What Is Jewish Humor?

May 1, 2005 |

Defining humor of any kind is a bad business to be in. The minute you lay down a rule, you can be sure that some schmuck will tap you on the shoulder and say, “Ahem. What about Danny Kaye? Nahman of Bratslav? How could you leave out Larry David? Are you joking?” Like a wannabe stand-up comic on his first open-mike night, all we can do is try. (more…)

Tackling Questions of Orthodox Feminism

April 30, 2005 |

Seven Blessings
By Ruchama King
St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. $23.95.

The Orthodox women at the center of Ruchama King’s first novel are hot and bothered. And not just because of their underwear, although the book does reveal that “underneath black, dour Hasidic clothing lurked a pack of slinky sex kittens.” (pdf…)

In the Great Masters’ Shadows

May 13, 2004 |

Old School
By Tobias Wolff
Knopf. 195 pages. $22.

What’s in a Jewish name?  Quite a bit, in some cases.  Just ask Bernard Schwartz, Issur Danielovitch, and Nathan Greenberg, who became stars as Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, and George Burns.

Tobias Wolff never reveals the name of the narrator of his slim new novel, Old School, but it becomes relevant that it isn’t as unmistakably Jewish as, say, Levine. (more…)

The Search for a Great Latin-American Jewish Author

May 26, 2003 |

Question: Is there such thing as a Great Latin-American Jewish Author (GLAJA)?

To qualify, the author we’re seeking must be: (a) known for fiction (b) identifiably Latin-American both in real life and in fiction (c) explicitly Jewish in fictional focus though not necessarily in personal practice and (d) able to blow our minds with unique, masterful writing. Plus one more requirement, for the sake of this admittedly arbitrary exercise: At least a couple of the author’s major works must be available in English—otherwise I wouldn’t be able to read them. (more…)

Writing What She Doesn’t Know

May 26, 2003 |

The Autograph Man
By Zadie Smith

Random House. 368 pages. $24.95.

En route to a wrestling match, a Chinese Englishman asks his Jewish son to explain, once again, about “the boxes.” “Tefillin,” the exasperated 12-year-old Alex-Li Tandem replies, “You just strap them. On your head, you know. And a bit on your arms.” Readers of Zadie Smith’s critically acclaimed debut novel, White Teeth, should be familiar with this sort of cross-generational, cross-cultural exchange. With that book, Smith showed that she could write about anyone, anywhere, no matter how far removed from her personal experience—whether they are Jamaican Jehovah’s Witnesses, British Protestants, Bengali Islamists, or Jews. (more…)

Divine Inspiration

May 20, 2003 |

The Dialogues of Time and Entropy
By Aryeh Lev Stollman
Riverhead. 240 pages. $24.94.

What would it be like to have the inspiration of a genius? Only a handful of humans will ever know firsthand. But the rest of us can contemplate the hints of modern genius strewn throughout The Dialogues of Time and Entropy, Aryeh Lev Stollman’s first collection of short fiction. (more…)

Cantankerous Old Man Discovers Soft Spot

May 14, 2003 |

Fabulous Small Jews: Stories
By Joseph Epstein

352 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $23.

Jews have an age-old answer to snobbery. It’s called chutzpah. If some pretentious jerk looks down his nose at you because of the “-berg” at the end of your name or the Honda at the end of your driveway, Jewish wisdom teaches that you just give him the old stink-eye and tell him where he can shove his judgments. Mordecai Richler knew this, Alan Dershowitz knows it, and apparently Joseph Epstein knows it, too. (more…)

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. (more…)

Plagiarism 101

May 10, 2002 |

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W
By Gabriel Brownstein
W. W. Norton. 192 pages. $23.95.

The rules of plagiarism can be confusing. It’s not okay for you to “borrow” your roommate’s term paper, and historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose were recently busted for improperly attributing sources. On the other hand, in his debut collection of short stories, Gabriel Brownstein rips off characters, dialogue, and plot points from Hawthorne and Kafka and nobody seems to mind. What gives?

Zany Post-Soviet Hijinks

April 15, 2002 |

The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
By Gary Shteyngart
Riverhead. 452 pages. $24.95.

If you came of age in Jewish schools, summer camps, and community centers in the 1990s, as I did, you probably knew more than one kid like Vladimir Girshkin. Think back: remember that ultra-pale, surprisingly hairy 14-year-old whose wardrobe came straight off the sale racks at Kmart in various shades of vinyl? He spoke with an indeterminate accent, was unfamiliar with the touchstones of our culture (cartoons, baseball cards, sugary breakfast cereals), and he wasn’t the guy you wanted to be paired with in lab or gym. Of course, there were plenty of Russians at my day school who adapted perfectly to life in North America, fitting right in with the rest of us—braces, top forty radio, and all—but the one or two oddballs are the ones we remember.

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In Gary Shteyngart’s widely praised debut novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, we discover the fate of such an oddball when he is released into the wider world. (more…)