In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to David Hopen – law student and author of The Orchard – about finding truth in fiction, and particularly in myths.
Though fiction and myths are by definition not true, they can still have great significance. Religious stories in particular can help guide us regardless of whether or not they’re literally true. In his book The Orchard, David tries to illustrate this, using fiction to tell deep truths about the place myth can have in the modern world.
Tune in to hear a conversation on fiction and myths.
The Orchard by David Hopen
The Client by John Grisham
Marvin Redpost: Why Pick on Me? By Louis Sachar
Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen, Jennifer Bricking
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
With All My Heart, With All My Soul by B. D. Da’Ehu
Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
David Hopen is the author of The Orchard, an intriguing new novel that explores the thin line at the heart of sanity that runs through religious life. A student at Yale Law School, David earned his master’s from the University of Oxford and graduated from Yale College. David joins us to talk about his favorite fiction reads on religious life in a contemporary world.
Hello and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re continuing our summer unwind series. And today we’re talking about fiction writing, religious depictions, Jewish depictions in the genre of fiction. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.
I was a very young reader, I was devouring books already in elementary school, and that’s when I first embraced the works of John Grisham, Michael Crichton. And I just was enamored with these books. I still remember in fifth grade, when you have to make those diorama’s, and you make this scene from a book and you would cut it out in a shoe box. I don’t know if people still make diorama’s. I love diorama day, when they’d all be displayed, it was just the coolest day in class.
And I remember my fifth grade diorama was based on John Grisham’s The Client, and I literally buried a little lego man underneath a lego boat, which is where the mafia had buried somebody. I think my teacher thought I was incredibly disturbed. But The Client was one of my earliest books that I remember absolutely falling in love with. But after I think eighth or ninth grade, I really stopped reading much fiction. I think I had maybe continued a little bit reading comic books, which has always been an absolute love of mine. The first place that I was ever published was in Wizard Magazine. Twice, in fact. No big deal. And I absolutely loved that imaginative world. I think I shifted out of it because I found so much fascination in the actual world, so to speak, in nonfiction writing, and things that described the narrative arc of events and people that actually lived and existed, and I slowly moved away from fiction.
And really in the past 10, 20 years, I don’t remember reading a ton of fiction. I think it’s a handful of books that I’ve read. But I still have an enduring appreciation for what fiction is trying to do. I think it’s a quote from Camus, who said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Meaning, I don’t think fiction versus nonfiction is true versus false. I think that the depictions of religious life, particularly Jewish life, that exist, whether it’s in fiction or nonfiction, are serving different purposes, but both have the capacity to share deeply held truth. It’s a little bit a focus of our discussion today, and that is the value and the idea of myth. I’ve never been uncomfortable with the word “myth” to describe Jewish ideas, Jewish stories, and Jewish concepts. I know there are people who are, because the word “myth” is usually used to describe these fanciful events, maybe Greek myths or whatever it is, that never occurred.
But I think myth, to use the definition of Kees Bolle, which I found in Yakov Nagen’s PhD on Sukka, which is a brilliant PhD. But he talks a great deal about myth in there as well. And he quotes Bolle as follows: “A myth is an expression of the sacred in words. It reports realities and events for the origin of the world that remain valid for the basis and purpose of all there is. Consequently, a myth functions as a model for human activity, society, wisdom, and knowledge. A myth, whether its subject is the act of deities or other extraordinary events always takes us back to the beginnings of all things. Hence the -” I’m going to kill this word because it’s something I’ve only read and never pronounced, but here we go. “Hence the cosmogony, the birth of the world is a principle theme.”
And I think that myth, not just talking about world creating stories, but myth in how we are created and how our approach to the world, how we organize the world, what are the – and we’ve come back to this word so many times – the heuristic, the organizing principles through which we interpret the world, where is that world created? And I think it’s created early on through that world of myth. And I think for myself, the great myths that continue to endure with me, it’s not quite how I would describe my relationship to Torah learning, because those are stories and interpretations that stay with me my entire life, even though I wouldn’t be opposed to using the word “myth” to describe those stories, because I don’t think the word “myth” means “not true”. I think myth describes the genre of stories that are trying to describe the beginnings of all things. And I think for myself personally, the books that shape this the most are probably what I was reading, not when I was in fifth grade, but when I was probably like five or six years old, those children’s stories that imagine this invented world that still stick with me today.
