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Turning 70:Gasp!

I’m thinking about turning 70 and the changes in my my lifetime.

I was born on Christmas Day, a perfect day for a contrary girl to enter the world. I arrived at Womens College Hospital heralded by two women, Drs. Marion Kerr and Marion Hilliard. Women’s College was the home to women not allowed to practice with the august men in the profession. One of Dr. Hilliard’s greatest desires was to have Women’s College Hospital become a teaching hospital. She was involved with the negotiations that eventually led to the hospital becoming affiliated with the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. In its early days it was located on Rusholme Road. I felt a connection to the hospital for many years soI had my three kids there, attended in the 80’s by male doctors allowed to contribute their own expertise to the women on staff.

The kindly Dr Kerr assured my mother she would return after she delivered her Christmas presents . And so she did. My mother reported that she so appreciated her doctor’s kindness and care, staying in a private room for a week. Since then periods of stay have been much shortened.

About a year and half after my birth, my father who worked installing radios in ambulances succumbed to polio. That Labour Day weekend, he mowed the lawn and collapsed. That gossip was that Sunnyside Pool was the source for the epidemic although I doubt they had taken me near the vicinity of the pool and his contact to the disease would have been second hand. He spent the next excruciating nine months at Riverdale Hospital where all the polio victims were housed. He told of being able to watch executions at the Don jail through his window.

Before the Salk and Sabin vaccine, so many people were left with twisted or useless limbs or had to spend their lives in iron lungs to perform the job of breathing. He would not have survived in an iron lung because of his asthma. He came out of that hospital fully braced, disillusioned, but with a family to support. With my mother’s immense help, fortitude and courage, he did, gracing the electronics industry with his genius. The advent of the polio vaccine made the world safer and yet now stupid people refute the miraculous discovery. When I’ve gone to concerts and watched Itzhak Perlman navigate the stage swinging his lifeless legs, I’ve often thought of my father, the immense struggles of climbing stairs or even kerbs, but like Perlman, my father’s avocation revolved around his hands and his head . My mother used to compare our plight to the Little Red Hen who learned that she had to do it herself. And so she did.

Growing up, I knew one set of grandparents had left Poland in hopes of a better life, fearful of the extinction and war. There were stories of cousins having abandoned first wives and papering their walls with money to avoid deportation. I heard of my grandfather encountering his landesmen on the street in Toronto and bringing them home to provide them with a meal or even a bed, children sleeping nose to toes in overcrowded rooms. There was this aura of antisemitism my mother carried with her, one that infected me so as to not to want to identify myself as Jewish, as if I might be betrayed like Anne Frank or hustled off to an interment camp. At the library I poured over books trying to discover the details in the scary war stories.To this day, I recall in some paperback a Nazi so taken with the beautiful turquoise eyes of a child in the ghetto that he gouged them out to set them as centrepieces in gold rings, furious they had lost their lustre.

And although my parents rarely discussed politics, I recall our family being hunched around the television during the Bay of Pigs incident as they fretted about Russia and US going head to head. They worried about a nuclear war, and feared an atomic bomb destroy the world. My aunt and uncle tried to be proactive and joined organizations such as the World Federalists and Voice of Women. Yet most preferred to keep a low profile, aware that ” Jews and dogs were not allowed”.

We worried that my American cousin would go to the Vietnam Nam war and he did. There were sit ins at the universities, against Napalm and Agent Orange and public displays of support for draft dodgers fleeing the US. I did not know my husband then but we actually attended the same university, UC at U of T in the same years, he at the centre of controversies, me chatting up guys in the grassy quadrangle. He and his friend Bob Rae organized the festival Perception 67 that invited Timothy Leary and The Fugs to the campus. I remember the black folk singers who sang about freedom and resistance, and spaghetti used to recreate the experience of being on LSD in a darkened hall. ? We were exhorted to turn on. Leary although detained with his banned speech, wrote,”

Yes, young people of Canada, I’m telling you that you must drop out of school. Your education system is a narcotic, addictive process paid for by old men and women to teach you to become Romans like them selves. You must drop out of school. The aim of Canadian education, like American education, is to narrow your mind, contract your consciousness, get you to accept this reality, the ridiculous game of the television prop scenario of Canadian industrial urban life today. You must drop out.”

