When I was twenty-three and backpacking in Israel, on my way home to graduate school after a year in Asia, I was expelled from a yeshiva in Jerusalem for being racially impure.
At the Western Wall, I was approached by a chubby orthodox recruiter with the kippa. did I want to learn about Judaism? did I want to “find out who I was?” I eagerly replied yes—and was driven bleary-eyed at dawn to the yeshiva in a white van. At lunch, just as it happens to my fictional Sam, while eating my kosher sandwich I was turned in to the orthodox authorities by the panicked American Jewish boy who’d sat next to me and who rushed off to inform them that there was a racial error in their midst. In answer to the boy’s questions, I told him that my father is ethnically Jewish, my mother Protestant. The instinctive reaction of the yeshivim—swiftly isolating the infection, what the rabbi said to me about my impurity and my having “polluted” their yeshiva—he said with crystalline clarity; it’s little surprise that I remember them so well.
You Or Someone Like You comes from years of thinking about what this incident means, to me and about Judaism. The novel—its characters Howard and Anne Rosenbaum, their marriage and what happens to them—turns crucially on the scene recounting this incident, but their son Samuel Rosenbaum’s two weeks in Israel are an exact recreation of what happened to me.
I worked on the novel for years, but it wasn’t because I needed to “think through” its fundamental point about Judaism. It was the story that I was working out: I had Anne’s character almost immediately—my grandmother, highly literate, a lover of books, immigrated from England to the U.S.—and I had Howard and Howard’s crisis because the rabbi in Jerusalem told me that my father should leave our family and make aliyah (become an Israeli citizen) in order “to be with his people””—this Sophie’s choice on the basis of nothing but the fact that my father is racially Jewish. The thing that throws Howard, Anne, and Sam into turmoil was clear to me almost immediately after I left Israel: In a liberal western universalist, anti-racialist democracy like ours, there is a fundamental problem with Judaism.
I should be clear that I am an equal opportunity opponent of all of organized religion. I wrote You Or Someone Like You about Judaism because Judaism is my experience. And because Judaism has one fundamental problem the other religions do not.
If you boil down Catholicism to a single word, it is power. Protestantism is judgment. Hinduism is hierarchy. Islam is war. Judaism is separatism. And all religions divide people into those who God values and doesn't. But the particular problem with Judaism is that it alone uses a racialist definition, a genetic definition, of God's people. Charles Bronfman, a major funder of the ba’al teshuva movement: "You can live a perfectly decent life not being Jewish, but I think you're losing a lot...[the] feeling you have when you know [that] throughout the world there are people who somehow or other have the same kind of DNA that you have." (Bronfman appears as himself, saying this, in the novel.) And the rabbi was absolutely correct in what he said to me—that I was indeed impure, I’d polluted their yeshiva—because he knew real Jewish law.
I want to be very clear: This is not a novel about “religious fanaticism.” These people are not “fanatics.” However, here is a singular culture, one that has arguably contributed more and greater good to the world than any other single group of people, and yet at its core lies a toxin. Perhaps the best way to put it is the simplest, the fact that a line from Spielberg's "Schindler's List" could, depending on the circumstances, be from the mouth of a Nazi in the early 20th century or constitute the view of a Jew in the early 21st: "I realize you're not a person in the strictest sense of the word." As the movie executive Nina Jacobson put it to me--and I put her in the novel, saying this to one of my fictional characters--"They divide us from them, and we divide us from them, and so, what? We're right and they're wrong?"