Guest Column: Becoming / Unbecoming Jewish:

A Letter from James Salter


Elizabeth Benedict

   My lucky husband.
   He was raised a Mormon, but at nineteen, as he contemplated a leave from college to start his two-year mission to recruit more Mormons, he had a come-to-Joseph-Smith-moment. He considered his roommate, a cultured Jewish kid from Manhattan, who was “smarter and more moral than I am” and said to himself, “How can I try to convince this guy that I’m going to go to a higher level of heaven than he’ll go to unless he converts to my religion? I realized I couldn’t sell the product.”
   That was the end of his being a Mormon. It’s meant that, decades later, he couldn’t enter a Mormon temple to attend either of his brothers’ weddings (one has since left the church) or the weddings of their children. It also means that he can explain many things Mormon, including the mysterious underwear, at dinner parties, which adds to his social capital. But my point is that it’s over.
   When we married, at City Hall in Manhattan, this former Mormon married a non-observant Jew, which, he explains, triggered his conversion to what he calls cultural Judaism. No formal activities involved, just a sense of now belonging to this religion/ethnicity/culture/tribe from which people do not just walk away and end their association, proving, I suppose, that you can easily become Jewish even if you can’t easily unbecome it.

   Already I hear my ancestors crying out, “He’s lucky because he can walk away from his people!? Why would you even want to walk away from yours?” And I gather my strength to try to explain that it’s not that I want to walk away but only that I am jealous his relationship to Mormonism is so simple, so binary. You’re in or you’re out. My relationship to my Judaism is a mix of ambivalence, alienation, discomfort, and guilt about the discomfort, all wrapped in a blanket of feeling implacably Jewish. My mother’s father was an Orthodox rabbi who killed chickens in their backyard to make them kosher. He became a rabbi as a young man in Latvia, only so he could be allowed to observe the sabbath, when he would otherwise have had to work. My other grandfather was born in Palestine in 1899, his father having come in about 1890 from Minsk to “the land,” the family legend goes, at the behest of the Baron Rothschild to pursue the Zionist dream. Dozens of their descendants have lived there since the 1930s.
   More Jewish I could not be except that I recoil at the rituals, the observance, the formal reminders. I trace a good deal of my discomfort to parents whose attitudes on the matter were incompatible. My mother’s desire to observe was always overshadowed by my father’s anger and cynicism. He was ten years older than Philip Roth, and Portnoy’s Complaint struck him like lightning: the haranguing mother, the pressure to be a good Jewish boy wrapped in the antisemitism of his youth and much of his early life. He was sure that goyim, especially WASPS, had it easier than he did—and at that time and place, he was probably right. Being Jewish was a fate to be endured, not celebrated, despite my mother’s efforts with holiday meals and lighting Shabbos candles. At the only seder I’ve attended in thirty years, it was jarring to realize these were joyful occasions for the participants, no doubt because they evoked happy memories of other seders. The combination of my family mishigas mixed with the messages about Judaism—that we were stuck with it while others went through life unmarked—have left me with something like PTSD around religious rituals. And there is the temperamental piece: I’m not keen on group activities, whether it’s team sports, singalongs, or school spirit.
   Years after Portnoy came out, I came to admire Philip Roth myself, for reasons different from my father’s. Yet in my own fiction, which I began to publish in the 1980s, I steered away from Jewish subjects and characters. I felt too disconnected from the religion, and the hornet’s nest of reasons for that did not engage my fictional imagination. The characters who populated my novels mostly had generic names; one main character’s estranged father was Jewish, but that detail was where the engagement with Judaism ended. In 1993, wondering about other fiction writers who were Jewish but avoided the subject in their work, I had the idea for an anthology that would explore the matter. I queried five or six writers with this assignment: write about what Judaism means to you. Why isn’t it in your work? Go wherever the subject leads you.
   I got one commitment, one unanswered letter, several polite “no’s” and one letter from a then not-so-well-known writer—James Salter—that is one of the most remarkable letters I have ever received. I have spent nearly a lifetime puzzling over its contents, though my understandings have changed recently, since being in touch with Kay Eldredge, Salter’s widow, executor and co-author of their book, Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days.

