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September 26, 2007

GUEST POST: Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin's Grandson On How His Family Shaped His Writing

Matrimony_cover Joshua Henkin is the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, the leading American haredi halakhic decisor (i.e., the gadol hador) before Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Beside his yichus, Joshua Henkin is also a writer and teacher of creative writing. His new novel, Matrimony, is about to be released by Pantheon:

“Radiates the kind of offbeat shoulder-shrugging charm that made Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh so memorable. . . .  [Matrimony] gets to you and stays with you.” –Kirkus Reviews

Joshua Henkin wrote the following Guest Post for FailedMessiah.com readers:

    Although the book tour for my new novel, Matrimony, doesn’t begin until the middle of October, I had my first event the other night—a panel held at the Museum of the City of New York called “Writing in Jewish.” Moderated by Alana Newhouse, the arts editor of the Forward, the panel of four Jewish writers addressed the question of what it means to be a Jewish writer, whether we even consider ourselves Jewish writers, and how being Jewish affects and inflects our writing.

    For me, this is a hard question to answer.  I was raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  I went to the Ramaz School and to camp Ramah, the Conservative movement’s camp.  My mother was raised in a Reform Jewish home, whereas my father was the son of a famous  Orthodox rabbi—a gadol ha’dor, in fact.  To this day, the discovery that I am the grandson of Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin has gotten me more invitations to Shabbat meals than I can count. 

    I grew up with a mixture of influences—my mother, who, though she kept a kosher home once she married my father, nonetheless remained non-observant when she was on her own; my father, who stayed frum, but who went to Harvard Law School and became a law professor at Columbia and who lives squarely in the secular world.  This is a man who received a medal of bravery in World War II for convincing a band of Germans to lay down their arms while he himself was unarmed.  And how did my father do this?  By speaking to the German soldiers in his own first language—Yiddish!  This was 1944, mind you.  And years later, when I was at a secular nursery school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and Santa Claus was visiting school, there was a moment of silence, and then a voice peeped out:  “Who’s Santa Claus?”  That was me.  Yet the friends I played ball with in Riverside Park, most of them weren’t Jewish.

    So I was shaped by a wide array of influences.  Today, I’m married to a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and in my own idiosyncratic way I remain observant.  But how does this translate into my writing, particularly since I write fiction?  I don't think of myself as Jewish or as anything in particular when I sit down to write a novel.  I think about my characters—some of them frum, some of them not frum, some of them not Jewish at all.  Being Jewish on some level probably affects everything I do, but it’s not something I’m conscious of as I do those things, particularly when what I’m doing is writing fiction.

    One of the things I said during the panel is that, as a novelist, I am very interested in time, and perhaps that grows out of my relationship to time when I was a child. I associated time with the start and end of Shabbat, how everything is timed down to the minute.  Apparently, when I was six or seven and it was the night we switched to Daylight Saving Time, I said to my parents, "Do non-Jews switch their clocks, too?" But is a concern with time a singularly Jewish phenomenon? Is every writer who is interested in time therefore a Jewish writer?

There was a lot of talk on the panel about whether Jews are outsiders or insiders, how Jewish literature has changed over time, and, as would be expected, we didn't come to a consensus. I myself am suspicious of measuring Jewish writing and Jewish writers by the Jewish content of their novels. My first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, was very directly a novel about Jewish identity.  Matrimony, though it has some material about Jewish identity, is less directly about that subject. But is it a less Jewish novel? I don’t think it is.  It’s just a different kind of Jewish novel.  And could it have been written by a non-Jewish writer?  It could have, I suppose, but that non-Jew would have had to know some Hebrew, not to mention have some knowledge of halacha, since these things come into play in the book.  Every character, every novel is different, and the fiction writer must take what comes to him and run with it; above all, he must be true to his characters. That, to my mind, is the fiction writer's principal task.


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There is no such word in the English language as "decisor" yet this word is used all the time in Jewish publications. Look it up in Merriam Webster Unabridged...No Such Word.

"Decisor" is a made up word for posek. Just because it isn't (currently) in the dictionary only means that you can't use it in Scrabble. Go find something else to complain about.

There is actually a French word "decideur", but it is almost exclusively used in a political sense.

The definitive dictionary is the multivolume (and online) Oxford Dictionary. New words are added all the time (they are called neologisms). Maybe "decisor" is already there, or will be.

I really liked "Swimming Across the Hudson" when I read it 10 years ago. I see how the father in that book is based on Henkin's description of his own father in this post. I recommended it to my girlfriend-at the time though, and she pretty much detested "Swimming". No wonder she wasn't my bashert! I also spent time between NY and SF at the time, the cities where the book's plot takes place, and recall questioning so many aspects of my Jewish identity, like the characters, so I suppose that is why the book resonated for me at the time. I am glad to see Henkin has a new book, and I hope it is good and succeeds.

As for "decisor", it would have been interesting if Bush said "I am the posek"

very interesting. I had no idea Eliyashev's son was OTD, but am not surprised at all. Of course, I'd like to hear more about that. Does Elyashev acknowledge his son/grandson?

Was a comment deleted? I don't see anything about "Elyashev" or "his son" above the unattributed comment of 1:23 pm.

Knowing the Henkins since childhood (David & I were at Ramaz together, and Josh and I overlapped living in Park Slope for some years), it was clear that elements of the family situation and background, in the first novel "Swimming across the Hudson," were based on Henkin's own family background (no gay siblings, twins or adoption, though, AFAIK). I suppose that's common enough thing in first novels - write what you know, your family is your default idea of What A Family Is.

Nothing deleted. I think the comment you're referring to simply confused Rabbi Henkin and Rabbi Elyashiv.

Hey Thanbo,

I was also living in the Slope at the time I read the book, I wasn't aware that the author was living in the 'hood. I remember you well from Bnai Jacob by the way, are you still in Midwood and the Yavneh Minyan?


He may still be living there - they were friends with the Tolchins, Dr. Henkin having gone to camp with them.

Who are you? You can find my email address easily enough - go to my blog (thanbook).

Yes, still in Midwood. It's nice living in a Jewish neighborhood, being in a shul where I agree with the rabbi about a larger percentage of things, having more than 700 sq ft in my apartment.

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