I also huddled close to the television to watch the first walk on the moon and hear Neil Armstrong’s words. And we were all distraught by Kennedy’s assassination, everyone remembering where they first heard the news. I was exiting a History exam in Grade 11. We lamented the fall of Camelot, his words “ Ich bin ein Berliner, “and the glamourous life of him and Jackie felled by the tangled inexplicable shooting by Oswald and the Jack Ruby cover up, as dramatized by Oliver Stone. For dreamy adolescents The Peace Corp, hope for a better, finer world were all dashed.

Television was our main means of communication as we observed the fall of the Berlin Wall so far away. And instead of the Internet and email was the telephone, should a classmate call to ask for a date for Saturday night. There was the occasional Sunday meal out should my parents find a kosher restaurant nearby and Sunday drives to the outreaches of the city, such as the wooded Unionville , to get an ice cream cone. And I remember how deliciously forbidden a Big Mac and chocolate shake were when I visited my California cousins at the end of Grade 10 in the 60’s. Hermosa Beach in my yellow pockadot bikini was heaven.

Over time clothes changed too, white being ridiculed should it be worn after Labor Day. Girls wore skirts to school. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, we were very careful about money, although both my sister and I had ballet, piano and Hebrew lessons: the last two I would have been delighted to do without. So we travelled to Buffalo where a crisp white Susan Van Husen shirt could be purchased for $1.98 and there were great sales. But on the odd Saturday, I was overcome with shame to be standing at the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton with Honest ED bags containing underwear. I insisted my mother turn those bags inside out for fear a schoolmate might see me.Fast forward to years where jeans with tears and holes, and kids bought pounds of clothes at Good Will, mixing and matching.But for me back then, I wished I could disappear into the sidewalk.

Memories come as a jumble: a few from childhood such as the strains of “ Today’s the day, the teddy bears have their picnic…”, the first time I heard the music of the Beatles at a school dance, lunch time tea dances in junior high , a wallflower earnestly praying someone might ask me to dance; lovely days at university and summers hitchhiking to view the art I initially encountered in darkened classrooms; falling in love and committing to one person, the arrival of my children and becoming a family; my post- colonial literature classes and contributing to the development of the Standards and Ethics at OCT- important, valuable and thoughtful work. I have been lucky.

But the years somehow go by so quickly and as I gaze back, many of the same scenarios pop out, over and over again while more are lost in the bank of time. You wonder. : what has made me ME, and you realize it is not just one or even a few things, the happiness and travaux that raise us up and wears us down, experiences ground as fine as dust. You draw back and through the vortex of time, you observe yourself, and can only know that each person is the same, that we all arrive at the same point, maybe wiser for the journey. But not necessarily so.

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Ridiculous Things

This morning , Tuesday October 16, in The Toronto Star, in preparation for Halloween, they display on the front page “the Anne Frank costume”, complete with a charming green beret, little girl coat and a destination tag at the neck. You have to guffaw at the bad taste, and as editor Emma Teitel comments, the cute model smiling might be a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah at Casa Loma. Truly absurd. But much today , it seems to me, lives in bad taste, thoughtless display, ignorance or ridicule of the past. With a similar thought, we observed the memorial for the dead in Berlin used as a backdrop for baby pictures or a labyrinth for adolescent hide and seek : as the tortured ghosts of the dead hovered above. By the way, I am not suggesting that adoration for Robert E. Lee or proponents of racism, colonialists, etc. be maintained. My quarrel here is with inappropriate appropriation of injustice, not the victimizers.

I’ve always wondered about the crossing of the line into taboo. Lenny Bruce did it. He did not accept society’s margins nor political correctness and by speaking ethnic stereotypes out loud, he forged a way to deal with bias and discrimination. Humour as social critic and commentary can go far in dealing with phobias and prejudice. Yet I do not find the misogyny dished out by certain comics the least bit funny at all. Yet it seems in my headspace that analyzes social issues there is a way to attack that goes beyond educating into ridicule or pain: for the comic’s own misogyny or racism delight. Larry David recently , irreverent always, tackled the fatwa, and made me laugh at him and by extension, ponder the extent to which a governing body will go. Truly he takes taunts and terrors to an absurdist perspective, perhaps making us wonder if we are sitting on the bench, also perpetually waiting for Godot. 

