Q: Everything is Borrowed excavates a rich but often overlooked part of Philadelphia’s history: radical Jewish life in the late 1800s. What drew you to Jewish anarchists of the past? What insights did you glean from learning more and writing about that world?
Nathaniel Popkin: I read about this anarchist of the 19th century, Moskowitz, Louis or Julius, whatever his real name was, and his physical confrontation with religious Jews—and it happened right here, in a place I knew. So I was intrigued by the physical nature of it and tried to understand it at almost every level: physical, emotional, political, philosophical. I found myself drawn in—of course because it felt familiar to me. I’ve always searched for a political expression that seemed right for me and being a Jew (who has really only become aware of his Jewishness through writing) that search has been illuminated by Judaism’s consciousness of justice. Once drawn in I had to build the world Moskowitz inhabited. And so I came to learn about some of the extraordinary—and extraordinarily modern—activists who had remarkable visions for society. Philadelphia’s anarchists, like their compatriots in New York, developed all kinds of organizations, communal societies, cooperatives (and they went back and forth between the cities hoping to build the movement); anarchists genuinely wanted to reboot society based on equality and also communality—and believed that authentic alliances would form organically if people were free of hierarchies and traditions like religion. But humans can never really throw everything away. It might be a lie to think they could.
Q: In some ways this is a book about diaspora…of being a secular Jew desperately trying to find connection with a past that may or may not have been wiped from history, or disappoint you somehow, or not allow you to find the connection you want. Do you see it that way?
NP: Nicholas Moskowitz, the protagonist, feels himself faintly a Jew, as if he hears whispers from some latent past. His mother isn’t Jewish. His father had him Bar Mitzvah-ed but otherwise failed to give him any sense of his Jewish self aside from a desire for an unattainable perfection that mirrors the purity sought by the religious on Yom Kippur. And yet something stirs, in place, time, and memory. Nicholas finds himself lost, in all ways. Alone, burned out on his work, empty. Divorced, no kids. And from here he begins a journey to confront an injustice he feels he committed in the past—and digging through the history of this other Moskowitz from long ago he finds a way to reconcile. This is a religious experience. Is it Jewish? I’ll let the reader decide.
Q: Nicholas Moscowitz spends hours pouring over archival records and ledgers at Philadelphia’s libraries to try to piece together the life of Julius Moskowitz. Did your research for this book mimic that process? Or did your background as an architecture critic and urbanist allow you to jump right into crafting the story?
NP: Nicholas was supposed to be designing a building—and actually a pretty significant one that if he was in a better state of mind should have captured his imagination. But he’s feeling only dread at the thought of working. And so—any excuse will do! In this manner, he finds himself hopping around town tracking down the truth of this other Moskowitz and building a framework for that life out of borrowed evidence. Truthfully, I did some of this as I researched and I occupied Nicholas’s mind floating around the real and virtual cities. But the story of both Moscowitzes and their converging journeys became realized in my head before I began the detailed research.
Q: Everything is Borrowed takes the reader on a journey through time in Philadelphia, with temporal shifts within scenes and paragraphs, going in and out of Nicholas’s present life into a moment of the past that happened in the same place, back to the present. Why did you choose to tell the dual narratives of the story in this way?
NP: I desired to find a way to recognize the fluidity of time on the page. How can a person account for the presence of the past, of multiple pasts for we don’t just live now—genetically, we’re old material; our built environments were most often built by others long ago and they reek of those other people; we are often trapped by personal memory; and yet we live with our eyes on the future. Such tension that can’t ever be realized in a linear narrative progression. Our lives don’t work that way! And so I attempted to tell a story in the historical past, in the recent past, and in the present as if it were all present, with time swirling, with lives of the living and the dead reverberating, with the protagonist provoking the streets, buildings, rooms (that both trap and distill time) to tell him what they know. It is in this sense that everything is borrowed.
Q: This novel shows how history is shaped through people and their actions, but also through structures and how we interact with them. Buildings and architecture color memory and relationships and experiences. Is that how you view city life? Would the two Moscowitz’s of the book have been different if they had lived in New York or Chicago or some other city?
NP: In some sense this is a book particular to Philadelphia—that is it comes out that city’s particular history, form, and atmosphere and is part of a wider literary inquiry on my part. Both Moscowitzes are molded by this specific place, and in some sense the very same streets and spaces. The accretive form of Philadelphia, a bit more sensitive to the individual’s touch than New York or Chicago, thus produces a story like this one. But the particular is universal, too. Cities are living, forceful places and they infect peoples’ lives. They aren’t innocuous. They frighten and they inspire. The produce mood and atmosphere. They reveal time. They form memory. The invent and reinvent themselves and in this process create in the sensitive resident or observer a strange and not quite comfortable feeling, time trapped and time in motion. So there are New York and Chicago Moscowitzes out there obsessively navigating through buildings and ghosts and trying to find the impossible: sure footing.