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Shofar: An Interview with Writer Ellen Galford

November 11th, 2019

In anticipation of the current issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, we spoke with poet and novelist Ellen Galford about her writing, as well as topics in Jewish studies more broadly. Galford composed three original poems for issue 37, volume 3, a special issue titled “Narrative Spaces at the Margins of British Jewish Culture(s).”

You can access Shofar through your institutional log-in via Project Muse or JSTOR, visit the Shofar website, or follow Shofar on Twitter @ShofarJournal.



Q: You’ve written fiction and poetry on Jewish themes and topics in the past, and for this special issue of Shofar you’ve written three poems: “The Museum of Margins,” “Mixed Marriage,” and “Curator.” Do you find that one form (poetry or prose) lends itself especially well to exploring certain aspects of Jewish identity or history?

Ellen Galford: There’s an old saying that God’s real reason for creating humankind was to satisfy His/Her/Their (??) voracious appetite for stories. When an image or a theme starts jabbing me between the shoulder blades, I don’t ask it whether it would like to be a poem or a piece of prose when it grows up. Either way, it’s going to be a story that I hope will keep a reader, divine or human, entertained.

Prose has prevailed throughout most of my writing life—screeds of bespoke nonfiction texts for the day job, fiction for the sake of love and politics and taking my imagination wherever it wanted to go. But it was only after novels about lesbian bad girls in Jacobean London, folklore and feminism in the twentieth-century Outer Hebrides, and a satirical slap at the Thatcher government that I came out of the closet as a Jewish writer with novel number four. And at that point prose—with its leisurely story arcs and ample room for any number of digressions—opened the door into the surreal, heretical Jewish world inside my head.

After I stepped across that particular threshold, I came out of the closet as a writer of poetry, too. For years I’d felt uneasy about showing my poems to anyone (apart from a few very personal pieces with specific readers in mind). But maybe it’s because I’ve travelled far enough along in my own personal timeline to acquire a bit of chutzpah and just go for it. Sometimes writing poetry feels like wrestling with an angel (or a pack of noisy demons) all night long. Call it some kind of cockamamie optimism, but I don’t think there is any theme or topic, Jewish or otherwise, that a poem can’t tackle. Making it good enough is another story.


Q: You were originally born in New Jersey but spent much of your life in Scotland. Do your American origins shape your experience in Scotland? Additionally, does your Jewish identity inform the ways you understand national identity, the ways you might personally locate yourself within national or global communities or as a writer?

Galford: I’ve lived in Scotland for a very long time. When I left the US, Nixon was still president. I am what’s sometimes defined as “Scottish by formation.” Politically I view the world through a leftish, internationalist Scottish lens, appalled by Brexit and hoping that we’ll get our independence while I’m still around to see it. But any time I start up a conversation with a stranger, the first question will be “Where’s that accent from?” As soon as I open my mouth, it becomes clear that my origins lie much closer to the banks of the River Hudson than to those of the River Clyde. And although I tend to look at whatever is happening in America as “foreign news,” I know that culturally I am also very much a product of my New York/New Jersey upbringing. Middle-aged taxi-drivers are particularly impressed when I tell them that the TV mafia saga The Sopranos was based on the suburb where I grew up.

Many years ago I did a reading at a feminist bookshop in Massachusetts to mark the US publication of The Dyke and the Dybbuk. The shop manager confessed that “We can’t decide where to put you. The lesbian shelf? The historical fiction shelf? The fantasy shelf? American feminist fiction or European?” I suggested very tentatively that if she ordered a few extra copies she could put them in all the right places.

Like everybody else I know, I belong to several different tribes, some of them Jewish (you can be 98.6 percent secular and still want to learn Talmud). We’ve all made journeys, some of them generations-long, to reach the places where we feel at home, changing and maybe even reinventing ourselves in the process. This certainly informs my thinking not only about national identity but about the ways people define themselves over time in terms of religion, gender, sexuality, political perspective, and so forth. And I can’t understand how any Jew with even the vaguest sense of history can collude with the builders of walls.


Q: Many scholars in the upcoming special issue discuss the ways historians, sociologists, and artists have in the past often limited their explorations of British Jewishness to England. Do you think Jewishness is experienced differently in Scotland than it is in England? How would you describe the relationship between Scottish identity and Jewishness?

the cover of Shofar Journal Volume 37 issue 3
Galford composed three original poems for Shofar: Issue 37, Volume 3


Galford: Scotland is a small country (5 million people) with a tiny population of Jews. The Jewish spectrum runs from traditional Orthodox through progressive Liberal to those who wouldn’t put their foot into any shul at all. Most of us live in Glasgow or Edinburgh but we also turn up in remote Highland glens, out on the islands and in tiny fishing villages along the Fife coast. We don’t all know each other.

