Finding the author within
‘You’re all just prejudiced, not to mention stupid!’
By Hannah R. Goodman
Two years ago I published my first novel, “My Sister’s Wedding,” that features a 15-year-old girl struggling with the many alcoholics in her life. Maddie, the protagonist, and my alter-ego teenage self, happens to be Jewish in the same way she also happens to have brown eyes (both are traits of my own).
My intention when writing the book was to show that a teenage girl can struggle with family secrets, boyfriend, friendship and sibling problems and maintain not only a sense of humor but also actually grow from it — as opposed to what most young adult literature seems to show – gratuitous sex and drinking portrayed in a no-big-deal manner. I wanted to show struggle and growth wrapped up in humor and, dare I say, values — of friendship and family foremost.
Simply put, Maddie’s Jewishness was not something I thought would cause any conversation among readers or be a reason for an organization, newspaper, or magazine to take an interest in me the author or the book itself.
I was wrong.
Upon publication, Maddie’s Jewishness became a “hook” in terms of a marketing strategy and, like Maddie’s Jewishness, there was no ulterior motive, no preplanning, no intention behind it. I was so unaware of marketing that all I did was read one book that I found in my overstuffed bookshelf — it advised the author to examine themes in the book and then look for organizations that connect to them. AA was number one and Jewish organizations were number 10. AA didn’t respond (too large of an organization plus they don’t endorse any book) and several other organizations that were listed above Jewish groups were also tepid in responses. However, the response from Jewish organizations was immediate. In fact, I’m still in contact with each of those organizations two years later.
So, I took that lead and threw myself into marketing to the Jewish audience. I donated books to temples, Jewish organizations for alcoholics, Jewish day schools and was invited to come and speak at quite a few of them. I sent books to Jewish magazines and newspapers and, in response, was asked to write pieces about being Jewish for them. And as I wrote the pieces and went to the temples and spoke to kids and parents and clergy about the book, the label “Jewish” writer began to emerge.
And it felt weird. Not wrong weird but uncomfortable.
I remember the moment when I first realized this. I was sitting with 10 fifteen-year-olds at a confirmation class. The rabbi had asked me to focus my discussion on a part of the book that deals with being a Jewish teenager. I selected a scene where Maddie recalls being ostracized and teased for being one of the few Jewish kids in her elementary school. It’s a flash of a scene but after I finished reading it to them, it garnered an hour’s worth of debate about anti-Semitism in schools. They posed the following questions to me: Where did the idea for the scene come from? And, why did I include this in the book? Made me shift uncomfortably in the hard steel-folding chair. My response to this group resulted in a hush across the table so sad I thought I might weep: “I put this into the book as an attempt to deal with the childhood shame I felt being a Jew in a town of Christians. I was teased for being Jewish on the softball field by an older teammate who sang ‘Hey Jew’ to the tune of ‘Hey Jude.’ I was singled out for being Jewish. It was embarrassing to have teachers ask me, ‘Hannah can you stand up and tell us the story of Hanukkah?’ Or, ‘Hannah do your people celebrate Thanksgiving?’”
My answer to them was shocking to me. I never realized I viewed any of that teasing as anything more than regular hazing kids experience. I never realized I felt that shame. So sitting their feeling the usual weirdness I had been feeling after going to Jewish events and discussing my book, the weirdness took on a very clear meaning: I am ashamed of my Jewishness and yet here I am talking about my Jewish character and being a Jewish writer but really I am a fraud. I am uncomfortable being called a Jewish writer because Jewish writers to me, like Bernard Malamud or Chaim Potok, are proud of their heritage. The truth is, I told those kids I dealt with shame only as a child but really I continue to struggle with it today as a 30-year-old woman.
The sun blinded me for a moment as my mind began to unravel why I felt such shame. In my childhood I was uncomfortable being Jewish. Even though that schoolyard teasing I mentioned to the confirmation class was over by middle school due to a more diverse population than my grammar school (simply put, more Jews, more minorities in general), the ignorance of people about being a Jew followed me all the way (and continues) through adulthood, rendering me helpless. Helpless when it comes to asserting my Jewish identity. But why? Why don’t I stand up to the ignorance? Why didn’t I as a child? Why don’t I as an adult? Why do I find myself blushing and waving my hand at remarks that make me uncomfortable, apologizing to people when I have to take a Jewish holiday off.
Then I had another image flash before me — I’m 13-years-old, standing at the Bimah giving my haftorah and looking out at a sea of non-Jewish girlfriends. They are dressed in shiny, pastel flouncy dresses but what stands out in my mind’s eye is their hands all painted with the same pink nail polish, clutched around tissues. Tears streaming down their faces. I remember feeling a lump in my throat and pausing mid-“baruch”. A wave, a tiny tingle danced across my back and I felt for the first time the specialness of being a Jew.
And yet, there I was in the car feeling worse than when I was in fourth grade and the class bully jacked me up against the brick school building and said, ‘I am going to beat the sh-t out of you, stupid Jewish girl.’ I have forgotten over all the years since my Bat Mitzvah what I love about being Jewish.
And then another memory bubbled up: It is almost two years ago, and I am at temple, standing under the rabbi’s prayer shawl holding my daughter, just four months old, her espresso-bean brown eyes large and solemn as the rabbi’s light and lovely voice chanted prayers I didn’t know. My husband is on the other side of me, smiling, tears at the corner of his eyes. Out in the small audience, my in-laws, who are not Jewish, clutch tissues. My mother-in-law dabs her eyes and my father-in-law clears his throat a few times and blinks. I felt that same tingle across my back that I had just 15 years earlier and again remembered why I loved being Jewish. Why my “recovering Catholic” husband chose to help me raise our daughter Jewish.
On some unconscious level, I do love being Jewish, and I am not ashamed of it — but more of myself and the way I have not stood up to ignorance and prejudice. In that scene I discussed with the confirmation class, Maddie doesn’t stand up to the teasing but her half-Jewish friend does. She stands up and points a finger at the kids and says, ‘You’re all just prejudiced. Not to mention stupid.’ So I realize that the intention behind that scene was to portray the truth of my own struggle with combating and standing up to prejudice: I am afraid to do it but I want to stand next to those who are not.
It is my hope that the next time someone makes a Jewish joke I do what Susan, the character in my book did, and I say, “You’re all just prejudiced. Not to mention stupid.”
Hannah R. Goodman of Bristol is the author of the young adult novel, “My Sister’s Wedding.” A former English teacher, her second novel will be published this summer.
She can be reached at hrgoodman.cox.net or www.hannahrgoodman.com