The Decaying Borscht Belt and Ambivalent Motherhood

Lech (Tortoise Books, $18.99) is the new, “confrontationally Jewish” Catskills-set novel by Sara Lippmann. Lippmann talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the perennial question: how to loosen the stranglehold of the ties that bind? 

YZM; The novel explores different ways of being Jewish and sometimes these different forms of faith come into conflict; can you elaborate? 

SL: This book is the most confrontationally Jewish work I’ve ever written. Which isn’t to say I hide or eschew my Judaism in other stories, as I do feel like it comes through the sensibility and perhaps even the syntax but I wanted to directly explore the question of faith and identity head on. I wanted to respond to the (traditionally male) American Jewish canon on which I was raised, both embracing and subverting certain tropes. 

Identity is a funny thing. We contain multitudes, etc. I wanted to look at what it means to be Jewish, which is elastic, of course, but even its elasticity can make an uncomfortable container. So, a pluralistic view, yes, only one that’s more fractured, less kumbaya. As writers we hold up mirrors to the world, to ourselves, with the hopes that we are not merely reflecting but calling upon the reader (and the writer) to take a good long look inside. I wanted to do so without judgment. There are many kinds of Jews in this book (just like there are many kinds of characters, of people): a nominally identified and intermarried woman who develops an almost fetishtiic attraction to orthodoxy, a first generation son of Holocaust survivors, his secular ex-wife and children, one of whom has become a ba’alot teshuvah; there are Hasidism, both Satmar and Lubavitch, those comfortable in the fold, and those trying to extricate themselves from it. There are also non-Jews in the book. Resentment and antisemitism breed violence and other physical and psychological trespassing. I wanted to look at all of it, all of these people, how faith and faithlessness inform their outlook, where they overlap, how identity can be a life float we cling to when we feel adrift in a world absent of answers, and where they diverge. 

YZM: You really dig into motherhood in the book: mothers who didn’t choose to be mothers, mothers who die, mothers who abandon their children, mothers who fail to protect them. Can you expand on this theme? 

SL: Ambivalent motherhood — lol, that feels almost redundant. There’s the decision to become a mother (which can be thrust upon us or an active choice or a combo of the two), and then the assumption that once one becomes a mother, this role should now trump all other aspects of that person’s identity — that is some really messed up shit. (Can I say shit? Stuff?) I blame the patriarchy. Of course, it is in the system’s interest to propagate the myth that women are vessels for babies and that motherhood is our destiny, erasing all things like individuality, ambition. Like desire. It’s Virgin Mary level. It’s an amazing paradox: Sex is what makes us mothers, and then once we are mothers, to want sex becomes somehow unseemly. So I wanted to look at that. At desire, yes. Individuality. Wanting. Wanting other things. Fraught wanting. And the ways these roles, these patterns can be a trap when we do not consciously choose them, but fall into them. Chaya Roth — who perhaps hews most closely to this expectation — drowns. She is a cautionary tale in the sense that this role has been pushed upon. It has consumed the self. When in fact, mothers, like everyone else, are human. Deeply fallible. Conflicted. Self-involved. Messy. They make choices, good, bad and ugly.

YZM: Chaya, the woman whose decades-old death is threaded through the story, haunts its characters.

SL: The drowning of Chaya Roth on the property of Murmur Lake almost twenty five years prior to the start of the book was meant to be a sort of quiet pulse thrumming through the book. Maybe it was a strange choice to sideline, to eclipse a lot of that action (my agent, for example, would have loved for me to have pushed that more to the foreground) but what interested me about the story was less the drama, or the play by play of what happened (which we can never exactly know) but the mythology that sprang from it and the way our proximity to trauma informs us and shapes us. And, also the sort of midrashic way we keep interpreting stories to which we have not been direct witnesses in order to eke out some kind of meaning that serves us. Everyone has a past in the novel, including the setting—so Chaya Roth’s drowning is the trauma Murmur Lake carries. Whereas all the other characters are tasked with the imperative of Lech Lecha — Go, Go forth. Go forth for you. Live your one life. Chaya—whether her death was at her own hand or murder or an accident—did not go forth. 

YZM: The sense of place—in this case Sullivan County—is very strong in this novel; can you talk about its role in Jewish American life? 

SL: Sullivan County: the Borscht Belt and its attendant mythology, once hopping hotbed of New York Jews fleeing sweltering city tenements, the vibrant comedy scene, and later, the has-been quality as that resort life dissipated, giving way to Catskills decay, an irresistible metaphor. The palpable tension between tourists and locals and so on. Although I do have a handful of memories, this book was actually inspired more by experiences I had on the other side of the river, in the Poconos, where I spent significant time as a child and then as an adult. But once the story began to take hold, I knew it would have to be in Sullivan County for the reasons already mentioned. So I did a ton of research on the region, through books, newspaper articles, and films, etc, a patchwork of memory, and also, travel. Through the multiple drafting seasons, I was working as a teacher at a Jewish summer camp in Wayne County, so on my days off I would troll through Neversink and its surrounding towns. Only as the story grew did I begin to realize the place was not only setting but also character, and a microcosm, a biopsy of the Trump America we were now living in, and how the climate of 2014 was predictive of all that. 

YZM: Let’s talk about that title.

SL: The title of the novel has a trifold meaning. On the one hand, it refers to Ira Lecher, the title character around whose property much of the plot revolves. It also speaks to lechery, and the theme of predation running through the book. Last, it is a nod to the parsha Lech Lecha from Genesis, which became a central question, or driving imperative: How to go forth? How do we build a life? How do we move through our lives, freeing ourselves from or at least learning how to shoulder some of the things we carry that might have been holding us back? Hopefully, it also becomes apparent that the traversal has two parts: we need to look inward first, go forth within ourselves and do that tough internal reckoning before we can set that gaze outward — and go forth, love another.