Jewish identity crisis

Joan Leegant’s first novel follows the lives of three young American Jews drawn separately to Jerusalem. In an interview, she discusses the growing disconnect between US Jewry and Israel.

311_settlement (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the Book of Ruth, after Naomi decides to return to Israel from Moab, she sends her erstwhile daughters-in-law back to their families with her blessing; but Ruth, one of the two, refuses to leave her. “Do not ask me to leave, or turn back from following you. For wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”
It is an eloquent expression of loyalty and fealty; but some might argue that such unstinting devotion can only come at a price.
Wherever You Go, the forthcoming novel from American writer Joan Leegant that takes its name from this verse, is a clear-eyed but evenhanded consideration of the multifaceted relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. The story of three young American Jews drawn separately to Jerusalem, it is a study of dissimilar lives drawn together unexpectedly by an act of violence, one that warns of the dangers of subscribing blindly to a cause; and from this, an exploration of the core tenets that form contemporary Jewish-American identity.
“I’ve been conscious of the nurture of American Jewish identity for most of my life,” Leegant explains when we meet in Tel Aviv, where she spends half the year, since taking up a position in 2007 as visiting writer at the Shaindy Rudoff Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University. “The organized Jewish community strives hard – sometimes too consciously – to impart a notion of what it means to be Jewish. But it is not a straightforward, easy package of information to give to people.”
For the three protagonists of Wherever You Go, the common challenge is one of engaging with contradictory notions of Jewishness, and the effect of this upon individual dilemmas of personal identity. Yona, struggling to free herself from an emotionally damaging relationship, comes to Jerusalem in an attempt to reconcile with her older sister. The two had become estranged a decade previously; the sister now lives in a West Bank settlement, a lifetime away from Yona’s cosmopolitan and liberal New York life.
There is Mark, an earnest Talmud teacher struggling with an existential crisis of faith. After religion gives his life a sense of purpose, he moves to Jerusalem; now temporarily in New York and staying with his wealthy parents – secular and hostile to his alien Orthodoxy – he struggles to reconcile waning faith with an undeniable but seemingly contradictory humanism.
And then there is Aaron. Son of a renowned Jewish writer – one who writes “emotionally inflammatory” Holocaust-based fiction to popular, if not critical acclaim – he drops out of college during a semester abroad in Jerusalem and, seeking a path to earn his father’s elusive approval, drifts into a fringe extremist movement committed to the notion of a greater Israel.
WHILE SET primarily in Israel, Wherever You Go is not a book about Israel per se but rather about American Jews and Israel. The relationship between country and Diaspora community has always been imbued with a powerful emotional resonance. While not overtly political, what emerges from the narrative is a sense of mismatch between the notion of Israel as embraced by the leaders of the American Jewish community – those of the post-war generation, who formed their attachment to Israel in the early years of the state – and the reality of contemporary Israeli life.
“Israel has played an important role for the American community, a source of pride even,” she says. “Israel felt like an exciting, interesting, brave, heroic place for American Jews.”
This construct, she notes, was rooted in a continued identification with the community’s immigrant roots – what she characterizes as a the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy. While the community largely established itself within the settled middle classes with time, the ethic of self-sufficiency remained; Israel’s ultimately successful struggle to establish itself resonated with this. “In this sense, Israel was a wonderful substitute to subscribe to...”
One observes that Leegant describes this relationship in the past tense. She is careful to define this distinction in terms of a gradual generational disconnect. “I think that this happened because American Jewish life did not alter its view of Israel, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. The image formed was... I suppose it was not terribly updated.”
For older generations – those who had shaped a personal Jewish identity around the notion of a determined nation-state that established itself against the odds, this dissonance mattered less. “People of my parents’ generation were very attached to Israel, by reason of its existence in itself, and in their lifetimes.”
But the younger generation of American Jews – those who grew up only knowing a prosperous, self-sufficient modern state – find it more difficult to recognize the Israel to which their parents are so attached. And it is the consequences of this disconnect that drives Leegant’s book, her first fulllength novel following her 2004 collection of short stories, An Hour in Paradise, which won the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize for Jewish American fiction and a L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award.
All three characters struggle to reconcile the impressions of Israel inherited from the generations before with the nuances of modern life in the country, a path that is brought home most forcefully with Aaron’s journey from naivety to extremism. Leegant proposes that responsibility for this lies with both communities. She mentions a recent, much commented upon article in the New York Review of Books by journalist Peter Beinart as an articulation of this disconnect.
“He taps into something true. The young generation of American Jews, for the most part, are progressive, left leaning...”
This has created a schism, diluting the unconditional support for Zionism that Israel could once take for granted from the Diaspora communities. “He observes that the organized community has not really wanted their [the younger generation’s] impression [of Israel] to evolve – the organized community asked them to check their liberalism at the door, but instead they checked their Zionism.”
LEEGANT CAME to writing after a career as a lawyer. Educated at Harvard and Boston University, she practiced law in a small firm and as a lawyer for the Department of Social Services until, after the birth of her two sons, she began to “inch her way into writing,” as she describes it, writing the short stories that eventually became her short story collection and teaching creative writing at Harvard. Wherever You Go experienced a long gestation – “I’m an extremely slow writer” – and was born from the ashes of an aborted earlier attempt, also set in Jerusalem but with a different set of characters and concerns.
The primary challenge she faced in writing Wherever You Go, as she describes it, was of ensuring that the voices of the characters as portrayed were authentic. The background was familiar to her – she had lived in Jerusalem for three years in the late 1970s, and has returned many times – but she was anxious to ensure that, especially in her depiction of extremist life and activity, she did not present a sensationalist perspective. She describes undertaking extended research into the establishment and evolution of the settler movement, trying to capture the correct pitch for the dialogue of the fringe movements.
“I took a lot in by osmosis, so by the time I wrote those sections I had something of the voices in my head. It was crucially important to strike a balance, to represent the language accurately without seeming inflammatory – even though the language would have been true in this situation...”
The appeal of fiction comes primarily, she says, from an internal push, her way of understanding the world. “I’ve always loved to write, it was my way of expressing my feelings, my perceptions.” By way of anecdote, she mentions a friend, a psychologist, who once wondered why she didn’t become a psychologist. “Well, I told her that to be a psychologist, one has to believe that people are capable of change,” she laughs. But one senses that she is being willfully self-deprecating, that she does believe that people are capable of change. If not, it would be hard to create such a sensitively observed work.