by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Love and the Law in “That’s Not a Thing.”

Meredith Altman has a serious choice to make—does she return to her first love, and confront the heartbreak she caused him?  Or does she keep a safe distance in order to protect the new relationship she’s built?  These are the questions that animate Jacqueline Friedland’s That’s Not a Thing (Spark Press) and the author talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the ways in which Meredith’s journey mirrors—and departs from—her own.

YZM: The theme of guilt is threaded through the novel—do you feel it’s a particularly Jewish kind of guilt? 

81pf+clvOlLJF: Try as she might, the main character, Meredith Altman, cannot vanquish a lingering longing for her first great love, Wesley.  These pesky feelings persist, despite Meredith’s deep and true affection for her new fiancé, Aaron.  If that emotional disloyalty doesn’t cause guilt enough, once Meredith learns that her old flame is battling ALS, her conflicting feelings of responsibility become even more complicated.  Aside from the gargantuan conundrums in her romantic life, Meredith also struggles with guilt in her professional life. Instead of following her ideals to pursue public interest law like she initially intends, she eventually takes a position in corporate law and labels herself a sellout.  As much as she enjoys receiving the large paychecks that result from representing faceless corporations, the job leaves her feeling empty inside. The men in her life also wrestle with guilt; Wesley regrets forsaking Meredith years earlier, and Aaron fights his impulse to be selfish with Meredith. Then, of course, there is the guilt and responsibility that all three of these characters feel toward their parents, sentiments too complicated to unpack in only a few short paragraphs.

YZM: This begs a bigger question: what exactly is “Jewish guilt?” 

Both the teachings of the Torah and the expectations of the greater Jewish community push the constant message that we, as human beings, can always be doing better.  This is not an admonition, not a declaration that we are not yet “enough,” but more a directive to continue striving.  These messages are rampant in High Holiday prayers of repentance like the Al Cheyt, as well as daily prayers, like the Amidah.  Tikkun Olam, the idea laid out in the Mishnah that Jews have a responsibility to heal the world, also tell Jews to work harder, to do more.  The takeaway from these combined sources is that we as Jews, and as humans, could always be kinder or more mindful, pray more often, or take better care of the poor and the sick. We could open our hearts, our homes, and our arms just a little bit wider.  As lovely as these sentiments are, perhaps they leave members of the Jewish faith feeling a constant sense of guilt over whether, at any moment in time, we’ve lived up to our absolute potential. There is so much we could be doing to improve the world.  How could it ever be enough? 

Several of the characters in THAT’S NOT A THING tease Meredith about her own internal drive to participate in Tikkun Olam. Whether tending injured animals in her youth, moonlighting as a soup kitchen volunteer during college, or caring for loved ones who fall ill, she is always first in line to help those in need.  When she encounters obstacles in these endeavors, she is suffused with both guilt and frustration.  Fortunately, each time Meredith finds a new opportunity to perform a mitzvah, such as representing an applicant for political asylum on a pro bono basis, she is reminded of who she is and the goals she wants to pursue. These are the impulses that lead Meredith to invite Wesley, ex-fiancé #1, to come live in the same apartment she now shares with Aaron, fiancé #2, as she attempts to oversee Wesley’s battle against illness. 

So are these feelings particularly Jewish?  In the sense that we as Jews, want to do our best, to be loved and to be forgiven, yes, the guilt is more Jewish than a matzoh ball on Passover.  Ultimately, however, the emotions that drive this story are human ones.  After all, how many of us want to do better, to be better, to be loved harder and longer, and to be forgiven as we strive to finally make everything right? 

YZM: Meredith’s brother and sister-in-law are Orthodox; Meredith is not. Yet there is no judgment attached to either of their choices.   Care to comment? 

JF: Meredith Altman was raised in Livingston, New Jersey, enmeshed in a community of Reform Jews.  How on earth did she end up with a brother who becomes Orthodox?

In creating this scenario, I drew on several experiences from my own Jewish journey.

Like Meredith, I grew up in a Reform household where our Judaism was more cultural than spiritual.  As in many Jewish families, one member of our home was always more serious about religion than the rest of us.  My older sister gradually increased the number of rituals she observed, but she didn’t judge my parents or me for eating bacon, and we didn’t judge her for embracing traditions we didn’t yet understand.  Everyone was all “you do you.”  Perhaps the bigger surprise was that like my sister before me, I ended up marrying a religious man and adding several Jewish rituals to my own life.  None of us are Orthodox, but still, I haven’t seen a ham sandwich in over a decade.

YZM: Why isn’t this difficult for Meredith to digest?

