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No easy answers

Local writer talks about her new short story collection, her painting, and much, much more

Jennifer Anne Moses
Jennifer Anne Moses

How do you have a Jewish soul?

What does that even mean?

How do you grow up in Virginia, if not in actual horse country then at least in horse-adjacent country, not knowing any Jews except your own family, and find yourself so deeply drawn to Judaism, yes to the religion but also, maybe even more, toward the condition of Jewishness, that when you grow up it comes increasingly to define you? So that your new book of short stories, “The Man Who Loved His Wife,” is as quintessentially Jewish as, say, Philip Roth’s work was? Or Bernard Malamud’s? Or any of those 20th-century American Jewish writers whose work makes up the canon we think of today? (Your work is updated for the 21st century, of course, and it’s written by a woman, without the reflexive misogyny of those earlier writers, but that of course goes almost without saying.)

Jennifer Anne Moses of Montclair might not be able to explain exactly why that happened — that’s what her work as a writer and a painter is for — but she can talk about her childhood with great love and some distance.

Jennifer Anne Moses and her new book.

“I was born in 1959, and I grew up in northern Virginia,” she said. “Now, it’s all McMansions; then, it was so very WASPy. It was a mix of quiet wealth, old money. It also was a lot of civil servants,” high level civil servants, like her father, “in what we called developments. Split levels.” What she left unsaid but is easy to infer is that they were very nice split levels.

“My friend’s mother had a stable where she kept six horses,” Ms. Moses continued. “We would ride through the fields for hours, when we were 8, 9 years old, and no one thought twice about it.”

Ms. Moses’s father, Alfred H. Moses, who had a “storied career as an insider, a Beltway power lawyer,” his daughter said — and according to the internet, she was understating; Mr. Moses, at 92 a semi-retired partner at the law firm Covington & Burling, was also, among many other things, the United States ambassador to Romania — “belonged to an Orthodox shul in Georgetown, Kesher Israel.”

Ms. Moses’s mother, Carol Whitehill Moses, on the other hand, came from an extremely unobservant family — “what I still call Christmas-tree Reform,” her daughter said — so her parents had what she called a mixed marriage. Alfred Moses was from Baltimore; Carol Moses, who died in 2004, was from Scarsdale, and when they first married they lived in Georgetown, the Washington neighborhood that now, as then, is beautiful, but then, unlike now, was affordable to young civil servants. “I was born in a tiny house in Georgetown, two blocks from the synagogue,” Ms. Moses said. “It wasn’t considered a good neighborhood then.”

So there were two young parents — Jennifer is the second of four children — who had to decide how to live. “My father called himself Orthodox, but we didn’t keep a kosher house, and there were no Jews near us,” Ms. Moses said. “He also wanted to live in the country. My mother did not.” So they compromised. They lived in the country, not near Jews, and Mr. Moses went back to Georgetown on Shabbat to go to shul. His wife and kids did not.

In one Ms. Moses’s paintings, “Don’t Mess with God,” the Israelites cross the Red Sea.

“My father told us that in Baltimore, Jews were really Jews,” Ms. Moses said. “It was very confusing. We didn’t have access to a Jewish community.” They’d occasionally go to shul with their father, but “we weren’t part of the community,” she said.

The only Jews she really knew were her own family, but even there, the message was mixed. Fascinating, important, but very complicated. “I knew my grandparents, but they didn’t live nearby,” Ms. Moses said. Her mother’s parents, back in New York, were very involved Jewishly, but in very specific ways. Her grandmother, Jennie Levy Whitehill, had grown up in Henderson, Kentucky. “Her family had been peddlers, and then they moved into town and opened the local ‘Jewstore,’” Ms. Moses said. “Nana had a very happy upbringing there. She was the toast of the town. And then her mother put her on a train to go to college at Goucher, and she lived on the Jewish hall in the dorm, and at Thanksgiving she went home with her Jewish roommate and met her roommate’s Jewish first cousin.” And that was that. Jennie Levy married Clarence Whitehill and moved to New York.

Ms. Whitehill was deeply involved in the local Jewish community and held many leadership roles in the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, as well as in many other civic institutions, and was known as both a philanthropist and an advocate for children and their families. She was an extraordinary role model, both Jewishly and otherwise, but — and? — she and Mr. Moses presented very different ways to live a Jewish life.

“My grandmother, who died at 96, ate ham sandwiches,” Ms. Moses said. “She made us Christmas dinner, until I was about 5 or 6, when my father decided that we wouldn’t do Christmas dinner anymore.” Still, the message was mixed.

