Think of an acclaimed literary writer whose inventive, original works are also
funny and intensely enjoyable to read. And think of one whose vivid Jewish
characters are idiosyncratic and often iconic at the same time. The name Michael
Chabon will come to mind instantly. Although he comes off as self-effacing in
interviews, he has extraordinary achievements to boast about.
literary career took off in 1988 when he published the novel The Mysteries of
Pittsburgh and the short story collection A Model World and Other
After a stormy relationship with a novel he ended up discarding
(Fountain City), he wrote and published Wonder Boys in 1995. Wonder Boys, which
became a delightful and Oscar-winning film starring Michael Douglas in 2000,
featured one of the most engaging Passover scenes in contemporary literature (a
scene which didn’t make it into the movie, unfortunately).
novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the Pulitzer Prize in
2001. The story of two Jewish cousins, one American and one from Czechoslovakia,
who team up to create a hugely successful superhero comic, examined themes of
Jewish identity in the US before and after the Holocaust, and did it with great
wit, charm and heart.
Chabon had shown his true colors as a Jewish
writer, and from then on, Jewish themes have played an important part in his
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, published in 2007, explores a murder
mystery in an alternative universe in which Israel does not exist and Jews from
Europe were resettled in Alaska. It is an audacious literary feat that charmed
some and offended others, perhaps the definition of a truly Jewish
In recent years, Chabon, 49, has published some genre fiction,
including a serialized novel that ran in The New York Times, Gentleman of the
Road, a swashbuckling adventure about two Jews, circa 950 CE. He also published
Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son, a
collection of essays.
His latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, about two
partners in a record store, one Jewish and one African- American, who struggle
to keep their business going after a superstore opens up down the street, won
He is married to Israeli-born writer Ayelet Waldman and
lives in Berkeley, California, with their four children.
surprised to find out you had been included on the Jerusalem Post’s 50 most
influential Jews list?
I was. I heard about it through an email and at first I
didn’t read it right and I thought I was being asked to give a comment about
somebody else, like Judd Apatow.
Jewish characters and issues of identity
are central to the plot of some of your books – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, for example – and less
critical to others, such as Wonder Boys. How central is being Jewish to the plot
of your life?
It is central. I have no hesitation saying that being Jewish is
unquestionably one of the ways I define myself to the world. Being Jewish colors
my way of seeing everything from being a parent to how to vote.
I mean by being Jewish is always changing and has changed over the course of my
life. It has never stopped changing. Five years ago, for example, you would have
gotten a different answer to this question. It’s always in flux.
religious side of things is not really as central to me now as it has been at
other times. I am certainly not frum or Conservative in my
That’s one of the good things about being Jewish. If you’re
Methodist and you decide you don’t like going to church, are you still a
Methodist? But if you’re Jewish it doesn’t really matter [if you stop going to
Being Jewish is the complete package.
It also has to do
with where my children are in the bar/bat mitzva process. Two of my children
have already been through it. My oldest child’s bat mitzva, which was about five
years ago, was a kind of peak for me [in terms of religious observance]. That
memory of that moment in time is one of the high points of my entire life. The
meaning and importance of your child’s bat or bar mitzva is critical for the
parents. All of my children, and it’s true of the third one, too, who is going
through it now, have taken it very seriously, without needing any pressure or
nudging or pushing. Each child’s bat or bar mitzva was very characteristic of
that kid and who they are. Even when I’m not really feeling it on the religious
level, that process was important to me.
Right now my wife and I are not
members of any synagogue or congregation, but even when we were members, we
still did it independently with a lay teacher who had an incredibly warm
The kids helped design the service and make it a personal
reflection, a reflection of who that kid is at 13. I don’t think 13 is the ideal
age, though. I wish it could be pushed up to 16 or 17, or even 18.
voting age? I’m not sure who you email to get the bar mitzva age changed. Was
being Jewish important to you when you were 13?
I grew up in Columbia, Maryland.
It was a planned community, built near DC. We were part of the first 1,000
families. It was a would-be Utopia.
Religiously, racially and
economically integrated, with open-plan classrooms in the schools.
very exciting, I was completely invested in the dream of Columbia at six [when
his family moved there]. There were various congregations, Jews and Christians,
that used one building, it accommodated all denominations. My family went to a
congregation that was innovative, that kind of prefigured more New Age thinking
in Jewish forms of worship. There was meditation, and guitar-playing, and there
could be an Emily Dickinson poem as part of the liturgy. For my bar mitzva, I
designed the service although it wasn’t necessarily the most meaningful
experience of my life for all kinds of reasons.
My grandparents, who
lived nearby, belonged to a big, old traditional Conservative synagogue. I got
exposed to Ashkenazi pronunciation. It’s something nostalgic for me, although I
found it incredibly boring.
