Dani Shapiro sits in the living room of her apartment in New York’s Upper West Side landmark, the Hotel des Artistes. She is a composed, gracious hostess, offering cold drinks and nibbling delicately on a butter cookie.
With her cool, blond beauty, dazzling blue eyes, and understated, up-to-the-minute clothing, she hardly looks like the granddaughter of one of the founders of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, as well as of a string of yeshivas in Israel. Yet that’s precisely who she is, and in her novels, Playing with Fire (Doubleday, 1990) and Fugitive Blue (Doubleday, 1993), there is a persistent ache for the sense of meaning that religious observances provide, even as her protagonists move steadily toward the secular world.
Shapiro, 30, was raised in Hillside, New Jersey, in an Orthodox home. Though her parents are American born, she remembers how her father’s colleagues at the New York Stock Exchange thought he was an old-world rabbi because he observed the Sabbath. She attended a Jewish day school until the sixth grade, after which she transferred to a local prep school. The switch was something of a shock: “There were very few Jews in that school and even fewer girls, so I was an oddball in two ways. And because I didn’t ‘look Jewish,’ I found that I could cross over into the secular world. But it felt strange.”
Shapiro says she stopped keeping kosher in high school. There was an element of adolescent rebellion about her decision, but also something more: “I sensed my father’s ambivalence about the role of women in the Orthodox tradition,” she says. “He was very proud of his daughters and wanted a lot for them; that didn’t always coincide with expectations for women within the Orthodox community.” Shapiro notes that she and her half-sister (from her father’s previous marriage), a psychologist, are the two most professionally accomplished women in the extended family. Her mother, though from an observant background, was less insistent on raising her daughter in the Orthodox tradition; she essentially went along with her husband’s wishes. So Shapiro’s defection from the rules which governed her childhood engendered no serious opposition from either parent.
While she had “always written,” it wasn’t until her senior year at Sarah Lawrence that she began to think seriously about becoming a professional writer. During her last semester, an English professor submitted one of her short stories to the Henfield Fiction Competition, where it received second prize. “That made me sit up and take notice,” recalls Shapiro. She enrolled in the M.F.A. program at Sarah Lawrence, and what began as her senior thesis became her first novel, which she sold to Doubleday while still a student.
That novel. Playing with Fire, centers on forbidden, obsessive relationships. While Shapiro says she doesn’t start out with the intention of writing about taboos, they clearly hold a special appeal for her. In Fugitive Blue, protagonist Joanna is hopelessly in love with Billy Overmeyer, a gay man who, in the course of the book, becomes her stepbrother. “I find writing about what might happen more interesting than writing about what did,” she explains. “My books are filled with a sense of longing rather than love; longing is the more powerful emotion.”
While she has not yet written a book explicitly about being Jewish (“I know I will someday,” she says), her background and upbringing permeate her work. In Playing with Fire, the protagonist’s grandfather is a famous biblical scholar, and Jewish rituals and observances are skillfully woven into the story. In Fugitive Blue, we slowly and painfully learn that Georgia, Joanna’s mother, is a survivor of a Lithuanian pogrom whose emotional aftereffects prevent her from becoming close with her daughter.
Shapiro’s present-day relationship to her Judaism is complex. While she is no longer observant, the issue of faith clearly continues to compel her. “In a way that I can’t explain, I feel my creativity comes out of my being Jewish, even the conflicts I feel about it,” she reflects. While she no longer practices, there are moments when Shapiro longs for the kind of order that an observant life provides. “I find I want my life to have a shape; I miss the structure.” Yet, paradoxically, she finds greater spirituality in her life as it is now. “I was raised with the image of a punishing, judgmental God; I had a very religious upbringing but not always a spiritual one. I think my life now has a greater spiritual component; now I am more able to find God in nature and in other people.”
Yona Zeidis McDonough is a novelist and short story writer. Sara Nuss-Galles is a writer living in Madison, NJ. Nora L. Mandel is LILITH’s Development Counsel in New York City.