This Author Is Proud to Call Herself the ‘Jewiest’ Writer Ever

It took Toronto-born Nessa Rapoport 26 years to complete ‘Evening,’ her successor novel to the critically acclaimed ‘Preparing for Sabbath.’ That’s the price you pay for being a perfectionist, she says

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Nessa Rapoport
Nessa RapoportCredit: Eugene Weisberg
David Green
David B. Green
David Green
David B. Green

Had she been under contract to deliver “Evening” on a deadline, Nessa Rapoport might have written a long and sprawling book, like her first novel, “Preparing for Sabbath,” from 1981. But Rapoport wrote her second novel on her own timetable and so could spend 26 years on it.

If Mark Twain had had as much time, perhaps that long letter he apologized for would have been more succinct. Rapoport’s book, in any case, is tight, clever and poignant, with crackling dialogue that could be transposed almost directly to stage or screen if the need arose.

“Evening” tells the story of the relationship between two sisters, as recounted by one of them, Eve, as she sits shivah for her older sibling Tam after her death from breast cancer at 38.

Tam (short for Tamara) seemed to have it all, and she worked hard to get it. The anchor of a morning TV news show in Canada, she was by all accounts happy in her marriage to a man who had met her three requirements for a husband – “mature, responsible, worships me” – and they had two young children.

Eve, on the other hand, is still single at 35 and living in New York. Her boyfriend, Simon, is a brilliant and good-natured scholar, but he seems as comfortable as she is with their relationship’s tentativeness. Eve tells us that the “wariness on both our parts … is refreshing rather than a deterrent.” To her older sister, it was offensive.

The cover of "Evening" by Nessa Rapoport.
The cover of "Evening" by Nessa Rapoport.Credit: Counterpoint Press

To Tam, Eve’s tepidness about Simon, and her absence of panic about her ticking biological clock, are of a kind with her low-key professional ambitions. She teaches English literature in a nighttime extension school while she’s trying (though not terribly hard) to finish her doctoral thesis. Her research topic is four British female writers from the period between the world wars – women obscure enough a century later that I assumed they were fictional until I did a Google search.

The author of “Evening” warns, however, against typecasting the sisters “so simply as to say, one’s ambitious, one’s lost.”

‘Maniacally driven’

Speaking by phone from her home in New York, Nessa Rapoport – herself the eldest of four sisters – suggests that, early in their lives, “Siblings mentally allocate to each their [respective] domains – and then they pull apart almost on purpose. So, if Tam was going to be this maniacally driven person, it would be quite likely that Eve, not wanting to copy her,” would be laid back in her style.

Eve has what Rapoport, for lack of a better word, calls charisma. “It’s just part of who she is,” she says. “But just because it comes as naturally as breathing, it doesn’t mean it’s not a gift.”

It’s because of Eve’s charisma that Tam had always been capable of looking to her little sister for advice, even as she continued to condescend to her into adulthood.

Eve recalls how, when Tam was 16, she announced: “I want to know how to be sexy … and I want you to teach me,” before adding, as clarification, “It can’t be what you wear … because you dress like a schlump.”

Eve, naturally, is curious about what’s behind Tam’s sudden need to be “sexy,” and when the latter balks at explaining, she recalls telling her: “‘You know, Tam, you want me to give everything away while you say nothing. But I’m finally too old to fall for it.’”

“I was 13,” Eve reminds the reader.

Nessa Rapoport's debut novel, "Preparing for Sabbath" (1981).
Nessa Rapoport's debut novel, "Preparing for Sabbath" (1981).

When Tam finally releases some information, her little sister advises her that, with boys, you have to “act as if you don’t care – and then mean it.”

That’s certainly not the way the adult Eve acts when she reencounters her first great love, Laurence – “Laurie” – who had remained behind in Toronto when Eve headed south several years earlier. Almost as soon as Laurie shows up at the house of mourning, Eve lets him understand that she is imagining doing things with him that one generally refrains from during shivah. Not only that, so exhilarated is Eve by her reunion with the recently divorced Laurie that she begins to fantasize about moving back to Toronto.

Two weeks before Tam’s death, she and Eve had had a blowup so serious that they didn’t speak again, leaving Eve feeling not only bereft but also guilty. All through the week of mourning, she replays a lifetime of conversations with her beloved sibling, and also imagines Tam’s voice commenting on life without her. But Eve is also angry at Tam, who had insulted her terribly during that final meeting, telling her, “You don’t know how to love.”