Heaven forbid I should speak for everybody, but I think I’d be safe in saying that Jewish Scotland is in no way a smaller, rainier version of Jewish London or Jewish Manchester. In Scotland you’d have to be very determined indeed to live in what one might call a separatist Jewish environment, devoid of friends, partners, colleagues, or neighbors from outside the tribe. And Scotland, as we are forever reminding the rest of the world, isn’t England. Our educational systems, legal systems, historical perspectives, and social attitudes differ in many ways. One current sore point is that the Scottish electorate voted by a substantial majority to remain in the European Union, and there is a widespread feeling that we are being dragged out against our will by our southern neighbours.

I’m trying hard to avoid sloppy generalizations here, but I do think that the reasons for this include a much more positive attitude to immigration. This is partly because it is widely understood that Scotland needs more people—demographically and economically—to flourish. But there is also an underlying internationalism. Scots, like Jews, have experienced all manner of displacements and diasporas, forced and voluntary alike. You’d be hard-pressed to find a native-born Scot without family connections in Canada, Australia, the United States, or elsewhere. Like Jews, Scots of all breeds and creeds have long memories, and know what it feels like to look over your shoulder and see the place you came from disappearing from sight.


Q: In two of the poems you’ve written for this special issue, “The Museum of Margins” and “Curator,” you reference the museum space, a library, “draughty corridors,” and “tattered photos.” These poems revolve around the past, including not simply spaces to preserve history (museum, library) but also memories. How would you describe the relationship between place, memory, and the act of writing in your work?

Galford: The one word answer to this question would be: Inseparable. But to make a short story a wee bit longer, I’d say that I’m an inveterate time-traveller. I’m obsessed with places and the sense of place, random objects and the mysteries behind them. If they had an Olympic event in Urban Flâneuring, I’d be a good bet for a gold medal. Yet even though I try hard to stay in the here and now, I find myself drifting across timelines. Sometimes this involves leaping across space as well as time, wandering through my own memories, personal or inherited. And living in Edinburgh, with a medieval castle and a long-dead volcano at its heart, means that any ordinary morning dog walk can take me through many centuries of local history and into deep geological time.

I think these tendencies are probably hard-wired into every Jewish writer’s DNA. They definitely run in the family. My father was a history teacher and my mother a librarian. Both were inveterate sentimentalists and the curators (not always willingly) of a massive horde of family photographs, battered kitchen utensils with a tale attached to every dent and scratch, a cellar and attic crammed with files and boxes of ephemera bearing the fingerprints of at least four generations.


Q: You mentioned that you’ve recently been studying Yiddish and experimenting with Yiddish poetry. What motivated you to learn Yiddish? Is your experience significantly different when writing in Yiddish rather than English?

Galford: It’s only in the past dozen years or so that I’ve begun studying Yiddish in any formal way, but its words and cadences have provided the background music to my life since the day I was born. My maternal grandmother, who lived with us throughout my childhood, was the first American-born child of a large (and talkative) family that emigrated from Riga to New Jersey in the mid-1880s. She and her nine siblings grew up speaking English as their first language but shifted easily into the mameloshn when any passing child drifted into earshot of a juicy conversation. The next two generations followed the old familiar pattern: My mother used a few Yiddish phrases; I knew only a random collection of Yiddish words.

I joined a Yiddish class to reclaim that inheritance and learn the language properly but it’s the literature that keeps me going. I had no particular intention to write poetry in Yiddish (doing it in English seems challenging enough) but sometimes Yiddish words and phrases slip on to the page. The finished poems are, of necessity, short and simple. I’m not the whizz-bang linguist I was in my youth. Despite the best efforts of our wonderful teacher, my grasp of grammar and retention of vocabulary still have a long way to go. It’s probably an act of sheer hubris/chutzpah to try writing Yiddish poetry at all.


Q: Your novel The Dyke and the Dybbuk was the winner of a Lambda Award for Gay and Lesbian Literature, and you’ve written about and been involved with LGBTQ communities in the past. What would you say are the key intersections between LGBTQ identity and Jewish identity? (For you personally or for the communities more broadly).

Galford: I grew up in the pre-Stonewall era of Compulsory Heterosexuality—a time of toxic stereotypes, parents cutting ties with their “deviant” offspring or sending them to shrinks for a “cure.” It took many of us, me included, a longer time than it might now, and quite a few wrong turnings, before we found our ways into who we are. Today’s Jewish and queer communities would have been beyond our wildest imaginings: out and proud gay and lesbian rabbis (indeed, any female rabbis at all), discreet support groups for those in flight from fundamentalist communities (Jewish or otherwise), the etiquette around preferred pronouns.

For all the positive developments, we’ve not quite reached the Promised Land. We can’t even agree what that Promised Land should be or who should have the right to be there. A long history of vicious persecutions, whether at the hands of anti-Semites or homophobes or fascist dictatorships, doesn’t automatically make us all lovely souls. In the particular communities I inhabit—the LGBTQ and the Jewish worlds as well as that turbulent political sphere called “the Left”—there are still those with more appetite for widening schisms than for finding common ground. Case in point: It can sometimes feel more problematical to come out as Jewish than it once felt to come out as a lesbian. This gives me an uncomfortable and very personal sense of déjà vu. But nobody reading this needs me to tell them that we’re living in dangerous times.