An Anthology of Jewish Fiction, More on the Verge Than the Edge

By Steven G. Kellman

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge

Edited by Paul Zakrzewski

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In “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge,” editor Paul Zakrzewski explains that the inspiration for his collection of 25 stories originated in “Bad Jews,” a series of monthly literary readings he organized at the KGB Bar in New York’s East Village. Given the Jewish contribution to ethical thought and the hypertrophied superego found in many children of Israel, “bad Jew” seems like an oxymoron. But Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Emma Goldman, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and others have also made the term a tautology, as if the only good Jew is a bad Jew, a creative troublemaker. The only good writer, Jew or gentile, defies conventions and scorns clichés.

In fact, an epigraph from “Portnoy’s Complaint,” by one of our most creative troublemakers, greets readers at the opening of the book. Praising Philip Roth as “the most famous bad Jew of all,” Zakrzewski acknowledges Roth’s example by dubbing the literary upstarts in his anthology “the post-Roth generation.” He claims that, within contemporary Jewish culture, they are as transgressive as Roth was in his early work.

Yet, despite irreverence toward taboos about sex, religion and even the Holocaust, these writers are more likely to be invited onto the Jewish book fair circuit than denounced, as Roth was, from rabbinical pulpits. The difference derives more from altered context than from the texts themselves. Surveying the “fractured landscape” of contemporary Jewry, Zakrzewski himself notes that “we are perhaps more splintered than at any other time in America.” Though he subtitles his collection “Jewish Fiction from the Edge,” without a center it is hard to find an edge.

Zakrzewski’s true agenda, revealed in the final sentence of his introduction, is to “showcase tomorrow’s great Jewish writers today.” Deferring to tomorrow’s readers a verdict on their greatness, one can note that these writers either have, like Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg and Gary Shteyngart, recently received first acclaim or else, like the rest, might very well be one book away from wide recognition. Though a few of the stories try to get by on the frisson of ethnic references, this is as rich a collection of contemporary fiction as has been brought together under any rubric, even a contrived one. As crafters of short fiction, most of Zakrzewski’s bad Jews are very, very good.

Many of the writers do indeed seem indebted to Roth. Shteyngart’s “Several Anecdotes About My Wife” is a Soviet immigrant’s raunchy account of picaresque adventures in America, while Foer contrives the uproariously malapropistic voice of a materialistic Ukrainian tour guide as narrator of “The Very Rigid Search.” It is a brilliant condensation of his novel “Everything Is Illuminated” that might even be an improvement on that sprawling work.

Roth’s is not the only older voice echoing in these pages. For example, Judy Budnitz’s “Hershel” — a grandfather’s understated, indelible Old Country tale of a man who made babies, like golems, out of dough — is closer in spirit to Nachman of Bratslav or S. Y. Agnon.

It is difficult to generalize about these 25 stories, but since Jewish identity is an embrace of collective memory, each of the entries is an assault upon amnesia. In Rachel Kadish’s “The Argument,” a congregant uses talmudic questions to jar crucial information out of a rabbi suffering from Alzheimer’s. In Steve Almond’s “A Dream of Sleep,” a story that will disturb a reader’s slumber, the elderly caretaker of a forgotten cemetery maintains his post despite the world’s indifference. The narrator of Ben Schrank’s “Consent” exploits his extraordinary memory in the study of Jewish mysticism. In a biographical statement, Dara Horn claims that her “Barbarians at the Gates,” about a German Jewish family living in Amsterdam after World War I, is an attempt “to defy ‘Holocaust literature,’ which ultimately teaches that what is worth knowing about Jewish life is only that it ended.”

Indeed, it is remarkable how many of these fictions, written by authors born long after the ovens ceased operation, are haunted by the Nazi genocide. In Ellen Umansky’s “How to Make It to the Promised Land,” children in a summer camp are forced to simulate the ordeal of European Jews desperate to escape encroaching catastrophe. Peter Orner’s “Walt Kaplan Reads Hiroshima, March 1947” and Ellen Miller’s “In Memory of Chanveasna Chan, Who Is Still Alive” both approach Auschwitz obliquely, through the dropping of the first atomic bomb and the Cambodian massacres, respectively. Michael Lowenthal, who claims that he “never personally experienced even the slightest suggestion of anti-Semitism,” contributes an extraordinarily painful story, “Ordinary Pain,” in which a bar mitzvah boy, appropriately named Larry Blank, becomes a local celebrity when he concocts an account of his grandfather’s heroic death in Buchenwald. One of the highlights of the collection, Gabriel Brownstein’s “Bachelor Party,” is the vivid report that a handsome Jewish physician delivers on the eve of his wedding of how he enjoyed wild sex with the beautiful daughter of a Nazi scientist.

“I proudly call myself a Jewish writer,” says Tova Mirvis, and “A Poland, a Lithuania, a Galicia,” her story about a young man who flusters his observant family when he returns from Israel with a shtreimel and a commitment to ultra-Orthodoxy, poses the vexing old question: Who is a Jew? Wary of the category of Jewish fiction (“As if a story was a thing you circumcised”), Kadish declares: “I treasure and insist on my freedom to write about the full range of subjects that fascinate me.”

On the verge more than the edge, these fresh aspirants to literary renown are no more edgy than the makers of well-wrought fiction always are. The youngest of the 23 authors whom Ted Solotaroff and Nessa Rapoport assembled back in 1996 for “The Schocken Book of Contemporary Fiction” are now approaching middle age; others, including Bernard Malamud, Leonard Michaels and Isaac Bashevis Singer, are, alas, no longer contemporary. “Lost Tribe” introduces the literary grandchildren of Roth, Bellow and Malamud, a talented cohort under 40 who are not only post-Roth but also came into the world more recently than Melvin Jules Bukiet, Michael Chabon, Rebecca Goldstein and Allegra Goodman. They are as contentious about the meaning of their Jewishness as authors since the talmudists have been. Despite the recurrent plaint that American Jewish literature is dead, the contributors to this lively volume prove that none of us should prepare for shiva just yet.

Set in New York, Pennsylvania, California, Europe and Israel, the fascinating fictions assembled in “Lost Tribe” do not quite represent the full range of human experience. But the tribe that produced them is not yet lost.

Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, author of “The Translingual Imagination” (University of Nebraska Press, 2000) and editor of “Switching Languages: Translingual Writers Reflect on Their Craft” (University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

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