When it comes to religion, we are all on ever-evolving journeys.  Levels of observance vary greatly amongst our people, even within single families, and I believe that many Jews have come to accept these variations as a part of the Jewish experience.  In the Conservative community of which I am now a part, nobody cares who drives to shul on Saturday and who walks, who keeps kosher only at home but eats treyfe out of the house.  So long as each person has an opportunity to practice in the way she is comfortable, it seems nobody is all that interested in what you’ve got going on in your own head and home. 

Meredith’s brother, Noble, met a girl he liked and then fell in love with her. As a hopeless romantic herself, Meredith can hardly fault him for changing his lifestyle to accommodate his wife’s upbringing.  Despite the differences in their religious practice, Meredith and Noble have maintained a genuine affection for each other as siblings.  While of course, there are always people who might feel inconvenienced when the religious restrictions of others affect their own activities, I appreciate the fact that so many Jews are open to divergent levels of observance among their loved ones, and I wanted to paint a picture of that. 

YZM: Like Meredith, you also trained and worked as a lawyer. How did your own experience inform Meredith’s professional life and the choices she made?  

Meredith decided to go to law school when she was a freshman in college.  She was enamored with the idea of helping people who couldn’t help themselves.  She wanted to join a public interest organization and make a difference for marginalized people.  Unfortunately, after tragedy struck in her own life, earning potential won out over ideals, and she ended up working in a large, corporate law firm. 

Creating an out-of-the-box career path takes effort, and I found myself following the more obvious, traditional law student trajectory myself. Before I knew it, I too was working in a large, impersonal New York City law firm, where I felt like I was simply one cog in a cold, corporate wheel.  As soon as the opportunity presented itself, I ran for the hills, running toward my true dream of writing and getting as far away from legal practice as a I could.

I did, however, find one saving grace to my law firm experience, which was my firm’s positive attitude toward pro bono work.  Unlike Meredith, who feels her pro bono client is the firm’s last priority, I was permitted to devote significant time and resources to a couple of important pro bono cases during my time as a lawyer. 

From the drudgery of reviewing documents, to catty interoffice politics, Meredith and I have seen our fair share of law firm flaws. For better or worse, Meredith deals with these imperfections with far greater patience and grace than I ever did. 

YZM: Although the two men Meredith loves, Wesley and Aaron, are different, both are Jewish.  Would she have considered marrying a non-Jewish man? 

JF: Of course Meredith would have considered marrying a non-Jewish man!  At least, that is what she wants you to believe.  Most likely, it’s not the truth.  Meredith Altman is a people pleaser.  Like so many of us, she wants to be well-liked, respected, productive, and a source of pride for her parents.  She knows that her parents want her to marry a Jewish guy, though they wouldn’t stand in her way if she chose otherwise. So when she finds a cute guy in the hallway of her freshman dorm that happens to be Jewish, sure it’s a point in his favor. It doesn’t hurt that he’s so charming that he practically glows. 

As she grieves over the loss of her first relationship, it will take a lot for another guy to spark her interest. Aaron Rapp checks all the boxes.  He’s handsome and kind, smart and accomplished, and of course, Jewish.  Did I mention he’s a doctor?  She knows her parents would approve long before she truly commits her heart to him.

Had circumstances been different, and she’d met the “perfect” guy, but he happened to be Muslim or Catholic, would she have loved him anyway? Theoretically, yes.  Meredith is not so tied to her own Judaism that the idea of intermarriage would have put her off.  She is, however, hung up on maintaining her parents’ approval. Her concern over their reactions would likely have prevented her from getting serious with a man of a different faith.

YZM: Your last novel was set in the 1840’s and this one, firmly in the present.  What are your thoughts on historical vs. contemporary fiction and do you have a preference?  

JF: When I decided to follow up my first book, TROUBLE THE WATER, with a contemporary story, I was excited about the fact that I wouldn’t need to spend hours researching in order to tell my tale.  Ha!  How naïve of me.  Yes, it was a breeze to describe parts of New York City that I’ve seen with my own eyes, when compared to depicting the port at Charleston Harbor nearly 200 years ago  And sure, I’m more familiar with common food choices, furniture styles, and clothing trends of the present day than I was with Victorian fashions when I began crafting my last project.  BUT!  In THAT’S NOT A THING, characters have serious medical issues and I have zero medical training, so we all know what that meant for me:  Research, research, research.  Had I known that certain characters would fall ill, I might have avoided including them altogether, but as many authors will tell you, we cannot always control our characters’ health or their poor choices. 

On the plus side, speaking to real, live, doctors about current treatments for various ailments was more gratifying to me than simply pouring over old medical journals, as I would have needed to do if this story were of a historical nature. 

Historical fiction is often interesting largely due to the complicated historical context in which the characters exist, but both types of novels still require various iterations of convoluted interpersonal relationships and emotions in order to sustain a narrative arc. I expect that I will continue to write both historical and contemporary fiction going forward, as there are so many stories, hailing from several different time periods, that I am still itching to tell.  

© 2011 Lilith Magazine