Interview | Beyond Bagels & Lox

Novelist Allegra Goodman on writing about Jewish lives in the 21st century.
By | Sep 19, 2023

Raised in the small Jewish community of Honolulu, Hawaii, in the 1970s, bestselling author Allegra Goodman grew up far from Jewish delis, JCCs and other traditional markers of Jewish culture. She published her first short story as a freshman at Harvard and her first short story collection, Total Immersion, in 1989, the year she graduated. Her six novels and numerous short stories, noted for their humor and subtle insights, are set in Jewish communities from Oahu to Oxford, England, with intertwined characters—Jewishly identified, assimilated, observant, spiritually inquisitive—who reflect all the glorious diversity of Jewish culture and practice today. Goodman’s fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Commentary, The New York Times Book Review and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. She recently spoke with Moment Opinion and Book Editor Amy E. Schwartz about her work, what it means to dream professionally and her interest in the “Judaism that stays.”

Allegra, you’ve described your work as post-ethnic, post-deli Judaism—“Jewish life beyond Roth and Bellow, Woody Allen, and bagels and lox.” You’ve said you’re “interested in belief, in skepticism, separatism and universalism of scripture and tradition.” Bagels and lox make a great metaphor. In your first book, the collection of short stories called Total Immersion, there’s a scene in a story set in Hawaii, where you grew up, where the rabbi says about new arrivals, “These people don’t remember what it was like before Hawaiian Bagel opened.” And so I thought we would start there, with the literal and metaphorical Hawaiian bagel. If we’re looking for places where American Judaism has taken new forms, a great example is the Jewish community of Hawaii. How did that community shape your work? What is the meaning of the Hawaiian bagel?

Well, I do remember when Hawaiian Bagel came to Hawaii. They brought their own equipment, which would boil the bagels properly. It was a big deal not just for the Jewish community, but for everybody. Growing up Jewish in Hawaii is interesting. It’s very different from growing up in, say, New Jersey. At least when I was there, it was a place with a small Jewish community. So I grew up not knowing a lot about institutional Judaism. There was no Jewish community center. There were no kosher butchers, so we got our kosher meat shipped from California. My mom used to drive the station wagon down to the dock, and you had to be there on time, or they’d just leave the meat there to defrost in the tropical heat.

If you were Jewish in Hawaii, you had to be very intentionally Jewish. Things wouldn’t just happen for you. You would have to make those things happen. So if you wanted a Seder, you had to make the Seder. My mom used to make a lot of stuff from scratch. There were no youth groups. There was no critical mass of Jewish people the way a lot of people take for granted. I definitely felt like a minority and like it was DIY Judaism.

The point about the bagels, though, is that at the end of the day, having Hawaiian bagels is not going to preserve a Jewish community. That’s not what I think of as the core of Judaism, and that’s not the subject that I find most interesting about Judaism. Growing up, what really interested me was synagogue and liturgy and spirituality, which I think of as the core of Judaism. That’s the subject that engages me the most.

You’ve written about a wide range of religious and nonreligious characters, from the very Orthodox to the very skeptical, and also seekers, like your hippie character in Paradise Park, Sharon, who’s looking everywhere for meaning and has some wacky ideas about what it would look like if she found it. It strikes me that one thing your characters are looking for, in the absence of bagels or whatever, is authenticity. Obviously a lot of them find it in traditional forms of Judaism. Is that the answer to what all your characters are seeking? Or is it more complex?

It’s always more complex. People are so complicated. If you’re just looking for authenticity, you can find it in many religions and spiritual experiences. You can go out on the beach and have an authentic relationship with the ocean. What really interests me is the pull of tradition for some people. Not for everyone. For some, it’s a turnoff. But I’ve always been interested in those characters who feel the pull. What do they get out of ritual? Why, when they have every choice, when they’re not living in a shtetl, when they’re living in an open society, would they choose tradition and why particularly Jewish tradition?

So that’s a question that interests me and one that I’ve explored not only in Paradise Park but also in my novel Kaaterskill Falls, which is about people in an extremely observant community who take that as a given. Then the question becomes, why would they stay, in an America where you can also leave? What do they get out of it?

Your character in Kaaterskill Falls is very interesting because she suffers from the constraints on women in particular. And as she keeps giving birth to more and more daughters, she really struggles. She’s a newcomer to the community—she married in. But she slams up against a wall on something she really wants to do, and yet she stays in the community.

That’s the question that I found interesting. Why would she stay? What does she get out of it? What is working for her? That’s really one of the central questions of the book.