The rest of the family, too, takes advantage of the prodigal daughter’s return to interrogate her and offer advice. This begins with her mother, who suggests in a whisper as guests begin arriving at the house, that “you might do something with your hair.” First-degree relatives are generally commanded to neglect their physical appearance during the mourning week, but, according to her mother, if you’re unmarried, you “can even wear makeup during shivah.”

Eve imagines what Tam would have said about that: “‘Can you believe Mummy?’ she’d complain. ‘Trying to find you a husband on the day of my funeral.’”

Merging into a single being

Nessa Rapoport, 67, published “Preparing for Sabbath” when she was just 28, and says now that it “came out of me pretty quickly.” Her debut novel was a densely poetic story about the coming of age of a passionate and intensely spiritual Jewish woman. Judith is in search, as if her life depended on it, of a man with whom she can merge into a single being while at the same time attempting to attain communion with God.

Rapoport acknowledges that she had more than a little in common with her protagonist when she wrote “Preparing for Sabbath.” Like Judith (and now Eve), she was brought up in Toronto, in a family that was Jewishly observant but that, as a matter of principle, refused to identify with a particular denomination.

Like Judith – and Eve – she had a maternal grandmother who was a physicist and radio broadcaster. Rapoport’s grandmother also founded a Hebrew day school. Rapoport’s father used to note apologetically that his generation of Rapoports was the first not to boast at least one rabbi. He was a mere professor of medicine.

Even if she can’t read a Hebrew novel with the ease of an English-language one, the way her mother can, Nessa grew up steeped in the language and the sources. Her conversation with an Israeli is peppered not just with Hebrew expressions, but with references that speak to a wide range of Jewish learning. The revival of the Hebrew language, she says, fills her with happiness.

As a young writer, she says it was her ambition to produce a new kind of American-Jewish fiction. Whereas writers like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud, the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, were reacting to the “narrow, stifling, nostalgic, family-oriented, Yiddishist culture” in which they had grown up, Rapoport tells Haaretz that her dream, when she set out to write her first novel, “was to show in fiction that Jewishness could be as passionate, encompassing and dramatic.”

Philip Roth, left, Rav Kook biographer Yehudah Mirsky and Saul Bellow. “Sometimes, you have to wonder,” says Rapoport, if sin’at hinam “wasn’t the glue that held us together.”
Philip Roth, left, Rav Kook biographer Yehudah Mirsky and Saul Bellow. “Sometimes, you have to wonder,” says Rapoport, if sin’at hinam “wasn’t the glue that held us together.”Credit: AP/David Vaaknin/Reuters

She also wanted to depict Jews “who were living in the world and who were approaching their dilemmas with a Jewish vocabulary. I didn’t want to show only ultra-Orthodox – on the one hand – or assimilated” on the other.

“Preparing for Sabbath,” she believes, “was probably the first English-[language] novel of a young Jewish woman’s spiritual quest” aside from E.M. Broner’s 1978 novel “A Weave of Women,” which Rapoport calls “beautiful” but very different from her book.

What happened to her during the writing of “Preparing for Sabbath,” she explains today, is that she realized she could “hitch a ride on all the sources coursing through me,” and so filled the text with lines from the Siddur (the Jewish prayer book) and the Bible, without identifying them as such.

"A Woman's Book of Grieving" (1994), by Nessa Rapoport.
"A Woman's Book of Grieving" (1994), by Nessa Rapoport.

Her debut book was also a powerful, even angry, advocate for Jewish egalitarianism. Judith declares at one point that she’s “sick of hearing about how women have a different spirituality,” and “of being taught how important it is to put on a tallis and tefillin every morning and then to be told that women don’t need concrete symbols [like those] because they have some magical female ability to sanctify themselves.” She demands the same responsibilities and privileges for herself as belong to any Jewish man.

Nobody else gets hurt

Being that she was not yet 30 when she wrote it, Rapoport could get away with producing something that took itself so seriously. “Evening,” in contrast, is breezy and far less blatantly Jewish in content, though Rapoport recently referred to herself as maybe “the Jewiest writer that ever was.” Everything she writes comes “from that centrality, of how I look at the world, that vocabulary, that double calendar that I inhabit,” she explained.

Rapoport says she thought “Evening” would be her “easy book.” And indeed, according to the author, the first chapter “just fell out of me.” That, however, was nearly 30 years ago. The problem, she notes, is that she “had to understand what those sisters had fought about.”

Tam, it turns out, had been keeping a secret from Eve. “I knew what the secret was,” Rapoport says, “but I had to figure out how to play it out over the course of the novel.” That took time. A lot of time.

Then there was the matter of getting the language right. Rapoport claims to derive a “unique pleasure in being the kind of maniacal perfectionist about writing that I am. Because it is the only place that I can indulge that quality in myself without hurting anybody – except perhaps myself.”

