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Pinsky on His Religious Background


Did you have a religious upbringing?


In a way. My parents were nominally Orthodox Jews, but they were of a very assimilated, secular generation, definitely not the black suit and sidelocks idea. . . .The didn't go to synagogue except of High Holidays, and sometimes not even then.

On the other hand, we did keep kosher. I didn't taste ham until I was in college. . . .They sent me to Hebrew school when I was eleven, but I knew that even on the more religious side of the family, my mother's, her brother hadn't been bar mitzvahed. The conflict, the ambiguity and compromise went back before their generation.


And what was your reaction to that kind of conflict and ambiguity?


Restless, I suppose.  The Jewish service and the rituals of Jewish life seem designed to insulate, to define one away from the majority culture. And the majority culture is so attractive. It was the fifties with American baseball in its golden age, and rock'n'roll in its formative, glorious years. I was born in a good year, just the right age for Jackie Robinson and Elvis Presley. Across the street from our synagogue was a Catholic church; in my memory, beautifully dressed people, including girls my age, would come and go, two or three shifts sometimes while we were in there praying away at our three hour service.

I've never met a Jew who had the experience Joyce describes in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young man, that crisis of faith. My Catholic friends have told me about having such crises. But how can you have one in Judaism? . . . Although there's no crisis of faith to be had, there is a crisis of seduction, because the rituals and customs tend to pull you away from the sweet predominant secular culture. . . . Terms like assimilation, or saying you're second or third generation, don't catch the subtlety of this richly absorbing conflict, the crisis of attraction toward the sweets, the question of idolatry.

My grandfather, the one I associate with idolatry. . . sneered at religion, but when his young wife, my father's mother, died during childbirth, he went to synagogue five days a week, early in the morning, to say Kaddish for her. . . . And when he died, my father astonished me by doing the same, getting up before dawn to say Kaddish for Dave. When I asked him why he, who never went to synagogue, would do such a thing for a man who celebrated Christmas, who had a Christian wife, my father answered, "Because he did it for my mother." So to that extent, or in some idiosyncratic way along those lines, yes, I had a religious upbringing.

from the interview "The Art of Poetry: LXXVI," Paris Review, vol. 144, 1997: 180-213.

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