I mean my favorites, and I’ve shared this before, probably not on this podcast, my favorite children’s books. I mean, that goes back to the works of Louis Sachar, I’m not sure how to pronounce his last name. Sachar. But he has this wonderful book called Marvin Redpost: Why Pick On Me?, which is about somebody who gets bullied for picking his nose. And to this day, anytime that I feel like I’m standing out doing something different, I’m alienated, marginalized from the center of whatever social conventions are, I’ll be honest, I come back to Marvin Redpost: Why Pick On Me?. I’m still thinking about books like Sideways Stories from Wayside School. I still think about that world of Roald Dahl – whatever his opinions were of Jews, I still love his books. You can come after me and write me letters, but I love them. And the book Matilda still stays with me to this day. I think the book that I really think of the most, and I’ve recommended a hundred times, is Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen. And these stories are for elementary school children. Seven-year-olds, six-year-olds, these are not for adults necessarily, but I’m sharing them with you now because I think they’re all examples of these foundational stories that, for the rest of your life, you could end up looking and interpreting the unfolding of your own life through those child’s eyes that you developed and nurtured from the stories you read as an elementary school kid.
And in this book, Molly’s Pilgrim, which I come back to so many times – it’s written by Barbara Cohen – it’s a story of a girl who gets a homework assignment to create a pilgrim doll. And she comes back, and instead of a doll that looks like a pilgrim from the Thanksgiving story, it looks like her bubby. It looks like her Jewish grandmother who was an immigrant to the United States. And she gets made fun of. And the way that she reacts, the way that her teacher uses it as a teaching moment, the embarrassment that she feels is something that I find to be so enduringly profound and resonant in my own life, about generational shifts, and how children try to bring the world of their ancestors into their own lives, and whether or not it’s embraced or rejected can have these foundational effects on the way the children see themselves.
But today, we are not just talking about children’s fiction, we are talking about adult fiction. Adult fiction not because it’s racy or X-rated, but fiction that is written for adults. Which is why I am so excited for our guest today, David Hopen. David Hopen wrote an incredible book that was reviewed by The New York Times. This is his first book. That is a very big deal. He’s a graduate of Modern Orthodox Yeshivas. He studied in Israel for the year, I believe he went to Reishit. We have a mutual teacher, Rabbi Moshe Benovitz who first introduced me to the works of David Hopen. And what I think The Orchard does, and as we discuss in the interview, it is based on the Talmudic story in Tractate Chagiga about the four rabbis who enter an orchard, a mystical orchard, and try to confront those foundational truths. And some rabbi… One of the rabbis goes crazy, another rabbi becomes a heretic, another rabbi dies, and the fourth rabbi, Rabbi Akiva, walks out in peace.
And the book is worth reading, not just for what it accomplishes in doing: I think it’s worth reading for what it attempts to do. And that is to depict the heady ways – H-E-A-D-Y, I hope I’m pronouncing that one correctly – the heady feelings of being a teenager in the Orthodox world, where you’re looking for the ideas that anchor that dual sense of self. And it doesn’t really matter I think what type of school you went to, whether it is, I don’t know, left-wing, right-wing, Orthodox, non-Orthodox. I think in all Jewish schools, there is this sense of living in multiple worlds, a feeling that you have a secular identity and a Jewish identity. I know it used to for myself, it would come out quite acutely when I would go on vacation and try to blend into wherever we were and come up with these invented backstories. I did this as a kid. I still kind of do it now if I’m totally honest with myself. But trying to blend it and integrate and see what it feels like to have a different identity. I think there’s an otherness that people feel growing up in the Jewish world situated within the larger context of America.
And I think what his book is doing, and what resonated so much for me, is confronting this foundational myth, this story about what it feels like, what are the foundational principles of what it feels like to grow up within this world. The things that you confront, the way that you form relationships with one another, the way that you confront these massive ideas about the world, about philosophy, about who you are as an individual. And I think in many ways, telling this story through fiction, to end with the words that we began with, fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. And I think there are some very true, honest, and authentic things that come out through this somewhat sensational story about modern Orthodox kids growing up in Florida, about how they confront that heavy world, how relationships fray and are damaged.
