All New York Jews have two sets of genealogy. There are the physical roots, even if they’re only vague coordinates of the original shtetl or shop: Russian, Polish, German, Hungarian. And then there is the cultural identity, which, in the right circumstances, can be just as strong an identifier. Is your family Woody Allen Jewish, or Neil Simon Jewish? Are they old-school holdout Isaac Bashevis Singer Jews? Philip Roth Jews? The experiences and trajectories of certain writers’ characters tend to reflect those of entire swaths of the urban Jewish experience—they’re not quite kin, but they could be.
My family is of good solid E.L. Doctorow stock. My mother is part of a large brood of cousins—her mother was one of ten—and most of our family’s journey took the same classic trajectory as Doctorow’s characters: Lower East Side to the Bronx to Yonkers and Riverdale, finally to settle in middle-class comfort in Westchester. Reading his novels adds a bit of hand-tinted color to my mother’s stories of playing on her University Avenue stoop, walking hand in hand with her father to buy a Charlotte Russe at the bakery, summers spent at a big house in Saddle River, New Jersey. Our family has home movies, too, including wonderful footage of their visit to the 1939 World’s Fair when my mother was 11. I’ve internalized bits and pieces of this history, as I suppose everyone does, and a glimpse of the World’s Fair’s iconic Trylon and Perisphere never fails to stir in me a tiny ripple of familial pride.
E.L. Doctorow’s 1985 World’s Fair explicitly blurs the boundaries of his own biography and fiction—the young protagonist, Edgar, shares his first name, and Edgar’s family corresponds in name and age to Doctorow’s; their address in the Bronx was his childhood home. But for me, it stirs reality into the mix even further, sparking memories I only have second-hand, through my mother and uncle and their cousins, but that are still perfectly real. So World’s Fair is, for me, a kind and reassuring read: I know these characters; they are my people. My edition even has a little Trylon and Perisphere at the head of every chapter. It’s also a good book, one of my rare rereads, and my choice for Open Letters Monthly’s 2013 Summer Reading section. It’s in good company—there’s something for everyone, so do go take a look. (Hey, the more it rains, the less time you have to spend watering, the more time you have to read. Or something like that.)