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