When I was in college, my aunt and uncle kept an open door for Shabbat. Three blocks away from my dorm, on Friday nights, I had a standing invitation to raucous, spirited conversation at a table laden with apricot chicken thighs and warm challah. As they will not let me forget — thirty years later — I rarely came.
When I did show up, it was because I had a new romance. My taste in boyfriends was notoriously terrible. Many people feel their young relatives could do better, of course, but I had a special talent — criminal records, no fixed address, drug habits. I would appear wearing too much eyeliner and dragging my latest stray, as if seeking approval. The only one who ever received anything like the third degree was the one I married.
I was in what Herman Wouk, in his 1955 sentimental classic Marjorie Morningstar, calls “a black woods.” On one side of these woods is a romantic fantasy. In Marjorie’s day, this took the form of a top-flight Jewish wedding; in mine, it had become more amorphous. I wanted love, but I didn’t have a very good idea of what that might look like. Desperate people seemed to need me, and that felt close enough. On some level, I knew better — I brought my unsuitable partners to Shabbat not for approval, but for something else it took me years to find, something I would eventually call wisdom.
Wouk’s novel falters in the glare of 2020. It plays Yiddish and Chinese accents for laughs. Three entire chapters transpire in Mexican brownface, and it cannot imagine a future for its ambitious heroine beyond tragedy. In one respect, however, it is ahead of its time: it articulates the intensity of young women’s desire. After necking sessions with her bacon-gobbling paramour, Noel Airman, Marjorie Morningstar, raised by devout immigrant parents, is completely without resources to comprehend her feelings:
“She would wake as though out of hypnosis…with almost no memory of what had been happening to her, but with a sense of shame and a black terror at this utter loss of self…it was like insanity.”
This is what exists on the other side of Wouk’s black woods, why the girl is so lost on her way to that bridal fairytale. Erotic feelings can be like altered states, a dizziness inside of which rational decisions feel impossible. This is for adults; for young people, they can be far more bewildering. With rare exceptions, we refuse even to admit girls have them.
In the novel I wrote about this time and theme in my own life, The Likely World, the narrator Mellie is no better equipped than Marjorie was to navigate between her romantic daydreams and the new sensations from her body. Adults in Mellie’s day are better at talking about consent, but, Mellie says, “Also harm is done by not talking about the other, the impulses that come from ourselves, from the things we invite…I felt it and did not even know what it was, did not know how to call it desire…That was how desire got power over me, by being unacknowledged.”
I hadn’t read Marjorie Morningstar before I wrote The Likely World, but the themes the novels share make me feel as if I tapped into a larger narrative. Like Marjorie, Mellie falls in love at a Jewish summer camp with a charismatic and stunted artist. Older, wiser, better guided — these young women might have moved on, but without a framework both girls remain in the grip of these damaging affairs long past their natural season. The heartbreak that follows — Wouk suggests, and I believe — is in part the result of the altered state of adolescent arousal.
Older, wiser, better guided — these young women might have moved on, but without a framework both girls remain in the grip of these damaging affairs long past their natural season.
One great difference between my novel and Wouk’s is that I evoke this state through the device of a literal drug; the drug, called cloud in my novel, is fictitious, but it might easily be a manifestation of Wouk’s black woods. It is in moments of sexual bewilderment that Mellie reaches for this substance, which induces short-term memory loss quite akin to Marjorie’s “Utter loss of self” — Mellie forgets what has happened, but the damage remains.. She tells us, “It is me I’ve put through this night, even if the cloud allows me to deny it.”
Another respect in which The Likely World differs from Marjorie Morningstar is that it includes the voice of an older narrator straining towards a better life. This is the Marjorie we never get to hear. Although we encounter her when she is old and gray, we do so through the eyes of a former admirer to whom she is now but “A shell” of herself. It’s not easy to imagine the journey from the black woods to mature womanhood, but I felt that it was important to see how girls might reach it and by what means in my novel.
In the black woods, Noel Airman tells Marjorie she is alone. She “Can find no guidance anywhere. Her parents pretend she has no problem. Religion gives her milksoppy advice…” Noel is right that advice is useless — what is wanted is something more expansive, more powerful, which we might call wisdom.
It exists in the margins of Wouk’s story, but for Marjorie it is unreachable. Wisdom is embodied in Uncle Samson-Aron who recognizes his niece’s coming of age without being judgmental about her dalliances. Wouk also evokes wisdom in the beauty of his Passover and Bar Mitzvah scenes. Marjorie experiences a stab of jealousy at the latter. Bnai Mitzvah, in her day, aren’t for girls. These elements point us to what is missing to help Marjorie reach a healthy adulthood.
I’m a college professor now, and I talk about it with my students: the dearth of wisdom in our world. We read Walter Benjamin, who laments the loss of storytelling as a means of passing meaning from one human to the next, which has been supplanted by “information.” I ask my students to consider where they find wisdom, but I don’t tell them exactly what I mean by that. Instead, I teach them how to read.
I ask my students to consider where they find wisdom, but I don’t tell them exactly what I mean by that. Instead, I teach them how to read.
Wisdom is all around us, but it is cluttered by noise. It’s like my aunt and uncle’s Shabbat dinners when I was in college — close by, but still improbably hard for me to reach. In The Likely World, it is present in the form of many unperceived stories, waiting for us to listen.
Towards the end of The Likely World, the older Mellie emerges at last from her dependence on cloud. At this moment, she is in a recovery meeting, and a rabbi stands to speak. “In our faith, we believe there are thirty-six Tsaddikim Nistarim. These are hidden people, righteous people who appear at critical moments, and save the rest of us idiots from ourselves,” she says. “I believe I must have met each and every one of them to make it here today.”
I took a long time to come to Judaism. But slowly, by many hands, I found my way to a religious practice that is meaningful to me. The first time, as an adult, that I sat in a temple I belonged to and heard our beloved rabbi chant the sh’ma, I wept. That day, I arrived at a first glimpse of what G‑d might be for; you could bring G‑d the problems you could not solve with human will — you came to him in your black woods. Like most insights, it was obvious, but it took years for me to absorb it.
My daughter is preparing for her bat mitzvah, in a world where her community now visits through a screen. She faces a host of new problems navigating her ascension to adulthood, many of them arriving through that device. I don’t have much more in the way of answers than Wouk offered Marjorie, but my daughter, like my students, is learning how to read. The same uncle who hosted my occasional visits long ago will work with her on her Torah portion, help her articulate its wisdom. I cannot make those hands reach for my daughter, but I have raised her to look for them. When she stands before us, next May, we will also listen to her.
Melanie Conroy-Goldman is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Hobart and William Smith Colleges where she was a founding director of the Trias Residency for Writers, which has hosted such notables as Mary Gaitskill, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Jeff VanderMeer. Her fiction has been published in journals such as Southern Review and StoryQuarterly, in anthologies from Morrow and St. Martin’s, and online at venues such as McSweeney’s. She also volunteers at a maximum security men’s prison with the Cornell Prison Education Program. Her work is represented by Bill Clegg at the Clegg Agency. She lives in Ithaca, New York with her husband, daughter, and step-daughters.