"House on the River: A Summer Journey" (2004), by Nessa Rapoport.
"House on the River: A Summer Journey" (2004), by Nessa Rapoport.

“Perfectionist” may be an understatement. In a Zoom conversation with fellow writer and friend Daphne Merkin, streamed online by the New York bookstore Shakespeare & Co. earlier this month, Rapoport held up a 32-page printout of all the different words that appear in “Evening.” It served as a database with which she “made sure that none of the words occurred in too much proximity to another.” That final polishing of the language took up the final three of the 26 years.

Merkin also has a new novel, “22 Minutes of Unconditional Love,” which, she said in their conversation, took her 30 years to complete. She talked with Rapoport about their shared obsession with finding the right words.

“I think that half of my time as a writer is spent staring into middle space and thinking: Wait, is ‘astute’ the right word, or ‘perspicacious’?” Merkin said. She understands that many, maybe even most readers, would not notice the difference, but to her, “finding the [right] word is one of the pleasures of writing, and it’s a lot of what brings one into the famous ‘flow.’”

Pretty busy, actually

It would be wrong to create the impression that Rapoport has only two novels to show for the past four decades. Actually, she’s been pretty busy.

For one, she published two other books in the intervening period: a short volume of poetry called “A Woman’s Book of Grieving” (1994), and a memoir, “House on the River: A Summer Journey” (2004), about the time she organized a trip on a houseboat on an Ontario waterway for several generations of her extended family.

Even earlier, in the late 1970s, Rapoport lived in Israel for several years, during which she worked as an English-language editor. When she returned to North America, she had a career as an editor at Bantam Books in New York, working closely with such authors as former President Jimmy Carter and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca on their memoirs. “Iacocca: An Autobiography,” which was co-written with William Novak, went on to become America’s best-selling nonfiction book of both 1984 and 1985.

Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, left, with then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004. Nessa Rapoport worked with Iacocca on his best-selling memoir in the mid-1980s.
Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, left, with then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004. Nessa Rapoport worked with Iacocca on his best-selling memoir in the mid-1980s. Credit: HECTOR MATA / AFP

Her editorial work was followed by stints in the nonprofit world: at the Mandel Foundation and, more recently, from 2005 until last year, as a program officer for Jewish and Israel-related projects at the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

Together with her husband, the abstract painter Tobi Kahn, Rapoport has also raised three children, who today range in age from 22 to 32.

‘You’re booked for next year’

She and Kahn have long been known on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for the Shabbat lunches they host. Each week they might have up to 20 guests, always an eclectic blend, with all the cooking done by Kahn. They keep the conversations tranquil with the help of two rules: no interrupting (“Everyone gets to finish his or her sentences”), and no ad hominem remarks .

The meals have been on sabbatical since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, of course, and this has been especially hard on Kahn, his wife says. He has already been in touch with “every person that we’ve ever invited for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot to tell them, ‘You’re booked for next year.’”

The coronavirus also prevented the couple from their annual visit to Israel, where they both have sisters and many friends and other family members. Rapoport describes herself as “very protective” of Israel, which she still views as “a complete miracle.”

She is neither naïve nor uncritical about the country, though she opts not to voice her criticism in this context. “I never forget how lucky I am to have been born during the time of this commonwealth,” she explains. “The air, the light, the sound of Hebrew, the intensity of Israel, the miracle of the ingathering, despite all the internal hatred – I never take Israel for granted.”

Her fascination with Zionist history has disabused her of the notion that there was ever a golden period when the Jewish people weren’t attacking one another, propelled by sin’at hinam – the ancient Hebrew term for “groundless hatred,” which the rabbis of the Talmud said was responsible for the destruction of the first and second Temples.

Rapoport says she “just adored” Yehudah Mirsky’s 2014 book about Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, “Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution.”

“One of the contrarian ways that I love it is that it shows that the sin’at hinam in the Yishuv [Israel’s pre-state Jewish community] was so terrible,” she says. “The ways that members of the old Yishuv hated Rav Kook [the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine] were so searing that it was sort of a perverse relief to me. Because I realized, ‘Hey, we’re not so bad.’ [Also], the Hasidim and Mitnagdim got each other thrown into the czarist prisons, too.

“We’re all so wary of sin’at hinam – and rightfully,” she concludes. “But sometimes you’ve got to wonder: Maybe it was the glue that held us together.”

“Evening,” by Nessa Rapoport, is published by Counterpoint Press and is out now, priced $26

Twitter: @davidbeegreen

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