When he was growing up in Perth Amboy, Alan Cheuse began a Jewish literary journey that has influenced much of his prolific writing. It began during his undergraduate years as editor of the Anthologist, the literary magazine published on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus.
Since graduating in 1961, he has published 15 fiction and nonfiction works, along with reviewing some 50 books a year for National Public Radio and several newspapers, as well as serving as a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Last month, Fig Tree Books published Prayers for the Living, actually a reissue of an earlier Cheuse novel about a prominent New Jersey rabbi, a Jewish grandmother, and themes including betrayal, alcoholism, depression, infidelity, and sexual trauma.
Cheuse, the son of a Russian immigrant father and a mother of Russian and Romanian descent, spoke of his work and its influences in a March 29 phone interview with NJ Jewish News from his home in Washington, D.C.
NJJN: Please describe the Jewish experience of your youth and how it has influenced your work.
Cheuse: My parents were “holiday Jews,” but because of my grandparents and great-grandmother, I did grow up going to the Orthodox synagogue [Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh] in Perth Amboy. I went to the Hebrew school and had a bar mitzva there. As I look back on it now, it was something like a drug trip. I don’t know how I did it. When I got to high school, because of girls, I switched over to the Conservative temple [Congregation Beth Mordecai]. I sang in the choir, and I became a state, then a national, officer of United Synagogue Youth. That all ended when I got to college. I started reading and taking history and philosophy and writing.
NJJN: How did you happen to write Prayers for the Living?
Cheuse: This is a book I wrote originally 30 years ago as a novel called The Grandmothers’ Club. Prayers for the Living is its fourth iteration. It came out in hardcover, then as a Penguin paperback, and then some years later as a paperback published by Southern Methodist University Press.
NJJN: How do its themes of alcoholism, depression, and sexual trauma all fit together?
Cheuse: It is about a rabbi from New Jersey who gives over his pulpit in a dramatic event, goes into business, and becomes the head of an international corporation based on United Brands, which used to be called United Fruit. He destroys himself and his family in the process.
NJJN: Has the story of Prayers for the Living changed since you first wrote it?
Cheuse: There are changes on every page, but it is essentially the same book. It is not a major overhaul, but I had a chance to go back and change some punctuation and words here and there.
NJJN: How do you feel about it after all these years?
Cheuse: I have been doing a lot of readings, and reading from it again has been really exciting to me. Normally you have to stir yourself to show enthusiasm for something that was written at least a year before it was published. But I still feel a certain connection to this book.
NJJN: Do you get mostly Jewish audiences at your readings?
Cheuse: No. Not so far. I can’t really tell, but the audience in Texas was not all Jewish. The audiences seem to be people who are interested in me.
NJJN: Do you have any favorites among your books?
Cheuse: It’s almost a cliche to say it’s like asking to choose which of your children you love most, but it is the one I am working on now.
NJJN: You’ve said that some but not all of your work is influenced by your Jewish experience. What did you mean?
Cheuse: In a way, all of it is. It may not seem like that, but everything you know goes into what you write.