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What We Take With Us: an Interview with Amy Kurzweil photo

Amy Kurzweil likes to kick rocks and pull down curtains.  Metaphorically, of course – she’s a writer. 

Through her precocious and delightfully distrustful narrators, she examines the constructs that hold our sociocultural identities together; and the questions that we always wanted to ask, but didn’t. 

Art, according to Rainer Maria Rilke, is “the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further.”  In Kurzweil’s “What We Take With Us:” voyeuristic readers embark on a Birthright trip to Israel that will leave no rock unkicked, no assumption unassailed.  I sit down with Kurzweil to discuss the different lenses she uses for this journey, and how she takes readers along for the ride. 


Let’s get started. You told me once that memory doesn't function like a film reel.  It functions like a comic strip - a series of snapshots.  You grew up in Boston, but your idea of personal history includes the inherited experiences of multiple generations. 

In “What We Take With Us:” your narrator journeys to the Holy Land with a 34-frame, disposable camera.  In the era of comprehensive digital documentation, this is a significant decision.  Can you talk a little bit about how the concept of memory is working in this story, through the symbolism of the snapshot?

Sure. Our unnamed protagonist here is struggling with many things, among them: her own identity, the concept of meaning, connection to others. I think memory is, in many ways, what makes us who we are. Overlapping both personal memory and what I call cultural memory – the way we embody what’s happened to those in our family, our culture – is part of what makes us feel close to others. So if we take these 'snapshots' to be a metaphor for memory, and we take memory to be something that shapes our identities, the mother's 'insistence' that the protagonist document her trip might be construed as an insistence that the protagonist make her cultural/religious heritage a part of her identity. 

However, the only things our narrator photographs are, as she puts it ‘overflowing trashcans and poorly lit shots of horizon lines’. She does consider, in her final moments in Israel, taking a picture of a person: a small Hasidic boy sleeping on the plane, a member of an ultra-orthodox sect of the tribe, the polar opposite of our narrator on the scale of religious commitment and cultural absorption; but she does not photograph him in the end. She walks away with 34 snapshots and not one of them contains a photo of a person.


Talking about photographs as curated memory is interesting. It's like when you don't know whether or not you remember experiencing something or if you just remember seeing the photograph of it.  

Exactly. Memory is often replaced by our documentation of it. 


So is this avoidance of photographing people a conscious act of documentation by your narrator? A way to rewrite her experience without other people in it?

I think it is motivated by a certain intention – she is curating an identity of isolation – but, of course, she is insufferably curious about other people, so there’s some conflict there for her.


So, I know that you went on your own Birthright trip several years ago. 

Yes. I went when I was 20. So that's over seven years ago now. 

My Birthright trip was similar to the one in my story in that I went with all college students. Like my protagonist, I went with a certain amount of suspicion and anxiety; I was suspicious of the idea that a land so exotic to me could really be my 'homeland,’ suspicious that I would be 'indoctrinated' into a certain political ideology  --which is separate, but inextricably bound up in, the goal of cultural unity.  I was anxious about being shown an incomplete vision of the country, of walking away with a warped sense of the reality there, a vision 'curated' by somebody else, if you will; but on a more basic level, it's was just scary to be young and far away from home, thrown together with a group of strangers.

This was all scary, but also completely intoxicating, not to mention the fact that we were not given time to sleep. Unlike our narrator here, I did feel, in a real but fleeting way, connected to – or at least attracted to –a lot of the people I met on the trip –the American students, the tour guides, the security guards, the soldiers. All the adventures that our protagonist mentions in this story I experienced – climbing mount Masada at sunrise, riding camels, camping in the desert, etc. – and these experiences were profound to me at the time not only because of their grandeur, but because I shared them with people I felt connected to. Of course the grandeur helped facilitate this sense of connection to others. I walked away from the trip with an experience of inspiration and bonding that felt simultaneously simulated and real. This was somewhat confusing for me at the time.  I knew the whole thing was significant of something, but I wasn’t sure what. As it turned out, the significance for me was not that I became necessarily more connected to Israel or to Jewish practice, but rather I started thinking more analytically about what my cultural inheritances were, how they affect me and those like me.

