Lessons From the Prophets
By JESSE TISCH
The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright discusses Angels in America, whether age has tempered his radicalism, and why the label “Jewish writer” suits him fine.
(Adapted from a longer interview that will appear in the forthcoming issue of Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.)
There’s a way in which one becomes Jew-by-osmosis living in New York City. But you’re a New York Jew by way of Louisiana, where you were raised in a progressive, non-religious Jewish family. Where did you absorb so much Jewishness?
I obviously absorbed a certain amount as a child. I think that my sense of the importance of being Jewish was sharpened by the fact that I grew up as part of a very small minority within an entirely Christian community. It would have been possibly a different thing had I grown up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
In your work, you’ve shown an omnivorous interest in Jewish issues, from the Holocaust to the Yiddish theatre to Israel/Palestine. Those seem to be several ways you’ve articulated your Jewishness.
I, personally, am not an observant Jew. I’m not frum; I’m not observant; I don’t keep kosher. In terms of theology… I’m probably kidding myself. But it’s interesting—there’s a level of comfort, a sense of belonging, that is only touched on in the company of other Jews. I’m speaking personally now, but I think this is something that a lot of Jews share. For secular Jews especially, there may be a need, a hunger, that you’re not even particularly aware exists until you find yourself in the company of a lot of other Jews.
That sounds almost Jungian. Do you believe in a Jewish consciousness—or unconscious?
People carry history within themselves, so if you want to call that a collective unconscious, you can do that; it’s a little mystical to me, I think it’s got more material sources. You’re the receiver of a history. And you carry that within you, and transform it within yourself.
I know that you’re the type of Jew who cherishes certain Jewish traditions that comport with your values, and jettisons other traditions. Which traditions do you keep? Which haven’t you kept?
There are traditions, like homophobia and misogyny, that I categorically reject. There are traditional attitudes about, for instance, intermarriage, that I reject. But I don’t jettison any tradition, in the sense that I’m intrigued by all of them. By most standards of Orthodox Jewish practice I’d be considered a pretty bad Jew. Every once in a while I think there would be something sort of nice about observing the Sabbath, but it just has never worked out, and I guess I never felt a strong enough pull. And I have a difficulty in shul, because I sort of believe, and sort of don’t believe.
You’ve embraced the label “Jewish writer,” when as far as I can tell, what Jewish writers most have in common is a disdain for the label “Jewish writer.”
I don’t think all Jewish writers. Would Malamud have bristled? Did Bellow? I don’t know.
Bellow, I think, did. Likewise Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick.
Oh, really? I don’t know; it doesn’t make sense to me. I see it as so essential to your own survival as a human being and to your own internal coherence. Maybe to somebody like Cynthia, or Roth, to be thought of as a Jewish writer, there was a fear that you would be ghettoized as a kind of novelty act, and real writers, real American writers, were not Jews. But I am a Jewish writer, and I am a gay writer, and I am an American writer, and I don’t see any point in trying to argue about that. Maybe if I was a better writer than I am then I would think I’ve transcended all of these things, but if Tolstoy didn’t transcend being Russian, fair bet that neither I nor any of the people we’ve mentioned have transcended our American-ness, or our Jewishness.
But in calling yourself a Jewish writer, aren’t you also implying that Jewishness informs your art? You’ve even referred to Angels in America—your masterwork—as a Jewish play.
With “Angels,” there’s a very powerful spine of the play that is this sort of tracking the Jewish characters. But I also think that a play like Homebody/Kabul, or the play that I’m working on right now—which has no Jews in it—are Jewish plays. Homebody/Kabul also has no gay people in it, but I consider it to be a “gay” play, in the sense that it’s written by a gay Jew and an American gay Jew.
You’ve seldom compartmentalized your art and your identity-based politics.
I’ve really come to feel that any categorization like political, spiritual—that these things are all so murky. The Bible, for instance, is political. The Prophets are full of it: Don’t [expletive] over the poor. Don’t be a greedy pig. Make sure that you behave in the world in a decent fashion. In fact, it’s perfectly legitimate to say that Judaism doesn’t ask you to do anything other than that. Do those things, and the rest of it—whatever.