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Her Bronx Jewish characters ‘hate history’ — and are finally back on bookshelves

Around two years ago, Johanna Kaplan learned, out of the blue, that HarperCollins was interested in reissuing a short story collection she had originally published all the way back in 1975.

“It’s a marvelous, marvelous, amazing thing to be happening to me at this age,” said Kaplan, 79.

When the collection debuted, under the title “Other People’s Lives,” Kaplan felt it didn’t receive proper attention. Her editor died before the book came out, and as a result, she says, it got lost in the publishing shuffle.

“I really got screwed,” Kaplan said. And although her book was a finalist for a National Book Award, the book still felt, she said, like “a secret.”

Now, nearly half a century later, the secret’s out.

“Loss of Memory is Only Temporary” is an expanded set of Kaplan’s stories that rewards a close reading. In addition to the stories originally published in “Other People’s Lives,” the new collection also includes a personal essay about becoming a Jewish writer, with all that term connotes; a short story set in revolutionary Russia and postwar New York City; and a foreword by critic and novelist Francine Prose.

The stories explore, among other things, family relationships and mental illness. Many of their protagonists are Jewish girls coming of age in the Bronx in the years after World War II, as Kaplan herself once was. They are not fully familiar with the details of what their parents and grandparents faced in the old country, but they know two things: it was bad, and it was important.

It’s such a heavy weight to carry that one character says, simply, “I hate history.”

Johanna Kaplan

Johanna Kaplan Courtesy of Johanna Kaplan

The highlight of the collection is a dialogue-driven novella called “Other People’s Lives,” the title story from Kaplan’s earlier collection. It features two unforgettable characters: Louise, a young Jewish woman recently released from a mental hospital, and Maria, a tough Gentile who survived both Hitler’s Germany and communist Russia, and who speaks a delightfully mixed-up version of English, in which she switches fluently between making small talk with her son and reliving the horrors of war.

“Mommy, can I get a hamster?” Maria’s son asks at one point.

“A hamster?” she responds. “No dog and no hamster. It’s enough that cat and the turtle. You must do your homework, Matthew, angel. Hamsters! It’s what we did in the war — you know, for getting food. For saving it. You stuff it up in the cheeks, like hamster faces, we called it hamstering. I was very good at it.”

Louise, who was born in the Dominican Republic, moves in with Maria — who often repeats the phrase “Families are shit” — because nobody in her family lives in the U.S. anymore. In Europe, these two would have made natural enemies, but here, they become allies, and Louise takes inspiration from Maria’s outlook on history, in which trauma doesn’t hold her back, but reminds her that life is full of surprises. If bad surprises can happen — and heaven knows they can and have — surely good surprises can happen, too.

And while both characters seem to reject the idea of family, bonding over this rejection leads them, somewhat paradoxically, to find family in each other.

Louise and Maria aren’t the only characters in the collection with acerbic perspectives on their family histories. Consider Miriam, the protagonist in “Sour or Suntanned, It Makes No Difference” who feigns confusion and acts defensive when asked a very simple, though perhaps also fetishizing, question.

“‘Miriam,’ Fran said, smiling at her as if she were a new baby in somebody’s carriage, ‘do you speak Yiddish?’”

‘What do you mean?’ Miriam said. ‘Every second? I can, if I have to.’”

Kaplan’s characters’ troubled relationships with their heritage might be explained, in part, by what the author described in a 2007 interview as the “tremendously sentimentalizing myth of the warm, close, loving Jewish family.”

“The great American Jewish psychodrama has seen the wish — the fantasy — to recreate the kinds of families that in fact few of our shtetl forebears really knew,” Kaplan said in that interview.

That expectation sets her characters up for disappointment and loneliness — in other words, for being agreeable to the idea that “families are shit.”

And while that may be true, the title of the collection seems to say, “deal with it.” The idea that “Loss of Memory is Only Temporary” suggests that no matter how we try to run from the past, crying that “families are shit” and that we “hate history,” it — and they — will always catch up to us.

But that riddle of a title also has another meaning. It’s taken from the collection’s title story, in which loss of memory is a side effect of ECT, or electroshock therapy — a controversial procedure still occasionally used today to treat people with severe depression and other mental illnesses. The treatment works by inducing seizures, and its use declined in the 1960s, when it became controversial.

In the story, Naomi briefly mentions preparing a patient for ECT, upon which her aunt tells an anecdote about a woman she knew whose son became “a vegetable” after getting the procedure. (That story, like others in the collection, stems from Kaplan’s own experience working as a special education teacher in New York City for 35 years.)

When the aunt expresses concern about the treatment’s ill effects, especially loss of memory, Naomi, a psychiatry resident referred to throughout the story as a “stone” because of her lack of emotion, is dismissive. The side effect, Naomi says, is “only temporary.”

Their conflict escalates through the story, particularly over Naomi’s aunt’s criticism that her niece doesn’t keep up with people in their community. At one point, the aunt says “For you, spilling your coffee and monkeying around with other people’s memories are all the same thing, because to you it doesn’t matter what you forget.”

That critique, in Kaplans eyes, applies beyond Naomi. Kaplan said that she thinks everyone should learn their family history, and she’s often been disappointed by how little most Americans have, in her experience, seemed to know. But part of the reason she thinks her stories are timely now is because she sees people’s attitudes toward family history changing for the better.

“People have a sense now of wishing to know about their families’ past,” Kaplan said. “And, if they have broader intelligence, they want to know beyond their family. Especially for Jews, it’s imperative to know.”

Not so that history can determine the future — but to make sure it doesn’t.

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