You could say that Steve Shepard took a leave of absence from Judaism.
He’s back and found his way in part through literature. His new book, “A Literary Journey to Jewish Identity: Re-Reading Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Ozick, and Other Great Jewish Writers” (Bayberry Books), is part memoir and part encounter with distinguished Jewish writers through their words.
“Jewish fiction touched me more than all the prayers I heard,” he writes.
The author grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in an Orthodox home, accompanying his father to synagogue, at least on the High Holidays. His father was born on the Lower East Side, his mother in London, and they barely spoke of where their families had come from before that. Their home was kosher, but adhering to the rules eased up after his grandmother passed away. In the postwar days, his parents were more intent on asserting their American identity than their Jewishness. Some family members changed their name from Shapiro to Shepard — one uncle with an advanced degree from MIT was having trouble landing a job — and his parents followed suit. The message he received was to be a Shepard, not a Shapiro, out in the world.
His is not such an unusual story of his generation, but he tells it with candor and clarity, rich with anecdote.
Shepard has had a distinguished career. The founding dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, he has served as a senior editor at Newsweek, editor of Saturday Review and editor-in-chief of Business Week. He began this project of rereading the works of Jewish writers when he stepped down as dean a few years ago.
“I write as an enthusiastic reader, a fan watching his team play,” Shepard says in the book’s prologue.
He admits that it’s hard to define Jewish-American literature or characterize a Jewish writer, and that many writers who are Jewish do not like to be labeled. He quotes Saul Bellow, who once said that being called a Jewish writer is like being called “an Eskimo cellist.”
Shepard’s description of what’s particularly Jewish in a book by a Jewish writer is a useful one: “Sometimes it’s the characters, like Morris Bober in Malamud’s “The Assistant.” Sometimes it’s the family, like the Portnoys or the Patimkins in Roth’s fiction. Sometimes it’s the theme of alienation or otherness, as in Bellow’s “The Victim” or “Herzog.” Sometimes it’s the clash of cultures — of immigrants in the vastness of America, as in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Enemies: A Love Story.” Sometimes it’s the humor, as in a Grace Paley story. Sometimes it’s the liturgical, as in almost everything by Cynthia Ozick.”
He adds that sometimes it’s the sensibility, what Philip Roth describes as “the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the playacting — above all the talking.” Roth joked that it wasn’t what’s being talked about that makes a book Jewish but “that the book won’t shut up … won’t leave you alone.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Shepard says he’s different now than he was when he first read books by these pioneering Jewish writers in his formative intellectual years, so books are different to him.
Of reading and re-reading Philip Roth, he says, “Roth felt better than ever and seemed to speak about my concerns.” He especially enjoyed his later books and adds, “I can’t think of another writer who has gotten better with age.”
Among the writers he discusses, he might have reached out to Roth and Ozick while working on the book, but he chose not to do interviews. “I wanted to react to the books without hearing what they had to say. I didn’t want to be a journalist,” he says. When he needed quotes, he found them in other interviews they had done, and blends biographical information with his literary observations.
After Roth’s funeral, he did speak to Blake Bailey, Roth’s biographer. Roth wanted no Jewish ritual, no Jewish prayer at his funeral, but at the conclusion, spontaneously, his friends started shoveling dirt onto the casket as in Jewish tradition.
Shepard hadn’t read much of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work before and decided to sign up for a course at his alma mater, City College. He discovered that the Jewish studies department there is populated mostly by non-Jewish students, and he studied the Yiddish writer with young people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, many immigrants themselves. He was mesmerized by Singer’s storytelling and enriched by his classmates.
Shepard writes, “For Singer, the story was everything, and he would probably have been appalled to see what has happened to the study of literature in academia these days — all the critical theory and textual deconstruction.”
He says that he also came to Cynthia Ozick late, and has learned a lot from her. He sees her as a “keeper of the flame of Judaism.” Her writing has triggered many of his own feelings about Holocaust remembrance.
Shepard has long felt affected by the Holocaust. The first images he saw of Holocaust victims and survivors in Life Magazine have stayed with him. He recalls traveling to Germany for the first time in 1986 while he was editor of Business Week, and his colleague there showed him around Bonn, Frankfurt and then Berlin, where they visited an unkempt Jewish cemetery, with not one tombstone later than 1933, and then the site of Hitler’s bunker. He writes, “I realized again that even though the Holocaust didn’t affect my family directly, it had traumatized me anyway.”
In his chapter on Arthur Miller, Shepard reminds readers that it was Miller “who told us that attention must be paid to America’s everyman, Willy Loman.” Shepard remembers first reading “Death of a Salesman” as a college student in 1949 and says that at times the father and son relationship struck home — although he’s quick to say that Shep, as his father was known, was no Willy Loman. Finally, 50 years after the play first opened, after years of denying that Willy was Jewish, Miller admitted that the Loman family was Jewish.
When asked about which of these writers deserves more attention than he or she receives these days, Shepard points to Malamud as “the forgotten man.” He speaks of the brilliance of his short stories, “his one undeniable great book, ‘The Assistant,’ and for at least three others that passed literary muster.”
As for noted younger writers like Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, he admits that he has less passion for them — not that they aren’t good writers, but that he didn’t come of age reading them.
He writes, “I no longer need fiction to mediate my struggle with my own Jewishness, the sense of victimization I absorbed from my family. I no longer need a Roth or Bellow to think about what kind of Jew I was or wanted to be.”
His return to Judaism was also influenced by his wife, the journalist Lynn Povich, who is an observant Jew. While he is decidedly secular, he has attended synagogue sometimes over their 40-year marriage, as he hasn’t wanted to be left behind. They are longtime members of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, where their son and daughter marked their bar/bat mitzvahs.
Shepard loved the process of revisiting these books and authors and admits that the project changed him, “made me more Jewish. I’m so much more conscious of how Jewish I am culturally, and how much the history matters to me.”