As a Jewish kid growing up in Maryland, Michael Chabon thought of Israel as a fallout shelter. In 2007, the award-winning author wrote “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” a detective novel in which Jewish refugees find a temporary safe haven in Alaska. The goal of writing the novel, he said, was to “build myself a home in my imagination.”
Speaking to more than 100 members of the Northeastern community who gathered in Blackman Auditorium on Wednesday evening for the 20th annual Robert Salomon Morton Lecture entitled “Imaginary Homelands,” he added, “I wanted to know where I came from and see if I dropped anything along the way.”
The lecture concluded the university’s annual Holocaust Awareness Week, a two-day series of programs and events aimed to celebrate the memory of Holocaust victims and serve as a reminder of contemporary acts of genocide. The event was presented by the Northeastern Humanities Center with the Holocaust Awareness Committtee. The committee comprises an interdisciplinary group of faculty and staff under the leadership of Georges Van Den Abbeele, founding dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.
Van Den Abbeele introduced Chabon, whom he called “one of the most celebrated American writers of his generation.”
Chabon’s body of writing, Van Den Abbeele noted, is “characterized by complex language and a set of themes, including nostalgia, divorce and issues of Jewish identity.”
Chabon, who received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” which tells a Holocaust story of Jewish cousins who become major players in the comics industry.
On Wednesday evening, Chabon discussed how the evolution of his literary career shaped his cultural and religious views. He released his debut novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” when he was only 25 years old, a time in which he began questioning his belief in Judaism.
“I was learning to question everything and trying to fit in,” Chabon explained, noting that his initial interest in writing science fiction novels was quashed by his college instructors. “Nothing about being Jewish seemed to have use or relation to my life at that time.”
After the lecture, Chabon fielded questions posed by audience members.
English professor Sam Bernstein, who called Kavalier & Clay “an extraordinary work of literature in our culture today,” asked Chabon whether he felt a tinge of sadness or depression upon finishing his magnum opus.
“When I approached the end of the manuscript, I realized this would be the last time I would spend in this world,” Chabon responded. “When you have those moments, you have to take a little time to say goodbye.”
On Thursday morning, Chabon visited the Humanities Center to meet with students from the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.
Robert Salomon Morton was born in 1906 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. A particularly harrowing experience in 1934 convinced him that he had no choice but to apply for emigration to the United States, in which he arrived three years later.
A chance meeting at a barbershop brought him together with Northeastern distinguished professor of chemistry Bill Giessen, who grew up in Nazi Germany and passed away in 2010. The long-time friendship that resulted from this chance encounter helped foster a sense of discovery between the two men and led to the creation of the annual Morton lecture.