Libby Garland, a senior fellow at CLAL--the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, spoke recently with Bloom. What follows is excerpts from that interview. Read the unabridged interview on CLAL's website.
Your fiction is often about unconventional crossings--unlikely connections between people, whether in a cross-generational friendship or a taboo love affair; or unexpected transformations people make. Why are those the subjects that compel you?
Well, I guess because all intimate relationships are crossings. No matter how conventional the frame, I think to know and engage with someone intimately is always a crossing of a border, always fraught, even if you've been married 50 years.
The Jewish world is often quite preoccupied with boundary crossing in the form of intermarriage.
I think any small group struggles with that. If you're attached to your identity, there's no way not to understand that as soon as you leave the shtetl walls, people will begin intermarrying. You know, it's a big, seductive world out there, and if you want to be part of it at all, you run the risk that your children will embrace it. This doesn't concern me personally, but I understand that people feel anxiety about it.
But I always find those experiences of crossing the richest and most interesting.
Sure, crossings always lie somewhere on an engaging spectrum-from the unlikely ones to the almost impossible to the transgressive. And what someone else regards as transgressive I may regard as simply unlikely. Also, different things bother different people. Intermarriage doesn't bother me. Encouraging your 13-year-old daughter to get a nose job bothers me.
Because the idea that a pretty girl with a large nose who looks Jewish needs to be surgically altered as soon as possible seems to me unfortunate. In general, I think that plastic surgery for adolescents--whether it's breast jobs or nose jobs--is really not such a great idea, unless of course a person is in some way disfigured.
There are different points of view about somebody being transsexual. But if you believe that some people are actually born in the wrong package, and that they will always be not just more like the opposite sex, but in fact the opposite sex inside, I certainly understand wanting to do something about that, because it may never change. And it's not that I think that if you have a big nose you shouldn't fix it under any circumstance-but I do think that if you're thirteen or fourteen the people who are driving that train are your parents.
And that makes me think about your novel, "Love Invents Us." The mother in the novel has this redecorating fetish that's very painful for the daughter.
Yes, it was painful for the daughter to be such a project, but also for the mother to feel that the daughter needed so much fixing.
I understand the novel took place close to your home of origin?
Yes, parts were set in a real or imagined Great Neck [on Long Island, NY], where I grew up.
Were you part of Jewish life in Great Neck?
Not at all--except that it was inevitable that one should be part of Jewish life in Great Neck, given the makeup of the town. No, my parents didn't belong to a synagogue, and I was very rarely in one, except when my grandparents wished to go for the High Holidays, and then I would be sent as a little gift package to go with them.
Boring. I stared out the window of the religious school, surrounded by a bunch of kids I'd never seen and wouldn't see again until the next year. It was largely a non-event for me. Then my grandparents would swing by, pick me up, and we'd go home.
So you didn't go to the services?
I was at the children's services--they had them so the adults wouldn't be disturbed. My memory of this is largely one of indifference. I put on a dress, I brushed my hair, I sat in the back row, nobody talked to me, I didn't talk to them, and then my grandparents picked me up.
Do you think it was important to your grandparents that you went?
Apparently. I think they would have preferred that my parents go with them, but my parents had no intention of going to synagogue.
So you were substituting for your parents?
Yes, I was like a little Purim basket, sent along as an offering. I can't have done it more than three times, though. So I was never really in a synagogue until I had children. By then, I was living in Middletown, Connecticut, a very Christian place. I thought that if my children were not to grow up celebrating St. Sebastian's as a central holiday in their life, I'd better find a synagogue.
I found a small one nearby, with a wonderful young woman rabbi. I was reasonably active, on the board and in the Hebrew school, and the girls chose to stay on after Bat Mitzvah, as teaching aides and then teachers in the Hebrew school. And there you have it. I don't think I really have a great feel for religious life.
Meaning the institutional stuff?
Well, I was happy to be involved when it played a significant role in my kids' lives, and I can still imagine being involved, but in general, given time constraints, I usually have to choose between being involved in local Democratic politics and being involved in the synagogue. I did the synagogue for about ten years, and now I'm doing local Democratic politics.
Yes, sure, the story is absolutely about community life, and about the high holidays, and about the possibility of forgiveness and atonement. The subject of Jewishness emerges sometimes in my work, but I wouldn't say that it dominates my fiction. If someone reads my stories and connects with them on that level, that's fine. But I don't think it's on the front burner of most of what I write, and I wouldn't say it's a central issue I grapple with.
"Closing the Gates" is also a wonderful commentary on the Yom Kippur liturgy.Do you think the story itself could work as alternative liturgy for the holiday?
I don't know. My current rabbi said he liked it.
Writing is something you came to later on, after being a psychotherapist. Are the things you care about in your stories also things you cared about, or came to see, as a therapist?
I would actually say that the things I cared about led me to being a therapist and also emerge in my writing. I think that, to some extent, good therapists are born, not made--born deeply curious about other people, with a capacity to listen, a sense of humor, an emotional resiliency and a kind of effortless compassion.
Do you miss being a therapist?
Sure. I was good at it. I knew what I was doing. In therapy, you get a partner to work with, unlike in writing, where you don't get a partner.
I am Jewish. I'd say that in the same way that I'd shrug and say, "I am a woman." Those are just parts of who I am. I realize one might distinguish between "I am a Jew and when the Nazis come I'm in big trouble," and "I am an observant Jew," but still, being a Jew is absolutely part of my life and I feel lucky. It's an interesting additional piece of texture.
I guess I could have been born not Jewish, and then being Lutheran could have been additional, and interesting. I find it interesting to be part of a tiny group of people, to have those cultural associations. I like that right around Christmas, when my children will be home, they'll say "Oh, won't you please make latkes?" It's a nice thing to do; two of my great dishes are matzo ball soup and latkes, that's just how it is. I don't know. No doubt if I weren't Jewish I'd be someone else, and priding myself on my marshmallow Jell-O mold, who knows?
So you never just wanted to blend into your surroundings in Christian Middletown?
I'm not so much of a blending-in kind of person. Now I live in Durham, Conn., a tiny, almost entirely white farm town, which is largely Republican and largely Christian, and I'm a dark-haired woman of Eastern European descent, which already makes me look different from everybody else. I wear black, I'm a Jew, I'm a writer, and I'm queer. So I figure between one thing and another, I've got plenty of identity to go around.