Caught Between Burlesque and Belief

A Boy Comes of Age While His Parents Are Split by Vying Sects

By Laura Hodes

Published July 07, 2010, issue of July 16, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Peep Show
By Joshua Braff
Algonquin Books, 272 pages, $13.95

After Joshua Braff’s excellent but largely unheralded “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green,” his second novel is another coming-of-age story set in the mid-1970s. In “Peep Show,” though, the protagonist, David, and his sister are trapped by divorcing parents between two closed Jewish worlds of New York: the Scylla of the Times Square porn industry and the Charybdis of the Hasidic community.

The groups are epitomized on the one hand by a handful of tough Jews struggling to keep their porn business profitable before the advent of the Betamax video, and on the other by the Hasidic Lichtiger sect in Brooklyn. Through the medium of his new Nikon, a gift from his father, David becomes a voyeur of both worlds.

Seventeen when the novel begins, David is on the verge of deciding what to do with his life. His parents have split up for what seems to be the final time. David lives with his sister, Dena, and his mother in suburban New Jersey, where his mother is trying to restart her life as a ba’alas teshuvah, a newly observant Hasid. His father wants him to come and work at what he grandiosely calls his “theater.” A romantic at heart, Martin Arbus runs The Imperial as one of the last venues in Times Square to offer a burlesque strip show while the area is colonized by film and by live “peep shows.”

Braff successfully conveys a feeling of being a voyeur as the reader goes along with David on his forays into his father’s Imperial Theatre, recoiling along with him in disgust as David reluctantly and uninterestedly photographs an orgy, or a parade of naked young women. David’s love interest, Sarah, is more deeply implicated in both worlds than David is, as she is a participant rather than an observer; however, the speed at which David finds her — a young, rebellious Hasid and a rabbi’s daughter — naked in front of him at a photo shoot, stretches credulity.

David becomes a voyeur in his own home, as well, having to resort to snooping through photos that his mother has thrown out in an effort to purge her home of everything from her past, non-Hasidic life. Perhaps this is why Braff gives David the last name Arbus, to suggest that David, like his namesake, Diane, is a chronicler of the “freaks” — in this case, the Jews who populate 1970s Times Square porn and Brooklyn Hasidism.

Photographs that are a glimpse of the past and “peeping” at others, either through a mechitzah, the partition the Orthodox use to separate men and women when praying, or through a peephole, are at the thematic heart of the novel. Despite his mother’s efforts, David, trying to salvage memories, retrieves the photos, including an incriminating one from his mother’s past. To communicate with his sister, hidden from him somewhere in the Hasidic girls’ compound, David mails her photos he took of her before she and her mother became Hasidic. The suggestion is that photos can communicate more powerfully than words, or perhaps they are a means of expression when dialogue is not possible.

Braff tries too hard sometimes to show that David is seeing the world through his camera — even, intrusively, using the word “click” to inform us that David is taking a photo. Sometimes, though, this intrusion is particularly compelling, as in the black-and-white photos shaped like the oval of a peephole, which open each chapter. As in the work of W.G. Sebald and Jonathan Safran Foer, the exact relation of picture to text is not simple; many photos are images that David has mentioned in the narration of the novel, and so they give the novel a pleasing sense of verisimilitude, as if David is an actual person and these are his photos peeping into reality from fiction.

With some of these images, Braff seems to be furthering the parallel between the two worlds by highlighting their parallel aesthetics. Looking at one chapter-opening photo, I had to pause. Were those wigged mannequin heads part of the Times Square world or the Hasidic world? Another chapter opens with the photo of a store whose sign “kitschily” proclaims “Judaica World,” in the same style of lettering that might appear above a peep show. In blurring the line between the images of these two polarized worlds — even while the plot plays out their mutual animosity — Braff underscores the surprising similarities between these two disparate spheres.

As portrayed by Braff, neither the world of the Hasidim nor that of the porn insiders appears particularly appealing. The strippers with the hearts of gold that populate the novel reveal their bodies too easily to David, transforming their sexuality from the alluring to the merely lurid. Braff portrays the Hasidim as obsessively adhering to ritual. When some Lichtiger men start dancing to celebrate a wedding blessing, David is forced to join them. Braff writes, “And as I’m flung around and around it’s like a nightmare, truly I’m stuck on some Hasidic carousel of sweat and vodka and Hebrew prayer.”

David resists the efforts of both the strippers and the Hasidim to absorb him into their ritualized worlds. While fascinated, he remains distant from, and disdainful of, Jewish worlds as well as Jews in general, at one point saying, “I think there’s a Jewish celebration of some kind on every single day of the Jewish calendar…. Each one commemorates a mass slaughter of some degree in which the Jews of the time became too prosperous or joyous and wound up very dead.”

It is the world of art, of photography in particular, in which David eventually finds a home and presumably, some solace. Evoking Foer’s use of a black-and-white photograph to end “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” Braff’s novel ends with a page that reads “David Arbus Photographs 1975–1984,” above an image of a staircase with the words “Peep Show Upstairs” and an arrow pointing up, repeated over and over again on the stairs. Underneath the image, it states, “The Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, June 5th–August 30th.”

This final image suggests that David, as an adult, has become a successful photographer, with shots of his father’s theater and its environs as the inspiration for his first professional show. Photography, for David, has been a crutch — the only way he can see the world around him — and it also becomes a way out, a way for him to become a man. He has managed to use photography to navigate both parents’ worlds without getting subsumed by either. Instead, he has created, like Braff, his own imperfect “peep show,” a world of his own design.

Laura Hodes’s most recent piece for the Forward was a review of Anne Rice’s “Angel Time.” She blogs at www.personalpolitic.blogspot.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.