I have never met Erika Dreifus in person, but I feel as if I know her. That may be because we’ve communicated quite a lot in recent years about writing and book-related news. We are connected by certain things; my father was a Holocaust survivor, and Erika’s grandparents were refugees from Nazi Germany (she talks about the difference in our interview below). We have both struggled with certain topics she covers her new book, Birthright: Poems (Kelsay Books), including concepts of family and heritage, childlessness, health crises, and Jewish identity. We have also shared thoughts about perceived pressures to conform to certain ideas in order to be accepted into some literary circles.
Birthright: Poems is Dreifus’ first book of poetry. Her first book, Quiet Americans: Stories, is an award-winning collection of short fiction that traces the shock waves of the Holocaust as they reverberate through generations of American Jews.
Let’s back up and offer the author’s bio: Erika Dreifus is the granddaughter of German Jews who escaped Nazi persecution and immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. Dreifus earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard University, where she taught history, literature, and writing for several years. Currently, she lives in New York City, where she is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Baruch College of The City University of New York. Since 2004, Erika has published The Practicing Writer, a free (and highly popular) e-newsletter for writers of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
Birthright: Poems felt, to me, like a highly personal book. The collection moves from meditations on Biblical stories and Jewish life to touchstones of personal memory and family. The language is conversational and free in its form, and many of the poems invite us into Dreifus’ daily experiences and observations. Subjects range from a visit to the dentist, the current political scene in the United States, anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment and singlehood to a frightening attack while the author was jogging in New York City and the decision to forego social media on Shabbat. But in addition to the author’s voice, if we are to assume she is the speaker, we also hear the voices of Lilith and the Bible’s Ruth. One of the most haunting poems, “Family Plots,” reveals the loss of a 13-month-old great-aunt in 1924 due to “intestinal toxemia.” The poem ends with words that linger long beyond its reading, possibly because they could be a metaphor for hidden events or people — or even thoughts — from our own pasts:
“and I am too afraid of what I might find there:
the baby buried, alone,
abandoned, with the weeds.”
And now, Erika Dreifus.
FRD: Your first book, Quiet Americans; Stories, is a book of fictional short stories that, according to one reviewer, “traces the shock waves of the Holocaust reverberating outward through generations of American Jews.” How did you address the question of whether or not to fictionalize any aspect of the Holocaust?
ED: To be quite honest, it really wasn’t a question that I felt any need to address; only after I began writing Holocaust-related fiction did I realize that for some people, it might be. Long before I began focusing on my own writing projects, I was a child reading Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and Johanna Reiss’s The Upstairs Room alongside nonfictional works. Only later did I learn that the decision to fictionalize anything Holocaust-related could be controversial.
I suppose that I did absorb one point that remained important for my own work: the authors’ own connections to the stories they were telling. In other words, their work sprang from their own experience; my stories emerged from a different, yet related familial connection and deep sense of identification with the history I was writing about.
FRD: As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, do you find it painful to mine Jewish history and culture for stories? Important? Both?
ED: I must begin by clarifying something. It’s always important to me to specify that although my grandparents were refugees from Nazi Germany, I don’t typically refer to them as “Holocaust survivors.” As difficult as things became for them throughout the 1930s, both of them managed to leave before the Kristallnacht of November 1938, and in our family, we always used “refugee” to describe their experience.
I’m sensitive to the complexities of definitions in this area. Especially since I happen to be re-reading some work by Melvin Jules Bukiet right now (I’ve assigned it to my undergraduates), I’ll quote from his “Note on Method and Category,” which is included in the 2003 anthology he edited that’s titled Nothing Makes You Free: Writings by Descendants of Jewish Holocaust Survivors:
Survivors: This may be the most complicated word here. We live in an age in which victimization carries a special weight and is therefore deliberately adopted. So who is a survivor? Obviously, anyone who spent any time in a German extermination, concentration, or labor camp qualifies. Also obviously, anyone in hiding for their lives in the woods in Poland or in an attic in Amsterdam qualifies. But what if you fled eastward, into Russia? Is there a line on the map at, say, the Volga River that, when crossed, makes you a refugee rather than a survivor? I believe so. Certainly such people survived the catastrophe of war, but they were fortunate enough to avoid the catastrophe of the Khurbn.
