Let My People Go
In 1819, Joseph Perl wrote the first Hebrew novel, a vicious satire on Hasidism called Revealer of Secrets. A faithful Jew, Perl did not want to threaten his standing in the community, so he published the book in Vienna under a pseudonym. Nearly two centuries later, a Jew who satirizes other Jews need not resort to a pseudonym. He doesn’t even have to fear reprisals from the angry targets of his satire. What he must do, in fact, especially if he was raised Orthodox, is to break with the community. His break will become the basis of his reputation.
Nathan Englander made a terrific splash in 1999 with his first collection of stories, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, nine portraits of the Orthodox Jewish world he had abandoned only a few years before. His second collection is What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (Knopf, 207 pages). In the title story, two Americans “who ran off to Israel twenty years ago and turned Hasidic” are visiting friends in South Florida. They drink (“Whiskey’s kosher, too, right?”); they smoke marijuana; they discuss Jewish identity. When Lauren and Mark, who now call themselves Shoshana and Yerucham, emigrated to Israel, they “went from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox.” That sounds to the story’s narrator, the husband in the other couple, “like a repackaged detergent—ORTHODOX ULTRA®, now with more deep-healing power.” He and his wife, Deb, are secular Jews who are offended by “the Mormons going through the Holocaust list,” converting the dead.
“This is what keeps an American Jew up at night?” the Hasidic husband asks. The narrator admits Deb has “an unhealthy obsession” with the Holocaust. The Hasid argues: “You can’t build Judaism only on the foundation of one terrible crime. Because for the children, there is no connection otherwise. Nothing Jewish that binds.”
“Wow, that’s offensive,” Deb replies.
The foursome end up playing a game they call “Who Will Hide Me?” In “the event of an American Holocaust,” according to the game, “which of our Christian friends would hide us?” Something like this is fast becoming a commonplace in a certain kind of Jewish fiction. Shalom Auslander, Englander’s fellow Orthodox apostate, reproduces very nearly the same scene in his new comedy of self-hatred, Hope: A Tragedy. In Englander’s story, the game concludes with his characters pretending to be Christian and asking whether they would hide their Jewish spouse. In the end, out of nowhere and apropos of nothing, the Hasidic wife discovers that her Hasidic husband would not hide her from American Nazis. They may share Judaism, you understand, but apparently they have nothing else—nothing deeper—that binds. If the story is meant to be an assault on the notion that piety is sufficient to good character, it is pretty tame stuff.
Yet a similar theme is recapitulated in several stories. “Peep Show” imagines a lawyer wandering into a 42nd Street sex show only to find his rabbi naked on the stage. “I left religion because of people like you,” he shouts. “Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is a series of 63 autobiographical fragments, which concludes that “facing the reality” and “feeling the truth” about a Jewish family “cannot be done.” The last of the book’s eight stories explains an Israeli soldier’s atrocity by telling about the Polish family he was obliged to murder when he returned from a death camp. Englander can be wowing and offensive—sometimes both at once—but his scope is narrow, his renegade spirit is more self-congratulatory than independent, and any larger vision of man is absent from his fiction.
Ellen Ullman is on the other end of the Jewish literary spectrum. A software engineer whose 1997 memoir Close to the Machine was a defense of human interaction in an age of “interactive” devices, she adapts her vision of human disconnectedness to the Holocaust and Jewish identity in By Blood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pages), her second novel. The year is 1974, the Zodiac killer is on the loose, and Saigon is soon to fall. The place is San Francisco, a “sister to Weimar Berlin.” A disgraced professor rents an office downtown and finds he can overhear every word of his next-door neighbor’s therapy sessions with a young lesbian who also works downtown as a financial analyst.
The professor never sees the “dear patient” (as he comes to think of her). But as she volubly explores the circumstances of her life with her therapist, the professor is drawn into an involvement with her tale so deep and entangling that he ends up inserting himself into it. Adopted as an infant, the patient discovers through cross-examination of her adoptive mother that she was originally the child of a Jewish refugee—she was “surrendered” in the Displaced Persons camp of Celle after the war. But she is at a loss how to find out anything more.
