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Ask A Jew: How has Judaism influenced your writing?

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By Neal Schindler

Has your religion influenced your writing in any noticeable way? If so, what would you say is the most influenced aspect?

As regular readers of this column know, I do not identify as religious, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m not spiritual. That said, I think my Jewish upbringing and identity, and the ideas and values that underlie both, influence my writing considerably. Perhaps the most obvious examples of that influence are my endless attempts to be funny — humor is a core Jewish value, both for its own sake and as a means of coping with life’s challenges — and my efforts, however humble, to promote social justice, inclusivity, and understanding.

Let’s look at the second example first. Tikkun olam has become such a watchword among progressive American Jews that a backlash has been brewing, particularly in more conservative Jewish circles. That said, using the phrase tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) to give social justice initiatives a Jewish flavor (as many progressive Jewish nonprofits do) doesn’t strike me as particularly harmful unless all of that tikkun olam-saying isn’t backed up with genuine action that, y’know, makes something better.

My father was basically a Jewish humanist, and I try my best to follow in his footsteps. When answering “Ask a Jew” questions or writing about the issues of the day, I attempt to see shades of gray rather than falling into easy, black-and-white characterizations of individuals, groups, or movements. (It’s worth noting that curiosity, critical thinking, and education are also key Jewish values.) On an ongoing basis, I try to figure out what I, as the busy and often exhausted father of a toddler, can actually do to help repair our very broken world, even if it’s just writing a FāVS article that helps non-Jews understand the strengths, challenges, and complexities of Jewish identity at a time when anti-Semitism is experiencing an unfortunate renaissance in the U.S.

Second, I learned from a young age to be funny. My dad was funny, our family enjoyed and traded in a goodly amount of Jewish humor, and as a kid who turned out fat, weird, smart, and routinely bullied, I used humor as a coping mechanism in both my writing and my daily life — eventually in a sardonic, less-than-healthy, keeping-authentic-emotions-at-bay kind of way. But hey, humor as coping method is better than no coping method at all, right?

Especially as I get older, I find that it’s hard to consume pop culture, news media, or plain old conversation if there isn’t at least some humor involved. And while as a younger writer I think I worked a little too hard to make my writing funny and performative, with a distinctive style I hadn’t really worked out yet, at this point I at least try to write more conversationally, and without that urgent desire to impress the reader. And since nothing kills the funny like a desperate need to be liked, humor works a lot better when one’s writing is, shall we say, a bit more relaxed.

In summary, I’d like to think Jewish culture and values have helped me become a more humane, more thoughtful, funnier, and less uptight writer. And maybe even, in some small way, a more daring one.

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