In “The Angel Stayed His Hand,” Abraham is stopped just before he can sacrifice Isaac.

Jews eventually started trickling into the Moses’ corner of Virginia, but not enough to make much of an impression on the children. “In about 1970 or 71, there was the stirring of what became Rodef Shalom” — that’s Temple Rodef Shalom, in Falls Church, Virginia, a Reform synagogue that now has a membership of more than 1,600 families, but was much smaller then.

Jennifer, like her siblings, went to private school, but in ninth grade, she, like one of those siblings, transferred to public high school. The other two did not. “We went to Langley High School, and it was kind of like ‘who did that?’” Langley is a very good high school, but it does not have the cachet of a private school, she said, and she felt comfortable there. Still, she was one of perhaps 20 Jews in her class of about 550.

“My parents basically invented their own religion,” Ms. Moses said. “But I always had this longing to understand this thing, this religion, that was so important to my father. I didn’t know an aleph from a bet, but we would go to his shul on Yom Kippur and sit upstairs, and it felt punitive. There was one good thing — we’d get pretty hats, and I loved that. But still, I felt so stupid. I felt so ignorant. And I was ignorant. I just didn’t have a way in.”

Why did she want it so badly? She’s not sure, Ms. Moses said. Some of it, though, came from her “need to connect with my father. Which I didn’t have.

“I was the weird one in my family. I was the artistic one. My father was Mr. Business and Diplomat and Law.” He was high-powered, and so was their life. “You didn’t know which undersecretary or senator would be dining with us,” she said. “It was glamorous. Henry Kissinger would be playing tennis at a neighbor’s house, and we’d walk by and see them, and it was just normal.

These are portraits of Ms. Moses’s great great grandparents, Michael Simon Levy and Betsy Levy of Baltimore. They opened the hat factory that’s in the painting Ms. Moses made and used on the cover of her book.

“My father was very ambitious,” she continued. “He didn’t want to just go home to Baltimore. He wanted to make it big on his own. He went to Dartmouth; like many men who went to the Ivies, these highly educated elite men, he wanted to serve his country. He served briefly in the Carter White House, he was Carter’s special envoy to Cyprus.” He also served the Jewish community; “He was president of the American Jewish Committee, and he did a lot of behind-the-scenes schmoozing on Capitol Hill to make things happen in struggling Jewish communities.

“He was an operator, in a good way.”

So how could she, an aspiring artist, a writer, a person with no interest in business or law, with a spiritual bent, connect with her father?

Jewishly.

Jennifer had a happy, elegantly rural childhood in Virginia.

She graduated from high school and went to college. “I went to Tufts, and then I met Jews,” she said.

Some of the things that Ms. Moses learned from her new Jewish friends took her aback. That nonkosher house she’d grown up in? She’d been told that it was kosher, but “that was because we didn’t have treif.” Full on treif, that is. No pork products, no shellfish. “But we’d have hot dogs with melted cheese on them. My roommate was a New Jersey Jew, who didn’t know a lot about it either — but she knew that.

“Tufts was the beginning of my ability to take care of my yearning to know what it means to be a Jew. How can I be Jewish? How can I feel like a Jew?

“I started to read, to take classes, and to read and read and read.” After college, she moved to New York, and continued to explore Judaism. “My first job out of college was at Mademoiselle magazine, and then Readers Digest books, and it was there that I finally read the entire Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament — I was working on the dumbest book, called ‘Mysteries of the Bible’ — it was full length, though, because I wasn’t working for Readers Digest condensed books — and it asked questions like ‘Did the Red Sea really part?’ But as a result of that book I read the whole Bible. And I took a class in biblical archaeology, and I went to Israel.” That was the first of many trips there.

Soon, Ms. Moses got married. Her husband is Stuart Green, who now teaches law at Rutgers, where he is a distinguished professor of Law and Nathan L. Jacobs Scholar; his “work seeks to explore the underlying moral content of the criminal law,” according to the school’s website. The newlywed couple moved to Los Angeles, where Mr. Green clerked for a federal judge, and “I got a job at Bon Appétit,” Ms. Moses said. “I immediately got pregnant, and they had test kitchens, and I was constantly throwing up. It seemed like a dream job. It would have been my dream job — but not when you’re pregnant.”

Ms. Moses’s “I Don’t Understand You” updates the story of the Tower
of Babel.

So she quit.

The family — Ms. Moses and Mr. Green have three grown children now — moved to Washington, and Ms. Moses began her career as a writer. “I started writing for the Washington Post, and I got some real wind in my sails because before mommy bloggers were a thing I started writing mommy stuff. My first book, ‘Food and Whine,’ was published in 2000, and by that time we had moved to Baton Rouge.” (“The Man Who Loved His Wife” is Ms. Moses’s seventh book in print.)

