When anxieties are rippling through the culture, novelists can’t help picking up the signal. It’s been an anxious, antsy couple of years in and around the American Jewish community—a time of looking back nervously, of reworking and rethinking the tales of assimilation and upward striving whose happy endings we once thought we knew. And these novels, some heavy and some light, reflect that mood, offering bulletins from an unstable present that struggles with an ever-changing understanding of the past.
It’s not that you can’t take these books to the beach. You can and should. And some patterns are familiar: What summer would be complete without a stack of novels about improbable romances, resourceful immigrant grandparents, rebellious teenagers, young women coming of age? Yet even the oldest stories constantly gain new dimensions, and new stories are pressing to be told.
By Aaron Hamburger
Harper, 400 pp.
Jews whose families left Eastern Europe for America in the early 20th century often think of their stories as linear: Flee violence or hunger; get on a boat; pass Lady Liberty in the harbor; disembark and begin the struggle upward. We know now that such journeys aren’t so simple and probably never were. They include detours, physical and legal roadblocks, stops along the way that threaten to become permanent. In this novel, set in the 1920s, one such stop, or “hotel,” is Cuba—a strange tropical way station that’s no one’s final destination. Certainly not for Pearl and Frieda Kahn, sisters who left Russia for Havana on the flimsy assurances of a friend that it’s the most reliable way to rejoin their sister Basha and Frieda’s fiancé Mendel, who have successfully emigrated to New York.
For Pearl and Frieda in Havana, their relatives in America might as well be on the moon. The sisters take starvation-wage jobs with a Jewish hatmaker, expecting to save money and take a ship for New York in a few months. But the road onward requires subterfuge and escalating corruption, and the sisters fall prey to a series of colorful villains—and even more colorful helpers—before ultimately reaching their own Promised Land. Hamburger, whose other novels have more contemporary settings, embarked on historical fiction to dig into the story of the real Pearl, his grandmother, whose skill as a dress designer got her over, under and through a series of seemingly insuperable barriers. This familiar story’s heightened texture seems informed by the knowledge of many more recent refugee tales and the awareness that not all stories end as we wish.
By Moriel Rothman-Zecher
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 336 pp.
Another immigration story—except that it isn’t, quite. Maybe it’s a gay romance, set improbably in 1930s Philadelphia? In an early scene, Leyb, who has arrived in Philly after surviving a pogrom that wiped out his entire home village of Zatelsk, connects passionately with Charles, a Black intellectual with radical leanings, in a bar’s secret back room. Or maybe it’s a novel about the freight of trauma and loss—especially once we meet Gittl, a young poet who is Zatelsk’s only other survivor and whose murdered siblings’ voices whisper to her wherever she goes. But it’s hard to be sure, because this weird, dreamlike novel is also a language game, one of those puzzle novels like A Clockwork Orange or Riddley Walker, written in an invented lingo that we decipher as we go.
For Pearl and Frieda inHavana, their relatives in America might as well be on the moon.
And even that doesn’t quite capture it, since the language Rothman-Zecher is inventing is basically Yiddish, or Yiddish as it would be if translated into English not idiomatically but nearly syllable for syllable—while unexplained footnotes debate the fine points of the translation with an unknown reader. Here’s Gittl, who, after the pogrom, awaywent from Zatelsk, never to return, approximately a wandering aramaean, approximately dead, but for the pullforward of her feet, and the malekhbabble, and the various tayves of her body…” And Leyb, who wakes in Charles’s bed, sleepish still, and lightbit the topbone of Charles’s cheek, and Charles awakegroaned and slowblinked…Behind the puzzle, the quest of these mysterious characters feels familiar, and the heightened attention demanded by the language pays off in intensity.
By Deborah Kalb
Apprentice House Press, 316 pp.
This summery family tale, too, plays games with your expectations. There’s nothing unusual about the Pinskys of Bethesda, Maryland, except their Aunt Adele, who ran away 64 years ago at the age of 16 and was never heard from again. Did she really join the circus, as her parents told her heartbroken younger brother Howard, or was that just their way of waving off his questions? No one knows, but Adele’s absence has reverberated through three generations of family. Howard, his wife Marilyn, their three daughters and two grandsons are indelibly shaped by the absence of this mythical figure and by each family member’s ingrained sense that he or she is either “circus” or “not circus.”
When Aunt Adele makes a dramatic reappearance—on Howard’s 75th birthday, no less, and just in time for grandson Will’s bar mitzvah—the kids (and Howard) think the family mysteries will all be revealed. But Adele has something else in mind as she settles in—touching sore spots, dodging direct questions, stirring the pot—and so does the author. Everyone’s in for surprises, including the reader.
By Emily Wolf
She Writes Press, 416 pp.
The “calamity” that kicks off this funny, sardonic coming-of-age novel is the protagonist Zoe’s abortion—badly needed, readily available in blue Chicago back in 2008, unquestioned by her supportive friends, family and rabbi, and yet still the occasion for self-reflection and a year of sometimes chaotic personal growth.
Zoe is an Ivy-educated lawyer whose marriage to her high school boyfriend ends abruptly, followed by her (till then wanted) pregnancy, leaving her a sort of shell-shocked Candide wandering through the wilds of single life, reporting on its bizarre landmarks. There’s the JDate blurb, the parade of unsuitable men, the Dating Hiatus, the bittersweet yet liberating arrival of what was once the due date. It’s not exactly your usual bildungsroman, but it works. This is no handwringing reconsideration of the abortion question, and there’s no foreshadowing of current events; it’s just a story of a heroine finding out how to stand on her own two feet in a thoroughly modern context. As we now know, she’s lucky even to get the chance.
By L.M. Vincent
Self-published, 274 pp.
I almost didn’t include this one. A quasi-mystery novel about hiding one’s Jewish identity at Harvard in 1900? Could anything be more niche? And self-published, too! But this is no vanity production. L. M. Vincent has a handful of plays and six other novels to his name, and whatever the rest are like, this one is a thought-provoking fable about identity and assimilation—and a look back at the American class system at its most rigid and unforgiving.
The narrator, Kansas City-born Mark Levinson, spending time one summer looking after his mostly senile grandfather, is intrigued by the stories the old man lets slip about undergraduate life at Harvard College around the century’s turn: its clubs, pranks and parties, the student rituals he took part in, even a career rowing varsity crew. It’s all fantasy, of course, say Mark’s parents. The old man never went to Harvard, though his cousin did. And though Jewish students like the cousin could matriculate at the university, social mores kept them far from varsity athletics, let alone anything resembling fashionable student life.
And yet Mark, who ends up at Harvard himself in the early 2000s, can’t let it go. There’s no record of his grandfather’s time at Harvard…until a stray archival clue leads him to a strange tale of trickery and transgression, of unwritten rules and how they were sidestepped, then silently, ruthlessly enforced. The Harvard-as-prism-of-America novel is a recognized subgenre, if an annoying one (the Harvard English Department actually offers a course about novels set at Harvard), and in its odd way it has a lot to say about our own era’s proliferating anxieties about class, race and access to the elite. This one will leave you thinking about things past, and passing, and to come.
Amy E. Schwartz is Moment’s opinion and book editor.
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