And what I talk to him about is, what was this book trying to accomplish? And it’s really a profound mission that, whether or not you enjoy the story itself, I think that what he was trying to articulate, try to create a story for those… I’m having a hard time articulating it because I have stories in my own life that went through this. Meaning, I think of a lot of… I said this to David after we finished our interview, this was not recorded, of how when reading the book, I thought about points in my own life that were these mythic moments, where it felt like something was beginning, that relationships were either formed or destroyed. I think of certain, what’s known as bein hazmanim, those periods between when yeshiva starts and ends, that were heavy, like in an immature teenager sense, but I think much of who I am was formed in those late-night conversations, in the drama of teenager’s lives. That so much of what happened in the story, not all of it, because a lot of it is really, really sensational, but so much of what happened in this story really had me thinking back to those early mythical moments in my own life and my own story.
And what I would ask listeners to think about is, when you think about those foundational myths, those epic moments in your own life, and how you were created, and how your identity was forged and developed, where does your mind take you? I mean, pause now. What’s the first major moment, episode, decision, late-night conversation, that your mind goes when you think of the foundational myth of your own identity? And that’s what the book, in many ways, did for me, and why I think it was so important. Stick around for the end of the episode where I’m going to share my recommendations for fictional works that have had an impact on me. Obviously my breadth of reading is a little bit lighter, but without further ado, I am so excited to share my conversation with David Hopen.
It is my pleasure to introduce my friend, David Hopen.
Hi David. Thanks for having me on. Pleasure to be here.
Yeah. I’m really excited to talk about your novel, particularly the time that we’re in now, where I think there’s an added sensitivity and apprehensiveness about Orthodox portrayals in media. There’s always that sensitivity, but before we get into communal sensitivities, I want to talk a little bit about, what is the moral of your book? Without getting into all of the plot details, which is this harrowing experience of a very sweet boy, Ari Eden, obviously there’s significance to that name, who goes from a more right-wing yeshiva to a more modern Orthodox high school in Florida. And chaos ensues. It’s philosophical chaos, actual physical chaos. What do you think is the religious lens that you want your readers to take away from your book?
So the first thing I’ll say is that I think I cut out for a second, but I think I know where your question’s going. I’m keenly aware that the book obviously deals with a particular subculture. So on one hand, I think that one of the great joys in my own reading life is to immerse myself in a culture with which I’m unfamiliar in ethnicity, a universe. So though the book is grounded in a particular subculture, it is a book for everybody. It’s a book with universal themes. And that goes with the religious lens too. So I think that the modern Orthodox community is particularly useful in terms of looking to launch a story that deals with questions about beauty and morality and suffering and selfhood.
And so what I want most is for readers, really any reader, whether it’s a reader who comes from the kind of community described in the book, or someone who’s never heard of the community described in the book, I want the reader to think about what was it like when I was that age, when I was on the precipice of adulthood, when I was 17, 18, and figuring things out, and everything had this funny way of feeling a little grander. And what is it like in my own life now? I think the last year plus in this country, in this world, we’ve experienced and grappled with questions of theological meaning, self-doubt, suffering. So all of this is coalescing in a very unique, singular community that I think is a moral ecosystem that’s just hiding in plain sight in America.
When I first started writing this book, I was the age of the characters in the book, I was 17, 18 years old. And I had not seen, for the most part, any kind of story, novel, TV show – I guess that’s changed in recent weeks – but at that time, I hadn’t seen anything that portrayed the kind of community I was thinking about. So I was interested in using that community to talk about bigger themes, but the long and short of it is I’m interested in a reader who will be willing to open up to any kind of new community and dive into the larger questions that are at the heart of the book.
So I want to talk maybe about what those larger questions are, to dig deeper. And to do so, maybe you can elaborate on the very obvious – and not obvious in a cliche sense, obvious in a mysterious, but somebody who comes from our community knows that there’s a lot of meaning in the title. The title of your book is The Orchard, which makes reference to the Talmudic tale in Chagiga about the four rabbis who enter the orchard, the Pardes. They enter, they have this mystical experience. One goes crazy. One becomes a heretic. One dies. And one, Rabbi Akiva, leaves in peace, the Talmud says. In your retelling of the book, and maybe it’s always hard to ask an author questions about interpretation of their own work, what is The Orchard of modern Orthodoxy?
