Monday, April 9, 2012

Putting The Jewish Into Jewish-American

This is the first of my columns for New Delhi's The Sunday Guardian

 When I first read Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, I was struck by the audacity of the material. Only Roth, I thought, could conceive of a plot in which a young writer, visiting an older mentor’s house, begins to suspect that the young woman he meets there is none other than Anne Frank, who has survived the Holocaust and is now living anonymously in upstate New York. In that book – and others – Roth explored contrasts common to much Jewish-American writing: between identity and assimilation, secularism and religion, tradition and modernity.

Of late, however, there’s been debate over whether the ‘Jewish’ in ‘Jewish-American writing’ ought to be dropped altogether. With such writers being integrated into the mainstream, does the distinction hold anymore? The argument sometimes assumes other forms, such as Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s dismissal of diasporic Jews as "playing with Judaism…it’s masturbation”. (Portnoy’s Complaint, anyone?)

I’m not sure if we should discard the category just yet. In particular, two recently-published books illustrate a specifically Jewish-American way of looking at the world: Hope: A Tragedy, by Shalom Auslander and the short-story collection, What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. In both, one finds “laughter and trembling so curiously mingled that it is not easy to determine the relations of the two”, as Saul Bellow once described Jewish fiction. And in both, one finds, once again, Anne Frank.

In Hope, protagonist Solomon Kugel moves with his family to an old farmhouse  and, investigating sounds from the attic, discovers an ancient, bitter crone who claims to be Anne Frank: “I survived death in my youth and I’ve been surviving life ever since”. (And later:  “I’m Miss Holocaust, 1945”.) After decades in hiding, she’s now writing a follow-up. Auslander’s tone throughout is mordantly funny as a paranoid Kugel attempts to make sense of his situation. There’s much Woody Allen-esque riffing on subjects that range from gluten-free diets, real estate and unlikely ways of dying. Beneath this is a serious concern: are Jews still defining themselves by the horrors of the Holocaust, and is it time to move on?

There’s something akin to this concern in the title story of Englander’s collection. Here, two Jewish couples – one in Miami, the other from Jerusalem -- catch up on a Sunday afternoon, the wives being old friends who haven’t met in a while. Narrated by a wisecracking husband who alternately feels empathy with, and dislikes the others, it’s an afternoon during which vodka is drunk, pot smoked and secrets spilled. Just when you think the story is moving towards an epiphany – the couples go out of the house to get drenched in a shower – Englander has them come back inside and play “the Anne Frank game”, speculating on which friend, neighbour or relative would provide sanctuary in the event of another Holocaust.

Though Englander’s tone is more measured and less astringent than Auslander’s, there’s a similar comic vein that occasionally emerges. At one point, the husband says of the other couple that they “went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox, which to me sounds like a repackaged detergent—ORTHODOX ULTRA®, now with more deep-healing power”.  Meanwhile Auslander, in Hope, has Kugel muse in a bookstore: “Twenty full-page photographs inside, promised the cover of the Buchenwald book. Now more ghastly. Twenty percent more depressing”. In another Englander story, there’s a character with the unfortunate name of Yitzy Penis, which reminds one of Auslander’s memoir, Foreskin’s Lament. Other Englander stories, set in Israel and in the US, often have a parable-like nature, the same trait that can be seen under the surface of Hope.

Admittedly, Auslander’s novel is one where the conceit is played out for too long, and Englander’s collection is uneven. But with the quips, Yiddish phrasing, paranoia and interrogation of history, these books show a sensibility that can only be termed Jewish-American. By being specific, both also contain themes that are universal. In the words of another writer from another country – Paul Murray, in Skippy Dies – they tell us that “life makes fools of us all sooner or later. But keep your sense of humour and you’ll at least be able to take your humiliations with some measure of grace.”

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