Q&A on Being a Jewish & Disabled Author

A patron of mine asked me some questions recently about Jewish identity, and writing while Jewish and disabled.

I thought y’all might find the answers interesting. Hopefully, I’m correct!

Are secular Jews overrepresented in the media?

I am personally a secular Jew. I suppose my first question in wondering whether we’re over-represented is — what percentage of self-identified Jews in America are secular? (It also matters what the percentage of secular Jews in media work is, but that seems harder to find.)

I found this here: http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

“The changing nature of Jewish identity stands out sharply when the survey’s results are analyzed by generation. Fully 93% of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion (called “Jews by religion” in this report); just 7% describe themselves as having no religion (“Jews of no religion”). By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults – the Millennials – 68% identify as Jews by religion, while 32% describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture. ”

It goes on to say:

“Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish. ”

I’m surprised that the percentage of people who think you have to believe in God to be Jewish is that high, actually. There’s a pretty lengthy historical tradition of Jews who participate in their communities without being personally religious. The article does say that Jews who identify as secular now are less likely to be tied into Jewish cultural organizations than other Jews, so I wonder whether there’s an increasing idea that being a secular Jew is the same as being an uninvolved Jew. (I should note that people who convert to being Jews are also definitely Jews whether or not they have the ancestry. Judaism is a desert topping and a floor wax.)

That said, I’m uninvolved in a lot of ways. My grandfather made a decision as a young man to sever himself from his Jewish past. I think this was his reaction to World War II. He never denied being Jewish, or changed his name, or anything like that – but he had no interest in his past as a Jew, or in any of the associated cultural traditions. Our family still exists in the shadow of that decision.

I could try to figure out more about the demographics involved — what percentage of great sci-fi writers, editor, etc, from Christian backgrounds are also secular? Is this a function of Jewishness, or a broader secular cultural trend among people in those industries?

But I feel like the more interesting questions are tangential. What could we gain from having more religiously Jewish creators?

Probably something. My friend Barry writes a series of graphic novels about Hassidic Jews. He himself is a secular Jew, but many Hassidic people have contacted him, grateful for representation of their community that is humanizing and generous. There are clearly religiously Jewish people who are not seeing themselves reflected, or are only seeing themselves reflected in ways that are inaccurate or unkind.

There can be pressure on secular Jews to put their Jewish heritage in the background, especially when antisemitism and white supremacy are on a resurgence. I’ve paid the price for being a Jewish female creator, and it’s a nasty one. So, there’s another point where I think there’s tension over secular Jewish representation in the media–in order to work in the industry, to some extent, we must blend in with Christian normativity.

I had a woman say to me, in all seriousness, in a critique group once, that she was annoyed I had included Jewish rituals in one of my stories. “If I want to read about that kind of thing,” she said, “I’ll just read fantasy.”

I’m not sure this resolves anything (in fact, I’m sure it doesn’t), but those are some of my thoughts.

What about your background and current ideas/beliefs/practices has contributed to your interest in Jewish sci fi?

Right now, I’m more interested in the theological questions of Judaism than I normally am because I have a good friend who is tipping over the border from secular to religious Jew, and his journey is very interesting to me. The way he talks and writes about his burgeoning belief (as opposed to the feeling of irresolution he’d had before) is fascinating; it helps that he’s a very good writer who is fascinating on many topics.

I think my interest in Jewish science fiction stems from my interest in Jewishness itself, which is probably related to my self-identification as Jewish. I’m not sure why I have a strong identification with Judaism — I didn’t have to. As the granddaughter of a secular Jew who tried to cut all connections, I could have just put it aside; my brothers have. Our father is from WASPy blood with deep roots in American history–we’re descended from one of the people who signed the Declaration of Independence–and I could have chosen to identify with that to the exclusion of my Jewish ancestry.

What are you writing about now?

