Reuven Fenton’s ‘Goyhood’ propels author to activism
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Reuven Fenton’s ‘Goyhood’ propels author to activism

New York Post reporter reflects on his debut novel

Reuven Fenton. On McDougall St., Greenwich Village, NYC (Photo by Robert Miller)
Reuven Fenton. On McDougall St., Greenwich Village, NYC (Photo by Robert Miller)

The first novel Reuven Fenton wrote was about a superhero. Fenton, a veteran New York Post reporter, didn’t choose his protagonist because of an interest in preternatural powers; he just thought that sort of book would have commercial appeal.

It never got published.

So he wrote a novel about a subject that did interest him, one that he would want to read. The result was “Goyhood,” a book with decidedly Jewish characters and themes.

It got picked up by publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster.

At a time when Jewish authors are blacklisted for their support or perceived support of Israel — including by way of a Google doc that recently went viral titled “is your favorite author a Zionist” — Fenton doesn’t take his good fortune for granted.

The publishing of “Goyhood” — which tells the story of an Orthodox Jewish man who discovers midlife that he isn’t Jewish — “actually feels in hindsight miraculous to me,” Fenton said, speaking from his home in New York City.

He considers himself “one of the lucky ones,” he said.

He also finds himself now in the position of accidental activist.

Bucking publishing trends that skew against white male authors and books about white male protagonists — “never mind Jewish” — Fenton said, has propelled him into an “advocacy position, which I was not at all planning to be in.”

Suddenly, Fenton said, he’s “talking about these things and doing interviews about essentially how right now, you know, being openly Jewish is really important —like not hiding your Judaism and being proudly Jewish and doing that any way you can. I’m seeing it all over the place, like people wearing Jewish stars around their necks, and all these different ways that people are expressing their Judaism because they feel like there is an existential threat right now.”

“The real takeaway,” the author added, “is that I’m finding myself in a position where I actually represent something now. And it’s not just a simple matter of, ‘Oh, I wrote a novel on something I’m interested in.’ All of a sudden, my book means something bigger than just the story that it’s in it.”

“Goyhood” has been described as a cross between Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and the film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” The book tells the story of Mayer, a devout yeshiva bocher, married to the daughter of an esteemed Jewish scholar. His twin brother, David, is a secular ne’er-do-well entrepreneur. The brothers are estranged until their mother’s death and their discovery that they are not, in fact, Jewish. They then head out on a road trip peppered with unexpected companions and zany experiences.

While Fenton describes his religious observance as Modern Orthodox — with some Hasidic influence — he identifies with both the pious Mayer and the worldly David. He thinks many readers will as well.

The duality between the two brothers can represent “our two natures,” he said. “Our sort of spiritual, pure innocent side, and our kind of hedonistic, physical animal side.”

Hasidic teachings, Fenton said, reference “the animal soul and the Godly soul, and how the trick is to find the balance of those things inside you. So this idea that the two brothers, who are polar opposites, essentially when they unite — it takes a while — but eventually they sort of unite as one kind of perfect human being.”

While Fenton sees himself as a combination of Mayer and David, he admits he is “slightly more Mayer as I get older, only because with maturity I think you become a little bit less into the physical maybe as you as you age.”

Fenton’s family was not religiously observant when he was young. That all changed, he said, through the influence of Chabad, which struck a chord with his mother. He has seven siblings, representing a range of Orthodox practices. Some of his brothers, he said, are “rabbis with a long beard.”

Chabad also plays a pivotal role in “Goyhood.”

“That was totally autobiographical, that aspect of it,” Fenton said, noting that the Hasidic movement can “transform people’s lives.”

Fenton will join the Chronicle Book Club’s July 14, 1 p.m. Zoom discussion of “Goyhood.” To register, email PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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