An old buddy from high school suggested I read from my newest novel Journey at his synagogue's book club in Florida. The stipulations were that the writer must be Jewish and the book needed to have a Jewish theme. Well, I am Jewish, so that was one problem solved. However, I couldn't honestly or dishonestly say there was anything Jewish about my book.
He said to think about it. I did, and here is what came to mind:
"The Influence of Judaism in Journey".
While I cannot pretend that “Journey” is a book about Jews it is, as is all my work, an example of the guiding principle of my entire life – Tikkun Olam – my attempt to help repair the world. My principles, my concern for social justice, I believe, were fostered from childhood. I’ve been places in this world where Jews do not go, although I have never denied my heritage, in fact, have drawn the attention of others who have never spoken to or seen a Jewish man before. The list includes Native American villages in Alaska, isolated villages in the Caribbean, travels in Europe, travels through rural and small town America, various Marine Corps bases and many more areas where Jews were non-existent or scarce. I considered myself a representative of an ancient people whose goal was Tikkun Olam. I was also, as a young man, the only Jewish grunt in my platoon in the Marine Corps. As such, in 1960, I was the only Jew in my platoon to vote for JFK when everyone else was for Nixon. I believed JFK stood for the humane values given to me by a Jewish upbringing. I went to Hebrew college in Baltimore, was a member of Habonim, attended Camp Moshava where, if you wanted to eat, you had to speak Hebrew. Imagine playing softball where “batter up” had to be in Hebrew! I was also the only Jewish Caucasian guy who matriculated at an historical Black college during the civil rights movement. I knew that many original founders of the NAACP were Jewish, and I wanted to be like them. I admired Jewish thinkers like Hannah Arendt, writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ibn Gabriol, a brilliant poet from 11th century Spain. I wanted to be like all of them. I did not want my life to be riddled by trivia.
So, why did I write “Journey”, a story set way before the Civil War, 1833, New Mexico Territory, with slavery as its background? I never thought this through before but I believe it was because I took the lessons of the Seder seriously. My people had been slaves, had been treated cruelly, had been oppressed time and time again throughout history. Yet, what did God say to Israel when his people cheered the drowning of Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea? He asked us to not cheer their misfortune, to not revel over their deaths. Every one of those soldiers had mothers, too. Those words have never left me, and then, of course, there were the pogroms and the Holocaust. Once again my people were slaves and victims. How could I accept this but deny justice and equality to others? Because I believe that racial injustice is the sin we need to confront, because I believe that until we know this history, until we grasp the horror of it, we will continue to wreak havoc and injustice on others. I was taught to repair the world if I could, and so I wrote about what happens when injustice is the law of the land. “Journey” may not be a Jewish story except I believe it is. It is a story infused, in my mind, with the guiding principle of Tikkun Olam. Whatever writing I do from now on, how many years I have left, will be guided by my Jewish faith and those principles. I hope my stories help to make that clear.