Jewish memories haunt a novel about a father’s Alzheimer’s

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(New York Jewish Week via JTA) — Joshua Henkin’s fourth novel, “Morningside Heights,” is the story of many things: a marriage, a changing neighborhood in New York City, an incurable illness, and love and families.

The plot centers on Pru, who grows up Orthodox and meets Spence, a largely secular Jewish professor — he’s a young superstar Shakespeare scholar teaching at Columbia. Pru is Spence’s grad student, but they fall in love, marry and have a daughter. In his 50s, Spence starts becoming forgetful, and is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The novel, then, hinges on the question: What happens when the person you married becomes a different person?

Henkin himself grew up in Morningside Heights. His father, the professor and human rights law scholar Louis Henkin, provided the emotional impetus for the novel; he died at 92 after battling Alzheimer’s.

In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke about the need for writing emotionally autobiographical fiction, growing up in New York City, his father’s view of Judaism as a “Reform Orthodox Jew” and how there shouldn’t be easy takeaways or messages from fiction.

Below is an edited transcription of the conversation. You can watch it here on My Jewish Learning’s YouTube.

Jewish Week: “Morningside Heights” is as much a portrait of this woman and the path her life has taken, but also of their marriage and of this illness — and how it really not only impacts the person who is sick, but all their loved ones. What drew you to telling a story of early onset Alzheimer’s in this way?

Henkin: Even though Alzheimer’s is the tagline, I don’t see it as a book about Alzheimer’s. I really see it as a book about marriage.

When my father was sick, my mother started to go to a class at the JCC on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for caregivers. My mother is very much not a consorting-with-strangers kind of person. I was interested in what her situation was like that she felt that she’d be happy to talk to people whom she might not have anything in common with — except for the fact that they’re all caregivers. So the book started out as a very long short story that took place entirely at the JCC. And by draft 20, the JCC was gone. But I wrote 3,000 pages over the course of eight years, and I found the book in there. There are a lot of mistakes along the way. That’s just how I write.

How did you get from a story at the JCC to the whole novel it is today?

I started to realize I wasn’t that interested in what went on between the people at the JCC. I was interested in this long marriage and this family. I really didn’t want to tell a story about what it’s like for a character to experience Alzheimer’s. We’re really not in Spence’s point of view.

I tell my grad students that you should never write a story about a ball rolling down a hill because if you write a story about a ball rolling down a hill, it’ll roll down the hill. And I’m obviously speaking metaphorically, but I think that that was a challenge for writing a book about Alzheimer’s: If the book is taking place now, and it’s a realist fiction book, then unfortunately the medicine of it is not in question — you know what’s going to happen. And so what was interesting was what it was like for his loved ones to experience his illness. Especially for Pru, she’s someone who hitched her wagon to this star, and what is it like when he declines for her.

In a weird way, it’s harder for her than it is for him because he doesn’t really understand what’s going on. Whereas her identity is so tethered to him, and she really has to invent herself. I was interested, especially in someone who is a career woman, who sees herself as a feminist, [but who] nonetheless took a relatively traditional path that one might not have expected from her. And I was interested in exploring that.

I was really struck by how we learn more of Spence’s childhood on the Lower East Side as he loses more of his mind, and he starts speaking in Yiddish. And I won’t spoil for those who haven’t read yet — but I was really moved when Spence writes to his sister in Yiddish. What is it about the end that brings us back to the beginning?

In my experience with my father, the short-term stuff recedes fastest and the long-term memories recede most slowly. Spence’s sister Enid, she takes up very little real estate in the book — just to tell the people who haven’t read the book, Spence has an older sister who was in a car accident when she was a teenager, and she suffered brain damage. She’s basically been in an institution for all of her life. But even beforehand, he was the golden child and she was not, and she’s very important in the book for our getting a sense of where Spence came from, and a kind of vulnerability. I felt like circling back to her, and circling back to his Yiddish upbringing, was really important to me.

In this book, Spence is deeply secular, a red diaper baby, Yiddish was his first language. Pru grew up Orthodox in Ohio. It’s the reverse of my own parents: My father was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who grew up on the Lower East Side, my mom was much more secular. But I used to go with my father to the Lower East Side every Sunday to visit my grandfather when he was old. And there’s something about that transformation. The book is about Morningside Heights, but it’s also about other neighborhoods. The transformation of the Lower East Side from this sort of old Jewish Mecca to hipster bands has been interesting to me. Coming back to that Yiddish of Spence’s felt like a way to bring the book full circle.

The title is obviously a neighborhood on the Upper West Side, where Spence and Pru lived, and their story is so rooted in the place of New York — but it’s also very Jewish New York. There’s the Jewish Lower East Side, the Jewish Upper West Side. What does it mean to you to tell a New York story, but specifically a New York Jewish story?