I think that the… So I’ll say two things. The first thing is that when you grow up attending a yeshiva day school, and you grow up surrounded by Judaic studies your whole life, it is a wonderful privilege that you might take for granted for a certain age, because you are growing up and inhaling, sometimes by osmosis, these unbelievable myths. And we’re living in an environment that takes these myths seriously. So on one hand, the point of using this meta myth as the title of the book, and also the backbone of the book, is to think about the role that myth plays in our daily lives. So that operates on the level of, what does it look like when you take seriously textual interpretation and textual study? Which is something I’m relearning in law school now. And so that’s something that I think is important in different levels.
But also this idea of, if we are in a community that absorbs these stories, and to some degree worships these stories, what is it like if you take a group of students who are hyper intelligent and ambitious and take seriously these stories? And what are the moral and supernatural and social consequences of doing so? So I think The Orchard, in terms of the Talmudic myth, The Orchard is something that has unique resonance in today’s world. I think it’s a story that gets at the heart of having a religious identity, but also going through the crucible of forming a civic identity. So what does it mean to be worthy? What does it mean to be contributing to the society in which you’re a member? What does it mean to go through changes and figure out what kind of element of your identity you want to preserve and what should be flexible? So I think the story was a perfect way to bring these timeless, religious, Judaic, in some ways Greek, questions, and put them in our modern contemporary culture. So that’s why I was excited to use The Orchard.
No, and it’s absolutely brilliant the way it plays out. And I’m not going to have any spoilers in this brief interview. One thing I wanted to follow up with you on what you just said is, in your mind, and I’ve done a lot of reading on the term “myth,” people sometimes, particularly within the community, they don’t like the word “myth” – I love the word “myth” – because they find that the word “myth” means it’s fiction. It’s false. How do you understand the word “myth” in the context of religious stories?
Whether somebody thinks it is fiction, whether someone thinks it’s an aspirational maxim, something around which you build your life so that you can feel as if you live in that sense of literary awe – I mean, I think what myth does, whether you’re reading Gemara, or whether you’re reading Wordsworth, or whether you’re reading whatever it is, you are looking at a story that is of a heightened emotional and intellectual beauty. And it’s something that you want to inject into your own life. It’s something you want to live up to. It’s something you want to… I think on occasions these moments of, maybe you want to call it emotional calculus, when you think, this is the level present in the story, and this is the level in my life, and there’s a distance between the two. And what is the way to get to that point if that’s something you are desiring? I’m not someone who’s big on platitudes, but there is a platitude that I do have some kind of soft spot for, and it’s the idea that the shortest distance between two people, two events, is a story. So that’s what I think myths do. I think they do it in a religious context, as well as they do it in a literary, legal, philosophical context. Myths are what we build our life around, whether we realize it or not. And they’re oftentimes what make our life a little more worth living.
So one thing that I was thinking about when I read your book, which again, if you grew up, and I think even if you didn’t grow up in the modern Orthodox world, if you grew up in any religious community in the broadest sense of the world, there are these heavy moments where characters through a great deal of chaos, a fair bit of transgression, meaning the notion of transgression as a vehicle for learning about yourself and your own boundaries and capacity. When I read your book, I thought of specific moments of my personal orchard. I’ll be quite honest with you, I think for me it was a very heavy incidence that jeopardized friendships and was just a wild time in that first break, the Sukkos break of my first year in Israel. Things go down, you know what I’m saying? That period of your life that things transpire that we still haven’t fully unpacked or spoken about, with close friends of mine, who I remain in touch with to this day, who I grew up with.
When you think in your life of those moments, of entering the pardes, so to speak, where you in your life entered an orchard and confronted questions, and there was that element of chaos that kind of pulls away at the veneers of our identity that’s so often protected, but also could be boundaries towards that confrontation of identity that your book describes. In your personal life, when do you think, where does your mind go when you think of your personal orchard experience?
Sure. I mean, I will say that I’m fortunate to think that the more chaotic, explosive, pyrotechnical elements of the orchards experienced in the book are not something I have experienced, but I am someone who grew up in a modern Orthodox Jewish insulated world. I went off to college, and then I went off to England to do a masters. I am now in law school. So, I mean, each step of the way I have been extraordinarily grateful to have been faced with different opportunities for self-exploration, to meet people with whom I have such wonderful lasting friendships. And this is people I might not have known or met in the first 18 years of my life. So I think having that opportunity to peek outside of the community and to become a member of the larger world, each step of the way I think has been you might want to call it an orchard.
