Last Word: Lynn Levin Weaves Together Judaism and Creative Writing

Lynn Levin is a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair wearing glasses and a brown sweater.
Lynn Levin | Photo by Randl Bye

In the short story “Frieda and Her Golem,” the titular character, a lonely rabbinical student, takes inspiration from the Jewish lore of the golem and builds a companion out of meatloaf (being sure to use a kosher recipe).

The creature, with the Hebrew word for “friend” carved into her brow with red bell peppers, animates and becomes Frieda’s partner. The story ends dismally, however, with the golem becoming a lifeless mass of meat by Frieda’s hand.

The story, rooted deeply in Jewish folk tradition but peppered with contemporary Jewish humor and wit, is the forte of Jewish author and Drexel University English Professor Lynn Levin. “Frieda and Her Golem,” as well as 19 additional short stories, are featured in her collection “House Parties,” published by Spuyten Duyvil, out May 1.

The collection features other Jewish stories such as “The Husband and the Gypsy,” which takes place in 1970s Northwest Philadelphia. Centered around a violinist father in a string quartet, the story tackles the Soviet Jewry movement advocating for the emigration of Soviet Jews.

Though the topics of her stories have breadth, Levin has an interest in combining tradition and history with modern sensibilities. 

“I really like taking something ancient and completely modernizing it,” Levin said.

Though “House Parties” is Levin’s first published work of fiction, the 70-year-old Southampton resident has published eight works of poetry and translations. Even in verse, Levin draws from the well of Jewish literature. In a series of poems on Lilith, the mythological foil to Eve, Levin has the Jewish demon creating an online dating profile.

“She uploads a fairly recent photo/ lists herself as divorced, no children/ lies about her age, posts a profile that makes/ no mention of her lusty past/ no clue that her fountain has run dry,” Levin writes in “Lilith Tries Online Dating.”

Levin has written short fiction since 2005 and finds it an opportunity to dig deeper into characters and the contexts in which they live.

“I got real interested in seeing where plots would go and how I could make characters’ personalities take them here and there,” she said.

Levin’s stories have led her into deep internet rabbit holes at times. For example, for her story “Monkey Island,” about a high school girl who becomes stranded on a research Island in Puerto Rico, Levin conducted research on monkey bites. 

But mostly, Levin draws inspiration through observation. The story “House Parties,” about a wealthy community in the Poconos, was inspired by Levin watching a woman jog every day through her window during the pandemic.

If one removes the absurdity and fantastical elements from Levin’s works, one would find a host of flawed, yet earnestly determined characters, many of whom share similarities with the author.

“I like to have my characters be thoughtful, serious people,” Levin said. “They’re not all professionals and geniuses, but they think deeply about where they’re going in their lives, what they’re going through.”

Levin grew up in an assimilated Jewish home in St. Louis. Though she attended a Reform temple weekly with her family, she didn’t have her bat mitzvah ceremony until she was 40.

“The Judaism was always there,” she said of her upbringing. “I think it was probably more cultural than it
was religious.”

Levin fell in love with poetry at a young age. During her public school’s phonics and phonetics classes, teachers would encourage students to rhyme words and create poems about nature, putting together words like bees and trees to create simple couplets. Levin mastered the activity quickly, and her little poems found places on a teacher’s bulletin board or in the school newspaper.

“That little encouragement meant so much to me,” she said.

Now teaching creative writing at Drexel, Levin is interested in where her students find inspiration. Increasingly, she’s found that they like to draw on what is personal to them: internal struggles, health problems and difficult times with family or friends.

“I admire the bravery and the boldness with which my creative writing students engage their personal lives and their personal struggles,” Levin said.

As a writer, it’s Levin’s goal to create a safe space where students feel comfortable exploring challenging themes in their writing.

“I always find there’s a lot of sharing in a classroom,” she said

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