I do think the Birthright experience is intended to be a simulation of connection, and the trip is marketed to people of a certain age (18-26) who are looking to form identities and communities: young people who are looking for something to care about. The trip is explicitly designed to promote support for Israel, to encourage Jews to make Aaliyah (to move to Israel), and to foster connection in the Jewish community, to make sure we keep thriving. I felt suspicious of these aims precisely because I knew I was vulnerable to them. I was looking for what they were selling - or rather, giving away for free.  


To make sure the Jewish community ‘keeps thriving…’ Like ‘poking holes in the condoms’?

Ha. I don’t think my Birthright trip leaders poked holes in the condoms, but they definitely let us know there were condoms available if we needed some. So: don’t get pregnant yet, but definitely hook up. This is probably a rumor, but I did hear, at the time, that if you marry someone you meet on a Birthright trip, the ‘Birthright people’ – it’s a mystery to me who funds the trip – will pay for the wedding.


No way.

Don’t cite me here; I’m likely propagating myths.


This conversation is a great transition into my next question – no, not the part about the condoms! but the part about pressure and identity. The question is whether you feel any pressure as a Jewish writer examining Jewish themes? Is there any pressure not to give off the wrong impression, or to be culturally sensitive – and back off – in the moments when you might feel the greatest urge to excavate further?

Pressure sounds like a good word for it. Anxiety might be another. You never know who you are going to offend. You’ll notice the trip in the story is not explicitly a Birthright trip, a choice I made for one because I wanted to the idea of a trip to Israel to resonate beyond that specific trip, but I also was weary, at first, of offending that organization.

More generally, when writing about something so polarizing as Israel, I do feel pressure to have a particular political stance that is more specific than just ‘I care about people’, and that’s something I’ve struggled with. In this story, my protagonist is clearly of a world – the educated elite of an invented liberal arts college – that acknowledges the political tensions of the region. Ultimately, it felt more important for me to engage with Israel not as a political hotbed but as a land that offers cultural connections and/or spiritual salvation for its residents and tourists. That is, despite whatever else is going on over there, what the land represents historically, not just for Jews, but for anyone connected to it. I will say that I feel slightly less ‘pressure’ writing around these issues when I’m writing fiction than, say, non-fiction.


There’s a big difference in this story, where you use a fictional character to examine a particular cultural identity, and your graphic-novel-in-progress, Flying Couch, where you explicitly tackle your own inherited cultural identity. In the novel, you do write specifically about your experience on Birthright. Can you talk about the difference in how you treated the same subject, but from your own perspective?

In the graphic novel, I specifically address the region’s controversial borders and the nation’s history of displacing Palestinians – there’s a scene set in the Golan Heights in which a young American student challenges an older Jewish settler on this point (something that happened on my Birthright trip.) My aim is not to settle these political questions but to share an experience of people encountering them. At this point in my development, my concern is not policy, but people. 


Flying Couch tackles three generations of women in your family, beginning with your grandmother. She is really a cultural hero, surviving one of the greatest horrors of human history. The same way you examine the Birthright trip, through incisive questions and fundamental skepticism, you also examine this much more horrific and difficult history – with eyes wide open. You don’t allow your own prejudice as the family of a victim to dramatize the story. The result is a fresh and moving analysis that is not what we have come to expect from this subject.

I was conscious of the way some Holocaust survivors are heroes of history but present day slaves to the banal. In much the way Art Speigelman’s father in Maus counts pennies and pills while narrating a story of tragedy and valor, my grandmother is both a ‘cultural hero’, as you say, and a person who compulsively collects quarters and cans from the side of the road. I think this idea of uniting the epic with the banal is also present in ‘What We Take…’ in the idea that the people who seek spiritual salvation can also be arbiters of the superficial.


