What is our kind?
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What is our kind?

An interview with novelist Yona Zeldis McDonough

“Not Our Kind” by Kitty Zeldis might have been an Oprah Book Club selection — if Oprah were Jewish.

Set in the New York area in the years immediately following the Second World War, it is centered on the life of Eleanor Moskowitz as it intersects with the lives of Patricia Bellamy and her wealthy WASPy family, a family that hues to the covert anti-Semitism of the time.

Moskowitz, a graduate of Vassar, taught at a hoity-toity private school — until she catches a student, the daughter of a wealthy contributor, plagiarizing a paper. When Eleanor refuses to drop the matter, her contract is not renewed, and she must find other employment. But there aren’t many jobs available for Jewish women; in fact, an employment counselor advises that she change her last name to Moss to facilitate employment. It’s something she might have done if fate hadn’t intervened in the form of a minor traffic accident.

Bellamy is in the cab that hits Eleanor’s taxi. She brings Eleanor to her home, where Eleanor bonds with her difficult child, Margaux. That leads to a job as the girl’s tutor. She joins the family at its summer home in Connecticut, falls for Patricia’s bohemian brother, Tom, and almost becomes the victim of a sexual assault.

It’s a kosher potboiler dealing in part with a subject that is relevant today, at a time when anti-Semitism is very much out in the open.

“The feelings and ideas in the book had been percolating in me for a long time,” said pseudonymous author Kitty Zeldis, or, more accurately, Yona Zeldis McDonough. Under that name she’s written seven adult novels and 28 books for children, and is the fiction editor of Lilith, the Jewish feminist magazine.

Ostensibly, publisher HarperCollins suggested the pen name because “Not Our Kind” is different from Yona’s earlier adult novels. But McDonough concedes that another reason might be that McDonough is not necessarily the best author name for a book as Jewish as “Not Our Kind.”

But, of course, she is Jewish. In fact, Yona (as her name might suggest), 61, was born in Israel. Her American parents, who met at Habonim, had made aliyah. But they returned to the States in 1958, originally for just a year or two. But ultimately it became a permanent move.

The family was not religious, McDonough said in a telephone interview. In fact, she notes, as she grew up in Brooklyn, it was “a source of great disappointment to me that I couldn’t take advantage of the Jewish life that was available to me, like the JCC, and I pined for that. My father thought those people were bourgeois.”

Like Eleanor, Yona went to Vassar. “That was my first significant contact with WASP culture and it was eye opening,” McDonough said. “Although I loved Vassar, and was very happy there, was taken seriously as a student, and made many wonderful friends, I could not but be aware that this was a place built on excluding people like me.”

Her freshman roommate once told her, “your people did murder our Lord.”

“I was quite shocked by that and I didn’t really have a good response,” McDonough said. But it added to her feeling of not belonging. In fact, at one point she told a classmate that she should have been named Katharine Anne Worthington. The friend laughed and began calling her Kitty, and that nickname stuck.

At the end of her freshman year, Yona returned to Israel. “I thought I would stay and make aliyah, but that didn’t happen,” she said. But she “felt a kinship” with the land and the people, she said, and was excited at meeting someone else named Yona. She lived with an uncle who had emigrated with her parents, married an Israeli woman, and stayed.

“He told me Israel needs educated people,” she said. “He said go home, get a degree, and then come back. I was taken with the country, but by the time I graduated from college I never felt the urge to relocate.”

Though she has Jewish characters in her previous work, that was never as central to the book’s plot as it is in “Not Our Kind.” But, McDonough says, “anti-Semitism is a byproduct of the book, it’s not the theme. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot more you can say about that.

“This book is about the intersection of Jews in a non-Jewish world. If you are Orthodox, you don’t have this problem. You live in a community that shields you from the outside world.

“But if you’re like me and dare to assimilate, how do you find your place? I married a man who is not Jewish, so to say Jews are good and goyim are bad seems simplistic. Things about that [non-Jewish] world seduced me and I wanted to be part of it. But I’m a Jewish woman, and it was that intersection that interested me.”

Her attitude, she understands, doesn’t always endear her to other members of our tribe. “‘What will happen to us?’ they ask. I feel what I’m doing is expanding the definition of what it means to be Jewish. The way we’ve been doing it hasn’t been so great. The sense of exclusivity, the sense of us and the other doesn’t speak to my core values.

“I grew up in a liberal household and felt none of that, saw none of that. I like that. I feel proud of that.”

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