Ear­li­er this week, Joshua Henkin talked about how he came to write his lat­est nov­el, his  father and grand­fa­ther, and explored the ques­tion: Are you a Jew­ish writer?”. He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I want to talk a lit­tle more about my fam­i­ly of ori­gin. My father, as I men­tioned in an ear­li­er post, was the son of an Ortho­dox rab­bi who lived on the Low­er East Side for fifty years and nev­er learned Eng­lish. My father him­self, by con­trast, even­tu­al­ly left the world of the yeshi­va. He went to Har­vard Law School, then fought in World War Two, and when he returned he made a career for him­self, first at the State Depart­ment and the U.N. and then in acad­e­mia — he taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia and Colum­bia Law Schools for a total of fifty years. He remained Ortho­dox until he died, yet he had hard­ly any Ortho­dox Jew­ish friends, hard­ly any obser­vant Jew­ish friends at all, and I sus­pect many of the peo­ple whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dim­ly aware of the fact that he was observant.

There are, I believe, many rea­sons for this. The woman my father mar­ried, my moth­er, is Jew­ish, but she was raised in a nonob­ser­vant home, and though she com­pro­mised in rais­ing my broth­ers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sab­bath for the sake of the fam­i­ly; my broth­ers and I were sent to Jew­ish day school and Jew­ish sum­mer camp), she nev­er her­self became obser­vant, and the world in which my moth­er lived — the sec­u­lar world — became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a pri­vate, mod­est man. He wasn’t some­one to flaunt his reli­gious obser­vance or any­thing else about him­self, and so when he was say­ing Kad­dish for his father in 1973 and he con­vened a dai­ly min­cha minyan at his office at Colum­bia, I, who was only nine at the time, already under­stood that this was unusu­al for him to be so open­ly, pub­licly Jew­ish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn—be a Jew at home, a human being on the street — and it’s only now, look­ing back from my van­tage point as an adult, that I find some­thing strange, or at least note­wor­thy, in an Ortho­dox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto. 

I was think­ing about this a cou­ple of weeks ago when I received an invi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate in an authors pan­el at Hunter Col­lege. I would describe my own rela­tion­ship to Jew­ish prac­tice as idio­syn­crat­i­cal­ly obser­vant, and among these idio­syn­crasies is the fact that I don’t trav­el on the Sab­bath but if I can get myself some­where with­out trav­el­ing, I’m hap­py to engage in con­duct that, while not tech­ni­cal­ly Sab­bath-vio­lat­ing, isn’t, as they say, shabbes­dik. The pan­el was held on a Sat­ur­day, and shabbes­dik or not, it isn’t par­tic­u­lar­ly sane to walk eight miles from Park Slope to Hunter Col­lege and eight miles back, all to par­tic­i­pate in an authors pan­el. But then my new book was com­ing out in less than two weeks, and when new your book is com­ing out in less than two weeks you tend to do a lot of things that are nei­ther shabbes­dik nor sane. 

As I was walk­ing through the rain to Hunter, I was put in mind of anoth­er such inci­dent more then twen­ty-five years ago when I, about to become a col­lege junior, spent the sum­mer in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and one Fri­day night I was invit­ed to a par­ty some­where in sub­ur­ban Mary­land, and I pre­vailed upon a friend of mine, her­self not even Jew­ish, let alone Sab­bath-obser­vant, to walk with me to the par­ty. It was a sev­en-mile walk if we fol­lowed the direc­tions cor­rect­ly, but we didn’t fol­low the direc­tions cor­rect­ly, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we end­ed up at the par­ty at one in the morn­ing, where we didn’t even know the host (the par­ty was being held by a friend of a friend), and we end­ed up of hav­ing to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their liv­ing room floor.

What les­son can be drawn from this oth­er than that I, at age twen­ty, was will­ing to go to ridicu­lous lengths to attend a par­ty? Per­haps not much. But it occurs to me that in cer­tain ways I was my father’s son — my father who nev­er would have done what I had done (he didn’t like par­ties), but who was of a gen­er­a­tion that, for bet­ter or worse, didn’t wear its Jew­ish­ness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in syn­a­gogue, and when he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frank­furter he would on Fri­day nights secret­ly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t trav­el home on the Sab­bath. He’d act­ed sim­i­lar­ly a few years ear­li­er when, at Har­vard Law School, he had a final sched­uled for Shavuot, and he hired a proc­tor to fol­low him around for forty-eight hours, and then, when the hol­i­day was over, he took the exam. 

Joshua Henk­in’s new nov­el, The World With­out You, is now avail­able. He is the author of the nov­els Mat­ri­mo­ny, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swim­ming Across the Hud­son, a Los Ange­les Times Notable Book. His short sto­ries have been pub­lished wide­ly, cit­ed for dis­tinc­tion in Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries, and broad­cast on NPR’s Select­ed Shorts.” He lives in Brook­lyn, NY, and directs the MFA pro­gram in Fic­tion Writ­ing at Brook­lyn Col­lege.

Joshua Henkin is the author of Swim­ming Across the Hud­son, Mat­ri­mo­ny, and The World With­out You, win­ner of the Edward Lewis Wal­lant Award for Jew­ish Amer­i­can Fic­tion and final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. He was raised as an Ortho­dox Jew on Man­hat­tan’s Upper West Side and now lives in Brook­lyn with his wife, two daugh­ters, and their gigan­tic New­found­land puppy.