I’ve never had an affiliation with being Jewish. Never introduced to Jewish history or tradition growing up. I’ve learned more about being Jewish from writing BEGUILED than I ever knew before.
My family was secular, culturally identified with being Jewish, but did not believe in religious observance of any kind. My father Walter Kitaj was an emigre from Hitler’s Vienna in 1939, very late to escape the Nazis. His way of coping was never to talk about his heritage, what he may have suffered as a graduate student in Europe, or about being a Jew. My paternal grandmother Helene Kitaj tells the story of her husband, a doctor in the Viennese army, as wanting to hide his Jewish heritage from the servants, so on Yom Kippur (the holy day), he made my grandmother eat all his food as well as her own because he wanted to fast.
My mother Jeanne Brooks Kitaj came from Russian stock. Her parents Rose and Dave Brooks were the models for the parents of Miriam, the protagonist in BEGUILED. They spoke Yiddish and not much English so I never got to know them. The story fictionalizes them, but my grandfather was a tailor like Miriam’s father. He, like the character of Pop, was also active in the Workmen’s Circle or Arbiter Ring, a socialist-unionist Jewish organization that provided education and support to new immigrants. According to my mother, her Pop was not tolerant of religious observances or “superstitions,” as she called them. This disrespect for observant Jews comes through in my story.
The chapter on the bris of the baby Aaron in BEGUILED is reminiscent of how I felt when my infant son had a circumcision in the hospital. It felt agonizing to me, as it did to Miriam, my fictional character.
I hope I didn’t offend people with Pop’s remarks about Jewish tradition. As a psychotherapist, I’ve always tried to keep an open mind about people’s religious and spiritual beliefs, although my parents drummed into us the thought that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” It’s been confirmed for me that people have seriously misinterpreted organized religions for their own purposes and lead people into dark hateful places. If only people who purport to believe in Jesus’s teachings, e.g., would really live by his teachings, rather than the ones many have adopted, the world would be in a better place. Same for all the other great prophets.
Once you read BEGUILED, I would love to hear your comments about the Jewish themes.