Just the Facts, by Ellen Sherman of Glen Ridge, examines what it’s like to be young, Jewish, and finding your way in the world in the late 1970s in the not-so-deep South of Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Nora Plowright, originally from Montclair, with her bachelor’s degree in English in hand, takes her first job as a reporter at the Anne Arundel Record. She is the only Jew around.
Over the course of the novel, published by She Writes Press, Nora has to discover answers to the big “Who am I?” questions, including those related to her Jewish identity. We observe her as she hides behind an Americanized name that does not announce her faith to her colleagues and friends, has awkward conversations about her religion with non-Jewish roommates, takes definitive action when her non-Jewish boyfriend uses a slur, and speaks with God while wondering if she is really a believer. Along the way, she stumbles onto a serious news story involving highway construction and political corruption.
Sherman places Nora’s religion insecurity within her larger wariness about the world around her: “Nobody around her was Jewish, and she was afraid about how people would react, and afraid of being ostracized.” Sherman calls Nora’s behavior “not the most admirable,” but suggests that that’s what makes the character interesting. Nora is “more of an anti-hero who is really struggling,” Sherman said.
In a conversation with NJJN at its offices on the Aidekman campus in Whippany, Sherman reflected on her own mostly secular but deeply rooted Jewish identity, her early experiences as a journalist, and her view of the truth. [Full disclosure: She is also serving as a part-time proofreader at the paper.]
She said it is the themes of the book — fear, separating from one’s parents, making it in the world — that are more deeply autobiographical than any of her characters, including Nora. “These are all preoccupations I’ve had,” said Sherman. Now 59, she said, “That kind of wrestling took me into my 30s.”
Still, Nora is at least a partial alter ego. “Her roots are my roots — but she’s really not me,” said Sherman. “I get to give her qualities that I like that aren’t mine — but also she has more flaws.”
Sherman grew up in Merion, Pa., and her family belonged to Main Line Reform Temple Beth Elohim in Wynnewood. She attended religious school there through confirmation, but did not celebrate becoming bat mitzva. The family rarely went to synagogue. Holidays happened at home. “I actually include Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday because we have really big family gatherings for Rosh Hashana, Thanksgiving, and Passover — and it’s all Jewish; all my cousins” come, she said.
Sherman graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1978 and left her protective, suburban, secular-but-deeply-identified-as-Jewish home for Glen Burnie, Md., to work as a reporter at the Maryland Gazette.
Like Nora, she did not love being a reporter, and eventually realized she was better suited to fiction. (She eventually earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa.) “I don’t like to go for the jugular,” she said. While she did not think her colleagues at the Maryland Gazette “were purposely trying to skew things negatively,” she said, “it just seemed like they fed so much on whatever would be controversial.”
In Nora, that same compassion and a desire to get things right is augmented by a desire to please everyone around her. As Sherman puts it, “She doesn’t want to get things wrong, and she doesn’t want to screw up, and she doesn’t want anyone to be mad at her.
“And you know, you can’t really be a newspaper reporter that way.”
But it does set up an interesting way to explore what accuracy really is. “There’s such a spectrum of the way we see reality and how objective we can be,” said Sherman. “Even for a newspaper reporter who’s trying to get it right, it’s all in what you think to ask and how you think to present it, what you include and what you leave out. It’s still a process.”
Sherman obviously thinks a lot about these issues. She quipped during her conversation with NJJN, “You know, they say people lie on average three times in 10 minutes, but for a fiction writer — someone like me — you have to triple that.”
In any case, while Nora struggles with how to tell her reported stories within the plot, Sherman is crafting her own larger truths.
Sherman has what she describes as a “rock solid” Jewish identity, but is no longer a member of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, where she sang in the choir and taught in the religious school while her children were growing up. She struggles against the idea that a synagogue must be the focus of observance. “I get upset when people think spirituality is so tied to going to synagogue. There’s a lot more to being a spiritual person,” she said.
Alter-ego Nora struggles with these ideas in her own way. Stuck in her car on a rural road, waiting for a tow, she considers her parents’ attitude toward faith and the way her volatile father exhibited peacefulness in synagogue. She reaches the conclusion that “just because people have a spiritual side, doesn’t mean they can always keep it together.”
Sherman’s first novel, Monkeys on the Bed, was published in 2003. She is currently working on a book involving magical realism, as well as a play. In both, she said, the main characters are “inevitably” Jewish because that’s who she is — and she writes what she knows. “Obviously, Judaism is such a strong part of me,” she said. “It’s what makes sense.”