In Judaism, challah bread is an important part of the Shabbat meal. A loaf of the bread is made by weaving together plaits of dough. As one story goes, each seperate braid signifies a virtue, but together the folds represent something more: survival, unity and history.
Like challah, Kevin Haworth's new book of essays, "Famous Drownings in Literary History," weaves together multiple stories — living in southeastern Ohio, living in Israel, becoming a parent (he has a son and daughter), being a literary nerd — to tell the larger narrative of how he feels about being a Jew in the 21st century.
Haworth, speaking from his office at Ohio University in Athens, said he is inspired by the emphasis placed on storytelling in the Jewish religion.
"I think Jewishness is well known for its focus on the importance of knowing your own history and knowing that stories repeat themselves," said Haworth, an assistant professor of English. "Judaism really emphasizes seeing your life in the context of other Jewish stories."
The pieces in Haworth's book are varied. One story discusses his son's circumcision; another talks about his son's fascination with wearing dresses. Several short pieces touch on aspects of the year Haworth spent on a kibbutz in Israel. Another piece focuses on the changing landscape of his childhood hometown in the Catskill Mountains.
Although Haworth's faith is not overt in these stories, it is a driving force behind the book. He discusses Judaism with passion and reverence but doesn't come off as judgmental or holier-than-thou.
Haworth's descriptions of balancing his life as a liberal professor with the teachings of a traditional faith appealed to Jason Pettus, owner and executive director of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which published the book. "Famous Drownings" is the only unsolicited manuscript the press has published.
Pettus feels the book presents a perspective significantly different from some of the more extreme religious views one sees in today's world.
"The search for meaning and inner peace is a struggle that crosses lines of class, race, political and sexual orientation, and I think our world would be a lot better if we acknowledged this," Pettus said.
Haworth previously had a novel published: "The Discontinuity of Small Things," which follows several people as they try to navigate life in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Haworth started writing the sort of essays that appear in this collection about four years ago.
"When I write fiction, I think about creating characters and creating plots," he said. "I think that my fiction is very creative, but it's also very recognizable as traditional writing ... I tend to use nonfiction when I want to experiment in how a narrative can be put together."
This experimentation is clear in Haworth's essays. He never tells a story in chronological order, preferring to bounce from idea to idea before ending up back where he began.
One strength in Haworth's writing is the way he seamlessly weaves together memoir and historical research. It's not easy; for an essay of five or six pages, he reads 500 or 600 pages of related material, he said.
The titular essay, "Famous Drownings in Literary History," blends stories of Haworth and his daughter almost drowning with his memories of a girl he worked with as a teenage lifeguard and scholarly examples of drownings from famous pieces of literature.
Water also is a major theme in other essays throughout the book. "I've always felt like the water is really beautiful, but I also felt this anxiety around it," Haworth said.
In the collection's reference section, Haworth notes a poster by Jewish poet Abba Kovner that hung in his childhood synagogue. "It depicts Jewish knowledge as an ever-deepening series of water sources … with great cities of Jewish learning shown as ports along this marvelous ocean, trading ideas, pouring more and more knowledge into this vast and powerful sea which cannot and will not ever be full," he writes.
For Haworth, writing is like that portrait of Jewish knowledge: "It's an endless journey. It can never be full," he said. "Like the seas, you just keep adding to it."
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
"Famous Drownings in Literary History"
By Kevin Haworth, CCLaP, various formats, free-$30, cclapcenter.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun