In the Metaphor: Eileen Pollack’s Jewish Literary Fiction
By Judy Bolton-Fasman
Eileen Pollack is the consummate writer’s writer. She dismantles stereotypes and puts them back together as fresh, ingenious portrayals. From her earliest work, Pollack’s voice has been vital to Jewish American literature.
In the Mouth (Four Way Books, 257 pp. $18.95 paper), a volume of five short stories and a novella has won the 2008 Edward Wallant award for Jewish fiction.
Included in that collection is the story “The Bris,” selected for the 2007 edition ofThe Best American Short Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/None Edition). “The Bris” is a brilliant reversal of the Crypto-Jewish dilemma. James Sloane, a Christian who married a Jewish woman, has been living as a Jew all of his adult life—though he never formally converted. On the verge of death, he wants to right his deception. He asks his son to arrange a circumcision for him so he can be buried in a Jewish cemetery alongside his wife.
“The Bris” and most of the other works that comprise In the Mouth take place in Boca Raton, Florida, home to thousands of Jewish retirees, including the author’s parents. “Place is really important to me,” says Pollack, an associate professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she directs the master’s of fine arts program. “I have to really know the place I am writing about so I can understand the kinds of people I’m writing about.
“When I would visit [Florida],” she recalls, “I was an outsider generationally, and it made me realize that I wanted to write about this culture.”
Pollack uses her writing to delve beneath the veneer of happiness and innocence that Boca Raton presents. Her initial inspiration for the Boca stories came from an unlikely source. “I read Patrimony [Vintage], Philip Roth’s memoir of his father, which portrayed these Jews in southern Florida,” she says. “I realized that if a satirist can see all the love and beauty in that community, why can’t I? These people had their passions and secrets. They were immigrants and children of immigrants who had developed their own customs and rituals unique to Boca. And before that, they raised families and went through traumatic events like the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Holocaust.”
The collection’s title evokes her characters’ secrets about sexuality and intimacy. To emphasize the point, Pollack relates that Boca Raton means “rat’s mouth” in Spanish, calling to mind both erotic and seamy qualities—which Pollack reflects in some of her stories. For example, in “The Safe,” a mother nurses her infant son but crosses a line when she kisses his penis.
In “Milt and Moose,” a dentist, Milt Rothstein, looks into his patients’ mouths for 50 years yet never truly knows them. Like Pollack’s father, Rothstein retired to Boca. “I’m channeling men like my father in gesture and dialogue,” she says. “In these stories, I write about people I know who are doing things that never happened to them.”
When the reader meets Milt again in a later story, his beloved wife, Greta, and his best friend, Moose, have died, leaving him “Beached in Boca,” as the novella’s title describes it. In a half-hearted attempt to fill his time, he takes an architectural tour of Miami’s South Beach organized by his condominium development. He misses the bus back and has a chance encounter in a café on Lincoln Road with Rosina, a young woman from Argentina. Milt’s affair with Rosina ends abruptly when he is diagnosed with AIDS.
“I started planning the story after my father sent me a newspaper clipping about lonely older Jewish men getting AIDS,” Pollack says. “The story was about outreach efforts to educate senior citizens about safe sex…. I invented Rosina, but she’s based on the women these men got involved with.”
Pollack grew up in the Catskills, the setting for many of the short stories in her first book, The Rabbi in the Attic (Delphinium Books/Harper Collins). Her novel,Paradise, New York (Temple University Press) dealt with the death of the Catskills and its hotel culture. Temple University Press released the book in 1996 as part of its series on the Catskills.
Pollack began her writing career at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from which she graduated with a degree in physics in 1978. “I was terrible in the lab, but I could imagine quantum space and gravitational space,” Pollack explains. “The more abstract it was, the more it fascinated me.” A professor suggested she take a nonscience course before she applied to graduate school in physics. She enrolled in a writing seminar—and suddenly she had a decision to make.
“I came down on the side of the writing,” she says. “I could figure out what I wanted to write on my own, as opposed to physics, where I’d always be asking others what I should work on.” Pollack went on to earn a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
As for the future, Pollack has an untitled novel in the works about the history of comedy and organized crime in the Catskills. She describes the new work as “The Sopranos meet Seinfeld.” She is also writing a memoir called Approaching Infinity, in which she recounts her years as the first woman at Yale to major in physics.
If so far, Pollack’s books have set the standard of stories about eras, places and people we can care about, readers can be grateful that Pollack once turned her back on physics. —Judy Bolton-Fasman
Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir about her father called The Ninety Day Wonder. She is a columnist for The Jewish Advocate in Boston.
Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella
by Bruce Jay Friedman.
(Biblioasis, 203 pp. $24.95)
Readers of a certain age will remember the nervous, edgy rhythms of Stern (Grove Press), Bruce Jay Friedman’s debut novel published in 1966, and the anthology of black humorists that he edited a few years later. Novels, short fiction and screenplays followed—and, in the process, Friedman gave gallows humor an urban, Jewish twist.
Three Balconies is his first collection of new short fiction in more than two decades, and the good news is that his paragraphs remain crisply written and his stories nicely turned. His protagonists may have aged (how could they not?), but every character displays a distinctive Friedman thumbprint.
The 16 new stories and novella (“The Great Beau Le Vyne”) cover the now familiar Friedman landscape. Three stories reacquaint us with Harry Towns, the randy Hollywood screenwriter—Friedman’s alter ego—we first met in the early stories and in the novel About Harry Towns (Knopf). In “The Thespian,” “Three Balconies” and “Kneesocks,” one cannot escape the feeling that much of Harry’s tzuris—the industry has largely passed him by—may well be a reflection of Friedman’s own condition, but, if so, he makes the most out of his character’s darkly comic grief.
In another story, “Neck and Neck,” the insanely jealous Baum describes the fate of his nemesis, a writer named Weiner, who had recently published a thick Holocaust novel to wild acclaim: “No sooner had the Weiner craze died down than a revisionist attack took hold. Its substance was that Weiner had been overrated. Heavy-handedly, a tabloid cried out: Weiner’s Back, But Where’s the Schnitzel?”
In “Mr. Wimbledon,” there is Siegel, who imagines anti-Semites lurking behind every suburban bush only to discover that not only had the prevailing culture changed (“Jews were all over the place—high up in the Defense Department”), but also that even formerly identifiable “Jewish” features had been altered: “Nobody even knew what a Jew looked like anymore. A case in point was Siegel himself, whose hair had become blond and flaxen over the years, though still revealingly kinky at the sides.”
Other stories explore what can only be called grim fascinations: an investigative reporter who falls in love with prison food and, indeed, with prison; a man who commits a grisly murder because he’s lost his confidence as a writer; a mysterious character who hides his Jewish past and name under a series of disguises.
Friedman turns his tilted imagination at the world and the result is fiction that reminds us of how richly nuanced black humor once was and, in Friedman’s capable hands, still is. —Sanford Pinsker
The World a Moment Later: A Shadow History of Israel
by Amir Gutfreund. Translated by Jessica Cohen.
(Toby Press, 497 pp. $24.95)
Those who have read Our Holocaust (Toby Press), Amir Gutfreund’s multilayered debut novel, know he is writer of subtlety and daring. Like that novel, its sequel, which might have been entitled Our Homeland, is overcrowded with characters. If the title evokes S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, it’s for good cause. Its central theme of disillusionment with the Jewish state, the 61-year-old offspring of Zionist theorizing, pioneering and internecine conflict also resonates in the Nobel Laureate’s magisterial work. However, in place of Agnon’s oscillation between engagement and ironic detachment, Gutfreund projects a dark caricature of Zionism.
Of the 19 characters vetted in alphabetical order between a send-up of a Table of Contents and a Chronology that intersperses protagonists with signal events in Israeli history, only Leon Abramowitz cuts a convincingly rounded figure. Portentously a journalist like Theodor Herzl, Abramowitz gets sent to Palestine in 1918 to dispatch articles about Eretz Yisrael to a Jewish journal on the Continent. When his rosy reporting fades to gloom, his fees stop arriving. Marooned among the Zionists, the destitute journalist loses heart; after two years, he takes his own life. Not, however, before sending for his youngest son, Chaim, who, armored with toughness, seems alienated not just from Zionism but from Jewish history. Ironically, these deficiencies equip him both to survive and to thrive in the Jewish homeland. (In this regard, Gutfreund’s Auschwitz and Eretz Yisrael bear discomforting similarities.)
Abramowitz father and son are only the first in Gutfreund’s parade of eccentrics, misfits and non-Zionist types whom destiny sends to accompany the hardcore Jewish dreamers and workers who actualize the Herzlian vision. Among them are Yeshaya Tarhomi, a Yemenite who goes by the name of Günter and is blessed (and cursed) with a phenomenal memory; Gutkin, a strikingly handsome Russian obsessed and thwarted as a would-be assassin first of Joseph Stalin, then of David Ben-Gurion; Shmuel Klein, a pyromaniac whose presence early on telegraphs the likelihood that the novel will end in a blaze of destructive glory. Yet, as though determined to estrange his reader, Gutfreund shifts disconcertingly from character to character, from decade to decade, until it no longer matters because no character gets invested with an interior life. They all perform like Brechtian constructs deployed in the service of Gutfreund’s central idea, which emerges explicitly in the novel’s final pages: Since the goal of a Jewish state is normalcy, to forget one’s past and be forgotten by others, it thus far must be accounted a signal failure.
Chaim Abramowitz, focal figure of the narrative, is a giant of a man who, something like William Faulkner’s Sutpen, carves for himself a mythical, autonomous “estate” in the heart of Israel. He lives not only in opposition to the designs of the Jewish Agency but to the agency of the Zionist state. Gutfreund aims to endow Chaim with the outsized stature of a biblical patriarch. On the death of his first wife, for example, he marries his stepdaughter, a liaison that ultimately leads to his undoing. Unfortunately, we sense his dominating presence only through the awe and fidelity he inspires in others.
The novel’s apparatus proves to be intrusive. Since Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, where it was warranted, I can think of no other novelist who has larded his text with a Chronology and a Cast of Characters and a list of sources—and even a superfluous footnote (as though readers had never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who opposed Hitler). Aiming perhaps at parody, Gutfreund ends with pretentiousness. Moreover, since his hollow superhero leaves no impression and the author’s conventional foray into magical realism is pallid, this follow-up to Our Holocaust must be accounted a disappointment. —Haim Chertok
Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East
by Martin Indyk.
(Simon & Schuster, 494 pp. $30)
The effort to find a formula that will lead to peace between Israel and the Palestinians rests now in the hands of Amrican President Obama. Committed to playing a more active role than his predecessor in resolving the conflict, the president could do worse than to read Innocent Abroad by Martin Idyk, the former United States ambassador to Israel under President Clinton and a diplomat who will probably play a role in the new administration’s efforts to restart the peace process. Filled with insight, Indyk’s memoir is a riveting account of how both former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to bring about peace in that turbulent area. Along the way, he offers us intimate portraits of American, Israeli and Arab leaders, and gives the reasons why they failed to resolve the conflict. He is highly critical of Bush who, in the first six years of his presidency, turned his back on Middle East diplomacy. In rejecting Clinton’s approach, Bush glibly remarked that “There is no Nobel Peace Prize to be had there.”
Indyk—who was at Camp David in 2000 when Clinton brought together Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak to end the conflict—blames Arafat for the failure; Arafat feared to cede sovereignty over the Haram al-Sharif to Israel or share control over the Temple Mount lest he be condemned by Muslim critics or be assassinated like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Indyk views the issue of sovereignty over the holy places in Jerusalem as a nearly insurmountable obstacle to peace so long as the growing number of Palestinian Islamist militants, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are a political force in the region.
Indyk argues that the Obama administration should focus first on a peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Syria’s opposition to the peace process, he states, is based less on theological concerns over Jerusalem than it is on the return of the Golan Heights, which it lost in the 1967 War. Indyk notes that before his assassination, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had conceded the return of the Golan Heights in return for a “normal” peace with Syria.
During Barak’s tenure as prime minister, he was willing to recognize Rabin’s concession in talks with Syria but at the last moment backed away from the return of the Golan because he believed he lacked the support of the Israeli public.
“Should negotiations between Israel and Syria yield a peace agreement,” Indyk states, “it would likely cause the breakup of the Iranian-Syrian axis, but that could happen only if the next president decides to involve the United States in the negotiations, since Syria will not abandon its strategic relations with Iran unless it knows that normalized relations with the United States would replace them.”
Inasmuch as both Hamas and Hezbollah are armed and given tactical support by Iran, peace between Israel and Syria (which would be expected to rein in Hezbollah) would conceivably eliminate the region’s major obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In Middle East politics, the axiom “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has never been more of a factor. A treaty between Syria and Israel would seriously weaken Iran and its clients in the Arab Middle East, thus allowing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians to proceed unimpeded by a weakened Hamas, a turn of events that would be welcomed and fully supported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
This is an important book that provides perspective on the recent past and future possibilities for peace in the Middle East. —Jack Fischel
The Day Mother Changed Her Name and Other Stories
by William D. Kaufman
(Syracuse University Press, 190 pp. $19.95)
In the title story of his mesmerizing collection of tales, Bill Kaufman explains how his immigrant mother outsmarted his third-grade teacher, Miss Brady, who demanded that his mother explain why she didn’t write a note to excuse his absence at Passover. It’s clear that the teacher is a martinet with no tolerance for the few Jewish immigrants in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She walks around the class holding a long sharp ruler and ends the daily New Testament reading with, “In the name of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
The writer’s voice is friendly and personal, yet his eye and ear take in everything—pretenses, prejudices and loneliness—but his is not a melancholy song. As he writes in the introduction, “I don’t like sad stories. I never did. I never will.”
