With her startling debut collection, “The Bed Moved,” Jewish author Rebecca Schiff announces herself as one of the most refreshing and powerful new voices in literature. Hilarious, intelligent, deeply and darkly poignant, her stories are being likened to the work of Nabokov and Lorrie Moore. And yet Schiff’s voice is a singular force onto its own. Recently, she sat down with me at a Brooklyn coffee house to discuss lox, alienation, ironic Christmas trees, and other pressing concerns of the Jewish people. We’re also giving away a free copy of her book–see details at the end of the interview.
Let’s start from the beginning. At what point did you realize you had a book?
I had a thesis in graduate school that was about a third of the length of the book, so I knew that I had a base. The first story I wrote that I knew was at a different level was “Another Cake.” That is the most Jewish story in the book and it was a breakthrough for me. The breakthrough moment I even know—the narrator is trying to find a rabbi to officiate the funeral (a prickly thing, because her father had decided he wanted to be cremated) and there is a line, “No rabbi would touch it.”
Although many of your stories are not overtly Jewish, the voice throughout feels intrinsically Jewish in a similar (but different) way as “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” are Jewish without announcing it. To me, the book shoots from the hip of an irreverent secular Jewish feminist sensibility that is particularly exciting because I have never seen it done quite like this. Was it consciously cultivated?
That is a good question. Writing makes me realize that I’m Jewish in a way that living doesn’t. I didn’t notice I was Jewish growing up because I lived on Long Island and everyone was Jewish. So it was not a thing. It was life.
When I entered the world or went to college (still a ton of Jews there), I started to notice we had some things in common: We talked over each other, we argued, whatever it was, that hyper-verbal thing. And then through writing: the narrators dating guys who weren’t Jewish—that would come up. And I didn’t know it was an issue.
When I was dating non-Jewish guys in real life, I didn’t know I cared. There’s some guilt about it, or something, that was coming up in the writing. I always liked Jewish guys. I had crushes on Jewish guys, but they wouldn’t date me so I always wound up dating guys who looked Jewish but who were Catholic.
Catholics, Jews. Not so different.
There are still some differences. Someone once said to me, “Catholics are afraid of God. Jews are afraid of their parents.”
We’re a shonda!
I also had to manage stereotypes. In the breakthrough story, “Another Cake,” which is the shiva story, originally I had, “There are bagels!” and I had a writing teacher tell me, “You have to do better than bagels if you are going to write about Jewish things. You can’t just use what we already know; you have to push it further if you are going to write about the experience.”
In the final story, “Write What you Know,” the meta-fiction unfolds as a litany. “Jewish people who have assimilated… will get a tiny Christmas tree with irony, or a bigger Christmas tree if they are more serious about assimilating and less serious about irony.” What were you? Christmas tree Jew? Ironic Christmas tree Jew? Non-tree Jew?
I was not a Christmas tree Jew. My parents did not have one. I am now an Ironic Christmas tree Jew. When I was in my 20s, my roommate and I had an apartment that looked like the inside of Urban Outfitters; it was very decorated with lanterns and we had a lot of Christmas lights up and then we thought—she was Jewish too—it would be fun to decorate a tree.
So she got a tiny 10-dollar Charlie Brown tree and brought it home on the subway and we had this inspiration. What are we going to put on the top of it? We looked around and there was a postcard of Woody Allen on the bulletin board, and we both said, “He’s going on the top of the tree.” So that was my first ironic tree. And I’ve had one almost every year since—sometimes I forget to get it, and sometimes I have a Christmas Eve party for Jews and non-Jews who haven’t gone home.
Such a good Jew of you.
I think Christmas is one of the best Jewish holidays, because you are free.
A hundred years ago when I was in grad school, I did a nonfiction thesis on contemporary Jewish writers where I interviewed all these authors about what it means to be a Jewish American writer today and how they feel about the classification. Nathan Englander rebuked this question, and responded to it by pulling into a fast food drive-through and ordering some treyf, I understand the criticism. Labeling can be limiting and marginalizing and pigeonholing. But hey, we contain multitudes. Identify is expansive. And I would say, in your work, while it’s certainly not remotely the only thing, you are clearly working in some of the classic Jewish tropes: guilt, sex, alienation.
The part of Judaism I’m most proud of is the literary part. I’d be happier to be pigeonholed as a Jewish writer than I would be a Jewish person. I feel kind of mixed about Judaism, but to be a Jewish writer, that’s awesome. I love the Jewish writers. Smart, funny. That is what I want to read. So to be included among them—as long as that is not all I am—that is a club I want to be a member of.
But I want to say something about alienation for a second. The narrator in “Another Cake” is actually alienated from the Jewish ritual. So it is a Jewish story—there is that—but the alienation comes from her feeling alienated from the Jewishness of the funeral. So there is a double alienation. Because the Jewishness—that actually is the mainstream. And she feels alienated from the mainstream.
And then there is humor. What is humor but a way of dealing with pain and alienation and sorrow? So there is that common thread.
Jews, through comedy and literature, have given voice to that alienation. In terms of humor, I am aware of it. I like to entertain myself. If I think a line isn’t funny enough or the line doesn’t sound good enough, I’ll bold it in the text to return to later.
I have to have a sense of the absurdity in order to get to the serious and sadness. I’m not always like that in real life; I don’t always think everything is absurd all the time. Although I once broke up with someone because he didn’t think things were absurd enough.
OK, so now I want to do a sort of Jewish Proust questionnaire.
If your book were to have a theme song, what would it be?
Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” has this line: Shouldn’t I have this, shouldn’t I have this
Favorite shiva food:
I like lox at everything. Smoked fish. I remember my grandmother had amazing lox at her shiva. I remember thinking: This is amazing. But she’s dead. So I felt sort of sad.
But she would have been so happy that you were eating well!
That is true.
To win a free copy of Rebecca’s book, enter below by next Monday, May 16th. We will choosing one lucky winner.