn't thrilled. It was the cover that made my life difficult -- it had a naked woman on it. All the little boys in my class would say, 'My mommy has a picture of your mommy naked.' I'd say, 'It's not my mother who's naked.'
"I found that mortifying."
Luke: "I guess with the other novels, most people couldn't understand them."
Luke: "I guess with the other novels, they were increasingly complex."
Yael: "Yeah. I didn't read any of my mother's books until I was in highschool."
Luke: "Which is your favorite?"
Yael: "Properties of Light. It has this incandescence. It sounds the most like my mother even though the main character is nothing like my mother. I hear my mother's voice most clearly."
Luke: "How did your parents talk about God to you?"
Yael: "They didn't. I can't remember God ever being mentioned in my house. I don't even know if my dad believes in God or not."
Luke: "I emailed him: 'Do you believe in God?' He didn't reply."
Yael: "That would've been great if I had got an answer to that one."
Luke: "Did you have difficulty relating to non-Jews after you left your Orthodox day school and environs?"
Yael: "No, not at all. I wasn't nearly as insulated as most of my peers in Highland Park. I had a number of non-Jewish friends as a child -- children of my dad's colleagues, mostly."
Luke: "Was God talked about in your religious world?"
Yael: "In a vague way. God was a hanger that you would hang things on. 'We do this because God wants this.' 'God says blah blah...' But the important thing is not the God part but whatever he says part. There was no real exploration of who is this dude God."
Luke: "Did you have a relationship with God?"
Yael: "I did. I still do. When I'm not paying attention, I might fall into having a relationship with God despite the fact that I don't believe in him. I always talk to God directly. Make little yells."
Luke: "Have you spent time in church and how does that feel to you?"
Yael: "I've been a few times, particularly with my ex-boyfriend, going to Christmas services etc. It was mostly boring. It felt like synagogue. Paging through the pages and wondering when it would be over. The first time I went to church, I felt really guilty. I went with a friend from college who was Armenian Orthodox. That is a cool service. It was all in Armenian. It really puts the Catholic church to shame the way it has been watered down.
"I started feeling weird, that I shouldn't be there. I was a freshman in college."
Luke: "How did you feel about the statutes, idols?"
Yael: "They were quite pretty.
"I don't think any of us understand idolatry and what the urge was to bow down to idols."
Luke: "Do you have any Christian envy?"
Yael: "I don't think so."
Luke: "So what do you miss about believing in Orthodox Judaism and practicing it? And not miss?"
Yael: "I miss Shabbos. I really liked Shabbos, not only about not having to work and not feel guilty about it, but the social aspect. Knowing that you're going to have this long lunch with friends and you're going to go to synagogue and see all these people.
"What I don't miss is the smallness of it. Having to believe certain things that you don't want to believe. That's what started to drive me away in highschool and college."
Luke: "How did your novel come about?"
Yael: "I got the idea for it in college with the movie Amadeus and these Thomas Mann books that talk about art vs. life. There'd be this artistic hero who venerates art above all else. He sacrifices everything for his art. How much do you sacrifice for people who depend on you?
"My mother takes art seriously.
"I thought it would be interesting to explore this from a woman's point of view. A woman has all these people who depend on her in a different way and she's so concerned for other people in her life. Her concern for the people in her life can be different from a man's concern for the people in his life.
"I wanted to write a book about a woman who took her art as seriously as any Thomas Mann hero but who's also an incredibly good mother.
"I started writing it right after I graduated college. I worked on it for five years. It changed a lot. The plot changed. Characters came in and out.
"My main character is a better mother for being an artist and a better artist for being a mother, which is something my mom accomplished too. I was trying to figure out how did my mother accomplish this."
Luke: "Your mother was very honest in her interviews about how bad reviews drove her out of writing novels. Did you see that?"
Yael: "I saw that very much. It amazes me that I want to be a writer given the extent to which I was aware that negative reviews affected my mother. I remember that when we were aware that a review was coming from The [New York] Times, this whole pall would fall over the house. It was like we were getting a death sentence. She was assuming it was going to be terrible and she was going to be really depressed."
Luke: "How good a medium do you think the novel is for exploring the type of philosophical ideas that your mother explores, particularly with her later novels?"
Yael: "It's a very good medium. See how abstract ideas function in a human life can be illuminating. I don't know if we get any answers that way, but we can view the question in different ways."
Luke: "What role did your mother play with the various drafts of the book?"
Yael: "She read many drafts. She's a good reader. She can be brutal, but you know she loves you no matter what. She would never impose what she wanted the book to be."
Luke: "Has God ever spoken to you?"
Luke: "What have you loved and hated about your decision to live your adult life for your art? What type of real world jobs have you had to take to do that?"
Yael: "I've had to take many jobs. I was a bartender, waitress, secretary, wrote Spark Notes study guides to philosophy, did online editing, and was the publishing assistant at the literary magazine Paris Review. Only the last one would I want to put on my resume. They were all fun.
