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Chabon reflects on the ‘limitless obligation’ of fatherhood



Novelist Michael Chabon gave a talk that was alternately poignant and humorous.

For two years, author Michael Chabon had done what he could to help elect Barack Obama president of the United States. So he was there, in Grant Park in Chicago, on election night last November, when all of his hopes and dreams were realized.

But as Chabon watched Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, walk out on stage to the deafening roar of the crowd, it wasn’t elation he felt.

“Among the most powerful emotions that stirred me as I stood there in the crowd on that unseasonably warm evening, with my little son, Abraham, perched on my shoulders, was heartbreak,” Chabon recalled during a talk Sunday night celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies.

“And that caught me a little unawares. In fact, I felt guilty about it. I knew I was only supposed to be happy at that moment—thrilled, grave, tired, relieved, duly awestruck, but happy. And I couldn’t stop thinking about his two little girls … With his daughters darting around his long legs, I saw Barack Obama as a father—like me.”

Betraying your children

During his 90-minute appearance at Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall, Chabon—who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—read from six unpublished essays, which he titled: “The Cut: The Jewish Father’s Guide to Betraying His Children.” In a talk that alternately touched on the profound and the mundane, the poignant and the humorous, Chabon discussed his views on God, circumcision, Christmas, the difficulty males have in artistically rendering women (“by pen or word processor”), his children’s artwork from school, and his daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Chabon told how, standing in Grant Park on that historic night in November, with his 5-year-old son on his shoulders, he at first felt pity for the Obama family, knowing how the immense burdens of the presidency would deprive Obama’s daughters of their father when they needed him.

But then, he said, he realized that it wasn’t just Obama who faced that problem.

“In order to betray your children, you don’t have to become the president of the United States,” Chabon said. “Being a father is a limitless obligation, one even the best of us, with the least demanding of children, could never entirely hope to fulfill.”

And he recounted the many ways he had betrayed his own four children.

“I have abandoned my children a thousand times. Failed them. Left their care and comfort to others. Wandered in by telephone or e-mail from the void of a life on the road. Issued arbitrary and contradictory commands from my mountaintop, when all that was wanted was a place on my lap. Absented myself from their bedtime routine on a night when they needed me more than usual. Forestalled, deferred or neglected their needs in the name of something I told myself merited the sacrifice. All that was in the very nature of fatherhood. It came with the territory. Now I looked at Obama, whose own father had taken off when he was still a small boy, never to return, and the pity I felt was for him.”

Chabon, whose bestselling novels also include The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and Wonder Boys (which was made into a movie starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr.) was introduced by Laurence J. Silberstein, the Philip and Muriel Berman Professor of Jewish Studies in the department of religion studies and founding director of the Berman Center.

“I’m very, very honored and grateful to be here tonight to help observe the 25th anniversary of the Berman Center,” Chabon said. “I was lucky enough at dinner this evening to be sitting at a table with Nancy Berman, the daughter of Phil and Muriel Berman, and I got to hear a lot of great stories about them. I understand now what truly remarkable people they were in so many ways, and not simply through having made the Berman Center itself come into existence.”

‘Our life is happening … right now’

During the question-and-answer session that followed his talk, Chabon was asked about his feelings toward Israel. He characterized them as “really complicated,” saying that he strongly believes that the state of Israel is necessary, and has the right to exist in peace, but that he doesn’t identify himself with Israel.

“I don’t have a sense of belonging to Israel,” he said. “I’m an American and a Jew. Those are the ways I define myself.”

The theme of fatherhood ran throughout his talk and the question-and-answer period. When asked how he balances the competing demands of fatherhood and writing, Chabon replied: “I don’t … I just go through life feeling perpetually guilty on both scores.”

He talked about the small details of daily life with his children—trying to help his two sons figure out why it’s so hard to draw female characters, and the guilt he feels throwing out artwork that his children bring home from school.

One time, when his daughter found a crumpled up drawing she had done in the recycling basket, Chabon told her it must have gotten there by accident. “Then, when she isn’t looking, I throw it away again,” Chabon said.

His discussion of circumcision drew uproarious laughter from the crowd.

“Eight days after your son is born, if you are a Jew, you hand him to a man with a scalpel and the man uses his fine instrument to cut off a small piece of your new baby,” Chabon said.

He recounted the difficulty he and his wife had in deciding to have their sons circumcised, calling it “mutilation, the only honest name for this raw act that my wife and I have twice invited men with knives to come into our house and perform in the presence of all our friends and family, with a nice buffet and a weekend cake from Just Desserts.”

He also recalled the joy he felt at his daughter Sophie’s bat mitzvah, as he joined others, young and old, in hoisting her up on a chair and carrying her around the dance floor for the traditional folk dance, the horah.

“I looked up at her—grinning and beautiful and terrified and happy—and felt not the same old ‘time is fleeting and we are all mortal,’ but something finer, and simpler, and harder even to bear in mind,” Chabon said. “This is our life happening, I told her, or would have told her if I could have caught my breath long enough to say it over the clamor of the clarinet and fiddle. And it’s happening right now.”

Picking up on Chabon’s closing thought, Ruth Knafo Setton, writer-in-residence at the Berman Center, said: “I can’t think of a better way to spend ‘right now’ celebrating this moment than with Michael Chabon.”

--Jack Croft

Photo by John Kish IV


Posted on Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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