Kaufman offers us a scene from over 80 years ago that recalls the discomfort of covert anti-Semitism that you feel but can’t touch. We see through his 8-year-old eyes his tiny mother towered over by the formidable Miss Brady yet refusing to be intimidated. When the teacher attempts to bait his mother—“You do write Jewish, don’t you, Mrs. Kaufman?”—she instructs her son in Yiddish, “Tell her to go to hell.”
Kaufman’s stories are much more than lessons. He knows how to tell a tale well, whether it is about the end of the war or his new life in a senior residence.
It is a great pleasure to discover a new and promising writer, though why it took Kaufman 92 years to pen his first book is a mystery. He’s a natural who knows how to give us the look, sound, smell and feel of a room, a person, or a moment that rings true, sometimes funny and always wise. Maybe it takes that many years to know which stories are worth keeping.
I met the author at the Lindner Residence on Long Island in New York. He is deceivingly elfin, a sharp observer. In the story “Miss Wheatley,” he describes a librarian from his childhood “Miss Wheatley,” he writes, “was anything but regal in appearance. Her figure was slight, almost skinny, and her clothes, which were long out of fashion but of good quality, were sizes too big for her. She had the look of someone who had lost a great deal of weight but continued to wear the same garments…from time to time, she wore a single strand of pearls that my sister Dorothy said were real.”
That the author of this collection is a nonagenarian is not insignificant. He is an example to us all that it is never too late to develop latent talents. And while not everyone is going to achieve what Kaufman has, he inspires us to tell our own stories. More than just giving us a look at a vanished world, he gives us a glimpse of our future. I’m going to give this book to all my friends who despair that they will never get a book written.
Kaufman’s voice lets us see the reward of a long, well-lived life. I hope he’s working on his next book. —Malka Drucker
Malka Drucker is founding rabbi of HaMakom in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the author, most recently, of Portraits of Jewish-American Heroes (Dutton Children’s Books).
Books in Brief
Landmark of the Spirit:
The Eldridge Street Synagogue
by Annie Polland.
(Yale University Press, 192 pp. $35)
The Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side has gotten a lot of publicity because of its 20-year-long restoration project and, in 1996, it became a National Historic Landmark. The 54 color illustrations in Landmark of the Spirit showcase the beauty of the synagogue’s architecture. But, also importantly, the volume tells the paradigmatic story of how the synagogue, which opened in 1887, served as a gateway into America for East European Jewish immigrants. —Susan Adler
A Time to Every Purpose:
Letters to a Young Jew
by Jonathan D. Sarna.
(Basic Books, 208 pp. $23)
Written as a series of letters to his daughter, Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis University professor and preeminent historian of American Judaism, addresses with honesty, wit and warmth the tough questions and dilemmas young people wrestle with as they ponder their Jewish identities. —Penny Schwartz
Small Miracles of the Holocaust: Extraordinary Coincidences of Faith, Hope, and Survival
by Yitta Halberstam and Judith Leventhal.
(Lyons Press, 272 pp. $11.95)
The words miracle and Holocaust rarely go together, but in this book they do. One story includes a personal connection: Author Leventhal’s father’s life was saved because he was able to recite a prayer he had learned from a Christian playmate years earlier. —Deborah Fineblum Raub
Top 10 Jewish Best Sellers
1. People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks. (Penguin, $15, paper)
2. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. (St.Martin’s Griffin, $13.95, paper)
3. City of Thieves by David Benioff. (Plume, $15, paper)
4. All Other Nights by Dara Horn. (W.W. Norton, $24.95)
5. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. (Harper, $29.99)
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. (Norton, $14.95, paper)
2 Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way by Ruth Reichl. (Penguin, $19.95)
3. Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb. (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26)
4. A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy byThomas Buergenthal. (Little, Brown, $24.99)
5. The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life by Shmuley Boteach. (HarperOne, $25.99)