Noa Silver is the author of "California Dreaming." (Photo/Nicole Lev)
Noa Silver is the author of "California Dreaming." (Photo/Nicole Lev)

‘California Dreaming’: A Jewish millennial learns about adulting in debut novel

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First-year English teacher Elena Berg is passionate about poetry. One of the reasons she signed up for Teach for America after college was “to get to teach poetry in the way that I believed in it — as a lifeline.”

Yet the Oakland middle school that the program placed her in is struggling. There aren’t enough classrooms, so Elena’s classes meet in the cafeteria. A drive-by shooting in the neighborhood forces the school into a lockdown.

Meanwhile, Elena has trouble connecting with the students, most of whom are the children of immigrants and speak English as a second language. Her TFA coach scolds her for neglecting state standards and for having a white savior complex.

“You do see how studying poetry is a privileged activity?” the coach asks her.

“Not really — or … do you mean in a good way?” Elena responds.

The idealistic millennial protagonist of Berkeley author Noa Silver’s debut novel “California Dreaming” has a lot to learn about the teaching profession — and about “adulting,” the term popularized in recent years that refers to behaving like a responsible grownup. The novel, published last month, follows Elena through her 20s as she navigates her career, dating, her Judaism, the death of a beloved relative and her relationship with her history professor mother, a one-time Berkeley hippie.

Although “California Dreaming” is written in the first person, the novel is not autobiographical, Silver told J. in a recent Zoom interview.

“It’s a coming-of-age story, and I think in the history of the novel, most coming-of-age stories are centered on male journeys,” Silver, 37, said. “Certainly, in the last 100 years, there are plenty of books that focus on women, so I don’t feel like I’m trailblazing, but I was interested in giving voice to a woman on her journey.”

One part of that journey involves Elena getting an abortion after her IUD fails. Silver describes the procedure in excruciating detail. “When the doctor placed the suction tube in me, my uterus felt like a dirty carpet being vacuumed,” she writes.

Silver said she included the scene because abortion is “part of many women’s journeys into adulting, and it’s often really hidden. It felt like something like this has to be part of her life.”

Zvika Krieger, the spiritual leader of Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev and a friend of Silver’s, praised the novel for its “intimate yet epic” quality.

“It deftly captures all the contradictions of the Bay Area, a place that so many of us love to hate but also deeply love,” he wrote in an email to J. “I can’t remember the last book that I read that was so strongly rooted in a sense of place, captures the nuances and textures, seething with life.”

That sense of place is achieved through references to riding BART, buying trail mix at Berkeley Bowl, sipping Mexican hot chocolate at People’s Cafe, taking walks around Lake Merritt and hiking from Mount Tamalpais to Stinson Beach.

I don’t feel like I’m trailblazing, but I was interested in giving voice to a woman on her journey.

Noa Silver

Elena is more interested in spending time in nature than in synagogue, and her primary connection to Judaism is through her grandparents, who are Holocaust survivors. 

“Be exemplary so that nobody can find fault with the Jewish people through you,” they tell her, adding: “Don’t be too exemplary so that the goyim won’t notice us.”

During her first spring living in Berkeley, she attends a community seder with friends. Things get awkward when her then-boyfriend, who is not Jewish, comments on the irony of reading from the Haggadah about the oppression of the Israelites in light of “what’s going on in Israel right now … with the occupation and everything.” Later, she travels to New York to sit shiva for her Ukrainian-born grandfather.

“I really wanted to write a book that had a Jewish character that was not necessarily a Jewish book,” Silver explained.

Silver was born in Jerusalem to a Scottish mother and American father, professional musicians who made aliyah. (Her mother, Noreen, played cello with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra.) She grew up mostly in Scotland and Maine, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah.

Like Elena, Silver loves poetry, especially the work of Adrienne Rich and Elizabeth Bishop. As an undergrad at Harvard, she took classes taught by South African-born poet Peter Sacks. After graduating in 2010 with a degree in English and American literature, she volunteered with the WorldTeach program and spent a year on the Marshall Islands, located between Hawaii and Australia in the Pacific Ocean. She lived on Namdrik Atoll, the smallest inhabited atoll in the world, and taught English at an elementary school.

“I wanted to do something after college that was both going to feed my desire for adventure and putting myself into a totally unknown context,” she said. “At the time, where I was living, there was no internet or phone or running water, so I kept in touch with my family and friends by writing letters.”

After moving to the Bay Area with her now-husband Jack, an executive coach, she enrolled in the Mills College teacher training program. Ultimately, she decided to pursue writing rather than teaching, and in 2016 she earned an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University.

In addition to writing fiction, she is a developmental editor (“like a story coach”) for other writers and mother to two young children.

Does she write poetry herself?

“Not really,” she said, then edited herself: “A little bit.” In November, she published a poem in the Poets Reading the News journal that responds to the Israel-Hamas war. It’s titled “To My Children.” She writes:

“During the days I go to the kitchen
to check the news
so that you will not see.
I stand in the pose of a mother
preparing a snack,
and I put my hand on the counter
to remind myself that
I am here.

At night I write
poems that in the morning
I erase.”

“California Dreaming” by Noa Silver (She Writes Press, 312 pages)

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.