Author taps family experiences in latest novel
Author Joshua Henkin
October 17, 2012
For author Joshua Henkin, his family’s annual reunion at Purim has always been a happy occasion when relatives get together to catch up on each other’s lives.
Then several years ago, his aunt said something at the reunion that jarred Henkin. “She said, ‘I have two sons,’” although, Henkin knew, her older son had died many years before, leaving behind a wife and a small son.
Henkin was a toddler at the time of his much older cousin’s death, he said, “so I didn’t really know him, but it caused me to think about the differences between what it means to lose a child and losing a spouse, especially if that spouse is young and can move on,” said Henkin in a phone interview with NJJN. “My cousin’s wife remarried and moved on with her life, but here it was 30, 35 years later, and my aunt was clearly saying this was the seminal event in her life and nothing would ever be the same.”
That revelation at the reunion became the inspiration for Henkin’s latest novel, The World Without You, which revolves around a Jewish family — the Frankels — and their Fourth of July reunion, where the shadow of a tragedy hangs over the gathering.
Henkin, the director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, will speak about the latest of his three novels in several New Jersey venues in the coming weeks, among them Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell on Oct. 23, and on Nov. 4 at the annual book and author event of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. He is also scheduled to speak to high school English classes on Oct. 30 at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean.
Henkin, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with an Orthodox father and non-observant mother, has drawn on his multi-faceted Jewish background for a number of his other books and short stories.
His paternal grandfather, a renowned Orthodox rabbi in his native Belarus, came to the Lower East Side when Henkin’s father was five and continued serving as a religious leader.
“My grandfather lived on the Lower East Side for 50 years but never learned English,” said Henkin, “not because he was bad with language, but because in the world he lived in he didn’t need it. My father remained religiously observant until the day he died.”
However, his father also fought in World War II, attended Harvard Law School, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He would become a professor of constitutional and international law at Columbia Law School for 50 years.
Henkin’s mother — a politically outspoken human rights lawyer — grew up in a secular home in the Bronx and attended a “progressive” private school. When she married, she agreed to raise her children in a Sabbath-observant kosher home, but, Henkin said, never became religious herself.
The author attended the Modern Orthodox Ramaz School, went to the Conservative movement’s Ramah summer camps, and spent other summers in Colorado, “where I rode horses and had no contact with any Jews at all.”
“I lived in a complicated home, and I think complexity helps novelists,” said the 48-year-old Henkin. “I think it also prepared me well to write about both religious and nonreligious Jews.”
Henkin, whose numerous short stories have been broadcast on National Public Radio’s Selected Shorts, said the focus of his public appearances varies.
“I read from the books,” said Henkin. “If I’m speaking at a place where a bunch of people have read the book, I will talk more about the book. If not, I will speak more about the writing process.”
About the book
IN JOSHUA HENKIN’S critically acclaimed The World Without You, the shadow that darkens the Frankel family gathering in the Berkshires is the death, exactly one year earlier, of the youngest of the four Frankel children. Leo, an adventurous journalist, was killed while covering the war in Iraq. His young widow and three-year-old son are at the reunion.
The Frankel family is struggling with a host of other issues. The once promiscuous and rebellious daughter, Noelle — the last to see Leo alive — moved to Jerusalem, where she became a “born-again Orthodox Jew” with a husband and four sons. “Noelle feels entirely out of place,” said Henkin. “She won’t even eat in her parents’ home.”
Leo’s non-Jewish widow brings secrets along with her to the reunion from California. The 40-year marriage of the grief-stricken parents, Marilyn and David, is clearly in danger.
Their oldest, 39-year-old Clarissa — a former cello prodigy — has settled into “ambivalent domesticity” while dealing with fertility issues, and daughter Lily, “a fiery-tempered” lawyer, is angry at everyone. — DEBRA RUBIN