What does it mean to you to be a Jewish
I lost the connection to Jewishness really after my bar mitzva into my
Then I read Philip Roth’s Goodbye Columbus and there was a
strong cultural pull of reading it and a conscious imitating of a story of how
people’s lives change over a summer [when he was writing his first novel, The
Mysteries of Pittsburgh.] I was also heavily influenced by Gatsby, though. The
Jewish aspect for me was there when I wrote Mysteries, but wasn’t really that
When I met my [second] wife [Waldman], I started reconnecting
with my Jewish heritage. When I was in my late 20s, my first marriage ended in
divorce. And Judaism crept back into my work.
Wonder Boys was written
from the point of a view of a non-Jewish character, but then there’s that scene
with the Seder, where the non-Jewish characters are guests. And it’s a Jewish
family where the kids are adopted from Korea. It’s a motley group. That was my
first attempt to incorporate overtly Jewish influences into my work.
then I wrote [The Amazing Adventures of] Kavalier & Clay and there it’s
front and center.
Jewish culture generally was a source of thematic power
for my storytelling. Hooking me up to Jewish content hopped my work up to a
You have written about comic-book artists and written genre
fiction influenced by comics. What is the attraction of Jews and comics?
Primarily the economics of anti-Semitism was what created the affinity between
Jews and comics.
Young, inexpert and Jewish artists wanted to make a
living by drawing, and comics gave them the opportunity to do that. Lucrative,
better-paying fields were closed to you because you were a Jew in that era.
Commercial art, magazines, even slick magazine art, it was almost impossible to
get work in these fields. Jews were so new and so low on the food chain. But
comics would take Jews, they’d even take a Jewish kid out of high
I always loved comics. My dad started buying the comics and he
would bring them home. Any Jewish themes were all heavily encoded. It’s not as
if comics are now bursting with overtly Jewish content, but then it was even
more in the background.
Marvel Comics had a comic based on the
But it was pretty lame, it was not a good use of the Golem at all.
Later, it was revealed that “The Thing” from The Fantastic Four was Jewish. You
might catch him using a few Yiddish expressions.
Spider-Man had little
flickers of Jewish expressions that could just as easily have been New
You’ve written a novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, where
Yiddish plays a central part, which is unusual these days, to say the least.
What does Yiddish mean to you?
I did grow up hearing Yiddish a lot from older
relatives, great-aunts. We kids would hear Yiddish being spoken as a way for us
not to understand what was being said. Especially if they were saying something
sexual or racist, something they didn’t want us to hear. But it was also for
funny stories and jokes.
My great-aunt read the Yiddish Forward. I
remember looking at Hebrew characters, but it was an impenetrable text. A secret
code language that I was not meant to understand and was not taught, in order to
maintain its effectiveness as a secret code. It was not considered useful, but
it was a beloved remnant that was at the same time utterly worthless.
was strange to me. My family’s ambivalence colored my attitude toward it. It was
inaccessible to me, and not for me. At the same time, it contained something
incredibly precious. Also mysterious, peppered with expressions and epithets for
human character flaws. I got this sense this was a wonderful thing that you were
never going to learn. It was as if you had disappointed their expectation that
you weren’t a Yiddish scholar. But on the other hand you should never learn it
and you should study English and go to medical school.
Policemen’s Union grew out of a relatively minor flap over an essay I wrote for
Harper’s about a book called Say it in Yiddish, that was a phrasebook for
travelers published in 1958. I wondered what possible travel this could have
been intended for.
It seemed to be sort of an incantation to bring back
into being a modern late 20th-century country where the national language was
Yiddish. I started imagining what the author’s intentions had been, and possible
destinations if history had been a little or maybe a lot different, if Israel
had chosen Yiddish instead of Hebrew for its national language, or if the
Holocaust had never happened and the descendants of all those murdered people,
those untold millions of Yiddish speakers, were still alive.
a Yiddish phrasebook to Eastern Europe were like bringing a Welsh phrasebook to
And then I learned about a plan there was at one point to have
Jewish refugees settle in Alaska.
So this essay caused a little bit of a
flap in the online Yiddish world. There was a lister called Mendel who felt that
I was presuming that Yiddish was a dead language, which people were quick to
argue it was not. And they felt I was disrespectful to the authors. One of the
authors was Uriel Weinreich, the son of the founder of YIVO [Institute for
Jewish Research] and he was the great hope for Yiddish scholarship after the
war. What I wrote was offensive to a lot of people. I tried to see merit in the
arguments, when they were coherent enough. But then I had a counter impulse,
where I thought, if that bothered you wait till you see what I’m gonna do
As an interviewer for The Jerusalem Post, I’d be remiss if I didn’t
ask you when you’re planning to visit Israel.
Actually, there is a plan
in the works right now for me and my family to visit in the next 12
Ever thought of writing about Israel?
Absolutely. I have some
thoughts in that direction.