But the Anne Frank costume prompts an analysis of how and why anyone deems any aspect of her holocaust story might be acceptable for children pranking. The detailing of the felt tag is particularly hilarious: is there a choice of Auschwitz? Bergen Belsen, or Terezin, where 15,000 children passed, and the home of I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  

Ok, maybe, it reminds us of a scary story of war where little children can be lost, butchered and murdered. Pretty, pretty funny stuff. But of course, Halloween is not for the sake of laughter, except if you are so scared, you might laugh as a nervous reaction. So maybe after all, it does fit in the same way: prisoners in striped uniforms or the crushed skulls of the dead and skeletons are also resurrected for the night. They can terrify. My goodness, even a misshapen paper mâché head of Big Bird can be haunting. 
However, Halloween originated from an ancient Celtic festival where people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. So ironically Anne Frank is cast by the business community as a bad and scary ghost to be kept away, only allowed to prowl on the 31st, like other unwanted and unnecessary Jews as believed by the Nazis. So unless you concur that little girls and Jews are terrifying, she is an aberration. Similarly if she is a character to scare away ghosts, a child with a pen and a book, looking adorable in her beret, little Anne doesn’t really fill the bill either. I suppose she must exist in an space between the reality of cruelty and death in war and persecution while still being commemorated in plays and books as an unbloomed flower and an icon of innocence.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Eventually the evening before was called All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns. Well, an Anne in the concentration camp might need beg for food or bits of candy. Not so sure about the pumpkin carving though as those activities were not part of her confinement back then.

Yet exploiting the death of an innocent appears to be a cheap way to sell merchandise although I suppose it is done all the time. It’s not too far from torn jeans that the poor have had to wear because they cannot afford new clothes, accepting the handmedowns of sibs and cousins and thrift stores so threadbare that their skinny limbs protruded. Years ago, a friend remarked that this was the first time in history that we’ve tried to emulate the poor, turn our eyes downward rather than upwards towards the finery of the rich. But as marketing will do, those torn, ragged jeans are paired with designer labels on the ass or carefully placed decoration to entice the buyer. Not exactly Anne Frank although one wonders if a line of holocaust dolls or little girl clothing is too far behind this offering. Complete with those funny destination tags. Maybe a board game too? 

The whole notion of the costume is interesting. The idea of the pirate or ghost easily constructed with an eyepatch or a sheet. The concept of princess, now disparaged as a fitting role for little girls, remains no doubt an expensive and still well sought out Disney product. Incredibly, even after the lambast of role choice, the National Retail Federation reports 2.9 million will dress as princesses this year. Transformers, pop culture, little heroes popular, but according to the NRF, 2.2 million will also be animals. Cute. Gentle. And as I write this, 13 days to the holiday.

Still the insensitivity of the Anne Frank costume sticks in my mind as a symbol of a society that is out of touch with certain values. I conclude I’ve gone like the costume beyond absurdity to unravel the possible meaning of said costume. But really, not only the creator, but the designer, manufacturer, stores on line and beyond accepted Anne Frank as part of their merchandising inventory. It does boggle the mind.

And if not, that’s really scary.

Jewish voice

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,
Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In Why the debate misses the mark, Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venus as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer,  explaining Fanny’s contribution and actual writing of some of his music attributed to Felix was diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society.  Sara struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with her teacher’s gift so obviously anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people.
A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”
We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch,In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39,  originally published in 1993)
I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Yet Belfer had  likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists), and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 

James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario. “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Does a writer need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements,crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artefact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observe or read, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Mutiplevoices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power of a to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, will send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

Here I Am :Jews in America

Books that have Jewish connections have always appealed to me. As early as kindergarten and only subliminally aware what being Jewish even meant through family dinners and Sunday school, I was drawn to stories that featured families that somehow conveyed to my developing brain that there was a connection, something “yiddishkeit.” Early walks with my mother to the library resulted in finding scary tales of the holocaust and children who were abandoned or hidden. Soon followed Anne Frank and her bravery. Eventually Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Elie Weisel and Philip Roth, among many others were my predilection for gleaning the face of Jews of the diaspora, these authors American who had lived knowledge of the “Der goldene medina”–the land of gold.”

Canadian versions of immigration from my parents’ quiet talk concerned a subtle anti-Semitism with shocking references to “ dirty Jews”, number restrictions in the professions and an alignment with any who had broken through the Jewish barrier to be acknowledged without any slur to their religion. Forest Hill-where I attended school although our store was perched at the farthest edge of the public boundary- celebrated more Jewish holidays than I knew existed and the population was almost 100% Jewish. So in spite of the wealth and airs of the country club kids and their summer camps, there was a safety in numbers and a push towards the student body making their mark in the world and not being defined by religion.