It’s something that Ari, the main character in the novel, he thinks about it a lot when he moves from one community to the other. And even when he moves to a second community, he realizes that sometimes you have to peek beyond the community to see where you belong, or to see where the kinds of things that you want to bring in to enhance your own background. So one of the important things of going through an orchard, a crucible, whatever it is, in my opinion, I think is that you are faced with this moment when you realize you are an independent person, you’re a person with an evolving personality and with interesting experiences. But what is the best way to stay true to the vision of yourself that you want to cultivate? And so how do you take things that might seem like they’re in opposition and make certain that they enrich each other? Not that they are something that eviscerates what you want it to be, or the person you had been your whole life.
So I think that’s the beauty of going through an orchard, is when you can take different layers of yourself. The great Harav Walt Whitman, the poet, has a line on containing multitudes. And I think that’s the beauty of a religious experience, certainly that’s the beauty of growing up in general, is containing multitudes and seeing the kind of multitudes that you want to marry together into one beautiful combination. So that’s how I view orchards in general.
So I love that response. And let’s talk a little bit about the lived community that you are depicting, which is always something that fascinates me. You mention in some of your interviews, almost in passing, other depictions of Orthodox communities, which very often sensationalize stories of exit, of leaving the community. Your book is not a story of an exit, it’s people within the community, but it is somewhat sensational. How did you balance or think about the reception within the Orthodox community? Were you concerned about how it was going to be depicted, how people were going to react? How did you divorce, if you did at all, the novel and this incredible work from the community that you really emerged from?
That’s a good question. And the short intro answer is I was not concerned. Obviously I was aware that anytime… I mean, this is my first book. So I’ve learned a lot through the process of publishing. What an interesting and cool experience it is to have something that was your little intellectual baby out in the world. And you give up ownership of it to some degree because you’re getting messages from people all over the world commenting on something that was so personal to you. So obviously I was aware that people would interpret things in different ways, and some people might appreciate it more than others, but I wasn’t concerned. And in large part because this book is not an expose. This book is not something that is intended to generate controversy. It’s something that… I had enough confidence in my readers and in our community writ large to be thoughtful and to not have a knee jerk reaction.
This is not something that is looking to disparage anything as much as it’s looking to, as I mentioned, take a community that is absolutely unique and interesting and multi-layered and think about how it connects to other experiences in American life, and think about what are the best parts of the community, what’s the underbelly of the community, and where do people end up? Because as you said, it’s not a book of departure necessarily. It’s a book that is supposed to inspire thought within our community, but also certainly not limited to our community. So I was not worried and I have been gratified by the response.
I would say the overwhelming response from within the community, at least in my experience, is that people did accept the book and appreciated what the book was intending to do. It’s a book of ideas. And I think that was understood. This was not gossip-girl of the Orthodox community as much as it was an earnest attempt to ask certain questions and generate discussions. And I think people enjoy having discussions. And I think we have a thoughtful community. So I’ve been gratified.
The institutional reaction machine did not come alive for your book with trending, whatever it was. It did not. The person who recommended your book to me, and I had heard about it because we have a mutual teacher who we’re both quite close with, Rabbi Moshe Benovitz. He first told me about it, but when I came home, my mother was the one, “You must read this.” Which I thought was really fun and exciting. Let me sit on that, the best of our community and the underbelly of our community. For somebody within our community, and again, it’s always hard to talk to authors about their own reception, what do you think are the ingredients that the book describes as the best of our community, about preserving religious commitment in all of the complexities of the modern world? And what do you think is the cautionary tale of what maybe religious communities need to avoid in their efforts at preservation? Meaning, is there a communal commentary that you are very quietly whispering in the pages about what makes us so beautiful, and what is maybe something that we could improve upon?
I don’t know how quiet my whispers are, but I would say that there’s no shortage of answers to the first question. I think that religious commitment to the extent exhibited in our communities at its core is aspiring to figuring out how to make a life of meaning. So anytime any life is devoted to meaning I think is important. I think the familial dynamics are beautiful. I think the real, genuine love for learning, and for figuring out Torah Umadda, balancing life, thinking about what does it mean to be part of something larger without sacrificing participation in the real, current world, I think that’s a wonderful attribute of our community. I think the friendships are something that… I think most people who grew up in our communities have these friendships that go through their whole life. You have your friends who were with you from the time you were little, to dancing at each other’s weddings, to every walk of life, minor and not so minor. These are all beautiful things.
