Jewish Women Fiction Writers

Jewish Women Fiction Writers

Jewish Women Fiction Writers

Jewish Women Fiction Writers

Excerpt

The authors in this volume in this volume are very diverse, particularly in regard to the enigma as to whether some of them can usefully be considered as "Jewish writers." Certainly Gertrude Stein manifests nothing like an Hebraic ethos in her work, while Dorothy Parker owed far more to Hemingway's stories than to the Bible. Cynthia Ozick, with enormous deliberation, set out to be a Jewish storyteller, in a mode having affinities with the work of Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The dedication she has manifested in this difficult quest is evident in the thirty-year sequence that goes from her early novel, the rather Jamesian Trust (1966) through The Puttermesser Papers (1997), sub-titled a novel though actually a suite of tales. Ozick's masterwork, in my judgment, is The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), a wry novel that reads even better now than it did a decade ago. I return here though to her early novella, "Envy; or, Yiddish in America" (1969), which I have previously discussed in another context. "Envy" is very nearly of the aesthetic eminence of The Messiah of Stockholm; its style may not be as fully modulated as that of the later novel, but the novella seems as fresh and sharp to me today as thirty years ago. "Envy; or, Yiddish in America" is shockingly funny, with that painful kind of Jewish humor of which Philip Roth is the acknowledged master.

Hershel Edelshtein, the protagonist of "Envy," is a Yiddish poet who may be based upon Jacob Glatshtein, a major figure in the pantheon of American Yiddish poets that also included Moshe Leib Halpern and Mani Leib. Untranslated into English, Edelshtein particularly resents the novelist Yankel Ostrover (certainly based on Bashevis Singer), who is fully translated and has a large American following. Attending a public reading by Ostrover, Edelshtein meets a young woman, Hannah, who is one of Ostrover's translators from the Yiddish, but who declines to perform that office for him. Their mutual contempt explodes in a great passage that remains the essence of Ozick's art as a Jewish writer:

Edelshtein's hand, the cushiony underside of it, blazed from giving the blow. "You," he said, "you have no ideas, what are you?" A shred of learning flaked from him, what the sages said of Job ripped from his tongue like a peeling of the tongue itself, he never was, he never existed. "You were never born, you were never created!" he yelled. "Let me tell you, a dead man tells you this, at least I had a life, at least I understood something!"

"Die," she told him. "Die now, all you old men, what are you waiting for? Hanging on my neck, him and now you, the whole bunch of you, parasites, hurry up and die. . . ."

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