What It's Like Being Jewish and Queer in 2020 America

‘All My Mother’s Lovers,’ the debut book of queer, Israeli-American left-wing author Ilana Masad was met with critical praise. She hopes that Biden's win will change the way the country treats minorities

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Ilana Masad. 'This country is built on racism.'
Ilana Masad. 'A wholly unique exploration of identity, sexuality and the all-consuming power of love.'Credit: Joshua A. Redwine
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

NEW YORK – When Ilana Masad sought to postpone our interview after two long nights of protesting police violence following the death of George Floyd, it was hard not to think of a conversation in her debut novel, “All My Mother’s Lovers,” which was published in the United States in May. It’s a conversation between the protagonist, Maggie, and Lucia, her partner.

Lucia quietly says that the Nazis are coming and that she would prefer to sleep in her own apartment that night. The conversation takes place against the backdrop of the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, where right-wing extremists raised the Nazi flag and gave the Nazi salute. It was there that one of them rammed a car into a crowd of anti-Nazi demonstrators, killing a young woman.

'The past four years made people understand what’s really happening. That we’re not the best, the most advanced, the freest'

In her book, Masad, who is 30, describes Maggie’s feelings as a white Jewish American who is aware that, despite the ugly rise in antisemitism, she is still much higher on the social ladder than her Black-Hispanic partner. She knows that she is white, she says, but she’s not one of them, she tells Lucia. She’s Jewish and queer, and they hate her too.

Nevertheless, Masad writes, Maggie still has the day-to-day privilege of being white, while Lucia, the Afro-Latin lesbian daughter of Puerto Rican parents, is left much more exposed in the presence of those hate-filled people.

However, Masad, who finds outgoing President Donald Trump to be 'clearly fascist', is not quick to pin all the ills of the United States on the single presidency of one man, however disturbed and dangerous he may be.

“This country is built on racism,” she says. “Floyd was just the latest trigger, but there’s nothing new in this oppression. This is a country with very beautiful ideology and ideas that in the end are built on lies that are very easy to believe in from the outside, until you come and live here. The past four years made people understand what’s really happening. That we’re not the best, the most advanced, the freest. That this is not really the land of opportunity that we think.”

The cover of ‘All My Mother’s Lovers.’ Not a biographical novel. Credit: Penguin Random House

Does that mean that, like Maggie in the book, Masad, who is young, white, Jewish, from a good home, a Ph.D. student in English literature, has felt in recent years that she was in danger?

“Over the past four years, I’ve felt that 100 percent,” she replies. “When I moved to the U.S., I didn’t think I would need to think about when to say that I’m Jewish and when not to, whether it would be something that I would sometimes have to hide, to think about. And I absolutely have to.”

Joe Biden's win in the election surprised her. “I was so ready for President Trump and his party to figure out a way to suppress enough votes and invalidate this election. It's been a huge boost to my morale that grassroots organizing all over the country, led especially by Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indiginous activists, have yielded the results not only of the election but of its aftermath. I'm relieved that mainstream media finally chose to cut away from a president actively and deliberately conveying misinformation about the elections.” 

Yet she insists that the Biden / Harris ticket is far from perfect. “As a progressive, I am endlessly frustrated with the Dems and their constant capitulations to the GOP in terms of policy moderation. But I also feel like there's now someone to talk to, a government that will give voices that I believe in and stand behind a seat at the table. There's something to strive for now rather than a sense of needing to continue to be on the defensive.” 

'The United States is a country with very beautiful ideology and ideas that in the end are built on lies that are very easy to believe in from the outside'

Five letters to five men

“All My Mother’s Lovers,” which was published by Dutton, a subsidiary of Random House, which is also affiliated with the Penguin publishing group, has attracted quite a bit of interest in the United States; Buzzfeed included it on its list of best books to be published this year. An Associated Press review called “All My Mother’s Lovers” “a wholly unique exploration of identity, sexuality and the all-consuming power of love. Masad is a masterful storyteller who offers complex, dynamic characters that continue to surprise us until the very end.”

USA Today, which listed the book among the most promising books for the month of May, wrote that “Masad has written a melancholy and memorable reminder of how little we often know about the people who raise us, not just as caretakers, but as human beings with hopes and heartaches.”

The book tells the story of Maggie Krause, a 27-year-old queer Jewish white woman who, from the outset in the book, reveals the death of her mother, Iris, in a car accident. When she comes home to mourn along with her brother, Ariel, and her father, Peter, she discovers that her mother’s probate documents include five letters to five men whom Maggie had never heard about. In her will, her mother asked that the letters be delivered to the men following her death.

