When New York-based poet and fiction writer Amy Gottlieb comes to the Bay Area next week for a reading from her first novel, it will be a homecoming. Twenty-five years ago, she was living in Berkeley and frequented the now-defunct Black Oak Books.
“I would go to readings there almost every night,” she said, “and dream of one day giving a reading there myself.”
On Tuesday, March 29, she will read from “The Beautiful Possible,” at Berkeley’s Books Inc., which moved into Black Oak’s longtime space on Shattuck Avenue last year.
“I left my heart in Berkeley,” said Gottlieb, who places one of her book’s three main characters, Walter Westhaus, in the Berkeley of the 1960s and ’70s.
Westhaus, a Holocaust survivor and a brilliant, iconoclastic, atheistic religion scholar at the university, is involved in a love triangle with Rosalie and Sol Kerem, a rabbinic couple struggling with faith, doubts and secrets at their home synagogue in New York’s postwar suburbs. Sol, a Conservative spiritual leader at Temple Briar Wood in central Westchester County, is in love with Walter as a chavrusa — a talmudic study partner — and perhaps more. Rosalie is in love with Walter in every possible way — as an intellectual equal, as a fellow spirit-seeker and as the avatar of transcendent physical fulfillment.
Stretching seven decades over three continents, “The Beautiful Possible” asks readers to consider how to reconcile all that the world is — confusing, nebulous, disorderly, violent, occasionally beautiful and mostly unpredictable — with all that they may wish it to be: linear, binary, organized, explainable and clear-cut. Gottlieb’s characters are caught between those worlds, constantly negotiating passions, interests, community expectations, religious prescriptions and proscriptions, and family and marital responsibilities.
These are worlds that Gottlieb knows well, and fully embraces.
Gottlieb grew up in the New York suburbs (on Long Island, though, not Westchester) and watched her family’s Conservative synagogue evolve from a tent-like meeting place to a full-fledged structure, similar to her characters’ experience with Temple Briar Wood. She left the East Coast to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago, where she concentrated on Latin American literature but fell in with the students and scholars at the university’s divinity school. “I got a whiff of what it would be like to study religion,” she said.
She was able to delve into Buber, Heschel and other Jewish theologians when she returned to New York, where she worked for many years as the director of publications at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Along the way, she began writing poems and short stories that have appeared in literary journals and anthologies. Today, in addition to writing, she teaches at New York’s Drisha Institute for Jewish Education.
Gottlieb said the world of her leading female character, Rosalie, the rebbetzin, was very much based on her firsthand knowledge of the women of her generation: her mother’s friends. She remembers eavesdropping on their conversations around her parents’ kitchen table. “They talked about everything,” Gottlieb recounted. “It was a mix of gossip, advice, existential longings and whispered secrets. Their voices inform Rosalie’s.”
Like many of her characters, Gottlieb does not feel comfortable identifying herself within the confines of a branch of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist or even post-denominational. “That in and of itself is a label,” she said, and she does not want to be pegged. For her, as for her characters, being Jewish is a never-ending porous redefining of boundaries, about “belonging to a tribe … [yet] being a spiritual nomad.”
Amy Gottlieb will read from “The Beautiful Possible’’ at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29 at Books Inc., 1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Free. www.booksinc.net