In terms of the soft-spoken commentary, I don’t have anything in particular other than that I think the book does look at, when are we not so aligned in terms of religious and ethical behavior? When are our communal norms something about which maybe we’re not supremely proud? When we feel occasional theological doubt, which I think is an important part of any religious experience, are we propped up by the sociological benefits of living in this kind of community? And I think that most people who live in these communities, whether it’s in a modern Orthodox community or any other sort of religious crowd, wants to be answering in the affirmative to both of those things. And oftentimes we do. And I think that’s why the community is as beautiful as it is. But like any other institution, there are things that can be improved upon. There are probably times when we conflate religious or just general personal worth with things like wealth or things like standing or things like any of the other sorts of financial disparities or troubling behavior exhibited in the book. And I think anybody in any community, would be prudent to think about those things generally speaking.
I really love that. I didn’t see this get mentioned. There were a few parallels that your book was compared to. And for me it’s very interesting. I actually thought of a movie when I was reading the book, the movie Scent of a Woman, with the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was a much younger role, and Al Pacino, who won the Oscar eventually. But this world of private schooling, and people trying to find their moral compass and authenticity within this very highbrow, manufactured world. And I really loved what you did throughout. What we’re doing this month on 18Forty is we’re trying to give people some recommendations of what they can read over the summertime. Now’s the time to unpack and unwind a little bit. We often occupy ourselves with more theologically driven questions that definitely appear in your book.
So people should pick up and read The Orchard. I’m wondering if you could comment, and I feel bad putting you on the spot, but I didn’t want to frighten you in any of our earlier emails with more things to prepare. I didn’t want to lose you. What works of fiction do you think either influence your work or do you think do a great job at highlighting these religious questions, grappling these points of identity that your characters are dealing with? What works of fiction influence you or would you recommend to our readers? In addition, of course, to your own.
Sure. First of all, no fright, no worries. And second of all, as I mentioned, I think the books that move me most, I mean still now, but especially when I was starting to write this book when I was at the close in my high school career, were books that were both deeply attuned to the bigger questions, and also the unique category I like to call moral thrillers. So books that develop at a fast pace, but also kind of break your heart and pierce your spirit in ways that help. So my ambition writing this book was to do just that. And in terms of books that influenced me at that time, I think that the [inaudible] text, as it were, was The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I guess this would be closer to saying something like Pagan theology in some ways, but basically the ideas are the same. It’s about trying to figure out, amid this time of young adulthood and coming into your own, and there’s this frenzy of growing up. What are the larger ideals you’re trying to aspire to? And what does it mean to see God in your everyday life?
So The Secret History is one of the most beautiful texts I’ve ever read. So I certainly would put that on the list. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, that came out already after my book had just stated. But it’s a book I appreciate a lot. I think it’s a book that your audience might enjoy if they haven’t read it yet. And Here I Am at least is a Jewish book, or Jewish oriented. And I would throw up On Beauty by Zadie Smith, a book that is also religiously focused, and thinking about religion’s role in the mess of life, in the ways that it makes communities stronger and the way it impacts that age of growing up. So I think these are all books that are wonderful. They’re books that stretch your mind and are at least, I don’t know, literary cousins of The Orchard in some way. So those are fun to check out, and there’s The Orchard for those who haven’t read it. The paperback comes out late September.
Okay. Those are three great recommendations. And as I promised, we’re going to wrap up in just a few minutes. I wanted to ask you three rapid-fire questions that we always ask our interviewees. My first question is, what books would you recommend for somebody who is interested in learning the process of writing? I’m always interested in the writing process. You started writing when you were 17. I also started writing young. I never churned out a novel. What are the books that taught you about the writing process itself? Or you can’t even learn that in a book?
I started writing at a much earlier age than 17. I was writing poems. I was writing short stories. At 17 is when I turned to the novel. There are no books that come to mind as something that I studied… I wouldn’t say there’s any particular book that teaches you the craft as much as just imbibing books. So I was a voracious reader. I read books for the sake of studying the craft. There’s the elements of style that will teach you how to be a better grammatician. But in terms of learning the craft, I think the best way is to immerse yourself in reading. Coming into high school, I was reading a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lawrence Durrell. I think those were supreme novelists who taught me a lot about the craft, but I don’t have a handy manual.