   My epistolary relationship with Salter had begun in 1986, the result of a book review I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and his “thank you” postcard reply. Back in the day, if you were a regular reviewer, it was not uncommon to call a book editor you knew, as I knew the Inquirer’s Carlin Romano, and ask to review a particular book. I had recently come upon North Point reprints of two favorite books by Salter and jumped at the chance to write about them in the same review. Salter, then sixty years old, was called “a writer’s writer,” a backhanded compliment meaning he had a small, literary audience. After the review appeared, he wrote me a wonderful postcard, expressing much appreciation, ending with: “I hope you get back all you have given here, which will be an awful lot.”
   My double review began with this sentence: “Admirers of James Salter’s fiction speak of it reverently, with delicacy, almost in awe, expressions of the enthusiasm befitting the work.” I phrased it that way because the universe of Salter admirers at the time was limited. So limited that my comment ended up atop the page of blurbs on his next book, Dusk and Other Stories. Another line from that review, calling Light Years “tender, exultant … a masterpiece” is prominent on the Vintage paperback cover. Once the likes of Michael Ondaatje and Joseph Heller were on board to blurb the 1997 memoir, Burning the Days—published when Salter was 72 years old—my endorsements were no longer necessary. It would not be until 2013, two years before he died at age 90, that The New Yorker would do a profile of him, though his fiction and memoir had appeared earlier in the magazine. In the profile, Salter elaborated on his connection to his Judaism in ways I had not yet seen.
   As near as I can date it, in the late 1980s, a distant friend who had been at West Point with Salter in the 1940s, sent me Xeroxed pages from their yearbook, when Salter’s surname was Horowitz, which was how I first learned he was most likely Jewish. The issue took on weight and mystery when I read this paragraph in Adam Begley’s 1990 profile of Salter in the New York Times Magazine:

Born James Horowitz, he retired from the Air Force as Maj. James Horowitz. But he began his writing career as James Salter, and eventually, in the early ‘60’s, took Salter as his legal name, as did his wife and children. This is not a fact that he discusses willingly. Though some friends who met him as Jim Salter have heard it rumored that he was born with another name, he himself never mentions it. Asked directly, he declines to elaborate on why he changed his name.

   That standoff with Begley would come up again in the 1993 letter to me and years later, in Nick Paumgarten’s 2013 New Yorker profile in which he writes:

He was Salter now, not Horowitz. What started as a “ring name,” as he called it, became a new identity. “I wanted to distance myself from my past, naturally,” he told me. “I was living a life of being Horowitz and being Salter, and I said, I’m going to switch over completely. I didn’t see any problem with it. My mother did.” He has also said that he didn’t want to be thought of as another Jewish writer from New York; there were enough of those. Horowitz, for years, went unacknowledged. When a Times Magazine profile in 1990 revealed the name change, he was upset. “That was like coming out for him,” Peter Matthiessen, a longtime friend, said.

   The history of writers using pen names and/or changing their names is a long, colorful one, from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), to Elaine Potter Richardson (Jamaica Kincaid), Joyce Carol Oates (Rosamond Smith), and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket). The reasons are many, from wanting to be taken seriously if you were a woman in the 19th century to wanting to write without hurting your family’s feelings. In 1978, I changed my own name, from one that was difficult to spell and remember to that of the poetry editor of the Paris Review, Michael Benedikt, who published a poem of mine that had won a prize at Barnard and with whom I had corresponded for several years. When my then boyfriend said one day, “Elizabeth Benedict would be a good pen name for you,” I took it to heart. I had long wanted to change my name after meeting a woman at Barnard who had picked a new surname from the map of Ireland, but I did not want one so obviously not-Jewish. That would have felt like a way of passing, which was not my goal. I have long believed that if my last name had been Greenberg, I would not have changed it, and I was relieved when, years later, someone asked if I was related to Rabbi Benedict on Long Island.
   But dialing back to 1993, I sent Salter a query letter about the essay I hoped he would write. Three months later, I received a long, typed letter, here in its entirety:

Your letter has been on the desk, on top of all other letters, for three months. I like the letter, admire your idea, and the enclosed Times piece was very touching. I knew what I wanted to reply but it was difficult to express.

   I grew up in an irreligious house. This was in New York City. Of my closest childhood friends, one was Jewish, the son of a concert pianist, and two were not [he handwrote in the three names]. I wasn’t aware of the real difference. Gradually, of course, I came to be. I heard of the Knickerbocker Grays, for instance, to which friends belonged, and learned that the Grays were restricted. Still it meant little and more decisive was the fact that in our house history, the history of disasters, massacres, expulsions, executions, was never discussed or perhaps known. I grew up believing I was an unblemished American and that my fate was inseparable from the fate of all Americans.
   Then came the army, for me a definitive experience since it was so intense and lasted so long, fifteen uninterrupted years. The process of the army is that it makes you want to be admired by your comrades. That became my life and in a large measure reinforced what I previously believed even though I had become aware that this belief was false. Still here I was, halfway through life. I decided to hold this course, to vanish into the secular. You cannot do that, people say. It depends. I live in a secular world. The things I think about and write about have to do with other great divisions and beliefs. It would be different if I wrote about social and cultural things.
   Chagall was a Jewish painter; Bellow, Babel, and Roth are Jewish writers; but was Gershwin a Jewish composer or Wittgenstein a Jewish philosopher? A complicated question—to the last two my answer would be ‘no.’ That is to say, their work does not depend upon it or demonstrate it. But returning to history, this does not protect Gershwin or Wittgenstein from destruction. No, it does not. What more can be said?
   I was annoyed when Begley, who purely by chance had run into a prep school classmate of mine and learned my original name, insisted on putting it into an article in the Times Magazine. I felt I had stepped beyond that. I had served and belonged under that name, but this was another life and a different standard. I remain in that life and I have bet everything on it.
   So let us say that out of cowardice, a desire for comfort, or being early misled I have slipped from the ranks and tried to cross into a neutral country—deserted. If they catch me and shoot me, that was the risk. I am sorry to disappoint my ancestors. They never sang to me. They never said you are one of our own. If there is a God, it is the same one for all people and He will judge us by our acts and not our beliefs. I should say, He will weigh our dust.
   In short, I am declining your very kind invitation. I think you may understand.
   Yours admiringly,
   Jim Salter

