Ear­li­er this week, Amy Got­tlieb described the beau­ti­ful, per­cep­tive” women around her mother’s kitchen table who inspired The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble. Amy is blog­ging here all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I arrived in Man­hat­tan in 1982, fresh from a master’s pro­gram in com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture for which I had writ­ten a the­sis on ice as a metaphor for the writ­ten word in One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude. As a young writer, I was inspired by Gar­cia Márquez’s epic mas­ter­piece: the Buen­dia fam­i­ly of Macon­do sug­gest­ed the crazy log­ic of my own Jew­ish fam­i­ly. I had a grand­moth­er who for­got the mean­ing of words, a grand­fa­ther whose home­made borscht turned a mys­ti­cal shade of red, and a cousin who pre­dict­ed the exact moment I would arrive at her vil­lage in south­ern France, unan­nounced; in one of our more sur­re­al episodes, my father hid the afikomen at a Passover seder nine months before he died, and it fell out of the fire­place on a Yom Kip­pur after­noon two years lat­er. I set out to write a Jew­ish ver­sion of Macon­do based on my family’s implau­si­ble sto­ries, and the men­tor I iden­ti­fied was Isaac Bashe­vis Singer.

I was liv­ing in a fur­nished room on West 86th Street, a few blocks from Singer’s apart­ment. I began to write him a note of intro­duc­tion, fan­ta­siz­ing about shar­ing a veg­e­tar­i­an meal at the Famous Dairy Restau­rant, when I read an inter­view in which he said, If Tol­stoy lived down the street I wouldn’t try to go see him. I would rather read what he writes.” I took this as a sign, tore up the note, and kept read­ing his work.

In 1991 I was new­ly mar­ried, liv­ing in Berke­ley, and spent a month off-the-grid at an artists colony in the south­ern Cal­i­for­nia desert. At night I would lie awake in my cab­in, lis­ten­ing to the coy­otes howl in the canyon, and dur­ing the day I worked furi­ous­ly on my first nov­el, which began in a shtetl and cen­tered on a love affair between dis­tant cousins — based loose­ly on a what-if sto­ry in my family’s his­to­ry. When my retreat was over, I made my way to the air­port and picked up a news­pa­per with the head­line: I. B. Singer, Nar­ra­tor of Jew­ish Folk­ways, Dies.” I mourned him on the plane and then wrote three words in my jour­nal: Your turn now. 

A few years lat­er, my first son was born, and I decid­ed to put my flawed first nov­el in a draw­er, con­vinced I could do bet­ter. I began to make a liv­ing as a Judaica edi­tor, which gave me a foun­da­tion in Jew­ish texts. At the same time, I adopt­ed many oth­er lit­er­ary men­tors: Toni Mor­ri­son, Grace Paley, Michael Ondaat­je, Vir­ginia Woolf, Mar­i­lynne Robin­son, J.M. Coet­zee, Anne Michaels, Amos Oz — and my read­ing bloomed in a thou­sand direc­tions, cross-pol­li­nat­ing gen­res, jump­ing from the ancient to the modern.

Two weeks before the pub­li­ca­tion of The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble, I invit­ed my Rosh Chodesh group to serve as its first book club.The con­ver­sa­tion veered in many sur­pris­ing direc­tions, land­ing on how Rosalie’s con­flict isn’t expressed in ways that seem aligned with con­ven­tion­al notions of post­war Jew­ish-Amer­i­can guilt, and sug­gests a com­mon­al­i­ty with works of mod­ern Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. This com­ment prompt­ed me to revis­it I. B. Singer’s fic­tion. I picked up Ene­mies: A Love Sto­ry and short sto­ries I hadn’t thought about in decades. I returned to In My Father’s Court and not­ed the par­al­lels between Singer’s ear­ly years eaves­drop­ping on the adults who sought rab­binic coun­sel from his father and my own mem­o­ries of lis­ten­ing to my moth­er and her friends at our kitchen table. I began to unrav­el the Hasidic threads in Singer’s work, as expressed by char­ac­ters wrestling with exis­ten­tial doubt and phys­i­cal desire. 

Singer’s influ­ence was alive in my nov­el, after all. My men­tor had returned to me, hid­den for a time, and then revealed — just like the afikomen that slipped out of the fire­place that Yom Kip­pur afternoon. 

Amy Got­tliebs fic­tion and poet­ry have been pub­lished in many lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies. She has received a Lit­er­ary Fel­low­ship and Res­i­den­cy from the Bronx Coun­cil on the Arts, and an Arts Fel­low­ship from the Drisha Insti­tute for Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion. She lives in New York City.

Relat­ed Content:

Amy Got­tlieb is the author of the nov­el The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble, which was a final­ist for the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award, Harold Rib­alow Prize, and a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. Her poet­ry has appeared in On Being, Ilan­ot Review, One (Jacar Press), SWWIM, Blooms­bury Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Amer­i­can Poet­ry, and else­where. She lives in the Bronx.