Sherril Jaffe: 'Art Gives Our Lives Back to Us'

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Sherril Jaffe
100 Profiles:
SF Weekly interviews 100 people in San Francisco arts and culture.

No. 90: Sherril Jaffe

"Things are not going to happen the way you think they are, so you should keep your mind open," says author and teacher Sherril Jaffe.

We met at an extremely precarious time for us both: I was new to the Bay Area and almost literally penniless, without prospect, while Jaffe had lost her husband unexpectedly only several months before. I often missed my family dreadfully, but did not want to return home; even had I wanted to, 3,000 miles is an impossible distance when you can't afford to ride Muni. I needed family here. Jaffe, a professor of creative writing at Sonoma State University, needed family.

Her late husband, Alan Lew, was the longtime and beloved Rabbi (and rabbi emeritus) of San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom. As a result of his position, he naturally spent most of his hours either in the public or paying house and hospital visits, so he preferred to spend his free time with the family at home -- without visitors. When he passed away, Jaffe decided that to move on she would have to make significant changes to her life. A principal way she did this was to have large gatherings at her house every Friday night for Shabbat dinner. The table was packed every week with a wide spectrum of old friends and people who were (other than Jaffe) complete strangers to one another.

Gradually, life and merriment filled the house; we sang songs and even organized a salon one evening, with poetry, stories, film screenings, music, and dancing. Jaffe, winner of a PEN award and a 2010 MacDowell Fellowship, even got her 92-year-old mother into the mix. There was something about the atmosphere of these dinners and of the house in general that indicated a deep health even beneath the most tragic of occurrences. Jaffe and her daughters Hannah and Malka became closer, and no one wanted to leave the group's company.

"I feel one reason we're all on Earth is to perfect our human relationships," Jaffe says.

But she also believes "our lives are given to us as material for art, and that is the purpose of our lives." Thus art may serve as a refuge but also as a means to come to terms with and understand life, says Jaffe, seen in the clip above reading at the April edition of Quiet Lightning.

"Art gives our lives back to us in a way that we can't really experience them in the present moment," she says. "Our lives are returned to us. When I am most myself and most inside my life is when I'm inside my imagination."

Quizzical and quick-witted, and with a hearty sense of humor, Jaffe has wild, frizzy hair stands as an expression of her energy and creativity. Her writing is straightforward but profound in its subject matter, at once metaphysical and practical.

In a starred review, Kirkus calls her just-released and ninth book, Expiration Date, "a rare and much-needed novel that investigates old age without cuteness or sentimentality and with sexual candor. ... Written with warmth, humor, wisdom and sublime control, this page-turning novel succeeds as a meditation on aging; as an examination of the impact of life's hourglass on serious decisions; and as a character study."

Jaffe is as enlightening to talk with as she is accomplished. Read a full interview with Sherill Jaffe.

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