Her husband hated being a corporate lawyer, so he happily accepted a job at Louisiana State University’s law school.

“At first, I was entirely freaked out” — her mother had just been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill her about nine years later, and they were moving far away — “and we moved to Baton Rouge in July, with the heat, the mosquitoes, the mold, the ‘What church do you belong to?’ That first year was rough.

“The Green Sofa” sits on a red rug in Ms. Moses’s brightly painted room.

“People would ask me ‘Were you a Greek?’ I thought they thought I was Greek, but they really were asking if I belonged to a sorority.

“But bit by bit, once we got over this incredible culture shock, I loved it. I loved living there. We had a little-engine-that-could synagogue, Beth Sholom in Baton Rouge, and bit by bit we got very involved there. “Our choice in Baton Rouge was either classical Southern Reform or almost Conservative Reform.” (They chose the more Conservative-ish shul.) “The two shuls were at war. Ours remained Reform because they wanted to be able to send their kids to the Reform movement’s camp.

“I became an adult bat mitzvah at the age of 41,” she continued. “It was really something. My parents came down for it — I did it over Thanksgiving – and I told people that I didn’t want presents, so I didn’t get presents.” It’s easier to make such a selfless statement than it is to really mean it, she implied. “But the ladies of the sisterhood did give me a present!”

During 10 of the 13 years the Moses-Green family lived in Baton Rouge, “I volunteered in an AIDS hospice,” Ms. Green said. “Everyone sang gospel. They asked why I didn’t join in. But I can’t sing. The songs were beautiful, but I can’t sing. So they started praying to Jesus for me to sing — but it was painting that was in me, and it had to be let out.”

So Ms. Green painted; she also read and wrote, and she learned Hebrew. “I can speak Hebrew kind of okay now, and I can get around in Israel,” she said.

“Listen To My Words,” God’s angel says in Ms. Moses’s painting.

In 2008, the family moved to Montclair, when Mr. Green got a job at Rutgers, and the family joined Congregation Shomrei Emunah there. “In lots of ways it was like going home,” Ms. Moses said. “It was our home culture. We are East Coast Jews.” (Mr. Stuart grew up in Philadelphia.) “But it still took a while before it felt like home. It’s where your friends are. It took a while for us to dig in.” Now they have dug in entirely.

Ms. Moses paints. Her paintings often have Jewish content, although it’s often not obvious. The cover of her book is “of the hat factory in Baltimore that my grandfather’s family owned,” she said. “MS Levy and Sons. They were a prominent Jewish family in Baltimore — they were rags to riches.”

She also writes, basically all the time. “I still write for newspapers, freelance, although everything has shifted and it seems like no one reads anymore,” she said. “I write a lot of op eds, and a lot of travel writing for the Times. But I’m not really a travel writer. I started as a food writer, but I’m not really a food writer either.” Instead, she’s a writer writer — and she’s very much a Jewish writer.

The stories in her new collection were written over the course of many years, Ms. Moses said, and many of them have been published in literary magazines. They sounds somewhat Rothian — long sentences, rarely straightforward, often first-person, with much focus on what the speaker is feeling, which often isn’t particularly good. They focus far more on character than on plot. What else they have in common — not that they have much in common, she said — is that they’re all somehow ineffably Yiddish. Written in English, of course, she added quickly; she does not speak, much less write, Yiddish — but with a Yiddish soul.

“Yiddish literature speaks to me the way no other literature does,” she said. “It speaks to my kishkas. It’s tragicomic, like life is. It’s messy, like all life is.

“It’s punchy. It’s acerbic and resigned at the same time. It’s pugnacious. It is fricative. It’s guttural; it comes from the guts.

“It never has easy answers.”

Two questions about Yiddish literature are easy to answer, though. It must be by and about Jews. “If you’re talking about Literature, with a capital L, it can have non-Jewish characters but it must have Jews,” she said. “The stuff Jews talk about when they get together.” George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” has very sympathetic Jewish characters, and it’s a wonderful novel, but it’s clear that Eliot was not Jewish. “Rebecca in ‘Daniel Deronda’ doesn’t read true and deep,” Ms. Moses said.

“The stories in my book don’t have anything in common, but they’re all about Jews being Jewish. Struggling in one way or another. What does it mean to be a Jew?” That’s not a question they’d necessarily ask, of course, but it’s always somewhere in the background.

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