New Jersey Jewish News
In survey of American-Jewish letters, a call for writers to own their past
Telling the Little Secrets: American Jewish Writing since the 1980s
by Janet Handler Burstein
After years of studying and teaching Victorian literature, Janet Handler Burstein decided to offer a course in American-Jewish literature. Part of the results of her exploration of the subject can be seen in her wide-ranging book Telling the Little Secrets. Burstein knows her material; she also knows that literature has, in the critic Jane Tompkins words, cultural work to do. And in selecting certain American-Jewish novels, short stories, memoirs, and essays written since the 1980s, Burstein argues that the aftermath of the Holocaust has shaped our sense of ourselves and the homes we came from, that our longer history may both constrict and empower us as it constructs our sense of gender, and that certain books call up textual precursors to our collective awareness of ourselves. For Burstein, it is important that American Jews take ownership of their past so that a healthier identity can be forged.
Put simply, Telling the Little Secrets is an ambitious, often difficult, but ultimately rewarding book. Let me get the bad news out of the way first: Although it gives the impression of surveying the vast amount of American-Jewish writing since the 1980s, there are some conspicuous omissions Dara Horn (In the Image, 2003), Tova Mirvis (The Ladies Auxiliary, 1999), and Nathan Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, 1999). Also absent are some lesser-known female writers who certainly have something to say about the large-scale return to Orthodoxy and constructions of gender: Joan Legant (An Hour in Paradise, 2003), Naama Goldstein (The Place Will Comfort You, 2004), and Ruhama King (Seven Blessings, 2003). No doubt other readers will note with disappointment that a favorite post-1980 writer of theirs went missing. In Bursteins defense, I would simply remind the chronically unhappy that if every American-Jewish writer since 1980 had been included, Bursteins study, already weighing in at nearly 300 pages, might well have been 300 pages more. Also, Burstein is at least as interested in applying theoretical constructs to literary examples as she is in the literature per se. In short, some works just dont perform the cultural work she has in mind.
In my case, I was less interested in the works not included in her survey and much more intrigued by the close readings she gave to work by the children of survivors (Thane Rosenbaum, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Daniel Asa Rose) or to work by contemporary feminists. Burstein is a smart cookie when she gets down to specific cases, which is why (the other piece of bad news) I had trouble with sentences like this: For contemporary theorists, the word difference is shorthand for a binary way of thinking that first divides phenomena into opposites, and then valorizes one over the other.
My Rx: Dont worry about words ending in -ize (almost always unnecessarily pretentious). Instead, skim the passages of theory and get to what is essential in Telling the Little Secrets. Here, for example, is how Burstein discusses the way in which, taking her cue from Alice Yaeger Kaplan, language becomes as much a home for Jewish female writers as having a roof over their heads. Bursteins text is Susan Rubin Suleimans memoir, Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook, which puts a clear emphasis on language in its opening line:
Suleiman recalls, Burstein tells us, that everyone on the bus that took her family away from home, to safety in exile, spoke a language different from our own. American speech, she says, became her home; although I never forgot my native tongue, my knowledge of it was frozen in time. She refreshed that shred of memory when she returned to Hungary to unforget what she had once known.
And here is how Burstein reads a passage from Rosenbaums painfully rendered story The Little Blue Snowman of Washington Heights:
The narrators most vital insight into the childs dilemma comes when he arrives home and enters to find both parents, naked, shuddering in the darkness. Two pairs of terrorized eyes the withering remains of the master race. In this visionary moment the narrator sees and grasps what Adam cannot. Here the narrator can see both imprisonment of the parents to their own past and the child, bound by their as yet unread scars to his own ordeal, still too young to understand or to take up the work of mourning.
Rosenbaum argues that the children of survivors, widely known as the second generation, have the Holocaust hard-wired into their psyches; Bukiet points to much the same thing when he titles his anthology of literature by the second generation Nothing Can Make You Free.
Burstein gives equally attentive and insightful readings to such writers as Todd Gitlin, Art Spiegelman, Pearl Abraham, Gerda Lerner, and Aryeh Lev Stollman.
In each case, Bursteins message is clear: American-Jewish writers can no longer think of themselves entirely as largely assimilated ethnics, and American-Jewish literature, to be worthy of the name, must become more than fiction with smatterings of Jewish names and delicatessen foodstuffs. The writers who will matter in the future need to find ways to take ownership of the Jewish past, whether they embrace it, as so many young writers have done, or continue to rebel against it (e.g., Sholom Auslanders Beware of God).
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