For whatever reason, Roth spoke to me of a contemporary American (and Canadian ) experience relatable to my personally alienated condition of life. Goodbye Columbus presented the misfit, the worries, the search for the American dream, all part of my own growing up and awkwardness. My Jewishness was not overt, but it was there. Brought up with traditions that forbade mixing milk and meat, eating pork, being a mensch, giving anonymously and feeling insecure, particularly about my curly hair, along with a need to know who might hide me should another pogrom or holocaust erupt, Roth’s scenes felt familiar. So throughout my life, I followed Roth, sometimes growing away from his exaggerations and hyperboles, but occasionally embracing them. In deed, much much later, I was caught breathless when he published American Pastoral, now a film I refuse to see- lest it dislodge the strong images he has engrained with words in my imagination. What shook me in American Pastoral was his depiction and the demise of The American Dream. If The Great Gatsby was the apostasy of the dream, American Pastoral was the crushing ruin of broken America in pieces, perhaps our own contemporary reality of the ruination of unattainable dreams, racism, and discrimination. In shock at the dissolution of the family and by extension America, I grieved for the loss.

Jonathan Foer is a worthy successor to Roth. His most recent book Here I Am is much like the proverbial stone that ripples outward and poses so many essential questions, wherein personal crisis stands in for the public one. Jacob Bloch, the protagonist is first an everyman representative of the metrosexual who is a sensitive, loving, a hard working screenwriter. He too is a Jew, a Jew in America whose Jewishness is as familiar to me as is his privilege in society, his wisecracking irreverent humour ( he wonders if the Germans will run out of “ guilt and lampshades”), his listening to NPR podcasts, his support of civil libertarianism, his Vitamix, his Ball & Farrow paint, his upscale home in Washington, D.C. There he espouses the markers of Jewish life: bar mitzvahs, the two days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at synagogue, family suppers celebrating minor holidays, a certain lapsing devotion to one’s parents, kvetching, questioning, sarcasm, and a loose relationship with Biblical stories from Hebrew school. He is a familiar face of a certain kind of non-observant Jew still governed by the tales and traditions of his faith.

Somewhere between the holocaust and the creation of Israel as the safehaven for the Jewish outcast and the wandering American Jew stands this story, the novel caught between a sadness for the relatives one can never know and Israel the tenuous land where one will never live. Foer’s ripples extend from Jacob’s progenitors to his sons and then on to his cousin Tamir, a sabra who lives in Israel.

What does the Jew in America look like? He is indistinguishable from anyone else. He eats bacon and shrimp, protests unjust causes, cares deeply for his children, is careless about his email, ponders putting down his dog, and worries a lot. But because his heritage is Jewish and Foer the writer is too, there is an embediness of Jewish schtick, the Woody Allen angst in much Jacob does. He is a likeable man in spite of his technological sloppiness and his self awareness that makes him try over and over again: to get it right. Much like Sisyphus, he rolls the stone up the hill, only to be dragged back down to the bottom of the heap. He confronts his fears, as early as the night before his own bar mitzvah, jumping into the lion’s den at the zoo like the Biblical Daniel, the intensity of the moment surpassing almost all others. Yet he laments to Tamir, regretfully,“ I am smaller than life.”

He wants to believe that his son Sam has not written inflammatory words in Hebrew school and champions him. He engages in truthful conversations with his other sons, attempting not to scare or scar them. With Julia, his estranged wife, he practices how to explain the marriage separation to the boys. Unable to fulfill Isaac’s, his great grandfather’s, last wish to be buried in Israel, Jacob sits beside the corpse for days, a responsibility usually fulfilled by Jewish others at the funeral home. He assumes the burden of putting down Argus, rubbing the animal’s stomach to ease him to sleep. And because Foer adores lists, when Jacob tells the reader about the times he will not forget, the last “times” the tiny details of our lives are noted, they resonate with our experiences, particularly with our children as babies, toddlers, and adolescents: the last bath, the last bedtime, the last bedtime story, the last whiff of an infant’s head.

But this is more than just a story about Jacob as it moves outward into America and gives us Israel. Like Roth, who teaches interesting information in American Pastoral such as how to make a glove in his factory in Newark, New Jersey, so Jacob a student of language also tutors us. He tells us that a group of swans are a “lamentation”, hummingbirds a “glittering,” orioles a “radiance.” After all, he is a storywriter, but also an enquirer, curious and wanting to learn, even writing a novel based on his family.