It’s interesting that so far, of all your books, Kaaterskill Falls has received the most awards, including from within the Jewish community. You give the close-knit, self-contained sect in that book an invented name—they are referred to as Kirshners. Likewise, in the earlier books, a lot of your characters keep bumping into representatives of another Jewish subgroup that readers may recognize from real life. You don’t give their real name—you call them the Bialystokers—but it’s a group that is everywhere, that is very effective and that has a mission to make less observant Jews more observant. Are the Bialystoker Hasidim in your stories a stand-in for a kind of authentic Judaism, authentic tradition?

They are somewhat like the Lubavitchers (Chabad), who are evangelical within the Jewish community, and they do crop up in many of my books. I’m also interested in the Messianics. And particularly in my novel The Cookbook Collector, I was interested in the parallel between the dot-com boom—this euphoric moment economically, technologically—and the almost-utopia of the Messianics and these very traditional Jews. But they are appealing to some of my characters and not to others. Chabad is in Hawaii now, but it started there when I was just going to college, so I didn’t have a lot of experience with it.

Another apparent source of authenticity for the characters in your earlier books was Israelis. In Hawaii you’ve got all these stories about American Jewish seekers who bump up against Israelis. What’s the nature of that collision? Who’s learning what from whom?

Israelis cropping up in Hawaii is interesting, because Israelis also love to travel and many of them are seekers. I saw a lot of people who ended up in Hawaii because they were looking for beauty and exoticism. Other people go there to get away from things, from their communities, or to find a kind of freedom that they’re looking for. They certainly did in the 1970s when I was a small child. I’ve always seen parallels between Israel and Hawaii. Israel is tiny and isolated, cosmopolitan in some ways and parochial in others, and an island where you have to get on a plane to travel. It’s also similar in its beaches.

You do sisters very well. Your books have all these pairs and groups of sisters. There are the sisters of The Cookbook Collector, Jess and Emily, who are very different but take care of each other. And then in another short story you’ve got these two crazy sisters who at their other sister’s deathbed are desperately feuding over who can bring the most baked goods. It’s very funny. Is that autobiographical? Do you have sisters?

I have one sister. She’s really brilliant. She’s an oncologist. So you could say I’m kind of the more whimsical of the two of us; she actually works on saving people’s lives, and I work on pretend people, saving pretend people’s lives. But I’m certainly interested in the bond between sisters, and I’ve always enjoyed writing about them.

Do you think it’s a way of exploring and contrasting different paths?

Absolutely. Just in the way that siblings define themselves against each other. Although I would say my sister is very literary. I’m not very scientific, but she’s very literary. So we’re not opposites. As I said, people are so complicated. So the pairing is not always of the foil and the opposite.

Let me ask you about family stories. Your book The Family Markowitz is a collection of linked stories about different members of a family. And you’re working on a new series of family stories, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. How is the second family different? What are you exploring with the second family that you didn’t get a chance to explore with the first?

I was 20 when I wrote some of the stories in The Family Markowitz, and I’m much older now. Some of those stories are very funny; they’re very light. I would read my work aloud to my parents and my sister. And when my mother had tears streaming down her face because she was laughing so hard, I would feel like I had accomplished something. So those stories were just sort of laugh-out-loud funny and more satirical.

Why would you want to write about people you would have dinner with? That’s kind of boring.

The tone of these new stories is sometimes more bittersweet. They’re still funny, but they’re more layered. And perhaps that’s my getting older, knowing people who’ve suffered more, knowing people who’ve died, seeing people grapple with divorce and loss. And so those colors come through in the new collection. However, it’s still very much a project of looking at a family here and now living with and without Jewish tradition. The series includes a story about a shiva, but the family is so busy, they only have time for one day out of the seven. There’s also a story about a bris, and a story about a bat mitzvah. And these characters are definitely identifying and identifiably Jewish, but not super religious. The Family Markowitz was published at least 25 years ago. The people in the new series live now, and the world has changed a bit.

You’ve chosen to intertwine a lot of your characters so that they turn up in and out of different novels. Is that partly about all Jews being connected?

I’m sure it has something to do with Jewish geography—that we are a small community and there are many connections. It doesn’t take very long to figure out the degrees of separation. And as a novelist, I’m interested in those webs. That said, not all of my books have these recurring characters. Sam doesn’t, for example.

Let me ask you about Sam, your most recent novel. A lot of people in reacting to Sam, a wonderful book, pointed out that there was almost no Jewish content at all. Were you doing that on purpose, although you’ve said that even in regard to your non-Jewish characters, there’s kind of a Jewish watermark?