   Thirty years later, reading the letter still takes my breath away, not only because of its learned, elegant Salteresque prose, but because it felt to me like a confidence. These were reflections that for whatever reason he had refused to discuss with Adam Begley and that, according to Begley, he kept mum about even with friends. And here he was, telling me. Of course it broke my heart a little that he had not wanted to contribute to the anthology, but I was deeply touched he had taken the time to explain his reasons with such candor and care, when he could have just replied, “No thanks, not for me.”
   I treated the letter like a precious confidence. And because of it, I have had a particular interest in how this aspect of his past is presented—how others write about it and how he did and did not speak and write about it himself, including two fleeting references to his Judaism in his 1997 memoir Burning the Days. His history and my interest in it seem to me distinctly Jewish phenomena, Talmudic in their complexities and sometimes what seem to be contradictions. Unless one is a religious Jew who fully embraces the beliefs and rituals, for many of us, defining what it means to be a Jew can be a protean undertaking. For many, the events of October 7th have intensified the personal and political dimensions of this already often fraught identity.
   For all these years, I had read Salter’s letter as an expression of something like anguish around his connection to his Judaism. I’d come to that conclusion because of the early sentence, “I knew what I wanted to reply, but it was difficult to express.” And because he pointed out that he could “vanish into the secular” and not write about Jewish issues while knowing that, having “deserted,” “if they catch me and shoot me—that was the risk.” I had read “so let us say that out of cowardice, a desire for comfort, or being early misled, I have slipped from the ranks” as an admission that it was easier for him to have a name that was not easily identified with being Jewish. The care with which he explained all of this suggested to me that there had been some conflict or distress about having arrived where he was. Finally, I read his desire not to express any of this publicly in 1993—like his refusal to talk to Begley about it in 1990—as a wish to conceal the information. Such a desire did not seem at all far-fetched or even unreasonable, given the history and sometimes the burden of being Jewish.
   After many years of thinking little about these matters, it’s only recently, in corresponding with Kay Eldredge, that I’ve learned how mistaken I have been in my interpretations. My correspondence with her was sparked by an essay in the most recent Salmagundi (Fall-Winter 2023-24), “James Salter’s Strange Career,” by Jeffrey Meyers. In discussing Salter’s first novel, The Hunters, published in 1956, Meyers writes: “His real name was James Horowitz, but he published it under the pseudonym James Salter to hide his authorship, protect his military career and hide the identity of the pilots he portrayed in his fiction.” I was startled to see this cut-and-dry explanation, which I’d never read so explicitly before—and surprised to see no other mention of his Judaism in the piece. I believed that Salter’s 1993 letter to me filled in some aspects of the name change that I thought were interesting and relevant to his history—and that I had not seen mentioned elsewhere. I wrote a “letter to the editor” of Salmagundi–which has become this essay--quoting several sections of the 1993 letter and some of the interpretations I’ve expressed here.
   I contacted Kay Eldredge to request permission to publish parts of the letter, which involved sending her the draft of my piece. She swiftly corrected my misunderstandings.