I’m writing a lot about disability. As a disabled person, there’s a lot of rich material to mine–and I still have a lot of unreconciled thoughts about disability, and things I’m figuring out. I think a lot of good writing is produced when the author is still on the edge of revelations, instead of settled.

Many of my previous writing obsessions have been much more externally focused. Of course there’s a hideous amount of dehumanization and violence directed toward disabled people, but for some of us, there’s also an intense personal struggle of identity and self-knowledge that requires a deep investigation of the psyche. That’s where I am right now–fiction about selfhood and perception.

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5 Responses to Q&A on Being a Jewish & Disabled Author

  1. 1
    Gracchus says:

    “My grandfather made a decision as a young man to sever himself from his Jewish past. I think this was his reaction to World War II. He never denied being Jewish, or changed his name, or anything like that – but he had no interest in his past as a Jew, or in any of the associated cultural traditions. ”

    If you don’t mind me asking, how do yu feel about this? I ask because I’ve read a lot about minorities who are stripped of their culture by dominant groups and who fight hard to retain it, so it’s a bit strange to see a member of a minority voluntarily walking away from their culture and its associated traditions. Or, I dunno, perhaps it wasn’t so voluntary after all?

  2. 2
    Mandolin says:

    Hi Gracchus,

    I think it’s valid for people to decide to be assimilationist if that’s what they prefer… I think the really strong pressure that says you *have* to assimilate is the problem. I think the pushback against that pressure can splash back on people who are voluntarily assimilating. But it’s hard to pick out, in a sort of dual consciousness way.

    I don’t know much about my grandfathers mental state, except that he was a deeply troubled, unpleasant, and unhappy man. Family stories say he was “unhappy” in his childhood, but I don’t know how dire that unhappiness was — at this point, I strongly suspect he was being treated in a way that we would now consider child abuse–possibly in a way that would have been considered child abuse then as well.

    He maintained a relationship with his mother until the end of her life, and she remained a religious Jew. (I love the story about how she was always disappointed on Easter when the other women in the nursing home would receive cards and she didn’t–because she was sufficiently insular that she didn’t know what Easter was.) So, that’s a factor I don’t really know how to analyze.

    He became an atheist before running away from his family, at a time just past World War II. I think really hard times like that can push people either toward their minority status (I know Jews who feel like they need to claim the identity more in the face of rising anti-semitism) or away from it. I suspect he disliked many of the religious traditions specifically –I suspect that he held them in disdain–so that also becomes a factor in walking away. So, there are a lot of reasons he may have walked away, or possibly all of them — the wake of the anti-semitic horror which killed any members of our family who had not already emigrated; a dislike for the religion itself; and a desire to separate himself from an abusive childhood.

    I have a lot of feelings about the man, but I don’t particularly blame him for deciding not to emphasize his Jewish identity. It would have been nice if there hadn’t been a sort of pressure to forget everything that happened historically, but there are times, too, when you just want to say, “No more of that horror. We don’t need to remember it.”

    Perhaps I’ll do that to him sometime.

  3. 3
    Ben David says:

    Judaism is a desert topping and a floor wax.
    … and I spent all that time studying Talmud!

    In America I grew up in the landscape you describe. After moving to Israel I encountered some additional takes on this:

    – the somewhat prideful assertion of secular Israelis that *their* cultural-but-not-religious definition of Jewishness was somehow more stable/viable than that of diaspora “Ethical Culture Society” secular Jews.

    – the importance of some basic things like knowledge of Hebrew to even facilitate cross-sectarian discussion.

  4. 4
    Mandolin says:

    Yeah, I think knowing Hebrew is good. I don’t — but I respect that it’s important.

  5. 5
    J. Squid says:

    Is reading Hebrew enough? I also know a few words of vocabulary.

    Of cours Hebrew would be considered vital in Israel. I recall everybody I met there as fluent in the language. It seems I’ve met a lot more folks in the USA who speak Yiddish than who speak Hebrew.