Voices of the Diaspora: Jewish Women Writing in Contemporary Europe

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Voices of the Diaspora: Jewish Women Writing in Contemporary Europe, edited by Thomas Nolden and Frances Malino. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005.146 pp. $59.95 (c); $21.95 (p).

This anthology offers a selection of contemporary stories and essays by Jewish women writers from across Europe, thereby providing both a judicious sampling for scholars wanting to expand theit acquaintance with writers from various traditions and a handy collection suitable for classroom purposes. The introduction by Thomas Nolden deftly balances the portrayal of the women authors in the context of Jewish writers (male and female), of earlier Jewish women writers, and of their national traditions. This anthology allows readers to make a first acquaintance with these diverse writers so that their positions both as a group and as individuals within modern (Jewish) literature can be studied further. Each story is prefaced by a brief biography of the author.

These texts provide a rich sampling in various short prose forms, beginning with the French-Moroccan Marlène Amar's"On the Edge of the World," the story of an obsessively observant girl, Fortune, who lives at the edge of the desert. The story's title alludes to her marginality on several levels. She is "on the edge of the world" geographically in her childhood home, socially at the margins of her family and community, and individually through her self-imposed isolation. The story opens with a stark depiction of how the male child is infinitely preferable to the female one and closes with the celebrations for the birth of a son, accompanied by the raucous drunkenness of the men and Fortune's deliberate self-exclusion by taking refuge on the other side of the wadi. Reina Roffé continues this theme of female marginality in her "Exotic Birds," a story of the narrator s aunt. Truly a strange bird, her relative, full of unnamed longings, is invisible to others, even members of her own family, who pass her on the street without notice as she expectantly awaits a familiar greeting. Tellingly, her only two known transgressions are to have twice posed as a male to complete a minyan. The conclusion focuses on the aunt's eyes, her gaze compared to that of a gamekeeper surveying rare birds. In this reflex she has accomplished a profound perspectival switch, now everyone else is strange to her. The title of this subdivision, "Displacement," alludes to the displacement not only of the protagonists of these stories, but also of the authors and their emigration.

The section called "Reemergence" opens with the Austrian Ruth Beckman's "Beyond the Bridges," an essay about the absence of the past in the present, tracing her walk through "Matzoh Island," as Vienna's largely Jewish second district was known. Beckman's text reminds readers of the profound differences between the experiences of post-Holocaust German and Austrian Jews and thematizes the lacunae in the new generation's knowledge of pre-war Vienna. The editors should have revised the extremely stiff, Teutonic prose of this awkward translation into idiomatic English for republication here. The Russian-born French writer Myriam Assinimow's insightful essay, "A Yiddish Writer Who Writes in French," recalls the world of Yiddish-its language and its culture-and alludes to yet another sphere of loss with the Shoah. She sensitively explores what it means to be a child survivor with a modern hybrid identity, explaining how, while she writes in French, her work is imbued with the Yiddish world. The Italian author Clara Sereni's story "Jews" differs from the other two in this section in that is not an autobiographical essay explaining the author's position in contemporary literature and instead is a work of fiction, depicting cross-generational experiences with Jewish playmates. …