Living on the Edge

May 10, 2003 |

Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge
Edited by Paul Zakrzewski.

550 pages. $14.95.

Paul Zakrzewski’s new collection of contemporary Jewish-American fiction, Lost Tribe, is that rare anthology that adds up to more than the sum of its parts and is, in fact, worth talking about. While the stories vary in literary quality and entertainment value, the book offers a revealing cross-section of the youngest generation of American Jewish authors, and, through them, of the youngest generation of American Jewish adults.

To be clear, this is a valuable book of uneven stories about massively screwed up Jews.

Zakrzewski, who organizes literary readings in New York, has done well to collect stories from a comprehensive selection of younger authors, and thankfully, some of them you actually may have heard of. Nathan Englander, Jonathan Safran Foer, Gary Shteyngart, Myla Goldberg—if you haven’t read them in the New Yorker or your book club, it’s not unlikely you’ve seen them speak at your local JCC. The other contributors’ names won’t sound familiar unless you read lots of literary journals, but rest assured that they have received rave reviews in the Jewish or secular press and been shortlisted for literary awards.

Some of the stories are new, though many are reprints of previously published pieces or sections from novels. Added here are small italicized sections at the end of each piece in which the authors explain themselves and their inspirations. The implied question they seem to be answering is, “What does it mean to be a Jewish writer, and are you one?”

Shteyngart explains that “Being an ex-Soviet, Russo-Judeo-American immigrant writer is not all borscht and laughter.” Rachel Kadish considers herself “simply a writer,” as opposed to, say, Tova Mirvis, who “proudly calls [herself] a Jewish writer.” Seeing as they’ve agreed to be collected in an anthology with the word “Jewish” on the cover, that this even qualifies as a question reveals the complexity of Jewish identity for this generation. And it gets worse from here. The picture of Jewish life painted by Lost Tribe is bleak.

How tense, haunted, and fraught are our Jewish youths? Let’s count the ways.

First, there’s sex. Just about everyone—from secular suburbanites to the ultra-Orthodox to the new post-Soviet immigrant—weighs in with his or her own romantic woes, which range from the quaint to the downright disturbing (Nazi-Jew S&M role-playing, anyone?). But who can be shocked by perversion, honestly, after almost a half century of Philip Roth? Perhaps because of Alexander Portnoy’s shadow explicitly hanging over the stories devoted to love and sex, the most successful of these pieces is the quietest: Ehud Havazelet’s “Leah,” the longest story in the book, which juxtaposes the ideals and realities of marriage over the course of two girls’ lifetimes.

Second, there’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt, the guilt of those who never suffered, the guilt that comes with beginning to forget what should never be forgotten—you name it, we’ve got a guilt complex to cover it in the second section of Lost Tribe. Mostly these stories aren’t about the Holocaust, but about the legacy of that catastrophe in American Jewish life. For one thing, this means the emotional depths reached here aren’t quite what we’re used to in Holocaust fiction: Aryeh Lev Stollman and Binnie Kirshenbaum contribute assured work, but nothing here can hold a Yahrzeit candle to Primo Levi or Henryk Grynberg. Ellen Umansky’s story “How to Make It to the Promised Land” refracts the horror of Nazi Europe through the prism of an American Jewish summer camp, where history is transformed into a Capture-the-Flag-like game. The concept is at once surreal and, if you’ve spent time at a Jewish summer camp recently, remarkably true-to-life. But clever concepts are easier to find in these stories than emotional resonance—reflecting, on the whole, the struggle future generations will face in dealing with the Holocaust: the guilt of not feeling as bad as we should.

And third, there’s emptiness. The protagonist of Joan Leegant’s “Seekers in the Holy Land,” an alienated Jewish exchange student, expresses the hollowness endemic in young American Jewish life:

What was there in America if you were Jewish? Temples with health clubs? Fund-raisers? Rabbis … preoccupied with building campaigns, numbers, membership rolls? Or, on the other side, rules, fetishistic rules, a black and white orthodoxy. But for the soul, what was there?

Many of the stories in the third section of the anthology, “Mystics, Seekers, and Fanatics,” try to answer this question. For some characters there’s the mystical tradition, for others there’s an alienating and increasingly frum Orthodoxy, while yet others search for scraps of meaning in the eradicated past. Unfortunately, these stories leave one with a sense not of the diversity and innovation of modern Jewish life, but rather of the persistence of the void that these seekers cannot fill.

Is there hope? Of course (and not just for the Messiah, whose coming is comically presaged in the final story in the volume). Fiction isn’t sociology, and if you really want to learn about the state of the Jewish community, you’d be better served reading the new National Jewish Population Survey. Our best Jewish authors have been wringing their hands and showing us just how anxious, uptight, lonely, and conflicted we are for years—it’s what Roth, Bellow, Malamud, and Ozick do best. It is into this tradition that the writers featured in Lost Tribe have entered and, in this way, even the ones writing about secular atheists, who can’t tell a matzoh ball from a piece of gefilte fish, are traditionalists. Lost Tribe indeed presents, as the subtitle declares, “Jewish Fiction from the Edge”—though when you think about it, the edge is where Jewish fiction has been coming from since its very beginnings.

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