Inside the Book Club
I had the privilege of being a guest speaker at a local book group two days ago. My friend Eileen, who sought me out years ago when a mutual friend told her I wanted to feel more connected to a Jewish community, hosted the event. This wasn’t just any book group. It was a gathering of nine women who have been meeting for a decade, discussing books written on Jewish topics.
Second to writing The New Jew, the most gratifying part of being published is discussions with readers. Tuesday’s book group was no exception. Each of these women was a member of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. They were committed to Jewish causes, to furthering their understanding of Jewish issues, and were clearly loyal to each other. I marveled at how I somehow was made to feel included in their banter and familiarity. It reminded me of the qualities of the Jewish culture that drew me in nearly twenty years ago — inclusiveness, intellect and humor among them.
“Before we begin talking about the book,” Susan said in her irresistible Texan drawl, “we want to know what has happened between your conversion and now.” Everyone nodded. I wondered if they heard my gulp.
This was the first group that I spoke with that wanted to first talk about my current life. But they wouldn’t be the first audience to learn that I am now divorced. Since much of The New Jew is about my marriage, I so wished I could tell my readers that, after my conversion, we all lived happily ever after. And the fact is, we have, but not in the traditional sense. Michael and I have a dear friendship, we each have gratifying careers, and the children and we are all very close.
As I explained this at the book club, I took in the various expressions. Some looks of surprise and shock lingered, while other faces softened with compassion. One woman shook her head in dismay, with moist eyes. The scene was vaguely familiar. It was if I was once again telling my brothers and sisters of my divorce at a family dinner, as I had four years ago.
And it made sense. The women at the table had become invested in me. For more than 200 pages, they joined me as I met my in-laws, as I attended temple for the first time, and when I had trepidations about converting. In The New Jew, I confessed my longings, my hopes and my disappointments. I included them in intimate flashbacks to my childhood, and they entered my mind as I judged, and later accepted, Jews. My very personal story included my love affair with my husband. Dropping the bomb on them that we are now divorced was sudden news. They just didn’t see it coming. And, although I am accepting of my new life, I had to give them time to get up to speed with me.
But before I knew it, I was given the gift of support. The women at the table lovingly acknowledged the trauma I must have endured. Terry shared the story of her divorce. Frances expressed her gratitude for the lesson in strength. And, somehow, we were all fortified.
“Okay,” Eileen said. “Now let’s talk about conversion.” We laughed as pages of books were flipped. I felt honored again to be included in this group of spirited readers – attentive enough to place post-its on the pages of my books and to underline passages, and generous enough to be present to the author before them.