Minkowitz, Donna. “Growing Up Golem: Learning to Survive My Mother, Brooklyn, and Some Really Bad Dates”, Magnus Books, 2013.
(Written with thanks to “Tablet” magazine and to Don Weise for sending me a copy of the book).
A golem is a magical clay servant that is part of Jewish legend and folklore and this is what Donna Minkowitz says that her mother created her as. (Have patience and you will understand it all, I hope). The golem of Prague was a magical whatever and Donna’s mother told her that she could do Jewish magic just like the golem and, of course, Donna believed her. I remember once, about two years ago, receiving an email from Donna when I was trying to organize a Jewish LGBT writers’ organization that has still not happened and I knew then that I had to have her as a friend and even though we have never met, I feel like I know her after reading her writings and this memoir.
Donna became a queer activist and a reporter for the Village Voice and although golems do not have human feelings, she does. I love that she has reached back into Jewish history to write this memoir and I especially like the golem idea. I found it amazing that she published this just as I began teaching a course on the golem and its relationship to Judaism.
Many Jewish mothers are domineering and we certainly see this here and the idea that her mother did not just give birth; she created her, is a novel and clever approach. Donna grew into a “radical, take-no-prisoners lesbian journalist”. She tells us about her family, describing it as “eccentric” and she feels the compulsion to do what others want. The results are usually very funny and often horrible.
Donna Minkowitz is one of three sisters growing up in a Brooklyn working-class, secular and intellectual family. (Do you remember when we actually used the term “working-class family”?) In her memoir she takes us through her childhood and career as a writer as well as through more personal aspects of her life including her romances and her bout with an illness that cost her the loss of her journalist career. Her mother told her early on that she has magical powers from the Kaballah and that she was her mother’s personal golem and that is why she is here.
Donna describes herself as “fey, impish, effeminate, will o’ the wisp; mercurial, multifarious—counterfeit in my very being, like a photocopy of a human”. There is, in her words, a sense of “twoness” in her and that she is really half a person. She further says that she has never felt being a “real person” and unable to taken apart and/or beguiled. She relates that Purim, the holiday that Jews celebrate about a catastrophe that eventually brought freedom to the Jews of Persia, was her favorite—a holiday about “tragedy and trauma” about a time when the Jews were to be eradicated. On Purim we dress in costumes of the heroes of the time but Donna and her mother decided, when she was just 6 years old, to dress as Haman, the arch villain and she loved the idea about dressing as someone who personified evil. She knew what Haman represented to Jews yet she agreed to dress like he did. Her mother labored over the costume and she realized that she was wearing it to please her mother more than herself and in it she transgressed gender and brought attention to herself as a villain. She knew that she was little more than a creature of her mother’s creation and in this costume, she hated it.
As for her father, she felt she had been brought into this world as not much more than athletic equipment; the “birdie in his games of badminton, the pins and ball (and sometimes the alley and the next lane) in his games of bowling, the puck (yes, my reader, the Puck, the two have always been connected) in his games of field hockey, the ball and clubs and beret in his games of golf” and so on.
Both parents were sensitive but there were obvious differences between mother and father with the father being the punch line of many of her jokes. Father and daughter did not really get along and Donna says that he never did act like a father to her.
I recently read that Minkowitz has been writing this book for eight years and as we read we see her love for the written word. It is the passion of language and the love of life that we feel here as she writes. We also are aware of the love she has for her mother and her sisters even though her mother was controlling. As we read, we see Minkowitz struggling to maintain control over her life and even when she comes out publicly as a lesbian journalist, she remains true to herself. However, she does admit to do what others want her to do and the results range from the horrible to the humorous. Things changed for her when she was almost helpless due to an arm injury that slowed her down almost to helplessness. She was unable to do much but knew she had to resume working and stay true to what she believed.
As I said earlier, I heard from Donna at the very beginnings of my attempts to bring Jewish LGBT writers together and it is still my dream. I assumed she was comfortable with her religion so I was surprised to learn that she feels that what shocked her the most about writing this new book is just how Jewish the book is. Now as a semi-observant Jew, I find that Judaism totally permeates my being and as much as one wants to divorce him/herself from it, it is just not easy. Judaism is not just a religion; it is also a way of life and one can run from it but cannot hide. For so many of us, being Jewish is a major part of who we are. Minkowitz admits to being a nonobservant Jew who goes to the Passover Seder when invited and who sometimes wishes she was more involved in Judaism. As a writer, she says that she is more of a lesbian than a Jew and this is an unnecessary division. In fact here it is no division at all when we read her memoir and see just how “Jewish it is”. She has also said that she has experienced much more homophobia than anti-Semitism and of course we know that the two do not go hand in hand unless someone lives, as I did, in Arkansas.
Here Minkowitz remembers as so many of us remember—we are our parent’s children and in many cases first or second generation Americans. Our parents (or their parents) came to America to avoid the raging tide of anti-Semitism in Europe and many grew up being afraid of who they were (similar to the way gay people felt in this country for a long time). It is our parents and their parents who instilled religion in us and for me, at least, I was never allowed to forget that I am a Jew (and I suspect that is true for Donna as well). I can still remember being told to always have a suitcase ready because we never would know when there would be a knock on the door. For me, Hurricane Katrina was the personification of that even though there were no anti-Semitic overtones to it. I suppose what I am trying to say is that we are Jews whether we observe our religion or not and there is something that always reminds us of that. When we least expect it to happen, we suddenly remember who we are. In Donna Minkowitz’s case, her parents were intellectual Jews and her mother had been educated about Jewish mysticism and the Kaballah and she passed that on to her daughter. Parents who came to this country from somewhere else wanted their children to be raised with a set of Jewish values and a sense of Jewish identity that comes forward even when sublimated. Therefore the “Jewishness” of this memoir did not really surprise me. We hear that the stories that she remembers best are those from the Hebrew Bible (which, by and large, are just stories with little truth to them). Bible stories are tough and the characters that we read about are members of dysfunctional families in every sense. So Donna Minkowitz tells us that her formal high education was in the realms of deconstructive literary criticism and the British literary tradition which is basically Christian so it is no surprise that she wonders how her book came to be so Jewish. (Interesting enough that those were also my fields of study).
To say that I love this book is an understatement. It is going to have a special place in my library and I will refer to it often. Those of you who know me also know that I spend a lot of time working in and around the Jewish LGBT community and this book has some of the answers to questions than many ask. I am so glad that it has been published and that it is written in such style and grace.