Well, Sam’s father is Jewish, although he calls himself non-practicing. I’m sure that Sam’s mom would’ve loved a good bagel, but that doesn’t bring her closer to Judaism. So it wasn’t like I said to myself, “Oh, I’d better write a novel without Jewish themes in it.” Not at all. I just go where my imagination takes me.

Sam’s looking for meaning too, right?

Somebody like Sam grows up and doesn’t even have a religious framework to push against, so where does she look for meaning? That’s one of the questions in the book. So Judaism is, in its absence, the negative space there.

I don’t know exactly how to put this, but a lot of your characters are really, well, unpleasant. They seem like people who would just drive you nuts, even if they weren’t in your family. I might be in a minority, but I find Sharon Spiegelman in Paradise Park so annoying. What’s the artistic choice involved in creating characters like that? Is that partly for satire, or is it just more fun to write about people like that?

I think that not everybody is pleasant, not everybody is going to be a friend. When I was very young, one of my readers said to me about the Total Immersion story collection: “There’s no one in this book that I would want to have dinner with, so I don’t like this book.” And I was thinking, why would you want to write about people you would have dinner with? That’s kind of boring. You write about people who are adventurous, who are flawed, who are annoying at times, who are damaged, who are violent. There’s a big world out there—not everybody is “nice.”

Has the experience of writing about all these different worlds changed your own ritual observance or your approach to ritual?

I don’t think so. I go to a partnership minyan and an Orthodox minyan. But I’ve been to egalitarian services as well. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I go to Tremont Street Synagogue and also to Harvard Hillel. I guess there’s a part of me that is always going to be that kid going to the minyan that my parents helped create in Honolulu. Growing up in such a small community, I feel very comfortable in a small kind of shtetl-like setting when it comes to worship.

Why, when some people have every choice would they choose tradition and why particularly Jewish tradition?

One of the things I enjoy about writing fiction is that it’s sort of like traveling—you go to that place and then you come back. So as I’ve grown and experienced more, I have more material to write about, but I’m not sure that it changes my core. Or if it does, I don’t admit it.

All those accounts of seeking, do they come from you at all? Are you a seeker?

Not in a conventional way, no. I seek through my art. I’m investigative. I’m scientific. I’m curious. I’m interested in all of that. That’s where I do my seeking. As a person, I like routine. I like where I am. I’m not always looking for the next thing. Let’s just say, I do my dreaming professionally.

You’ve mentioned that you’re a person of routine. Is that how you get so much writing done?

Honestly, I feel like I write very slowly, but I’m very steady, and that goes along with being in a routine. And for writers out there or people who want to write, I really recommend being slow but steady, because pages do add up. I am very much a person who likes to work little by little, day by day, go to sleep and look at it again in the morning. I do a lot of revision, not just at the end of a book but as I go along. I write just about every day. Not on Shabbat, not on holidays. I also count reading as part of the job. I think it’s really good to keep reading as much as possible across all different genres.

I’m going to ask you to take a step back and to be a little more sociological. Tell me what you mean when you talk about “Judaism without borders.”

I wrote an essay about this topic, saying that some of our concepts, or maybe our clichés, about Jewish culture and Judaism in America really have to do with certain places or certain foods—delis, bagels, lox—and a certain kind of Jewish humor, which are almost always based in New York City. And as somebody who grew up far, far away from them, I experienced Judaism from the margins. And so cultural Judaism was not the core of my identity. I’m really interested in the Judaism that stays. For me, that has to do with tradition and religion and spirituality. It doesn’t have anything to do with Jewish jokes, with Jewish food, with Jewish neighborhoods. Those are the province of history, and they rise and fall. But what endures for me is Jewish tradition.

What would you guess American Judaism will look like in 50 years?

I think it’s really complicated. My husband works at MIT, and one of his colleagues, who’s very blunt, literally said, “How do you feel when you’re part of a dying community that just won’t exist statistically in a certain number of years?” He actually said that to me. But that’s one way to look at it, sort of numerically.
Another way to look at it is to say, “We’re having a renaissance.” There’s an explosion of Jewish learning, especially adult learning. So much is happening in Boston and New York and DC and in different places online—you can access Jewish texts, you can take classes, you can listen to podcasts, to lectures. You could also say that Judaism is vibrant in a way that it’s never been before. The way women are coming into their own as spiritual leaders, the way our community on the one hand is assimilating, and, on the other hand, new people are coming in by choice to be Jews and bringing all that fresh energy and inspiration. It’s a paradoxical thing. I would say the future’s going to be complex and rich.

Opportunity for more novels?


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Opening picture: Allegra Goodman (Photo credit: Nina Subin)

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