   Jim explains in his letter to you—better than to anyone I’ve read—that he’s a secular Jew. I think Meyers was right in this regard, since Jim told that story to everyone. Jim’s first book, The Hunters, was submitted and published with the pen-name Salter, not because he didn’t want to admit he was Jewish but because it was his first book, and his colleagues in the Army/Air Force were men of action who looked down on writers. He didn’t want them to know he was a writing a book. He wasn’t making the choice to declare that ‘I don’t want to be Jewish or known as a Jew.’ His fellows in the Army already knew then that his last name was Horowitz, and he was liked and respected as an officer and a fighter pilot. The choice to write under a nom-de-plume was to protect his friendship with them. He simply didn’t want them to know he wanted to be a writer.
   He spells out in the letter to you that he didn’t want to be lumped with Jewish writers. He was a writer, and he didn’t want that to be qualified in any way. He didn’t want to be known as a male writer, a military writer, a flying writer, an erotic writer, and he especially didn’t like a writer’s writer. It follows that he didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a Jewish writer. Some of those were true of him at one time or another, but he didn’t want to be classified that way. He wrote about subjects that weren’t especially Jewish—about the lives of people who were or weren’t Jewish, just as he was and wasn’t.
   Your piece seems to have a bit of an agenda, a preference that has to do with wanting Jim to want to be Jewish, or to show that he was concealing his genetic heritage out of fear, simply put—for him to take (or not take) sides. He simply didn’t care about his Jewishness one way or another, as I think he makes clear in what he wrote you. He wanted his identity as a writer, as he says, to come from and originate in a place of neutrality.  

   I didn’t realize when I read Meyers’ essay that it was the chapter of a full-length biography Jeffrey Meyers was soon to publish, James Salter: Pilot Screenwriter Novelist (LSU Press, February 2024), and that several months later, when I read his book, based on his friendship with Salter and the cooperation of many family members, it would include several references to Salter’s Judaism and his name change, all of which filled out the story in ways I had not been aware of. About Saul Bellow, they had “a similar urban Jewish background.” About Irwin Shaw: “They had a lot in common. They were Jewish, grew up in New York … and had changed their names.” And this fascinating explanation about his name change:

   Unwilling to join the prevailing Jewish literary trio of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, he changed his name from Horowitz to Salter to mark the transition from combatant to civilian life, from destruction to creation. He explained why he chose Salter (Wilfred Owen’s middle name) and said, “I had a whole list of last names that used the same A and E vowels as James. I wanted two syllables for the rhythm. James Salter had a faintly biblical sound to it, so I impulsively took it.”

   Meyers’ footnote to this paragraph led me to a 1997 interview Salter gave to Paul Grondahl at the Times Union in Albany when, after the publication of Burning the Days, he was awarded the New York State Edith Wharton Citation of Merit as State Author. It’s the only reference to the backstory of his name change that I know of.
   The Times Union also notes that although Salter grew up in a “wealthy Jewish family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side,” “he has never written from that perspective and seemed distant about his Jewishness.” He tells the reporter, “My children are in the famous process of being absorbed into a religious netherworld.”

   As I look back on how Salter spoke and chose not to speak of his name change and his Jewish identity, I am not judgmental about his decisions, his actions, or his silences, and I am grateful for Kay Eldredge’s elaborations and corrections. But was she right? Did I have “a bit of an agenda” in wanting Salter to have wanted to be Jewish? At first, I didn’t think so. Now—maybe a little, but only because it made sense to me given some of his comments and because it seemed inconceivable that in this huge, complicated entity, in all its history and layers of meanings, there wasn’t something he wanted to be connected to. Given my own history and the lives of all the Jewish people I have read about and known, many of them atheists, it seemed unfathomable that “He simply didn’t care about his Jewishness one way or another.” But according to the person who knew him best, he didn’t. I am happy to stand corrected.
   Still, I am fascinated by these intersecting public and private declarations and even the corrections. In their specifics and subtleties, they speak to some of the ambiguities of what it means—and may not mean—to be Jewish. As I sorted through them in recent days, I happened on an online form that laid out the intricacies with surprising economy. When signing up to hear a public conversation, “Who Are the Jews—and Who Can We Become?” between Abigail Pogrebin and Donniel Hartman, sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute, I was asked to check a box: “With which denomination do you most identify?” and given this list of choices:

   Just Jewish

   I believe I checked “Just Jewish.” Or maybe “Secular.” Or maybe “Non-denominational.” What might be the differences? How much time do you have? How many hours, how many days? Aren’t these distinctions some of what it means to be Jewish, even if we are committed to a specific denomination?
   I like to think that James Salter’s letter to me was the essay he did not want to write for the anthology that never materialized. It was exactly what I had been looking for, the answer to, “Why don’t you write about Judaism in your fiction?”
   With the world aflame now with questions about what it means to be Jewish, about whether we are the victims or the oppressors, the chosen people or the instigators of genocide, I am more interested than ever in these matters. Where might I belong in this history and this religion, and what will become of this confounding world conflict? And while we’re on the subject of impossible questions, What’s in a name? To which answer do you most relate?

   A great deal.
   Not that much.
   It’s complicated.



James Salter’s postcard and letter to the author are used with permission. © Estate of James Salter. Kay Eldredge’s email to the author is used with permission © Kay Eldredge.