A few lines later, Bukiet adds that for clarity, “and solely for the purposes of this book,” he included in his anthology “only writers with at least one surviving ancestor who spent at least one day between September 1, 1939, and May 8, 1945, under the flag of the twisted cross.” Now, my grandparents spent that time in the United States, but their parents experienced some of those years under that flag. So I am a descendant of survivors according to Bukiet’s definition—it’s just that I’m on the planet because my grandparents were young adult-refugees who got out in time and met and married and began a family here.
I’m not sure exactly where that leaves me. I’m just always compelled to explain it, somehow.
But to return to the original question: I’ve certainly found it painful to write about persecution, suffering, and loss—even more so when writing about the experiences of people I love. But as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve also found it somehow healing.
Moreover, there is so much more to Jewish history and culture than pain. Especially with the work in the new poetry collection, I’ve drawn inspiration from the rich inheritance of Jewish text and ritual—not to mention the miraculous achievement that is the existence of the state of Israel.
FRD: I’m definitely excited to talk about your new book. A lot of our readers are writers who are still seeking their first publication, so I’m wondering this first: was the experience of publishing your first book everything you expected it to be?
ED: By the time I received the publication offer in 2010, I’d abandoned the hope that the book would be published at all, so in a way, just having it published was in itself much more than I expected!
FRD: Have you faced any challenges as an author that are specific to your identity as a Jewish writer in this time and place?
ED: There are some. Do I think (and ask) about security when I’m running through event plans with organizers? Yes. But again, to be perfectly frank, that’s not entirely new to me. It’s more that my usual anxiety level has been upped.
Another challenge concerns the significant part of my Jewish identity that is Zionist. The meanings of “Zionism” and Israel itself have been twisted, distorted, and demonized in some segments of the writing and publishing world. It’s ugly, and it’s wrong, and it’s unfortunately (and maddeningly) also too often the product of words and actions from self-identifying Jewish writers. Writers tout “community” often, but it’s a challenge to coexist communally with those who espouse virulently anti-Israel views. This is a big subject and there’s lots more to say—but it’s also an exhausting and depressing one.
FRD: Thank you for speaking about that. As you say, it’s a big subject that we won’t delve into more here and now, but it’s important. Let’s take that promised time now to talk about your second book, Birthright: Poems. This book is a poetry collection. Do you consider yourself a poet more than a fiction writer? How do you move between the two genres?
ED: I was still writing fiction when I began writing poetry, but at the moment, I’m not writing fiction at all, so I’m not moving between those genres. I suppose that at the moment, I’m more identifiably a poet. I hope, though, that fiction and I haven’t parted ways for good.
FRD: Tell us more about this book and where our readers can get a copy.
ED: Well, maybe the official description will help introduce it:
The poems in Birthright, Erika Dreifus’s first poetry collection, embody multiple legacies: genetic, historical, religious, and literary. Through the lens of one person’s experience of inheritance, the poems suggest ways in which all of us may be influenced in how we perceive and process our lives and times. Here, a poet claims what is hers as a child of her particular parents; as a grandchild of refugees from Nazi Germany; as a Jew, a woman, a Gen Xer, and a New Yorker; as a reader of the Bible and Shakespeare and Flaubert and Lucille Clifton. This poet’s birthright is as unique as her DNA. But it resonates far beyond herself.
There are plenty of purchase options—including independent bookstores, the publisher, and Amazon—and they’re all linked at my website.
FRD: How can my readers learn more about contemporary Jewish literature?
ED: What a great question! One go-to resource is the Jewish Book Council. Check out their website and sign up for their emails!. Additionally, I routinely post Jewish-lit-related information on the My Machberet blog. Please visit often!