Besot­ted by lan­guage, I have thir­ty-two sin­gle-spaced pages of words that I checked for rep­e­ti­tion in my new nov­el, Evening. I like to think of the list as the final out­post of my per­fec­tion­ism, an attribute I’ve had to for­feit in all oth­er realms of my life — except writ­ing. (It is excep­tion­al­ly ill-suit­ed to the rais­ing of children.)

When you grow up in a fam­i­ly whose idea of social exchange is that every­one sits in the liv­ing room read­ing; when your moth­er cor­rects your friends’ gram­mar mis­takes often enough that they don’t want to come to your house; when your father insists that you look it up in the dic­tio­nary rather than just tell you (I did tell my kids, until Google made me redun­dant); and when you learn to regard with hor­ror the mis­tak­ing of tru­ism” for a true state­ment, you have no choice.

To quote my exas­per­at­ed son when he was young: Mom’s fam­i­ly’s idea of fun is sit­ting around the table com­par­ing their favorite gram­mat­i­cal errors.”

The first chap­ter of Evening came to me in an instant. It is the day before the funer­al of her sis­ter, and Eve is griev­ing the death of Tam in the liv­ing room of their mother’s house.

It took me years to fig­ure out why these two sis­ters fought so intense­ly in the weeks before Tam died that they stopped speak­ing. And to under­stand the secret Eve dis­cov­ers about Tam dur­ing shi­va, which forces Eve to change the way she sees her future.

Eve was not the only one who had to uncov­er the story.

But I, its cre­ator, was also fix­at­ed on the words with which to tell it. Some­times, star­ing at two words in a sin­gle line that both began with the syl­la­ble pre” I’d get woozy. How much is too much? And who else on earth would notice — or care?

I care. Fanat­i­cal­ly. Evening would not be done until I had checked every one of those words. My review­ing them, again and again, drove me crazy — but made me so hap­py. I thought of it like embroi­dery, del­i­cate work whose labor would not show.

There were words for which I found no sub­sti­tute. Or words whose replace­ment stuck out in the sen­tence more egre­gious­ly than the orig­i­nal, which I then reinstated.

In how many realms can one be entire­ly uncom­pro­mis­ing? Month after month, I was pro­pelled by a fierce ela­tion that off­set the tedi­um intrin­sic to my self-assigned task.

In how many realms can one be entire­ly uncom­pro­mis­ing? Month after month, I was pro­pelled by a fierce ela­tion that off­set the tedi­um intrin­sic to my self-assigned task.

Unlike oth­er forms of com­pul­sion, this one was fruitful.

I felt sanc­tioned not only because in this sin­gle pur­suit I could be unre­lent­ing, but because I was buoyed by the impri­matur of my pater­nal ances­tors, revered rab­binic com­men­ta­tors, one of whose names is so lus­trous it has bequeathed me an unearned def­er­ence in very learned circles.

My writ­ing can­not be found on the pages of the shulchan arukh, the Code of Jew­ish Law. Its sub­jects would not be alien — devo­tion, envy, trans­gres­sion — but its form and inten­tion belong to the twen­ty-first century.

And yet this lega­cy of inter­pre­ta­tion, the scrupu­lous pars­ing of mean­ing, the rev­er­ence for the fate­ful pow­er of lan­guage, the con­ver­sa­tion and argu­ment as if all the world depends on each detail: these ele­ments are mine as well.

And so I take my place among the beard­ed greats, in their debt for our shared con­vic­tion that let­ters are sacred and words invent the cosmos.

They may not have claimed me, but I emphat­i­cal­ly claim them.

Mean­while, I read the way I did as a child, immersed and unhear­ing, riv­et­ed by words so savory that I hoard them for what­ev­er I write next:









Nes­sa Rapoport’s nov­el, Evening, was a final­ist for the 2020 NJB Award in fic­tion. She is the author of the ground­break­ing nov­el, Prepar­ing for Sab­bath; A Wom­an’s Book of Griev­ing; and House on the Riv­er. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times and The Los Ange­les Times. She lives in New York with her hus­band, artist Tobi Kahn, and speaks fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish writ­ing and imagination.