“In a universe disturbed by so much over which we have no control, an untimely tragedy rattles the teeth of our already shaken confidence.” This is a line from “A Leak in the Heart,” a memoir written by award-winning writer, poet and retired George Washington University professor Faye Moskowitz. It was written 35 years ago, but sounds like it could have been written today.
While one can expect memoirs to one day hit the shelves about this pandemic, Moskowitz writes about another unforgettable time, the Great Depression. She grew up in an Orthodox family in Michigan during the 1930s. Her other memoirs include “And the Bridge is Love” and “Peace in the House: Tales from a Yiddish Kitchen.”
Moskowitz has advice for digging deep in order to write a good memoir.
“Sometimes it’s only a fragment of a memory, but usually that’s a good place to start,” Moskowitz says. “So, what you hope for is something unique, something that nobody else will come up with and that’s usually a word or an image from your past.”
She also has some suggestions for writing a memoir that won’t be forgotten.
“I think a bad memoir would be something that didn’t distinguish itself from any other memoir, so all the more important to fasten on an image from your past or even a word,” she says.
Moskowitz wrote about being a parent and her many careers, from working for the Democratic Party in Michigan to teaching middle school to writing.
Most recently, she was an English professor at George Washington University, teaching creative writing and Jewish American literature.
Moskowitz is now retired and approaching her 90th birthday. “I’m still trying to write a little bit, mostly poetry,” she says.
Over the years, Moskowitz has won a number of literary and academic awards, including the Pen Syndicated Fiction Award and the First Outstanding GW Woman Award. She was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
At George Washington University, Moskowitz co-created and taught a popular class called “Jewish Literature Live!” for 13 years. The class often filled up the first day of registration and some students even took it multiple times, she said.
“I had the privilege of inviting Jewish authors and what I discovered here in the United States was that there were fewer and fewer writers who concentrated on their Jewish backgrounds. But I managed to find enough of them,” she says of Erica Jong, Nicole Krauss and Owen Lewis.
“I even was able to bring Etgar Keret, who happened to be in the United States, to my students.” Moskowitz says.
After their lecture to the class, the authors gave a presentation on campus that all students could attend. At the end of the class, students received signed copies of all the assigned books.
Moskowitz believes that the new generation of Jewish American authors do not contribute as much to Jewish American literature as those who came before them.
“I do think there are many upcoming young Jewish authors, but they don’t necessarily write about their Jewish connections. In a lot of ways, they are children of American-born parents whose parents have fallen away from Judaism or do not feel the attachment that their parents did. Certainly, they don’t seem to have the Yiddish background that some of the older Jewish authors have. Writers who sprinkle their writing with Yiddish words and so forth.
“That seems further and further away,” she says.
Asked if Jewish American literature is starting to dissipate, Moskowitz says, “The literature may disappear in the sense that the connection to the Yiddish language may disappear.”
For Moskowitz, the Yiddish language is an important part of Jewish American literature. She notes that renowned authors like Phillip Roth and Bernard Malamud use some Yiddish words in their own work. She also includes some Yiddish words in her own books.
Traditional Jewish American literature may be fading, but authors like Moskowitz are working hard to keep it alive.
In her memoir “And the Bridge is Love,” Moskowitz writes, “For who will testify, who will accurately describe our lives if we do not do it ourselves?”