Portrait: Rebecca Goldstein|
By Joseph Lowin
What's Luck Got to Do With It?
Soon after the publication of Rebecca Goldstein's Mazel, two of her readers, a father and a son—attracted by the way she mixes fiction with philosophy, Hebraism with Hellenism—are on the way to Shabbat services. They are discussing a conundrum posed by Goldstein: What is preferable, saychel (brains) or mazel (luck)? Conscious of the Socratic dialogue he is engaged in, the son, a thoughtful ephebe, ponders the question for a few moments. "It seems to me," he replies, "that other people would prefer that you have saychel; for yourself, it's always better to have mazel."
When Goldstein hears this story in the living room of her Highland Park, New Jersey, home—a middle-class Jewish suburb not unlike the setting of her novel—she is visibly pleased that her writing would engender such a conversation between a parent and a child and, moreover, that it be the son who comes up with such a "brilliant answer."
Goldstein has a predilection for this type of verbal give-and-take. She and her elder daughter, Yael, a freshman at Harvard, collaborated on "The Ashes of the Akedah, The Ashes of Sodom: A Mother-Daughter Dialogue," an essay to appear in Beginning Anew, a forthcoming anthology from Simon & Schuster. Pointing to a volume on the coffee table entitled Genesis, one of the 30 or so books strewn there in eclectic disarray—a book on African-American women alongside a tome of the Steinsaltz Talmud, a paperback of Far Side cartoons in counterpoint to a humash designed for Torah readers to practice with, called a tikkun—Goldstein notes that she has recently been a participant in the Bill Moyers Public Television series based on group discussion of the first book of the Bible. Asked how she enjoyed the experience, she replies that while she has enormous respect for Moyers's intellect and for his project, she found it difficult to inject a Jewish reading of the Genesis stories into the conversation. And, she adds, much of what she did get in somehow wound up on the cutting-room floor.
One gets the impression that were it not for the shining example of a self-effacing, righteous father, Goldstein's Hebraism might well have wound up in the same place, replaced by a brilliantly shining Hellenism.
Born in 1950, Goldstein grew up in White Plains, New York, in a family of four children, the second of three daughters. Her father was the cantor of the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of White Plains. When told that according to one of the former congregants, her father had been known as "The Tzaddik of White Plains," Goldstein smiles broadly, her eyes light up and she begins to talk exuberantly. "He was saint-like. One of his duties was to teach bar mitzva lessons and he would go out of his way to teach emotionally disturbed children. He had an aura of goodness about him, almost no ego, no pretentiousness."
"He was a kind of shtetl Jew," she continues, not at all oblivious to the fact that she is idealizing both her father and the shtetl. "We were poor but he was an embodiment of same'ah be-helko," the Hebrew expression for one who is satisfied with his lot. "Of course, you had to read into him because he wouldn't talk about himself." When he was dying of cancer, he could no longer converse with the people who came to visit him. One visitor had been waxing eloquent about the cantor's virtues and when he left, the father whispered to the daughter that he didn't quite understand the conversation. "Who was he talking about? The Rambam?"
"In general," she says earnestly, "I don't subscribe to `father knows best.' My father was very special. This is a place where the particular is very relevant. Let's just say that Bezalel Newberger was very important."
Goldstein attributes to her father her love of stories. "[He] was a wonderful storyteller," she muses. "I was the closest to him in the family and Friday nights he would tell me stories in bed—always with a lesson." If her fictional heroine Phoebe Saunders reminds readers of the saintly folk hero "Bontshe the Silent," it's probably because her father's retelling of I.L. Peretz's story remains engraved in her mind.
Nevertheless, because the Orthodox high school she attended (commuting daily to New York's Lower East Side from Westchester County) left her dissatisfied, she made a conscious effort to rebel by registering for a summer session in philosophy on graduation from high school. As she tells this story, she almost blushes at the innocuousness of it. But at both the practical and abstract levels, it had enormous import. Goldstein went on to major in philosophy at Barnard College, to get a Ph.D. in the philosophy of science at Princeton University, and to return to Barnard where she taught in the philosophy department for 10 years.
