DiversifYA: Natalie Blitt

NatalieToday, I’m so happy to welcome the amazing Natalie Blitt to the blog! Natalie is a newly-agented author of heartbreaking YA and NA, one of those people who make the writing community such a happy place to be, and an allround wonderful person. (So you should probably follow her on Twitter!)

1. How do you identify yourself?

How do I identify myself? As so many things. Primarily as a writer these days, because that’s what I spend all my time doing, even when I’m at work or with my kids or doing everything else. But also as a woman, because that’s a huge part of how I see the world. And as a Jew, someone for whom Jewish law and customs have become very important, someone whose family history is tied up with the history of the Jewish people. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. As an introvert. As a reader, a rabid, rabid reader. But really, so much of my identity comes from being a mother, especially a mother of three boys. Three boys! How is that even possible? I write about kissing and first love, and they talk non-stop about sports. That’s probably for a different blog.

2. What did it feel like growing up as Orthodox Jew?

I actually didn’t grow up Orthodox. I grew up as a Reform Jew, and truthfully, not terribly happy in that identity. I remember as a child sitting beside my bed, pretending to be Laura Ingalls Wilder with my hands clasped in front of me, praying to wake up not Jewish.

My Jewish identity growing up was more centered on being in a family where everyone was a Holocaust survivor. I grew up knowing these horrific stories from a really young age. I only started having a good relationship with organized Judaism when I went to a secular youth group and started meeting other folks who were proud to be Jewish. And then, I went to camp where they had two rabbis, one fairly secular and the other Orthodox. Everyone wanted to talk to the secular one, so I felt badly for the Orthodox rabbi and started talking to him. And by the time I came home from camp, I’d decided I wanted to be serious about observing Jewish law. And then it was years and years of going back and forth and trying to figure out what I wanted, and what felt authentic to me. And I’m still working on that.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

I think I’m my biggest challenge. I worry about what people think when I use that label (notice I haven’t used it yet?). I worry about what they’ll assume about me. I had a huge freak out when I first became friends with my critique partners, and I had to disclose it. I could hide the fact that I didn’t respond to emails and tweets for the first Friday night through Saturday night (I don’t use any electronics on the Jewish sabbath). But by the second one, I felt I had to come clean. Because that’s how I think about it. Disclose. Hide. Come clean. See the problem?

That said, as much as I have this worried voice in my head, having this relationship to Jewish life is a hugely important and lovely part of my life. The traditions I keep are things that link me to my grandparents and great grandparents, to their grandparents and great grandparents. Every Friday night, I light candles to mark the beginning of Shabbat using my grandmother’s candlesticks, the ones she bought in Munich while they lived in the DP camps there. I say the same blessing, do the same hand motions, close my eyes in the same way as she did, as my other grandmother did, and every woman who came before them. Jewish law, traditions and customs are an integral part of my identity, and they continue to enrich me.

But it’s not a perfect fit. The voice in my head is challenging. Turning off electronics for Jewish holidays and Shabbat can be wonderful, and so hard. This year, the holidays lasted three days. And there were three of them within a month. That’s nine days where I was out of touch. Nine days while I was in the midst of submitting to agents, entering competitions, and ultimately making decisions about representation. Nine days when I couldn’t talk to those awesome critique partners. Nine days when I felt very out of touch.

4. What do you wish people knew about being Orthodox Jewish?

Oh dear. I don’t know. That in my mind, being an Orthodox Jew refers to your approach to Jewish law, what you believe to be binding. Almost everything else is up for grabs. (As is your approach to Jewish law.) There are Orthodox Jewish dancers and bakers and sports lovers and accountants. There are folks for whom every question is one they see through the lens of being an Orthodox Jew, and those who are living a life so like yours that you’d never know they also had this relationship with God and Jewish law. There are those who feel completely comfortable, and those who are constantly struggling.

And then, little things. That when we don’t use electricity on Shabbat, it doesn’t mean we sit in the dark, it means we put lights on timers. That we cook food in advance. That Shabbat is sometimes amazing because our family plays board games all the time since there’s no TV or computers, but it can also last forever when the kids are whiny and it’s raining outside. That sometimes being Orthodox feels enormous, like you’re living in a foreign country. And sometimes it feels as minor as being lactose intolerant.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

Definitely the assumptions about clothing. And how we live in the modern world. That we speak with a yiddish accent (though my grandparents did — can you tell I miss them a lot these days?). That we’re scared of living in the secular world. That’s we’re all white, with ancestors coming from eastern Europe. That we have the same politics. That we aren’t funny. That we’re all funny. That we aren’t irreverent. That we don’t read the same books you do, go to the same movies, like the same things.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

Research is clearly important. That said, what makes a character rich is not that they have one identity, but that they have many. Someone who is just an Orthodox Jewish person is going to be pretty boring and flat. Blend your identities!

2 Responses to DiversifYA: Natalie Blitt

  1. GREAT post Natalie! Thanks for sharing!!!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Natalie. I have such tremendous respect for you and am so grateful to get to know more about you.