Writer Wendy always has to re-examine her attitudes


BEING Jewish means to be always inquisitive and never quite fitting in for American-born writer Wendy Brandmark.

But Wendy, who has lived in London for some 30 years, would not want it to be any different as she believes questioning is a positive and creative asset for a writer.

Wendy was born into a New York Jewish family, who were ambivalent about their heritage.

Her forthcoming book of short stories, He Runs from the Moon - Tales from the Cities (Holland Press), features a New York section with mainly Jewish themes.

"My parents were not particularly practising Jews," she told me. "Some parts of my parents' families were Orthodox and some were not, but they always married Jewish."

Her mother's family was Orthodox and observant while her father's was not. But her parents observed the Jewish festivals. The boys were barmitzvah, but the girls did not have a coming-of-age ceremony.

Wendy mused: "Perhaps if I had been a boy I would have done it all."

But she added: "There was a lot of questioning going on, more by my father. But there was a sense of identity at the same time as the questioning. I think that's fascinating, very positive, although painful.

"It means you are always thinking what things mean for you, where you belong, always questioning.

"I think a sense of agnosticism and questioning is quite healthy. That's what I got from them."

After graduating in English at Boston University and working as an editor, Wendy wrote poetry for a few years before completing an MA in creative writing at Denver University.

She moved to London with her British husband Peter Robinson in the 1980s.

She told me: "He had an academic job here. I was keen to come too. I had done a junior year at Sheffield University and knew this country to some extent."

Wendy's last book, The Stray American, tells the story of American Jewish lawyer Larry Greenberg who moves to London to find love and himself, neither of which he succeeds in doing.

When The Stray American was shortlisted last year for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, Larry was described as "an anti-hero for our time".

I asked Wendy whether she felt as rootless and alienated as Larry, who makes frequent references to Jewish practices which evoke for him no positive memories.

She replied: "Maybe I felt a bit more like that at the beginning when I first came to London. I have lived here for a long time. I know England and am part of it.

"Larry has only been here for a year, so he is very new. He is very lost where he is in his life.

"It's not like he had Judaism and walked away from it. It's there, but he never felt really part of it."

She continued: "I don't feel that. I feel rooted in Judaism in my own way. I feel it's an important part of my identity. I'm glad to have it and will always have it. I don't always know how to express it but it's there, it's a certain kind of attachment."

Although not currently a synagogue member, Wendy's leanings are towards Reform and Liberal Judaism.

"I feel rooted in being Jewish which has a lot of wisdom such as its teachings about charity, helping the stranger and some of the practices, like dealing with death, which are very useful," she said.

"But I do not agree with everything. I don't disbelieve. But I don't believe in a personal God. But I am definitely not an atheist. I have a spiritual sense."

Wendy makes a seder and celebrates the Jewish festivals.

Jewish themes abound in her writing. Her first book, The Angry Gods, was set in America, in the 1950s and 1970s.

It tells the story of a Jewish woman who had an affair with a black poet and how that impacted negatively on her family, particularly on her daughter 20 years later.

Wendy, who was shortlisted for last year's Royal Academy and Pin Drop Short Story Award, said: "Jewish identity is very important to me personally. It is fascinating.

"There is such ambivalence about the different realities people have towards their Jewish background whether they want to carry it on and also around the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish life.

"Issues of alienation and feeling not quite part of things are part of what it means to be Jewish, that sense of not quite belonging because you are Jewish and feeling different and not quite fitting into the Jewish community either."

So has Wendy come to terms with her own Jewish identity?

She replied: "Not completely, nor will I ever. There are so many different sides. I don't always identify with the Jewish community. I could be living in a very Jewish community and still be questioning.

"I couldn't live in Israel because I wouldn't want to live in a country that was all Jewish.

"I feel different because I am Jewish, but then within the community I question and do not feel completely part of it either. That is creative. I would not wish it to be different.

"Questioning is positive. I continually have to re-examine my attitudes. It is very positive, stimulating and challenging. That comes out in my writing."

These days Wendy spends most of her time writing when she is not teaching fiction writing at London's City Lit or supervising Oxford's MA creative writing students.

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph