The Young and the Restless: Works by Young Writers

November 1, 2005
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Michal Lemberger

Jubana! The Awkwardly True and dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Princess , Gigi Anders. Rayo, 2005, 298 pp., $23.95

Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria’s Jewish Past with its Last Wandering Shepherd , Sam Apple. Ballantine Books, 2005, 304 pp., $23.95

Beware of God: Stories , Shalom Auslander. Simon & Schuster, 2005, 194 pp., $19.95

Raymond and Hannah , Stephen Marche. Harcourt, 2005, 207 pp., $14.00

What does it mean to say “young Jewish writers”? I’ve been to panels featuring them; I’ve even written reviews of their books, but it is becoming harder and harder to write about this large coterie as a unified group. The four books on my desk right now, for example, seem to defy all attempts at coherence. For one thing, only three of the writers are young; for another, one of them isn’t even Jewish. And yet they all write about Judaism.

There was a time in the mid-20th century when young Jewish writers were accomplishing two groundbreaking milestones: they were gaining popularity by writing about Jews rather than trying to fit into a literary culture that was overwhelmingly gentile, and they were, simultaneously, coming to define American literature as a whole. That newfound openness for “ethnic” literature opened the floodgates to other minorities whose stories had not previously been read. The multiplicity of voices and stories available to us is largely due to a few especially well-received minority authors, among them Ralph Ellison, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth. Now that we’ve grown used to an expanded literary landscape, we’ve also become accustomed to extreme levels of variety within distinct ethnic groups. The diversity was always there: Bellow and Roth (as well as Ozick, Malamud, etc.) were never cookie-cutter versions of one another but, for better or worse, they were grouped together as somehow encompassing the Jewish American experience.

It has become increasingly difficult, though, to lump together writers with aims so different they produced the following four books: a memoir by a Jewish refugee of the Cuban Revolution; a nonfictional account of a journalist’s travels through Austria with a Yiddish folk-singing, wandering shepherd; a short story collection that affectionately skewers Orthodox ritual and tradition; and a novel about two lovers separated by space and belief in Judaism. When all they have in common is some connection, no matter how vague, to one distinct aspect of Jewish culture or practice, what is a reviewer to say?

Let’s start here: the books differ in quality, of course. Gigi Anders, who can remember the Cuban Revolution and so is not really a member of the younger generation, has written a memoir utterly juvenile and free of insight or charm, while Sam Apple’s book is an imperfect but endearing portrait of both his shepherd subject and his own obsession with both the Holocaust and antisemitism. Shalom Auslander’s stories contain both wit and an acute sense of the hypocrisy of religious belief, while Stephen Marche has written a spare, inventive, and beautiful novel of love, longing, and human fallibility.

One thread that does tie together the works of Apple, Auslander, and Marche is an acknowledgement of the communal nature of Jewish life and thought. Apple’s book is based on his own understanding of Austrian antisemitism — knowledge he imbibed from his grandmother, Bashy. His book stands as testament to how strongly beliefs can be passed from one generation to another, from one person to another. And like the American Jewish community’s ongoing concern with antisemitism, American Jewry is also preoccupied with the ways in which belief in God and adherence of custom are instilled into young people’s minds. Both Auslander and Marche indicate through their fictions that a culture’s ideological imperatives have a seductive power that can be hard to deny.

Auslander’s story, “God is a Big Happy Chicken,” stands as a case in point, indicating how hard it is to go against received wisdom, even when one has an inside scoop on the truth. In a frankly hilarious turn, God is depicted as an enormous chicken, and Morgenstern, a recently dead, pious Jew, is horrified to find that all his life he’d been praying to a fowl deity. Given a chance to return to his family, Morgenstern tries to tell them the truth. Ultimately, faced with their unshakeable faith, he can’t go through with it. Belief, like everything else, this story assures us, represents an agreement among people to believe.

In some ways, Marche’s novel is the most interesting of the three, especially because it shows how a set of communal beliefs can be taught and learned. Although his novel is so sympathetic to his character Hannah’s growing attachment to Jewish rituals and ways of thinking, Stephen Marche is not Jewish. Unlike Apple, who revels in his own neuroses, or Auslander who writes about the Orthodoxy that he no longer practices, Marche approaches Judaism without any preconceptions; he treats its beauties and its limitations with the same sincerity. Judaism remains foreign and problematic for Raymond while, at the same time, it evinces a tribal but never simplistic pull on Hannah’s emotions and loyalties. Perhaps this is the greatest testament to the inroads ethnic literature has made in just over half a century: a gentile can convincingly write about Judaism now with the same authority as someone born into its strange and wonderful ways.

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Michal Lemberger lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches literature at UCLA and works as a freelance journalist and editor.

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