The stories of Jews are here too. At Isaac’s funeral, the young rabbi in running shoes with laces undone, surprises Jacob with his insight and visits to his grandfather, his eulogy focused on the Bible: what did Moses do with the broken tables hurled down from the mountain when he saw the golden calf used for worship? Why did Pharaoh daughter spy Moses in the bullrushes? What is Jewish crying like?

We learn there are three ways to mourn: with tears, silence and song, each proper in its own time and place. The word Israel comes from the root “ to wrestle”, a theme that we attach to Jacob’s manner of dealing (or not) , and are reminded that Jacob’s name in the Bible was changed to Israel when he wrestled with the angle; and even in Max’s bar mitzvah speech, he reflects, “What we don’t wrestle we let go. Love isn’t the absence of struggle. Love is the struggle”. The emphasis on words, writing, miscommunication, word games and the need to communicate paramount in this novel.

Later when the prime minister of Israel summons Jews from around the world back to the homeland, he picks up a shofar and blows. The Biblical story of Abraham having to choose between sparing his son or responding to G-d is the backdrop to this novel. When G-d calls out to Abraham, he answers, “I am here”: the same words that are the title of this book. Abraham willingness to sacrifice what is dearest to him is also recalled by Jacob’s admission that he has too much love for happiness, that his love overpowers being happy for his children. Cousin Tamir asks,” You find such complicated ways to say such simple things”, but life for Jacob is incredibly complicated. And there are so many questions that this novel does pose: do we maintain tradition just for the sake of it? Are words so much more powerful than deeds that they should destroy a marriage? What role does Israel actually play for the Jew of the diaspora? Is it neurotic to love one’s children so deeply? Which choices are the right ones…

The novel is a meditation of sorts on loving one’s children, and how we must let them go. Sam’s bar mitzvah speech works out a compromise as he explains that unlike Hamlet’s question, to be or not to be is NOT the question. The question is “to be” AND “not to be”. The carefully drawn children are believable as they disregard their parents, mock them, experiment and find themselves. Sam’s extensive explorations into masturbation with rice pudding, “alien green aloe vera” among other substances and his desire to construct ( and demolish) a synagogue through the machinations of his female alter ego avatar on the internet’s, Other World, are likely the stuff of adolescent boys, even recalling Roth’s Portnoy’s fantasies.

The seemingly calm Tamir, Jacob’s cousin is his foil. Hairier, less worried about social niceties, out right brash and concerned for the fulfillment of the present, especially Israel, Tamir puts his own life on the line in the fight to save his country as does his son Noam. Tamir and Jacob, along with Sam and Noam, are two sides of the same Jewish coin, the one who stays; the one who goes, repeating their fathers’ and grandfathers’ legacies. In spite of the macro-conflict occurring in his life, Tamir patiently and kindly listens to Jacob’s micro-conflict with his wife, the destruction of the family paralleling the bombardment of Israel by a united Arab front when an earthquake happens there to destabilize the country.

Alex Clark in The Guardian speaks to “ the fetishizing their inner lives… that flirts with taboo and exposure.” In this way and others, I think of Jonathan Franzen’s books, most recently Purity in a desire to connect with one’s family, the intrusion of technology, casual relationships, over indulgences in today’s world, and an over-engagement in meta analysis. At the start of Foer’s novel, Jacob and Julia play word and mind games, wanting to identify what is bigger on the onside than the outside. Likely it is this over thinking, the abundances of thinking about too many choices and their consequences that leads them into the dark night of separation: regretfully, this is our society today, one that lauds multitasking and unriddling riddles, with a backdrop of oldsters, the baby boomers, wishing for a simpler time: when kids could cross the street and not worry about the pedophile or car rage- or the absolute best face cream or nursery schools for their kid.

Foer’s novel has been criticized but also praised, and by non-Jewish critics as well. It touches a deep chord on more than one occasion, promulgating the “ what ifs” and causing the reader to reread or lay the book down and actually think about something that Foer has thrown into the “eruv”, what he describes as a space in Hebrew as cordoned off, differentiated from the public into private. I like how Foer teaches me stuff, even Bible stuff. He’s not a self-hating Jew, or a particularly Jewish Jew. He’s an American with Jewish problems. He is a representative protagonist in American literature who deserves more than a glance, Jew or not.

 

 

 

 

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