Sounds of a New York Jewish Neighborhood
Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary
By Johanna Kaplan (Ecco)
The reappearance of some of Johanna Kaplan’s brilliant short stories in Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary is cause for celebration. Kaplan’s work is often compared to such influential Jewish American writers as Cynthia Ozick and Saul Bellow. Hers is a distinctive voice with an uncannily pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, in any language and in any accent. This new volume includes stories that first appeared in Kaplan’s earlier collection, Other People’s Lives, along with two newer pieces and an admiring preface by Francine Prose. (Prose is not her only admirer; Other People’s Lives, from 1975, and Kaplan’s 1981 novel, O My America!, have won multiple awards. And full disclosure, I’m a friend of the author.)
Most of the stories in Kaplan’s new collection are set in the bustling Jewish neighborhoods of the Bronx and the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the decades following World War II. The apartments teem with immigrant families no more than one or two generations removed from the Old Country and European refugees struggling to rebuild lives after the Holocaust. From the windows come shouts in English, Yiddish, Polish, Russian and sometimes Hebrew, their collective kvetches forming a stereophonic soundtrack of the New York of that era.
Many of these tales are told from the perspective of a truth-telling girl or young woman upon whom nothing is lost: neither the comical airs and absurdities promulgated by the self-absorbed adults who surround her, nor the vulnerability and grief that reside just beneath their brittle façades. In the story “Other People’s Lives,” troubled adolescent Louise has been discharged from a private psychiatric clinic to board with Maria, the young German-born wife of a famous ballet dancer who has been incapacitated by Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Maria boisterously takes charge of everyone around her, as she has always done, managing to survive life in Germany before, during and after the war, and now the financial mess in which her husband’s illness has landed her. Together, Louise and Maria form a makeshift family of opposites, stemming from a shared history of dislocation and constant change.
“Sour or Suntanned, It Makes No Difference,” set in a Zionist summer camp, features unhappy camper Miriam who is unwillingly cast in a play—about Jews resisting Nazis in Warsaw—being put on for the upcoming parents’ visiting day. Yet playing a partisan World War II heroine who faces Nazis and lives to tell the tale instills in her the promise of her own future.
The collection’s two newer pieces, “Tales of My Great-Grandfathers” and “Family Obligations,” are both nonfiction accounts of Kaplan’s family, whom she places within the larger context of Jewish tradition. She includes the story of her great-grandfather Rabbi Jacob Meir of Minsk, who let one of his daughters attend medical school in Moscow, “even though the only way a Jewish girl could get the requisite identity permit to live in Moscow was by allowing herself to be declared a prostitute.”
That familial timeline, stretching both into the past and the future, illuminates the spot where Kaplan herself stands. Somewhere, she writes, among her great-grandfathers’ “ancient, unlikely dreams and far-fetched adventures towards fulfillment, lies my own ineluctable walk-on in a drama of catastrophe and renewal any imaginative writer would be hard put to equal.”
Kaplan’s artistic vision encapsulates it all in her own, unparalleled way.
Diane Cole is the author of a memoir, After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges, and writes for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications.