When I visited my sister in Kansas the week before last, we went to services at a synagogue she was thinking of joining. I met a women there who ran a book group that focused mainly on books with Jewish themes.
"Are there any Jewish themes in your writing?" she asked.
"No," I said. "But I don't know why not."
If I'm supposed to write what I know, shouldn't I be writing... Jewish?
What are my stories? I am not a product of Ashkenazi Montreal in it's heyday - that incubator of Jewish literature. I am a transplanted Israeli, who came of age and happily assimilated in Canada. I can't (or won't) throw around "Bubbie" and "Zaidi" with any authenticity, and I don't want to be writing some kind of Jewish schtick. (Which, when I tried to read Goy Crazy on the recommendation of a friend, found that I couldn't choke down the first page. Sorry.)
So far, I have worked on chick-lit, YA, mystery and short stories. There is nothing overtly Jewish about any of the writing I've completed, and it would be far-fetched to say there are any "hidden" Jewish themes.
I don't want to create grotesque stereotypes, but I don't want to create two-dimensional Jews either. (In this 2003 article by Kera Bolonik , Grace from Will & Grace is lauded as a positive Jewish character on TV, but I had no idea the character was Jewish till the words "bat mitzvah" flew out of her mouth one day. I see Bolonik's point, but I always found Grace's Judaism superficial.)
Howard Engel's detective, Benny Cooperman, on the other hand, believably goes to his aging parents' house for Shabbat dinner, and reads like an authentically-drawn character whose Judaism is a fully integrated part of him.
As I've worked on this post I wonder if my problem is with my protagonist's name. If she is Jewish, then I've given her an Ashkenazi name: Mara Liefe. This means that I've set myself up for writing out of ignorance (or relying on popular representations of Ashkenazi culture to a large degree). Giving her a Sephardi or Mizrahi last name might allow me to create a more realistic Jewish protagonist - I could truly write what I know.
For now, as I revise structure and plot, this is a moot point, but soon Mara will have to leap off the page and into an agent's (or publisher's) heart. I will need to figure out whether writing Mara Jewish will make her a stronger character - or me a better writer.