Professor and literary critic Josh Lambert is judge for two Major price for American Jewish Literature, which means he reads as many new American novels by and about Jews as possible each year. In this annual column for Jewish streams, he reflects on some of the most compelling works of fiction from the previous year that could be considered “Jewish” in one way or another, and the patterns that emerged from this reading.
As is often the case, the new fiction I’ve read over the past year has felt like a slow-motion echo of news from half a decade ago: not exactly ripped from the headlines, but carefully cut out, pasted into a scrapbook, pondered and transformed. A number of novels and short story collections published in 2021 deal with gender and sexuality in ways that feel decidedly post-2016. It was no coincidence that this was a year in which academics began to drop #MeToo in securities and Subtitlesand the exploration of a young philosopher “Feminism in the 21st Century” was a bestseller.
Related themes resonate throughout Jewish literature, which has had all kinds of distressing things to say about gender, guilt, and power, from Bible stories to the masculinity-obsessed works of mid-century American Jewish novelists ( and contemporary novelists). prime pastiches inspired by it). The best fiction I’ve read this year enters this tradition, responds to it and rewrites it. They deal with the abjection and resilience of women in both comic and tragic registers, taking as their subject the relationships between women who struggle, reject or transcend patriarchal limits.
One obvious way to rewrite gender scripts is through romances between women. At Melissa Broder’s milk fed, a few male characters lurk and preen, but at the heart of the novel is the love of two young women, Rachel and Miriam, and their appetites for food and each other. Wild in tone, the novel deals with eating disorders, toxic mother-daughter relationships, and the greasy glory of kosher Chinese cuisine in surprisingly loose prose, considering the comic precision of the poems (and tweet) that established Broder’s reputation. It’s a literary novel, populated by golems reminiscent Xanthippeat Cynthia Ozick The Puttermesser Papersand the “woman made of cake” in Margaret Atwood edible woman. Curiously, however, the main intertext of the book is this great American novel about toxic Jewish masculinity, Portnoy’s Complaint. Broder’s novel recasts Philip Roth’s, exuberantly, from a female perspective: if all the corny, explicit sex jokes don’t make its source obvious enough, Broder drops some unmistakable clues, naming a character “Spielvogel “, like Portnoy’s shrink, and having Rachel note that when she kisses Miriam, she sucks her tongue “like a piece of liver”. (The Broder website also currently has a collage with Roth’s Photoshopped face on a votive candle.) This got me thinking about a question that already sounds like a contemporary cliché: is gender-swapping, a classic misogynist, a meaningful feminist intervention? (Discuss among yourselves.)
A slightly deeper and weirder attempt to rewrite old stories against the tide comes in Sam Cohen’s first collection of stories, Sarahland. The organizing trick of the book is, simply and brilliantly, Sarah’s name. A narrator, who attends a university in the Midwest during the Napster era, lives in an “off-campus dorm where 90% of the girls were named Sarah” and everyone is Jewish. Narrator Sarah had hoped that “college would be exactly like summer camp”, an all-girls space that was “the only time/place that mattered like real life” to her. Instead, she comes to realize — thanks in part to new friends who quote bell hooks — that her aspiration is “to change the world, to make it empty of money and boys at least.”
In the rest of the stories, Cohen broadens his focus to all the “Sarahs, maybe-Sarahs and Sarahs of past and future” (as his dedication puts it). In “Gemtstones”, two genre-fluid poets play an arcade game filled with avatars of Sarah: Silverman, Michelle Gellar, Jessica Parker, Schulman. To his credit, Cohen perceives that a world filled with Sarahs loving each other also becomes a pretext for mundane and selfish gestures of all kinds, including male self-sacrifice: In a familiar-sounding moment, MFA students in a story discuss a friend, Matt, who “considered quitting writing. He says the world no longer needs white gay poets. “That’s so cool,” jokes another writer. “Love . . . will he also commit suicide? Nevertheless, the Sarahs of the collection offer hope for new narrative and social possibilities. In “The First Sarah”, a midrash on Genesis, a future patriarch, Abey, plays the second fiddle to his concubine Hagar.She and Sarah do not pray to the narcissistic male God of Abey but to Mother Nature, who happily blesses them: “Lesbians should be the mothers of the future humans of this earth.
Other notable works this year, delve into the darkness that hovers around the edges of Broder and Cohen’s playful and upbeat stories. Violaine Huisman’s first novel, Mother’s Book—published in French under the title fugitive because queen in 2018, and now translated into English by Leslie Camhi – chronicles, in hilariously sharp prose, the investments between a traumatized, traumatized mom and her two daughters. A self-fiction work by a Parisian who lived in New York for the second half of her life, it is an extraordinarily powerful book that documents how the contingencies of 20th century Europe led the narrator to inherit “a poisonous story, whose truths and lies were difficult to disentangle. These poisons reach the narrator, Violaine, in the form of her mother Catherine’s obscene tirades, erratic parenting, and frightening emotional intensities, but also in the person of an extremely frightening and probably abusive Jewish grandfather.
