What a ride. Some wind at the writer’s back. What else could I ask for? Back from a solid two weeks of touring Peep Show–my second novel that received favorable praise from all the important folks including People Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus/Booklist/Publisher’s Weekly. A writer’s livelihood is based on reviews and of course sales. If both are good, you stand to make a respectable royalty advance on your next project. So I’m feeling upbeat about it all. Was in New York for BEA (Book Expo America) where I signed books at the Algonquin booth and threw a party at my brother Zach’s place for anyone in publishing who happened to be in town. When my brother asked how many would be coming to get a sense of the rowdiness I told him that book people weren’t the same as movie people. No one has fake boobs and most of them wear shawls. He bet me there wouldn’t be one shawl. He was right. No tally on fake boobs. My favorite part of the evening was being able to acknowledge all the people at Algonquin Books who put out such quality reads each year. Oh we had a rousing old time. New York is a fun place to launch a book.
Read from Peep Show about 20 times lately and during Q&A time I’ve heard a lot of questions about research for Peep Show, which is partly a novel about the smutty landscape of Times Square in the 1970’s but also about Hassidic life at that time in New York.
While on tour for my first book, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green, I met a man who came from one of the first Baal Teshuvah (convert from non-observant Jew to Hassidic Jew) families in Queens who wanted to share his story with me. I knew I was going to be writing about a heavily religious sect of Judaism but I didn’t know details at that point. So, we talked and he offered to send me his story, which involved his mother suddenly switching to a non-secular lifestyle and wearing black to her ankles in August. In his mother’s new way of life there would be no talking or even looking at girls and the TV would be removed and rock music was evil and God was watching and on and on. No secular books. No movies. No non-Kosher food. As I read my friend’s e-mails about his life I began to get a sense of how this story might unfold. There would be a division in the family over which parent was more morally in check and therefore worthy of their children’s love. In the end, if the book worked, each would be wrong about the other. We’d find nobility under the wig of the woman behind the screen in the peep house. And we’d find drive under the wig of the Hassid behind the screen of the Mechitza. Over the years of building the story I’d visit him in Brooklyn and we ate at the famously kosher 2nd Street Deli just before it closed. He took me on tours of neighborhoods and explained the various sects of the men who walked by. Some had high black knee socks, others had closely cropped hair save for their curly Peyis. Another man’s hat was circular with soft brown fur. I was told most adult women wore wigs. There were stores around me that sold kosher toothpaste and had the words Smurfs in Hebrew in the window. Like visiting another country, so far from home but actually just ten minutes on the L train from Union Square. We entered 770, Menachem M. Schneerson’s sanctuary in Crown Heights. The person I saw first didn’t know the name “Joshua.” He didn’t speak English. He was able to evoke that he prays in Hebrew and only speaks Yiddish. The tall guy behind him spoke some and told me many, many things I didn’t understand but he told me each with a passion that lit his blue eyes to moisture. His skin was indoor pale and his beard was all over, keeping his face hidden, like at the bottom of a bag. As he spoke I nodded, not wanting to him to feel I wasn’t listening. I heard the words “Rebbe” and then he pointed to a spot, a lectern area where the Rebbe would conduct his sermons known as Farbrengen. As the Rebbe would get going in Yiddish, he would at times talk of the Talmud, of life, of God and suddenly turn his words into song and start to rock his body in a particular rhythmic motion that all the yeshiva boys would emulate as they sat together against the wall, a sea of boys in black, imitating their Rebbe. It was clear that these events were nothing short of rock concerts for those who prayed and lived around here. Our tour guide now had many friends around him and they were all staring at me, the guy with long, blond hair and a tiny white yarmulke bobby-pinned to his head.
“Do you wear tefillin?” the man wanted to know.
“Once,” I said.
The friend who brought me there was not interested in reliving the tefillin experience so he told the guys we were leaving. They didn’t like the news of this. They wanted something but I didn’t know what so I found myself shuffling out of the building behind my friend with the tour-guide’s grip on my arm. It seemed if we didn’t end up wrapped in tefillin straps, these guys were gonna miss out on a layup in the mitzvah world. They wrap us – mitzvah for them. I end up wrapped – mitzvah for me. Who loses?!
“Sorry, we really gotta go,” my friend said in Yiddish.
“What are you doing here?” the guide said to me with a more stern voice than before.
I said nothing. Suddenly my research seemed immoral. I was as good as a tourist in Amish country, snapping pictures of a horse and buggy.
“I just wanted to see where the Rebbe stood,” I said.
And after a long pause, he let go of my arm.
When I finished a first draft of the book I sent it to my research friend. He told me he liked it a lot but wanted me to take out certain details so that no one in the community would assume it was him that helped me. That was the last time we spoke.
Back now in the SF Bay Area. Summer has arrived and it feels so good to be home for the moment. My mom just turned seventy and my ten year-old son stood up to make a speech at her party. He spoke so tenderly and with so much expression and love for her. It was amazing for me to watch. I’m so proud of my little man. I may have to write about it.