Thane Rosen­baum is the author of the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed nov­els, The Stranger With­in Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Sec­ond Hand Smoke, and the nov­el-in-sto­ries, Eli­jah Vis­i­ble, which received the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award for the best book of Jew­ish Amer­i­can fic­tion. His newest nov­el, How Sweet It Is!, is out this week from Man­del Vilar Press. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

Years ago the lit­er­ary the­o­rist Geof­frey Hart­man, who was work­ing with a doc­u­men­tary film­mak­er from Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, con­tact­ed me about a very unique and wor­thy project. A donor had emerged who want­ed to film the world’s great Jew­ish fic­tion writ­ers in con­ver­sa­tion with oth­er writ­ers. The idea was to pair up two writ­ers (who might also be friends), and film them in con­ver­sa­tion, shot over two days, dis­cussing the books and lives that were the sub­ject of each film.

Geof­frey explained that they didn’t yet know the ulti­mate use for this under­tak­ing, but at the very least Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty would pos­sess with­in its archives a trea­sure trove of lit­er­ary con­ver­sa­tions from the world’s great men and women of Jew­ish letters.

Saul Bel­low, Philip Roth, Cyn­thia Ozick, Nadine Gordimer, Imre Kertesz, and Ivan Kli­ma were already in the can, as they say. The next sub­ject was going to be E.L. Doc­torow, and he and Geof­frey won­dered whether I would agree to be the one ask­ing Edgar (the E” in E.L.”) the ques­tions on camera.

Of course, I would. Edgar and I had become friends over the years, hav­ing even spent a few Thanks­giv­ings togeth­er. But this was not mere­ly an act of friend­ship I was being called upon to per­form. This project was more ambi­tious than two Jews talk­ing about the weath­er. My job was to engage Edgar in a live­ly dis­cus­sion of his work, and how it was informed by his life — a Jew­ish life, albeit one that was not read­i­ly dis­cernible from read­ing his novels.

Jew­ish nov­el­ists from the Gold­en Age of Amer­i­can fic­tion — Bel­low, Roth, Ozick, Bernard Mala­mud, Joseph Heller, Stan­ley Elkins, Nor­man Mail­er, Grace Paley, E.L. Doc­torow, Chaim Potok, and var­i­ous oth­ers — had much in com­mon, but with few excep­tions, most shared a pre­dis­po­si­tion to deny that there was any Jew­ish influ­ences or con­nec­tion to their work. In fact, most dis­avowed the label Jew­ish-Amer­i­can” altogether.

In my friend­ships with some of these writ­ers, I have per­son­al­ly heard Bel­low and Ozick, and even more con­tem­po­rary writ­ers such as Rebec­ca Gold­stein and Alle­gra Good­man, strug­gle with plac­ing a Jew­ish” tag to their lit­er­ary output.

Doc­torow was, to my mind, an even more extreme case. After all, unlike many of the oth­ers, he was a best­selling nov­el­ist — lit­er­ary, for sure, but also wide­ly read, and not espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar among Jews. More­over, unlike a Mala­mud, Ozick or Roth, teas­ing out the Jew­ish bona fides of his work was no sim­ple task. He was not demon­stra­bly Jew­ish in his fic­tion. (He also ate ham on Thanks­giv­ing, but that’s anoth­er sto­ry altogether.)

Yet, as the reign­ing god­fa­ther of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, Jew­ish char­ac­ters were not entire­ly absent from his work: the Isaac­sons were prox­ies for the Rosen­bergs in The Book of Daniel; Jew­ish gang­ster Dutch Schultz head­lined Bil­ly Bath­gate; World’s Fair, a per­son­al mem­oir of sorts, fea­tured a fam­i­ly that was clear­ly Jew­ish; a Recon­struc­tion­ist Rab­bi occu­pied the moral cen­ter of City of God; and, final­ly, Rag­time, his best known nov­el, fea­tured Har­ry Hou­di­ni, Emma Gold­man, and Sig­mud Freud.

In re-read­ing Rag­time in prepa­ra­tion of our talk, I real­ized that I had final­ly fig­ured out what to do with a chap­ter in my own life that I had want­ed to fic­tion­al­ize. I grew up in Mia­mi Beach, Flori­da, and 1972 was a water­shed year for this shin­ing penin­su­la along the south­ern coast­line of Flori­da. It was as col­or­ful a time and place, and filled with as live­ly an assort­ment of his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters as Doc­torow had to draw upon in his homage to Rag­time in the ear­ly days of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry New York. Like Rag­time, I had in mind a book where the main char­ac­ter was the time peri­od itself, and the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures that pop­u­lat­ed it. 

That’s how How Sweet It Is! took its first imag­i­nary steps toward becom­ing a nov­el of its own. 

Thane Rosen­baum’s arti­cles, reviews and essays appear fre­quent­ly in many nation­al pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The New York Times, Wall Street Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Post, and The Huff­in­g­ton Post. He is a Senior Fel­low at New York Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Cul­ture & Soci­ety. For more infor­ma­tion vis­it http://​www​.thanerosen​baum​.com/.

Relat­ed Content:

Thane Rosen­baum is an essay­ist, nov­el­ist, and law pro­fes­sor. His arti­cles, reviews, and essays appear fre­quent­ly in The New York Times, The Wall Street Jour­nal, The Wash­ing­ton Post, Los Ange­les Times, CNN, The Dai­ly Beast, and oth­er nation­al pub­li­ca­tions. He serves as the Legal Ana­lyst for CBS News Radio, and mod­er­ates The Talk Show” at the 92nd Street Y, an annu­al series on cul­ture, world events, and pol­i­tics. He has been invit­ed to give pub­lic lec­tures around the world. He is a Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor at Touro Col­lege, where he directs the Forum on Law, Cul­ture & Soci­ety. Rosen­baum is the author of Pay­back: The Case for Revenge, and The Myth of Moral Jus­tice: Why Our Legal Sys­tem Fails to Do What’s Right, and is the edi­tor of the anthol­o­gy Law Lit: From Atti­cus Finch to The Prac­tice: A Col­lec­tion of Great Writ­ing about the Law. He has also pub­lished five nov­els includ­ing The Golems of Gotham and Sec­ond Hand Smoke.