Maggie decides to drop everything and uncover her mother’s secret life through the five men, whom she would set out to find. Along the way, in talking to the men, she gathers additional details about her mother’s mysterious life.

Supporters dance as they attend a watch party of US President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris delivering remarks, in Miami on November 7, 2020.Credit: CHANDAN KHANNA - AFP

That journey reveals to Maggie, and to Ilana Masad’s readers, that Iris’ mysterious and wild life is to some extent a journey of self-discovery for Maggie, over her fragile relationship with her partner, Lucia, the constant struggle within herself, her dream of becoming an artist – and her difficult relationship with her mother, whom, even after her mother’s death, Maggie finds hard to forgive for not accepting her sexual identity.

“All My Mother’s Lovers” is Masad's fourth book, after her first three books were rejected. But her current success, she explained, doesn’t necessarily mean that literary quality was lacking in her earlier books. So what does it mean?

“After the initial rejections, I concentrated on building a name for myself in the literary world. It was important for me to maintain a presence. I published articles, short stories, literary criticism. I tried to get in everywhere I could. It was important for me to get my name out, to meet other authors, to learn from them, to be part of a local community of writers.

“After that, I developed a podcast where I hosted some of those writers. I conducted dialogues with them on Twitter. Little by little, I built a name for myself.”

Her articles and critiques have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and on the National Public Radio website, among other places. And if that wasn’t enough, she began working at a literary agency, where she learned up close what had not worked in her prior efforts.

' I didn’t think I would need to think about when to say that I’m Jewish and when not to'

“My work at the agency allowed me to learn the industry from the inside,” she explains. “I read 1,000 letters that writers had sent, and I learned what worked and what didn’t. Today it’s clear to me what wasn’t good in the initial letters that I had sent to agents and why they didn’t get back to me. And it was really only when I knew how to write to them that they were interested all of a sudden. They asked questions. They asked me to send them the book.”

Masad, a queer woman who describes flouting societal norms as part of her sexual identity, worked for a little over a year, during her doctoral studies, on “All My Mother’s Lovers.” “You could say I wrote it in four months. The moment I had a plot, a direction, it was clear that it would be published.”

An open relationship with a man 

Masad makes it clear that the book is not based on her own life story, despite the obvious similarities between herself and the book’s protagonist. Nor is the book Jewish in the usual sense of the word. It deals with questions of sexuality and sexual identity, the complex relationship between a mother and daughter, the tribalism of American society, the agony of love and the difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship in the face of jealousy, a lack of confidence and an unending inner struggle not to be unfaithful at every opportunity.

And yet, a Jewish reader will easily recognize the Jewish plot lines woven into the book. From the name of the Jewish family, Krause, to Iris’ first husband, Shlomo, and the Jewish funeral and shiva.

A Joe Biden presidential campaign sign greets passersby in a leafy neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska.Credit: Stephen Groves,AP

In the book you describe Maggie’s great anger over her mother’s never coming to terms with her sexual identity. What was it like for you?

“By the age of 11, I already knew I was bisexual. Unfortunately, my father died in 2006, before I managed to tell him, even though I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded. In addition, I grew up in a very open atmosphere, with an aunt, my mother’s sister, who was openly lesbian and lived with her female partner all her life, so things were open in our family. I remember the first time I told my mother was when I was 19, when I was in college in the United States.

"A female student named Laurel was really after me for quite awhile. One day we kissed and the next day she told me she wasn’t interested in being with me. I called my mother and cried, telling her Laurel didn’t want to be my girlfriend. I told her we had kissed and that I was bisexual. I remember my mother not making a big deal about it, but asking what happened with Laurel. I think she already knew and figured that I’d tell her when I was ready, and that there was no point in putting me under pressure.”

It may not have worked out with Laurel, but for the last six years, Masad has been living with an American man, an internet marketer with whom she has an intimate, open relationship.

“We talk, we have our way of managing our relationship. It’s not so simple when each of us is free to do whatever we want,” she explains, adding that during their years together, she has also been intimate with quite a few women, something that hasn’t bothered her partner, whom she half-jokingly describes as “mostly straight.”

