The amazing adventures of Michael Chabon

The novelist dishes on Jewish identity, offending Yiddish purists and why Judaism and comics go together.

Michael Chabon 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Michael Chabon 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
His 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 Stories.
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).
His next 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 work.
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 work.
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 rave reviews.
He is married to Israeli-born writer Ayelet Waldman and lives in Berkeley, California, with their four children.
Were you 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.
But what 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.
The 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 observance.
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 services].
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 presence.
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.
Like 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.
It was 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 writer?
I lost the connection to Jewishness really after my bar mitzva into my early 20s.
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 important.
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.
But 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 higher level.
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 school.
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 Golem.
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 Yorkisms.
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.
It 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.
The Yiddish 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.
If bringing a Yiddish phrasebook to Eastern Europe were like bringing a Welsh phrasebook to England.
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 next.
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 months.
Ever thought of writing about Israel?
Absolutely. I have some thoughts in that direction.