Prof taps Jewish background for novel
During a career spanning 41 years at Rutgers University and 13 books, Dr. Michael Aaron Rockland has tackled everything from the New Jersey Turnpike to the George Washington Bridge.
In his latest book, Stones, the American Studies professor has reached back through his own history to pen a novel about the unfulfilled aspirations of a Jewish man who became a doctor to fulfill his family’s expectations rather than follow his own dreams.
“In some ways I am writing about myself — had I become a medical doctor because of cultural expectations,” he said. “Like me, he grew up in a time when if you were [a Jewish] male and you were going to college, you were going to be a doctor.”
However, Rockland, who eschewed those expectations, acknowledged, “It’s not so much autobiographical since I’m happy with what I’ve done.”
What Rockland has done is found the American Studies Department at Rutgers while serving as assistant dean of Douglass College. He previously served as executive assistant to the state chancellor of higher education and before that was in the U.S. diplomatic service as a cultural attache to Argentina and Spain.
Along the way, he also satisfied his own literary aspirations. Long a contributing editor for New Jersey Monthly, the Morristown resident has written for magazines and scholarly journals and authored one other novel, A Bliss Case, which was chosen by The New York Times as a Notable Book of the Year.
Rockland has also kept his hand in the cultural scene through TV production and filmmaking, including a three-year stint as cultural commentator on New Jersey Nightly News. He cowrote the 1974 PBS film Three Days on Big City Waters, which aired nationally. It starred two “wacky” Rutgers professors — Rockland was one — who try to make their way from Princeton to Manhattan by canoe. The film still airs periodically on local affiliates.
“For about 10 years after that, people would come up to me and say, ‘Don’t I know you?’” recalled Rockland in a phone interview with NJJN.
A challenge to relish
On its cover, Stones features an image of a Jewish graveyard, a painting by his son, Joshua, a graduate of Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts. The novel takes place around Rosh Hashana as the middle-aged doctor protagonist takes his mother to cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island to visit relatives’ graves.
“It has two obvious meanings,” said Rockland. “One is the stones on top of the tombstones and the other are the stones in this man’s heart. He wishes he had done something different in life. As the novel goes on and they visit this series of cemeteries in one day, I explore his relationship to his mother and their relationship to the dead.
“I try to bring their relationship to the dead to life.”
Some of Rockland’s other books have explored his Jewish and Jersey background, including The American Jewish Experience in Literature and The Jews of New Jersey: A Pictorial History, which he coauthored with his wife, Patricia M. Ard, a professor of literature at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.
One of Rockland’s’ most popular books, Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike, coauthored with fellow Rutgers professor Angus Gillespie in 1989, remains a best-seller, especially in the Garden State.
Rockland’s last book, The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel, paid tribute to the world’s busiest bridge and was written while he was also working on Stones. Rockland’s next book, about his time as a cultural attache in Spain, will be released later this year by the University of Valencia first in Spanish and later in English.
For the professor who “always wanted to be a writer as much as a scholar,” Stones is the kind of professional challenge he relishes.
“I do write scholarly books occasionally, but more and more I’ve been doing fiction and journalism because there’s more of a challenge,” said Rockland, laughing as he added, “Most people who go to grad school are ruined for life in terms of writing anything that would be interesting to human beings.”