The protagonist knows that she is white, she says, but she’s not one of them. She’s Jewish and queer, and they hate her too

“There are men he tells me he thinks are good-looking, but he still hasn’t slept with another man. Would it bother her if he did? “It wouldn’t bother me. What would bother me is if he didn’t talk to me about it,” she said, explaining that because of their open relationship, talking to each other is particularly important.

“Some people think if you’re in an open relationship, everything is open and devoid of problems. In practice, both he and I have emotions and there is frequently tension, but that’s OK. Sometimes you don’t like it when your partner has relations with someone else, so you talk about it and sort it out.”

In almost every review or article about you, including on your website and at your publisher, the first thing it says is that you’re queer. Why is that so important for you?

“Because for me being queer is not just a sexual issue. It’s more than that. There’s also a political aspect, a question of how I see the world, how I live my life. There is an ideology of flouting societal norms, of refusing to accept or resign oneself to the binary division into male and female. Norms almost always trap us instead of liberating us.”

No change without violence

Masad was born in Los Angeles to a Jewish mother and an Israeli father who was born in a displaced persons camp in Ulm, Germany, where his parents, war refugees from Poland, were sent after three years of hard labor in Siberia. When Israel was established, they moved to the country.

In Israel, Helen, Masad’s grandmother, had serious medical problems and became addicted to pain medication. Helen’s husband, Zvi, worked as a proofreader at Haaretz and also worked proofreading the leading Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon’s work. Ilana Masad’s father, Uri, who grew up with feelings of guilt that it was his birth that made his mother’s health deteriorate to the point that she could not take care of him, spent his childhood with foster families and orphanages.

After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, he left Israel and settled in London, where he worked for a German television station. German had been the first language that he had spoken at his parents’ home. On a trip to the United States, through mutual acquaintances, he met Andy, whom he would later marry. They split their time between London and Los Angeles.

Signs cover the fence in front of the White House at black lives matter plaza On November 8, 2020 in Washington, DC.Credit: ALEX EDELMAN - AFP

But in 1993, due to his parents’ failing health, they returned to Israel with Ilana, who was 3, and with her brother, who was 7 at the time. They settled in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. Ilana’s mother worked for a company that produced English-language textbooks. Her father worked for a time for the left-wing Peace Now organization, and later became the spokesman for the International Red Cross in Israel. The family, she notes, was very political.

“As a child, I loved coming to the United States to visit my grandmother and grandfather in Los Angeles. The United States seemed to me to be a free, liberated place where it was very easy to live – a place that, unlike Israel, it seemed to me at the time was very non-political, a country where you didn’t have to deal with ‘the situation’ all the time, as it felt like to me for all the years in Israel. Today I realize that this wasn’t so.”

When Masad talks about “the situation,” she primarily means the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which, due to her parents’ political positions and her father’s work, was a clear and dominant presence in her home, even compared to liberal Givatayim.

“It can be very confusing to grow up in a home with left-wing parents who care about what’s going on, who are always telling you one thing, and on the other hand, you hear other things in the media and on the outside,” she explains. “I remember that relatives from America would call after a suicide attack and ask if everyone was all right, while on the other hand, I would hear at home that when all was said and done, those suicide bombers were trying to protest, that what they were doing was a demonstration of sorts, that it wasn’t so simple and that it was complicated, and you got to a point at which you didn’t know what to think.”

But protesting is one thing and blowing up a bus full of passengers is something else.

Masad’s grandparents, Helen and Zvi Masad.Credit: Family album

“It was clear to me that people dying wasn’t a good thing. On the other hand, I understood that this was an attempt on their part to say ‘We’re here and you stole our land and you have to listen to us and you aren’t listening.’

“It isn’t good for people to die, for anyone. I’m not saying that terrorist attacks are a right thing to do, but historical changes don’t happen without violence. It’s terrible to say, but it simply doesn’t happen. If people would listen without violence, the world would be different. But the reality is that people love power and money, and they don’t like to give up their status or their control.”

So I understand that as someone who took part in the recent protests after George Floyd’s death, you don’t join those who have attacked the protesters for the major looting and violence during the demonstrations?

“I hear people in the media say that it’s a shame there has been looting and violence and that it distracts from the main discussion. But the media are the ones to decides what to report and what to cover. When people act the way they do, when there’s looting and violence, sometimes it’s to get the police to leave the other protesters alone, to get them to stop spraying tear gas.

"The fact that the protesters’ actions have become the core of the discussion is a big problem in my opinion, because that’s not supposed to be the discussion. The discussion is supposed to be about why the police have continued to use tear gas, which they’re not supposed to use. The police here are really militant. I’m much more afraid of the police than the protesters. I have nothing to fear from the protesters.”