When her father died she turned to fiction, in part because "there was no room for emotion in philosophy." She found fiction a more congenial way of thinking about metaphysical issues such as the death of a good man. The Mind-Body Problem, the novel that launched her literary career in 1983, "was a direct result of trying to cope" with her father's death. Soon after the book's critical and popular success, Goldstein abandoned academic life (although she does teach creative writing at Columbia's School of the Arts) and embarked on a second career as a writer of fiction. She has since published a book of short stories, Strange Attractors (1993), and three novels, The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind (1989), The Dark Sister (1993) and Mazel (1996), winner of both the Edward Lewis Wallant Award and the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. In September 1992, Commentary published "Looking Back on Lot's Wife," an essay whose role in Goldstein's development into a Jewish writer is capital. In 1994, National Public Radio commissioned her to write a story, "Gifts of the Last Night," to be broadcast on their yearly Hanukka special. In October 1996—"I still don't believe that one," she says—the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago awarded her one of what has come to be known as the "MacArthur Genius Grants" so she might pursue her craft for the next five years without financial concerns.
Besides her father, there are two other men who figure prominently in the life of Rebecca Goldstein. One of them is her husband, Sheldon Goldstein, a tall, gaunt, grey-bearded, kippa-wearing professor of mathematical physics at Rutgers University and, from all appearances, the family's anchor.
The other is Plato. "I feel I know Plato very well," she says. "He obviously knows about storytelling and inspiration but mistrusts enchantment." Plato wanted to ban writers from his Republic but Goldstein sees in him a kindred soul. "He struggles against story. He is torn. I identify with his agony." And then she blurts out a confounding yet revealing assertion. "Plato is obviously Jewish."
To understand that Goldstein means this metaphorically, it is necessary to go into the world of her ideas, especially those depicted in Mazel, her most widely accessible work. There she does not talk about the failed attempt of Hellenism to realize the perfect Platonic forms. Rather, she constantly alludes to the polarity between Hellenism and Hebraism, between the universal and the particular. While she insists "the universal means everything to me as a writer," she is inevitably drawn to the particular pole of Hebraism. "One of the really central aspects of Judaism," she notes, "is that the world should be enough." She fights with that, perhaps because both the philosopher and the artist in her want more than this world. But her Judaism, she says, "represents my sanity in this madness called art."
Perhaps that is why there are half a dozen boxes of shmura matzas for Passover on the dining-room buffet, flanked by no fewer than nine Shabbat candlesticks (she lights six). Perhaps that is why there is a photograph of her father wrapped in a talis on her mantel. Perhaps that is why her family spent a six-month sabbatical in Israel and her younger daughter Danielle had recently celebrated her bat mitzva by reading her Torah portion at an Orthodox women's tefila group.
This attitude extends to her reading of Scripture. "I notice when I read the biblical text that I never give the characters a reductive reading," she says, alluding obliquely to one of the drawbacks of the Moyers experience. "These are not people who might appear on Oprah. These are heroic characters. They don't occupy the same level we do. But they're certainly not Greek heroes." And then she makes a decidedly Maimonidean point. "Occupying the middle ground is what Judaism, Jewishness and the Jewish value system are all about. And occupying the middle ground causes a severe stretch. I think that's the Jewish genius."
For Goldstein, then, mazel is not merely good luck but the mysterious quality in life, what she terms repeatedly in her fiction, in her essays and in her conversation, the "accidental." Even though she never intended Mazel to be a Jewish novel, for example, "the Jewishness overflowed everything. There's something in my style that is naturally Jewish. The Jewish plot resonates." And yet, she says, "I'm mystified why it's Jewish." Her readers might think it has something to do with saychel, the orderliness of a fine mind. Goldstein is happy to acknowledge that it's all mazel.