Writing that kind of story comes naturally to me, just because I’m a New York Jew [laughs]. I’m 57, I was born in 1964. I grew up in Morningside Heights, I lived there for 18 years, then I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I lived in Berkeley, California, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then I moved back to New York in 1999, with my then-girlfriend, now wife, and we moved to Brooklyn, like so many writers and so many people. But that too, is interesting! Brooklyn is where everyone escaped from. My older relatives are like, you moved to Brooklyn?!

The New York Times Book Review of the book captured something about the book’s relationship to the city, even though I wasn’t consciously thinking [about it]. Flannery O’Connor once said that fiction writers have to have a certain measure of stupidity. Some come by it naturally, others have to cultivate it. But I think we’re really proceeding intuitively. But I think Jean Hanff Korelitz’s review did capture something that’s important to the book, even if I wasn’t aware of it in the writing of it.

I grew up at a time — I sound like I’m 90 — when there was a really meaningful distinction between the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. There’s still a distinction, but it’s a much more nuanced distinction. But I was the son of an academic, in Morningside Heights. I went to the Ramaz School, which is a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, on the Upper East Side — a very Upper East Side kind of school. I was by no means poor, but I was the poor kid among the rich kids. I was the son of intellectuals among the kids who are the sons and daughters of professionals. They had TVs in every room of their house, we had one small black-and-white TV that was brought out reluctantly from the closet for certain PBS specials. So I was always very aware of being that kid.

When I was in seventh grade, I’m not quite sure why, one of our teachers asked us to go home and count all the books in our home. My home had more books than all my friends’ combined. I was both proud and embarrassed. I’m telling the story all by way of saying that I had friends on the Upper East Side whose parents did not want [them] to come visit me because I lived in what they perceived to be a dangerous neighborhood. In some subconscious way, I was writing about how the Upper West Side has changed. At the end of the book, Pru walks uptown and she passes all the establishments that are gone. The book is about the receding of memory, but it’s also about the receding of place.

Morningside, too, literally means a dawn or new beginning. In many ways, for Pru, Spence’s illness is a new chapter for her that she never imagined. Did you always have the major points of how Pru was going to cope?

I never plan things out in the first draft. The relationship between plot and characters was so important to me — it is complex and symbiotic. We are created by our stories, but we also create them. If you have too clear a sense of where your book is going, you’re kind of screwed. I’m not saying you can’t think you know [where] it’s going, it’s just: You should be wrong.

E.L. Doctorow talks about writing a novel is like driving across the country at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but if you keep driving, you’ll get there. You’ll probably take some detours and make some mistakes along the way, but you’ll hopefully, eventually, get there.

Riverside Park in Morningside Heights, April 1, 2019. (Ken Lund/Flickr Commons)

What was the most difficult part of writing “Morningside Heights”? 

There was an emotional hurdle I had to overcome in writing the book. That’s in large part because it’s inspired by my father, and although Pru is not my mother in so many ways, there are some similarities. At some point there’s the possibility of a new romance between Pru and a character named Walter — this is while Spence is still alive.

I was worried how my mother would feel about a character who in many, but not all ways, resembled her taking up with another man while her husband was in serious decline but still alive. But my mother is both a reasonable person and a sophisticated fiction reader, and so I should have known better. I talked to her about it. And she was like, “Oh, that’s fine. I have no problem with it.” I was worried unnecessarily.

What was interesting to me is that I feel like my whole dichotomy was wrong to start off with. Pru remains incredibly loyal to Spence, even after whatever happens with Walter happens. And if anything, I think that her involvement with Walter might make her even more loyal to Spence. So I feel like that dichotomy I was making between loyalty to one spouse and betrayal was wrong. I learned something about my family and about life from writing the book. I guess it’s a good thing — to spend a lot of time in a book, you might as well learn something.

How do you separate or channel your emotions about your dad and his illness, and what the end of his life was like, with writing a good story? How do you handle using those emotions?

I always tell my grad students this: I think fiction has to be emotionally autobiographical. What I mean by that is you have to feel like you’re at risk in some ways, and that you’re writing about things that are hard. Because if there’s no feeling coming from the writer, the reader is not going to feel it. There’s not a guarantee that just because there’s feeling from the writer, the reader will feel things, but there is a guarantee that if the writer doesn’t feel, then the reader won’t feel. So it’s certainly necessary, if not sufficient.