I read an interesting article of yours in which you described an imaginary situation in which a female American president has a tumor in her stomach, and you compare the malignant cells in the body to the attitude of society towards illegal immigrants. But then I was surprised to learn that you wrote the article in 2015, when Obama was president.

“Because this whole attitude toward them began much earlier. Trump is not the problem. He’s just the one who gave all those people legitimacy. After all, how does reality change? It’s not because people change their minds. It’s because they realize that there are things that it’s not nice to say, and their children no longer hear those things that it’s not nice to say. But then Trump came along telling them to ‘say what you think.’

“I remember as a little girl in Israel, there were people who said out loud that ‘a good Arab is a dead Arab.’ I learned in school that this was a terrible thing to say, and I remember telling other kids that. But that’s what other parents had taught their children.”

Listening to Masad – and considering the home in which she grew up – one can understand why she, like her brother, chose not to serve in the Israeli army: “The truth is that I intended to go into the army, I was already in the process of being drafted, and it had already been decided that I would serve as a psychotechnical tester. But then I suddenly realized that I would be the one who was supposed to decide ... who would find themselves in a situation in which they would serve in places where they would have to decide whether to kill or be killed – and that felt like too great a responsibility.”

Masad said her parents supported her decision from the start not to take the position. But despite the support from home, she preferred to handle the situation quietly without too much of an confrontation. “In the end, I got out on a psychological discharge,” she said, adding that looking back on it, she isn’t sure it was the right decision. “I think that even a system that isn’t good needs good people,” she remarked.

Instead of serving in the army, Masad went to the United States to study. She did an undergraduate degree in English literature and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York State. It’s one of the country’s most expensive, prestigious and liberal colleges, and is just north of Manhattan. She was then accepted into a Ph.D. program in English and creative writing at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, where she has lived for the past several years. During all that time, she has never stopped writing.

Masad says she has no particular problem with the Orthodox establishment even if she’s never belonged to it. “I understand why there are people who are comfortable within the Orthodox mainstream, but for me, that’s not the only way of being Jewish,” she said, adding that she doesn’t need God as an intermediary.

“I’m an atheist,” she declares, while warmly describing her deep affiliation with Judaism. “As an author, the link to Jewishness is derived from the historical connections and the stories passed from generation to generation. It seems amazing to me how time after time, Jews have been expelled from one country to another yet they have managed to maintain their culture, their customs and the stories that have been preserved to this day.

“Jewish tradition for me is not something that’s linked to God, I don’t believe in him, but when I see another Jew, I feel a greater connection than I do with a non-Jew. That’s something I can really connect to, this community and its members.”

When you talk about a Jewish community, it’s easy to forget for a moment that you’ve been living in Nebraska for a several years, a state where the last thing you would think about in this context is a Jewish community.

“Nebraska is the most Christian place I’ve ever been to. It’s painful how Christian it is, and that’s why I really felt alone here at first. And then, a few years ago, I went to synagogue on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, and I remember starting to cry as I walked in. I saw little girls dressed up in their holiday best, I heard Hebrew, which I love so much, and people praying in a way that I recognized, and the jokes, and I just started crying over all that I missed.”

To what extent is this affinity with Judaism, with Jews, related to memories of the Holocaust and to the multi-generational trauma you have described?

“The Holocaust was present in our house much more than I realized as a child. My father suffered from much greater trauma than he thought. I remember that when I was a student, there was a period at school when they talked about the Holocaust all the time, and at some point, I felt I was beginning to develop apathy to some extent, not knowing what I was supposed to feel about it. And then I graduated, and suddenly I missed it, realizing how important it actually was for me. At home, they didn’t talk about the Holocaust all the time, but it did come up. I remember my father saying that he didn’t like feeling guilty, because guilt is pointless. Only now do I realize that he said this because he did feel guilt.”

What about returning to Israel one day?

“When I visit Israel, I’m filled with sadness because of my childhood memories and my longing for my dead father, and mainly with the sense of longing for the Hebrew language, which I miss so much now that I’m in the United States. It’s very hard to return to a place that was once home but no longer is. Given that, it doesn’t feel right to return to a country that’s in the state it’s in now. I don’t want to replace one location with apartheid and discrimination for another where the same thing is happening. But who knows, things might change one day. It’s impossible to know.”

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