Faith and The Believers
What prompted you to explore a specifically Jewish family?
I knew early on that I wanted to write about the child of atheist parents becoming religious and the daughter of atheist Jewish parents becoming a ba’al teshuvah, it seemed particularly rich in possibilities. I liked the idea of having one kind of religious Jewish identity confront another secular form of Jewish identity based on progressive politics and social activism. My husband and I have had a series of debates/negotiations over the years about Jewishness and Judaism and in particular how we want to raise our children. (We are both atheists, but I grew up celebrating Christmas and my husband was raised Orthodox). Making my fictional family Jewish was, at one level, a convenient way to translate some of these discussions into the novel.Can you identify distinctly Jewish values underpinning The Believers?
No. Unless you want to claim disputatiousness as a Jewish value. I like to believe that my values are non-denominational.
How do you see the relationship between politics and religion within the book?
I suppose one of the things that the book suggests is that religious and ideological stances have more in common than is often acknowledged. The Talmudic tradition is as much about ratiocination and intellectual argument as it is about faith per se, while most strongly-held political positions have a good deal to do with emotional allegiance and faith. The militantly anti-religious books written in recent years by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett et al. do a fine job of skewering the illogic of religion, but the truth is all belief systems, including the ones that style themselves ‘scientific’, seem to come with an elaborate set of defences for fending off logical arguments that are injurious to themselves.
Could this book be set anywhere other than New York?
Yes, but it would be a different book. I’m pretty sure that the questions The Believers asks — How do we arrive at our beliefs? How do we cope when the beliefs on which we have staked our identity fail us? — are internationally applicable. But every story tends to suggest its own location and this one always seemed to me to be a New York story.
Religion, ideology, social activism, politics, marriage are all fraught with hypocrisy and compromise in The Believers. Why do the characters cling to them?
Well, you put it very bleakly. I’m aware that some people have read the novel as a satire on the hypocrisy of its protagonists, but I don’t see it that way. What I set out to write was a sympathetic portrait of people wrestling with various sorts of belief — wrestling being the operative word. They don’t just ‘cling’; they struggle in more or less good faith. I agree with Joel Litvinoff: ‘Only ideas are perfect. People never are.’The book’s epigraph is a quote from Antonio Gramsci: ‘The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.’In part, I think, the book is about the supreme difficulty that all of us have in meeting that challenge.