No, no worries. I give the same advice: to become a great writer, become a great reader. And I could not agree more. My second question is, if somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical for a year, or as long as it took, to go to school and get a PhD, what do you think the subject that you would study? And what do you think the title of that dissertation would be?
Well, I will say that sometimes people feel as if being at Yale law school is like pursuing a PhD in some ways. So thankfully I had the opportunity to work on long-term writing projects that are jurisprudential and theological and religious and moral. So I’m actively at work on some of these projects. And a lot of them have to do with thinking about the overlap between legal and literary theory. So those are the projects I’m very passionate about.
Okay. I’m excited about that. I don’t know if that sounds more Kafka or more Grisham, but it sounds very, very exciting. And maybe it’ll be even a mix of both. My final question, I’m always curious, particularly someone as accomplished as yourself – Ivy league law school, already a published novel – what time do you go to sleep at night? And what time do you wake up in the morning?
I could use a lot more sleep, I’ll be honest with you. This is not my best sleeping stretch of my life. Part of the wonder of being in law school and publishing your first book and all your other activities is that you don’t get too much sleep, but that’s okay. I’m very grateful for that. But lately, if I go to bed by 2:00 AM, I think that’s pretty good. And I don’t wake up too much later than that. So I could use more sleep, but I’m thankful to have a lot of different balls in the air and to be juggling different things, and I’m excited about these different projects. So no complaints. Just some yawning.
David, it is such a pleasure to speak with you today. I really appreciate your time and insight. And to all of our listeners, The Orchard, a phenomenal book in paperback in September, go pick it up. It is an eye opening take on the religious universe that I think we all live in. Thank you so very much.
Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks David.
I hope you enjoyed our conversation with David Hopen. And as I promised, and as we’re doing all along with this summer unwind series at 18Forty, we’re trying to give people recommendations to read and to watch things that maybe they wouldn’t have had a chance to do when it’s not the summertime. We’re always giving book recommendations, but we’re trying to have these be a little less heavy. I don’t know that somebody sitting outside on a beach on vacation wants to read a heavy theological work. But I’m going to try to give recommendations of books that stand out for me. I’m always trying to give three recommendations in all of the series of works within the genre that we are exploring, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or documentaries. Anything within this series, I will try to give three recommendations that resonated with me. And my apologies, because the world of fiction is not really the world that I’m currently a part of. I don’t keep abreast of developments of what’s going on in the fiction world. And if you have other recommendations that you’d like to share, or that you think should be highlighted to our listeners, send me an email. Reach out. We’d love to highlight more. We’ll be having our weekly readers highlighting some of these digest. So make sure to sign up, of course, through the website.
So the three works that stood out for me – and you may not like any of them – the first work is a book that I assume you have never heard of because the author is under a pseudonym. I know who the author is. I am not going to out that person right now. But I’ve always found the existence of this book absolutely fascinating. The author’s name, pseudonym that he writes under is the initials B. D. and the last name is Da’ehu. It is a pun, a play on the Hebrew term “bichol deracheha da’ehu,” which means in English, “In all of my ways I will know him and acknowledge him.” And you can find this book, which is entitled With All My Heart, With All My Soul, on Amazon. And it’s a fascinating book. It is written by somebody who is very enmeshed in what I would call the yeshiva world. It’s written well – it’s not an amazingly well-written book and the drama is very basic. It is about a yeshiva student who goes off to university and falls in love with a non-Jewish woman. I’ve always found the book absolutely fascinating because it contends with a lot of that duality that a lot of people feel, whether or not it impacts their actual dating life, but that stepping into the larger world.
What makes it absolutely fascinating, and you’ll have to just take my word for this, because I’m not going to reveal the author’s identity, that this is a person who, I don’t know whether or not they’re writing autobiographically, but this is a person who, if you knew who he was or his family was, your jaw would drop that they’re writing about themes like this. But I think it is a testament to the importance of fiction that allows us to describe and convey these messages in that very real, truthful way without betraying our own experiences or allowing our own experience to cloud some of the more universal dilemmas that are at play in this story. So my first recommendation is B. D. Da’Ehu, again, a pun on “bichol deracheha da’ehu,” in all my ways I will acknowledge him, meaning God. And the book is called With All My Heart, With All My Soul. Again, it’s written by a first time novelist, this was not reviewed by The New York Times. But I do think it is a book worth knowing at the very least that it exists.