But it’s interesting because my first novel, “Swimming Across the Hudson,” and this one, “Morningside Heights,” in the narrow sense are much more autobiographical than the middle two, “Matrimony” and “The World Without You.” But I actually don’t really feel that that’s true, even though it is true. I’m always writing from the heart and I’m always a fiction writer. I’m never really interested in fidelity to actual truth for truth’s sake.

In some ways, I always think what’s narrowly autobiographical is less interesting. That’s just what happened to the writer, whereas what’s made up is more interesting because that tells you what the writer’s fantasies are.

Do you feel you gravitate towards Jewish stories in any sense or form?

I guess a lot depends on what you mean by Jewish story. Of my four books, I’d say “Matrimony,” my second one is the least Jewish in terms of the number of Hebrew, Yiddish words, number of mitzvahs …

Not necessarily what makes a Jewish story! 

But was I any less Jewish during the writing of that book? No. I do tend to write about places I know. Because I grew up in a home that was steeped in Jewish tradition, I frequently write about Jewish characters. But I also write about non-Jewish characters, and I write about frum characters and secular characters. I mean I sort of resist the label. I’m certainly happy to have the label for the purposes of talking to [Jewish media], for purposes of traveling around the country to talk to JCCs. I recognize that writers like me like to have it both ways. But I’ll own up to that and say I do like to have it both ways. In other words, I love talking to Jewish audiences, but I also feel like my books are going to appeal universally to people who are serious readers of fiction.

It’s a bigger discussion, but people of color and Jews and women — people who are not in the “majority” culture. I don’t want to equate those three categories because there are different ways in which different people are and are not in majority culture, and I do not want to be glib, but what I will say is, no one says to John Updike: “How do you feel about being a WASPy, male, New England writer?” It’s like, “oh, you’re a writer.” When Jewish writers resist that [label], what they’re resisting is pigeonholing.

In the same way “you don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s,” to use that old bread commercial, that’s how writers like me feel about our book. We want as wide an audience as possible, but certainly being Jewish is a very big part of my identity, so it’s not surprising that I often write about characters who are engaged with Judaism in some way or another.

Pivoting to a question from a listener: What part did Pru’s Jewish faith play in her journey in the book, and your mom’s? 

It’s interesting because Pru’s faith, and Judaism more generally, is really important to the book. But it hovers over the book — it’s not super explicit. Pru’s from Ohio, but she really drops traditional Judaism [after meeting Spence]. The first thing they do is kosher their home, but that home doesn’t remain kosher for long.

Everyone wants what they don’t have — not just about Judaism, but just period! Later in the book, Pru and Spence’s daughter Sarah says to Pru, “I wish you’d sent me to Jewish day school, I don’t know anything, you at least had a choice.” And I understand that perspective. And then I have a lot of friends from Ramaz who feel like, “I can’t believe my parents forced it down my throat for 13 years.” There are a couple of times in the book that Pru goes back to shul, she goes back to say Kaddish for her father, then later, when Spence is sick, she goes back to say Mi Sheberach, the blessing for the sick. She is looking for solace in traditional Judaism, and wants to find it, but can’t quite find it because it’s no longer her. That’s maybe true of a lot of people I know, who either were never traditional but wish they had something to fall back on, or were once traditional and are no longer traditional — they miss something, but they can’t quite capture it. There’s a nostalgia and longing that she has for traditional Judaism that she wishes she could get back, but it’s not her any longer.

My father was born in Belarus in 1917, came over in 1923, lived on the Lower East Side. My grandfather [Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin] was a very well-known Orthodox rabbi who lived in the U.S. for 50 years and never learned to speak English. He just lived Yiddish. My father basically remained Orthodox until the day he died, but temperamentally, and culturally, he was a non-assertion of one’s identity, sort of Orthodox. He didn’t wear a kippah on the street.

He liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn, the father of Reform Judaism, who said “a Jew at home, a human being on the street.” And that was what he was like: He was a Reform Orthodox Jew. When he was clerking on the Supreme Court for Justice Frankfurter after he came back from World War II, he used to have to be at the Supreme Court pretty late Friday. He didn’t travel on Shabbat, his apartment was in Georgetown — he would secretly sleep on Justice Frankfurter’s couch so he wouldn’t have to travel on Shabbat. But the secretly is what’s interesting; he would never have told anyone.

I know you said earlier in our conversation, you’re not someone who writes with messages or themes, but when a reader finishes “Morningside Heights,” how do you hope they feel? 

I can give you a vague and probably not very satisfactory answer, which is I want the reader to feel transported. I want them to feel like they know these characters as well as or better than people in their own lives. And I want them to have an emotional experience. I want to break their heart, but I say “break their heart” very loosely because I don’t feel like this is ultimately a sad book. There’s sad things that happen in the book, but I want them to have an emotional experience.

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