Struck paydirt again at BookTowne last Sunday, picking up an Advance Reader’s Edition of Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance scheduled for publication on January 17, 2019. If you have any interest in genealogy and Judaism, be sure to pre-order a copy. Dani is an accomplished author and teacher, with a look that would qualify her for the role of lead Shiksa in a Woody Allen movie. I say that for a reason you’ll soon see.
The author’s note indicates at the outset that Inheritance is a work of nonfiction, but that some names and identifying details have been changed to respect and protect the privacy of others. One of the Thoreau-ly fictitious names is Dr. Benjamin Walden, who turns out to be her biological father, while among the non-fictitous is Jared Kushner’s grandmother, a friend of her parents, telling the young Dani in her thick accent one Shabbos afternoon: We could have used you in the ghetto, little blondie. You could have gotten us bread from the Nazis. Of course as long as one parent was Jewish, Hitler would have come for her anyway. Another non-fictitious individual in the book, Rabbi Haskell Lookstein reassures Dani in adulthood that her Jewish status is secure as long as her mother was Jewish.
On a quest to learn about her genetic composition, Dani registers with ancestry.com and discovers that there’s a good reason she doesn’t look Jewish. As a memoirist, writing her previous books have helped her plumb the depths of her personal and family life. Just when she thought the waters couldn’t get any deeper, the genealogy results of being genetically half-Jewish rattled the essence of her personal identity. Taking a page of out Graham Nash’s songbook, Dani notes that she was raised in a very, very fine house, with two sinks in the kitchen and the whole orthodox nine yards.
But in a Q & A published in the Connecticut Jewish Ledger in 2011, Dani confesses being conflicted about Jewish practice as a child:
Q: How did you experience Judaism growing up?
A: My background is complicated. My father was from a prominent New York Orthodox family. My grandfather was one of the founders of Lincoln Square Synagogue, and one of my uncles was a four-time president of the Orthodox Union. My grandparents founded many yeshivas in Israel, and were very philanthropic. My mother, however, was not Orthodox. She came from a very different background – her parents had a chicken farm in southern New Jersey. When my parents decided to marry, my father told my mother that it was important to him to keep an observant home, and she agreed to this. But she didn’t really believe in what she was doing – and so there was a lot of conflict over religious observance and customs when I was growing up. Most of this conflict revolved around how to raise me. My father wanted me to go to a yeshiva. My mother wanted me to be a modern American girl. The two seemed at odds with each other. And so I went to a Jewish day school, Solomon Schechter, until I was in 6th grade, and then to a prep school in New Jersey, The Pingry School, from 7th grade through high school.
For me, growing up, I equated religious belief with conflict. I didn’t see the beauty in it – or frankly, the point. It seemed to cause strife between my parents, and not to make either of them happy or more contented. The meaning was drained out of it… and all that was left was the ritual, which, drained of meaning, felt empty. And so I left.”
Dani was never close with her mother, and recounts an extended period of being adrift after her father died when she was in her early 20s. Mrs. Kushner may have been the first person to sensitize Ms. Shapiro to her non-Jewish looks, but the nagging doubt about her roots seems to have followed the author throughout adulthood. The inverse of Howard Stern, who was “slapped the yarmulke”, Dani’s looks made one wonder “vus fahr a punem” – how a Jewish girl could look so un-Jewish.
The author also addresses the “vus fahr a numen” question – what kind of a name is “Dani”? Turns out that her parents named her Daneile, pronounced “Dah-knee-el”, the transliteration of דָּנִיֵּאל. Last year, as part of coming to terms with her new-found genetic identity as half Jewish, she legally changed her name to Dani. It was the culmination of a trail that she deftly weaves like a detective novel, leading to the discovery of her biological father in Oregon. “Dr. Benjamin Walden” was a medical student at Penn in the early 1960s who donated sperm to a fertility clinic with the expectation of anonymity. With the ancestry registry and the help of other clues through the internet, Dani reaches out to her biological father. The tension and suspense of how he and she handle this is spellbinding reading.
As Shabbos candles were burning in New Jersey on a Friday night last May, Dani Shapiro was doing a book reading of her latest memoir, Hourglass, at Powell’s City of Books in Portland. Her biological father and his previously known family were in attendance, incognito. You will have to visualize what he looks like because there is no trace of a Dr. Benjamin Walden on the internet that you’ll be able to find, so well has she protected the privacy of others.