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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Author discusses Jewish literature

Published: November 20, 2009
Section: News

<i>PHOTO BY Abby Berin/The Hoot</i>

PHOTO BY Abby Berin/The Hoot

Author Tova Mirvis attempted to answer the question ‘Is she a Jewish writer?’ in a lecture on Wednesday evening. The question is one Mirvis has been asked countless times.

The lecture was hosted by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, a program created to expand ways of thinking about the relationship between Jews and gender while promoting scholars and artists whose work overlaps the two fields.

Mirvis began her lecture by asking what makes a book Jewish. Mirvis pondered whether it is the book’s themes, author, content or characters. She asked if a book could be half-Jewish.

Throughout the lecture, Mirvis spoke about books-within-books, a common theme in Jewish-American literature. She related this to how an author’s Judaism might affect his or her work without realizing it, two examples of which are a common Jewish preoccupation with books and with finding something that is lost.

By the end of the lecture, Mirvis had raised more questions than she answered, but she did touch on the concept that a Jewish author and a Jewish novel are most difficult to define because of the complexity of defining what Jewish is in general.

Although, she expressed her view that once an author is labeled as a Jewish writer, there is no going back.

Mirivs felt conflicted about this.

“To live fully in one world is to pull away from another,” Mirvis said.

Mirvis described her upcoming novel as “an examination of public and private spaces,” but not a Jewish novel. The characters are Jewish in her mind and in their last names, she says, but there is no mention of Shabbat dinners or trips to synagogue.

Mirvis does feel that the more particular a novel is, the more cultural detail there is, the more universal it becomes. Writing about ethnicity and religion humanizes a story and makes it more relatable, even if the reader is not a member of the specific group she explained. Mirvis used the example of an Indian novel, “I understand this Indian novel because I am Jewish,” Mirvis said.

Mirvis is the author of “The Outside World,” published in 2004 and 1999 national bestseller The Ladies Auxiliary. She received a B.A. in English Literature from Columbia College and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She lives in Newton, Mass. with her husband and two young sons, and is at work on another novel.