May 27, 2015

My last two novels feature strong Jewish themes.  Yet when I speak to audiences, invariably someone expresses surprise that I am not religious. They are further surprised that I do not even attend synagogue services, yet my writing testifies to being “very Jewish.”

Indeed I am Jewish through and through, but in Israeli fashion, which is vastly different from the American version.

I was born in Tel Aviv to a secular family that, like the most Israelis, did not practice religion. My parents played Canasta with friends on Yom Kippur, while snacking. My mother felt no dissonance between her absence of faith and her enjoyment of cantorial singing.

We never doubted out Jewishness because the country possessed then–and still does–an unmistakably Jewish culture. Even minor holidays are celebrated, almost reflexively: On Shavuot, an agrarian holiday rooted in the history of the Temple destroyed 2,000 years ago, people get together for a festive dairy meal of blintzes. Passover Seder is the most celebrated family event, often with the full reading of the Hagadah–in Hebrew, of course. The mitzvah of inviting those who do not have a Seder became a collective national mission when, in the 1990s, Russians Jews emigrated in droves. Tens of thousands of Israeli families opened their homes to include them in their Seders, thus introducing Russian Jews to traditions they had never experienced before. These days, even if most of my friends do not light the Shabbat candles, it would be inconceivable for their adult children not to show up for Friday dinner. If either party misses it, they make up for it by sharing a late heavy lunch on Shabbat.

In the shopping mall, every store sports a mezuzah on the threshold. Upon finishing combat leadership training, IDF gifts a bible to the each new commander. 

I studied the Bible all of my 12 years at school, plus a year of Talmud, all mandatory by the secular state curriculum. I loved the richness of language and poetic rhythm of the Bible, a book of exquisite literature that was never presented as the word of God, even as He was present on every page. The Bible was a book of living history that was never far either when I dined at a restaurant at the port of Jaffa, from where Jonah had tried to escape God’s mission, or when, 20 minutes out of Tel-Aviv, I passed by the Valley of Elah, where David had defeated Goliath. From sixth grade on, I won Jeopardy-like contests in which I quoted passages and identified dialogue lines, yet, when visiting France after my junior year in high school and asked about prayers, I claimed to know none. It never occurred to me that the dozens of passages I could cite in my sleep were actually sung as prayers, because I had never been to a synagogue.

When a French host said that I belonged to the Chosen People, it confused me. Yes, it was in the Bible, but who took it seriously? Since God was not relevant to our lives, neither His wrath nor His benevolence had a place in our psyche. 

And then there were the Holocaust survivors living all around me. If the subject came up, many of my friends’ parents claimed that “God died in Auschwitz.” And while the Nazis were slaughtering our people, my Sabra parents’ and grandparents’ generations cemented the building blocks that created the miracle that became the State of Israel. Many died in the process, and therefore we resented the Orthodox sector that gave God all the credit. The more extreme among them, the ultra-Orthodox, even denied our right for a state until the messiah arrived. No. This was our Jewish country, rich with our new culture of a revived, beautiful language, its own new songs celebrating every milestone, starting with the first swiveling sprinkle head that brought water to the desert. Our new humor was fed by the stumbling nascent bureaucracy, the shared experience of military service with its idiosyncrasies, and the dozens of accents with which our language was being spoken. In the absence of Hebrew curses, we borrowed them from Arabic, Russian and Polish. We baked under the hot Israeli sun in our shorts, took juicy bites from our home-grown oranges, and defended our new country with our lives—both for ourselves and for the world Jewry.

My protagonist in HOTEL MOSCOW, Brooke Fielding, like many American Jews I’ve met since moving to New York decades ago, felt lost when it came to her Jewish identity. For her, having grown up in the sad home of Holocaust survivors, Jewish history had no depth prior to the 1940s; it was too present, too recent, too painful. Her parents’ Holocaust experiences shadowed her. Her mother refused to discuss God until “He apologized for what he did to us.” When Brooke sought spirituality by visiting a synagogue on Yom Kippur, she was uninspired by the hymns’ fawning to God and His justice while fearing His wrath. She was all too familiar with both His justice and His wrath. There was nowhere else she could turn for spirituality, as New Age spiritualism–shamanism, “sacred” scarves, Goddess Earth ceremonies, or mystical stones–seemed pagan. I sent Brooke to Moscow, where she found a partial answer, not in faith so much as in her Jewish values.

What, then, is a secular Jew? Albert Einstein identified himself as a Jew while rejecting the notion of God. He had been influenced by Baruch Spinoza, a Portuguese-Dutch Jewish philosopher who denied the existence of God as a separate entity from the universe. But Spinoza believed that God had created that universe, thus recognizing Him. In his writing, Sigmund Freud disdained religious beliefs, yet wrote to a Jewish colleague, “If you do not let your son grow up as a Jew, you will deprive him of a source of energy that cannot be replaced by anything else.” Golda Meir, when asked if she believed in God, responded, “I believe in the Jewish people, and the Jewish people believe in God.”

I, too, believe in the Jewish people, and am committed to their future while preserving their past.

Talia Carner’s fourth novel, HOTEL MOSCOW, will be released HarperCollins on June 2nd. It is the story of an American woman who travels to Russia shortly after the fall of communism, becomes embroiled in investigating a business crime, and when facing anti-Semitism, comes to terms with her parents’ Holocaust legacy and her own Jewish identity. For more about the author and the book, please check www.TaliaCarner.com

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