It Could Be Worse

Jewish writings hit upon hurt and humor

Because they're carrying on their backs the weight of their fathers' disappointments in them, their mothers' daily certainty of their imminent and violent deaths (electrocution by a video game, e.g.), the guilt of the Holocaust, and the terrible responsibility of being shleppers (hopeless failures) in an otherwise functional world.

We meet the characters on the first page at the funeral of Freddy Lipschitz. Norbert, who is searching for the meaning of life, introduces the others: Finkelstein, the big shot; Goldberg, a composer who doesn't compose; Greenblatt, a Sufi who believes in God but thinks God hates him; Weisbaum, who had a religious crisis when Willie Mays retired; Breshman, the atheist, who smells of bagel; Bernstein, the dope dealer who wears a Hindu getup, and Moscowitz, a New Ager.

So is it easier to strive for happiness because they are so miserable or to avoid it and its eventual—perhaps immediate—withdrawal, and be worse off than before? Wilner explains: "I was born frozen with fear of the specter that had permeated the world, that had generated terror in the minds and hearts of all Jews everywhere... I was the world's first paranoid baby. And I've been scared of everything, ever since."

,/

./

 

./

,/

./

Eliezer Sobel could be a standup comic, and maybe he is—what do I know? But reading his new novel, Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That Is Heartbroken (University of Tennessee Press' 2004 Peter Taylor Prize winner) you find yourself laughing out loud at the barrage of priceless anecdotes he aims at you, page after page after page. Even the sad episodes are presented in a dry, energetic style that is—how can I explain this?—funny.

Most of us have certain friends with whom our interaction is so dynamic that we can finish each other's sentences, simultaneously pull up the same running jokes without prior agreement, and bat sarcastic evaluations back like an unending ping pong game—the pong of the ball overshadowed by the next story, the next intuition. Norbert Wilner and his Jewish friends are like that. Except—wait! They're all depressed, afraid, and sexually challenged. Why? Because they're carrying on their backs the weight of their fathers' disappointments in them, their mothers' daily certainty of their imminent and violent deaths (electrocution by a video game, e.g.), the guilt of the Holocaust, and the terrible responsibility of being shleppers (hopeless failures) in an otherwise functional world.

We meet the characters on the first page at the funeral of Freddy Lipschitz. Norbert, who is searching for the meaning of life, introduces the others: Finkelstein, the big shot; Goldberg, a composer who doesn't compose; Greenblatt, a Sufi who believes in God but thinks God hates him; Weisbaum, who had a religious crisis when Willie Mays retired; Breshman, the atheist, who smells of bagel; Bernstein, the dope dealer who wears a Hindu getup, and Moscowitz, a New Ager.

These men fear to seek happiness because at any moment it can be snatched away just as quickly as it is found. They avoid pursuing women because they might be turned down, or worse, be accepted, and then there is always the chance that somebody prettier, and yes, with bigger breasts, might come along.

So is it easier to strive for happiness because they are so miserable or to avoid it and its eventual—perhaps immediate—withdrawal, and be worse off than before? Wilner explains: "I was born frozen with fear of the specter that had permeated the world, that had generated terror in the minds and hearts of all Jews everywhere... I was the world's first paranoid baby. And I've been scared of everything, ever since."

Their therapists don't help Jerry Greenblatt spills his guts to Dr. Myron Spotnick: "I feel like there's a big hole in my being, and I can't fill it up. I'm terrified at my very existence..."

"You've come a long way since you first started seeing me..."

"I'm not happy."

"Why do I have to listen to you complain every week? Who told you that you should be happy? ... If you were happy, you wouldn't be seeing Myron Spotnick, Ph.D. Am I right?" These sessions last three to four minutes, and they do this for years and years.

It's not perfect for Wilner, either, but after 37 years of suffering, he admits, "I am Jewish, and I am here."

On the other hand, Marilyn Kallet, local poet and holder of the Hodges Chair for Distinguished Teaching at UT-Knoxville, seems to rejoice in her Jewish heritage. Her gutsy, candid poetry in Circe, After Hours (BkMk Press, University of Missouri, Kansas City) humorously reflects her worlds, both personal and universal. Her mother's ruthless practicality: "A miracle," she crooned,/ "a Jewish doctor."/ "I'd rather die than marry him,"/ I said./ "Then die," she said.

 Her sense of humor is reflected in "Warning," a title followed by the explanatory line, No Swimming Except with a Franciscan Friar–sign posted at Mount Saint Francis Lake : "Alice warned me/ "No Swimming Except/ with a Franciscan" was taken/ by another poet./ No writing about / no swimming/ except with a/ Franciscan friar./No swimming with/ Robert Haas/ Robert Pinsky/ the Lakers/ or Gwendolyn Brooks./ No reading this poem/ about no swimming/ without a Brother./ It might lure you in."

In "Beau," Kallet laments, "Jewish mothers do not name their sons Beau./ We call them Milty or Sammy or Mel/ so that when one comes along/ whose name exclaims his beauty/ and that beauty, forbidden to my tongue/ Summons a landscape of handsome/ well-crafted men/ performing heroic acts/ sailing tall ships into Ilion/ or regattas out of Charleston–/ When the name of Beauty comes along/ and it is very young/ one must be careful/ to sing it/sparingly."

And her heartbreaking paeans to relatives killed in the Holocaust—"Hedwig's Story," for one: "War's end left three Jews/ from Rexingen./ 126 had been deported. You alone/returned to Stuttgart,/ nearly blind/.. . This spring I placed a stone / of remembrance on your grave./ Rest, dear soul./You survived./ Nearly blind,/ you bore witness."

And after all these losses, like Wilner in his acceptance, Kallet rejoices: "And here I am singing."

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.