After the girls, as children, learned that their grandfather “died in the Holocaust”, he “appeared[ed] one day on [their] door”, very alive. “To call him lustful,” remarks Violaine, “does not do justice to the perversity of his character: everything about him seemed threatening and suspicious,” and since he “came into our house just as we were taking our first timid steps in the realm of sexuality,” this “monster” destroyed “any possibility of joy or exploration that might have existed for us. In a childhood abundantly populated by the disturbing company of Catherine’s repertoire of lovers and suitors, Violaine remarks: “No masculine incursion into our lives has ever afflicted us more than this one.
Jewishness trickles down to Violaine from this disgusting man, as well as from her slightly absent intellectual father, but it is her mother who teaches her to value this heritage. In the section of the novel that imagines Catherine’s inner thoughts and intimate experiences, we learn that one of her lovers, a woman named Claude, “encouraged her to read, especially women, but also the great Jewish writers, sensing in Catherine’s messy stories how important her father’s religion is to her. More specifically, Catherine reads Nathalie Sarraute, Simone Weil, Stefan Zweig, and by Albert Cohen Beauty of the Lord—classic texts by and about Jews grappling with their position in European culture, as it was itself. Despite all that she has undergone and all the suffering that she imposes on her daughters, Catherine[s] assert his Jewishness. . . so as not to find herself alone, to affirm that she belonged to a people, to a tribe; she has rewoven her past in the profession of History to give it meaning, to give it weight. For a very troubled and unstable woman – and, according to the novel, perhaps for her daughters – literary Jewishness represents the possibility of meaning, stability, even comfort.
Remarkably and strangely, Jewishness plays a similar role in Hanna Halperin. something wild, a novel that otherwise has very little in common with Huisman’s. First, I must note that this is an exceptionally painful novel to read; Halperin worked as a domestic violence counselor, and if I tell you that the novel seems to have been inspired, in a chilling way, by what she observed in that role, I hope that serves to alert all readers who would prefer to stay away.
The central question of something wild is whether two women in their late twenties and early thirties, sisters Nessa and Tanya Bloom, can do anything to save their mother, Lorraine, from their abusive stepfather, Jesse. But as memorable as Lorraine’s story is, what makes Halperin’s novel even more effective is its focus on Nessa and Tanya, and how pernicious and archaic ideas about sex and gender, including those of their mother, manifested themselves in many aspects of their lives.
As in Huisman’s novel, Jewishness here plays a role in the strained relationship between the sisters and their parents. While Lorraine is a lapsed Catholic, the sisters’ father, Jonathan, is Jewish, and among the many unfortunate consequences of Jonathan leaving when they were preteens was the severing of the girls’ bond with Judaism: the beating Nessa’s mitzvah is canceled, Tanya stops going to Hebrew school. “Without Jonathan around,” writes Halperin, “they all gave up being Jews.” Because they lost that bond, and because Jonathan is handsome and successful, and because his second wife is a gorgeous and sophisticated Jewish woman, the sisters vaguely understand Judaism as the opposite of their mother’s financial and love struggles. Tanya “associates Judaism with the family, with conviviality, with childhood. . . . For her, the memory of Judaism is tender, like waking up on a snowy day as a child.
As a result, Tanya – who, in the present of the novel, is 28 and a fashionable young lawyer – has found a nice Jewish boy to marry: Eitan, “sweet and solemn”, “his Semitic features are beautiful and familiar” , a doctor trained at Mount Sinai. who grew up Orthodox but was too feminist for the “hypocrisies” that made her mother and sisters sit “on the balcony, where it was hot and crowded”, but who nevertheless wants “Jewish babies”. If part of what Halperin wants us to recognize is the painful extent to which our culture tells young women that their financial and physical security depends on their ability to satisfy men’s desires, this Jewish man represents the strength and clarity of Tanya’s goal – she firmly gripped the brass ring her mother fumbled.
Without spoiling the plot or contradicting some of its brutal turns, I can say that Halperin seems determined to give Tanya and Nessa a happy, or at least hopeful, ending. But in reminding us that behind so much normative gender and sexual identity – beneath their Jewish guises as much as any other – lies barely contained violence, the novel stops even before the solace of bitter laughter that books provide. like Broder, Cohen and especially Huisman. In our day and age, however, where physical and sexual abuse remains rampant despite being in the media spotlight, in Jewish communities as well as everywhere else – how much comfort do we really deserve?