The second book is not really a book. It is a play that was recommended to me by a very close friend of mine, and it has a lovely title and it is Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon. It is a play that was once performed, I never saw the play, but I did read the entire script of the play, which you could buy online for really just a few dollars. And the entire play is this generational battle with similar themes about the Jewish and non-Jewish world, but about a group of siblings who are fighting over who should get their grandparent’s Magen David, that Jewish star necklace, and who should it belong to?
It is not an Orthodox story, but it is an extraordinarily Jewish story. And if language doesn’t bother you, because if I remember correctly, there’s quite a bit of curse words and that stuff, if that doesn’t bother you, I absolutely think this is worth reading because it contends with so many of the issues of American Jewish identity, the role of Israel, the role of Jews and non-Jewish relationship, the role of what it means to perpetuate a tradition. Who is in fact considered a good Jew by American standards? And it is considered through this fascinating lens of what it means to be a bad Jew, which is exactly the title of this play. Which, knowing if you know what I love, having written books on sin and failure, of course I had to read a play called Bad Jews, again, by Joshua Harmon. It is absolutely something that I think is worth reading. And it’s so cheap on Amazon, why not just buy it.
Finally, the article that I want to recommend, and this you can get for free online if you haven’t already gone beyond your allotted articles in The New Yorker, and that is the very famous article by Nathan Englander. And the title, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which was a fictional story originally published in The New Yorker. I think it was published as part of Nathan Englander’s collection of stories. But the title is taken of course from Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which also was originally published as an article. Quite a brilliant article. It’s the initial quote that I used in my own book, Sinagogue. And it was originally published as a story The Beginners.
But in Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank – I never read the fiction in The New Yorker. My mother always did. I never did. I had a hard time getting through it. I love reading The New Yorker, but I don’t know, fiction just never really speaks to me, but this title grabbed me. And the storyline and the plot line is something that I’ve experienced firsthand. It’s about two couples getting together who know each other from the past, but one of the couples became, in the words of the story, ultra Orthodox, a term that I know no one in real life actually identifies as. But that’s what Nathan Englander uses in the story. And I don’t remember any sort of outrage about the story, I could be wrong, that people hated it or felt that it was depicting Orthodox Jews in a bad light.
I found the dynamic around the table of how these couples are feeling one another out and observing and considering their differences and commonality in their own lives to be extraordinarily profound. And I think it really highlights that truth underlying all of fiction that everyone I think has experienced in one way or another: when you get together with an old friend, but one of you has changed dramatically., and how those changes trickle down and animate a relationship. It’s a deeply held truth in my own life. Everyone has changed at some point in our life, but I’ve had friends who have changed extraordinarily dramatically. We lose touch, we get back together. And then there are these meetups where you’re trying to feel each other out and figure out, “What still binds us? What still connects us?” Which I think in a larger sense is a metaphor for the Jewish people itself. Not just a group of friends and one of them has changed over the years, but generationally, when we get together and look at previous generations of Jewish life, what still binds us from this generation to previous generation?
And I think that rumination, that lens of considering this short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, is a poetic analogy for how every Jewish generation is trying to reach out and feel out their commonality and differences with previous generations, ancestors, previous generations of Jews. And I think it’s done in a microcosm of these two couples around the table in a really profound way. So again, my recommendations, a fiction reading, some long books, some short plays, some articles that you could find in the New Yorker. The first is B. D. Da’Ehu, With All My Heart, With All My Soul. Secondly is Bad Jews by Joshua Harmon. And lastly is Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. And the common denominator, of course, is this idea of how Jews contend with differences and commonality among themselves, and also against the broader world, and also in previous generations. But I think fiction gives us this very profound lens to consider the underlying truths that emerge within these relationships.
So thank you so much for listening. And it wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without asking for a little bit of a favor. So if you enjoyed this episode or any episode, please subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic or some of the other great topics we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8, followed by the word “forty”, F-O-R-T-Y.org. You’ll also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening and stay curious my friends.