"It's hard when you see your friends having adult lives and their careers are going well and they have nice apartments. I still feel like a kid. I don't have a regular income. For a while, I had practically no money. If my book hadn't got published, I would've been at square one again."
Luke: "And if your friends want to go out to an expensive restaurant, what do you do?"
Yael: "I go."
Luke: "Are you an agonized atheist?"
Yael: "I'm an agnostic who has a really strong hunch that God doesn't exist. 'Agonized' is too strong. I think about it. It's not as though I've closed the question. I would like God to exist. I don't see it."
Luke: "Do you want to marry a genius?"
Yael: "No. This is something I've been dealing with for a little bit of time. Like my mother, I was always drawn to the men who seemed the most like a genius. My last boyfriend was of this mold. I realized what's the good of being married to someone who takes themselves and their own mind so seriously. Now I think I want someone who is going to be fun and kind. They just have to be smart enough that I find them interesting."
Luke: "How will you feel about taking your husband's last name?"
Yael: "I would like to take my husband's last name. This is not so much a feminist stance. I don't like the name 'Goldstein.' It reminds me of a butcher with a bloody apron.
"I like 'Yael.' It's unusual and pretty. It has an exotic Jewishness."
Luke: "You could never merge into the goyim."
Yael: "That's true. I don't think I would want to."
Luke: "Are you a feminist?"
Yael: "In the sense that women should be able to make their own choices and enter any field they want to. I don't think I'm a feminist in the sense of thinking men and women are entirely equal. There's no unified school of feminism any more."
Luke: "Did you take part in any 'Take Back the Night' marches?"
Luke: "Do you think Judaism is any more rational than any other religion?"
Yael: "It's more rational than Christianity."
Luke: "Do you have any close friends who are Orthodox?"
Yael: "Yes. I have two close friends from childhood."
Luke: "What did your parents expect from you aside from being happy? Can you put them in order?"
Yael: "Let me put my father aside. My mother foremost wanted me to be a good person. After that, she wanted me to live up to whatever promise I might have. I was a terrible student in elementary school, particularly in my Judaic studies classes. I would sit and play with my hair. My mom was worried.
"As a kid, I felt no pressure. I thought that all that was expected of me was to play and have fun and also be nice, but that wasn't pressure."
Luke: "What did your dad want from you?"
Yael: "I don't know. He wanted me to be well-behaved and talk to him about math."
Luke: "What do you love and hate about Jewish life?"
Yael: "The holidays are fun. I don't like the food. I don't like having so many dishes on the table at once. It overwhelms me because I feel like I have to eat all of them."
Luke: "How much do you care about what happens to the Jews?"
Yael: "I care a great deal though I don't know exactly what it means to care about what happens to the Jews."
Luke: "Is there anything you do about it? Say, read The New York Times about Israel?"
Yael: "I follow the news about Israel closely. I worry about Israel actively."
Luke: "Is there anything else you do because you want to contribute to the well-being of the Jewish people?"
Luke: "Do you want to lead a life filled with conflict or a peaceful life?"
Luke: "Your mother loves people being racked by doubt."
Yael: "That's true."
Luke: "I told her only some intellectuals want to live that way."
Yael: "Yeah. Not many."
Luke: "How would your closest friends describe you?"
She's 5' tall.
Luke: "How has that affected your personality?"
Yael: "It's allowed me to get away with a lot. I'm just this short cute little thing and people let me get away with murder. I act younger than I would otherwise if I were 5'6"."
Luke: "Aside from short?"
Yael: "Enthusiastic, with a lot of time on my hands so everybody bothers me when they have problems."
Luke: "What do your closest friends have in common?"
Yael: "They have this intelligence that focuses narrowly on human emotions. They put enormous effort into being sensitive to and understanding of the behavior of people around them."
Luke: "What did you think of the TV show Sex and the City?"
Yael: "I did not like it. I was completely addicted to it and watched every episode. I found the characters flat except for Carrie, until she cheated on Aiden. I couldn't forgive her for a while. I thought it was fun brain candy but it was being treated as something profound. That irritated me."
Luke: "How many people react to you primarily as Rebecca Goldstein's daughter?"
Yael: "Very few.
"I'm highly protective of my mother."
Luke: "Are there any highly acclaimed writers you think are crap?"
Yael: "I don't want to get myself in trouble by saying that."
Luke: "Do you miss being around people who live their lives for God?"
Luke: "How often have you experienced the consolation of philosophy or are there other things you find more consoling, such as friends?"
Yael: "I do find some consolation in philosophy. Thinking things through clearly always makes them seem better. Maybe because no situation I've been in has been that terrible."
Luke: "How do you like the siddur [Jewish prayer book]?"
Yael: "I don't have much of an opinion on it."
Luke: "What about as a kid when you were forced to daven from it?"
Yael: "I found it long."
Luke: "What do you think of Wendy Shalit's article in The New York Times book review last January?"
Yael: "It made some points that were not overly generous. How's that for a cagey answer?"
Luke: "And to think that you were a troublesome talkative student. Now I'm getting the careful philosopher."