The professor becomes her private researcher. Using his university credentials to gain access to archives, he studies the Celle camp in depth, contacts the Israeli authorities, follows clues, sends his “dear patient” thick manila envelopes full of information about the Holocaust. Eventually, with his secret help, she tracks down her birth mother in Tel Aviv.
As she uncovers her history, the patient progresses by stages from saying “I have no idea what it means to say, I’m a Jew” through not wanting to be a Jew at all before arriving where she could “see beyond the darkness of the Holocaust into the time that followed, the time and place from which she came, about which she could feel some pride.” The novel is hardly flawless. It is too long by a third; the professor’s own misadventures are little more than pauses in the plot; Ullman’s prose tries to balance more packages than it can carry. And yet By Blood manages to have a fresh angle on the Holocaust, not merely because Ullman has found a new way to tell the story (by eavesdropping upon it), but also because she sets it in a larger narrative of Jewish self-discovery, which includes Israel and the strength and hope—the demand for a life in which Jews can take pride—which the Jewish state represents.
A contributor of more than 100 articles to Commentary since 1969, Hillel Halkin is the author of the definitive apologia for Zionism (Letters to an American Jewish Friend) and a matchless translator of Jewish literature from Sholem Aleichem to S.Y. Agnon. So it comes as a surprise—nearly a shock—that his first novel, Melisande! What Are Dreams? (Granta, 214 pages), is not on a Jewish subject. Instead, what Halkin has written is a unique and moving study of marriage, a love letter to conjugal love. His theme is hinted at in his title, which is taken from an 1851 poem by Heinrich Heine (a notorious convert from Judaism). Where Heine was celebrating “courtly love,” though, which required adultery for its consummation, Halkin celebrates its opposite.
In 1952, two Upper West Side high school sophomores become friends. Clever, yakkety Jewish boys of the secular variety, Ricky and “Hoo” are drawn together by a mutual craving for books. “We emptied the shelves of the Bloomingdale branch of the public library on 100th Street like shoppers at a clearance sale,” Hoo recalls. The three best writers in the school are chosen to serve as editors of Helicon, the literary magazine. And so Ricky and Hoo are joined by Mellie—named Melisande by her parents, Belgian refugees from the Nazis, but called that by practically no one.
Halkin follows the careers of the three friends as they separate, reunite, and separate again, buffeted by winds of doctrine in the 60s (which Halkin dates from the Cuban missile crisis). While they never succumb to a ménage à trois, their friendship is invaded by eros soon enough. For a few days at the end of their last year of high school, Ricky and Mellie become lovers, borrowing Hoo’s parents’ apartment for their assignations. When Mellie becomes pregnant, Hoo is the one who must drive her to New Hampshire for an abortion, the event that changes their lives forever. Ricky suffers a psychotic breakdown and is institutionalized. He disappears, leaving Mellie and Hoo alone to discover that they were meant to find each other. On the night before their wedding, Hoo writes to his bride, explaining that when they were in high school, he wanted to live a thousand lives. “Now even a thousand seem too few,” he says. “Not because I still want to love a million women, but because I want to love you a million times.” What follows is an astonishingly intimate marriage that survives even exile to a Midwestern state university.
There are many wonderful things about this novel. Halkin is especially good on the intellectual history of the 60s. Halkin also toys in canny and fascinating ways with themes of resurrection and dreaming. But it is as a vindication of marital fidelity, marital passion, and marital tenderness that Melisande! What Are Dreams? stands out. Courtship and adultery have divided the English novel between them, but the most difficult love story—to live, to write—is marriage. Judaism knows this: It is a philosophy of sexual discipline, not of sexual spectacle and self-fulfillment—a philosophy of loving one woman a million times, not a million women once. Small wonder marriage is the prophet’s image of God’s chosen relationship with Israel. And even smaller wonder that, despite outward appearances, Hillel Halkin has written a triumphant Jewish novel after all.