You’re talking now about the secondary character Ariana, who your narrator describes as the “long-legged, stylishly coiffed, polka-dotted queen of the JAPS”. As the story closes, we find ourselves wondering where Arianna is, and what she is doing there.  I keep coming back to the question, posed earlier in the story: “Is enlightenment just the anticipation of enlightenment?” Is that what we  Arianna, the narrator, possibly you and I  are looking for?  Do you think Arianna is coming face-to-face with this question, or is she on a different journey entirely?

In an earlier draft of this story, I didn’t reveal what was written on Ariana’s note – probably because I simply didn’t know. But when it came to me – the idea that a character like Ariana was seeking something laughable in its simplicity, but actually quite valid in its intention – she’s seeking connection – I understood Ariana as a character who was, in some ways, more evolved than our protagonist in her particular quest for meaning and purpose. Our protagonist is just starting to understand what it feels like to ask questions about her own desires. Ariana, for better or for worse, has answered some of those questions and made decisions toward certain ends. Ariana becomes convinced that living and studying in this place will bring her a deeper sense of connection to other people. The transition seems sudden, but it was, most likely, something that had been churning with Ariana, unbeknownst to our narrator.


The narrator writes of Ariana’s transformation: “I was there too. I looked at the same monuments, the same graveyards full of soldiers. I ran my fingers through the same racks of patterned scarves, pushed the same turnstiles of postcards. I ob­served the same people doing all the same things, listened to the same empty sounds of a language I didn’t understand.” This makes me think about the idea in Judaism of the ‘Chosen.’ Can you talk about this idea and what it means to you?

It’s a great question, and one that always gave me pause growing up. I was raised with a strong sense of being culturally Jewish, but my religious education was not extensive. The idea that I was a part of an elite group gelled with a certain sense of exceptionalism that I’d noted in my family’s conception of their Jewish identity. I got the sense that my grandparents – all of whom escaped from Nazi occupied Europe in various ways, must have been either extraordinarily cunning, or extraordinarily lucky, or both, in order to not only make it out of the war alive but to thrive in America thereafter. The idea that I was special because of my heritage was comforting to me as a child, before I understood some of the darker implications of inheriting this history. The idea that I came from a special group of people felt true in the way that all children feel the truth of their specialness. However, in regular school I was taught things like ‘all men are created equal’ and that I should judge people ‘not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.’ These concepts of fairness and equality didn’t compute with the idea that only Jews were chosen by God for some special purpose. I suppose I’ve come to reconcile the idea of the Chosen by inverting the agency of the choosing. Jews are only ‘Chosen’ in so far as they chose to worship. In other words, it wasn’t God who chose Ariana to stay and devote herself to Him, but Ariana who chose God. That might reveal something about my conception of God; that his origins are in us, and not the other way around, although that idea is still a work in progress.


Speaking of God, there is a pivotal moment in the story when the narrator visits the Wailing Wall, which she describes as “God’s gargantuan To-Do List.”  It now even includes notes emailed in by those who cannot afford the journey (“wireless wishing”).  When it is the narrator’s turn, instead of submitting a prayer, she pulls three out.  But later, when she unfolds the notes, she finds she cannot translate two of them. So there she is standing there at the wall, surrounded by machine guns and fervent religious tourists and attractive tour guides and toothless local women; she sees the enormous section where men luxuriate and pray, and the tiny, crowded section reserved for women.  Faced with suffering, superstition and the impossible unfairness of the world, the narrator turns her camera up and photographs the sun.  She describes it as looking like a postcard for salvation. 

I love that salvation is on the table in this story.  I wonder, is the narrator merely observing that it is on offer, along with the kitsch and the sacred?  In this story, is it possible?  

I think I’d define salvation, at least in this context, as what somebody really needs. As for what our protagonist here needs, connection to other people is up there, so is a more developed sense of self. We might say this character has a kind of negative identity; she defines herself only in so much as she judges others. She can’t connect to other people, but she is quite externally focused. At the Wailing Wall she is confronted with the question of salvation as I’ve defined it here: what do you want? what do you need? And all she can think to do is steal other people’s desires. On the other hand, we might see this as an act of profound curiosity, more than anything else, so perhaps there’s some hope for her yet. Curiosity is, I think, the first step toward compassion. 


image: Amy Kurzweil