Unencumbered Exuberance: Four Jewish Comic Novelists of Note
In the titular essay of Adam Kirsch’s essay collection Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? the critic and poet recounts the ways in which many of his and my canonical forebears rejected the moniker. He quotes Philip Roth referring to “American Jewish Writer” as an epithet. Saul Bellow was slightly more diplomatic, saying, “I have tried to fit my soul into the Jewish-writer category, but it does not feel comfortably accommodated there. Lionel Trilling couldn’t find “anything in [his] professional intellectual life” that traced back to his Judaism.
The Many Lives of Anna May Wong
“Life is too serious to take seriously”
—Anna May Wong
While walking to school on the outskirts of LA’s Chinatown, Anna May Wong parted ways with her older sister, Lulu, and used her lunch money to go to the Nickelodeon Theater House to see the latest chapter in the serial film The Perils of Pauline. She memorized Pearl White’s melodramatic emotions—joy, surprise, bashfulness, frustration, and anger. When she returned home, she slipped into the house, avoiding her parents and siblings, and shut herself in her bedroom above the family laundry. In front of the mirror, Anna May recreated White’s scenes while daydreaming of stardom. In her recurring fantasy, she appeared at the top of a winding staircase dressed in a trailing white gown and blazing with diamonds. At the bottom step her director proclaimed, “You are a film star, Anna May Wong.” While she was bathing in the adulation of her imagined fans, her mother walked in on her and scolded, “You are needed in the laundry.” Anna May resumed her more pressing role as dutiful daughter.
When visiting a city, I take solitary, late-night walks, enjoying the feeling of being both lost and at home. Cities at night with their empty streets become a dreamscape of shadow and light. With your senses on high alert, the sights and sounds are magnified.
The founding concepts of the United States are based on Enlightenment ideals of equality and freedom. Throughout our history these broad ideals have struggled against anything that might impinge on them, such as government controls, regulations, and taxation. This opposition, along with other forces both internal and external, has resulted in our share of strife, as well as occasional threats of systemic failure. In our nearly 250 years as a nation, we have fought wars and serious conflicts at an average of about one per generation, more than any other major military power. We have repeatedly armed and disarmed. We have also conducted systemic campaigns against perceived enemies based on race and political beliefs within our own
borders—including Native Americans, Irish and other immigrants, blacks, “Leftists,” organized labor movements, and various others.
Poetry: Samantha DeFlitch
To Lead a Pig Skyward
I read a pig can’t look up.
That you’ve got to gently
tilt their heads back
if they’re going to take in
the night skies. I never
led a pig skyward late
at night in Pennsylvania.
Earthbound is probably
better. We all start
getting ideas when we
look up, and the pigs,
they always seemed so
pleased where they were,
rooting in soft earth.
No need to look up for God
when the holy was there,
beneath their trotters, cool
below the autumn archer
that was rising, lightly,
on the eastern horizon.
Poems: Heather Christle
On my first day at the new job I scanned my whole body and could not find a name
I felt like a biblical error, I had to lie down
Etiquette says a young widow must not dress in flashy jet
Etiquette says children under 8 in black mourning are too sad
I felt like any words I spoke would take the form of a confession
I confessed pages of telephone numbers but nobody picked up
It was the night shift
The night like a long room with windows in inconvenient places
I did not know how to arrange the furniture in a beautiful way
I had been trained in how to love people a little
Though I worked many hours there was nobody there
I mean I never saw another soul, least of all my own
Poetry: Anya Silver
Imagine being hunted—poached, illegally,
knowing how much someone desires you,
wants your body, will never stop stalking you
with whatever weapons he devises.
Camouflaged, utterly silent, relentless,
a hunter who would burn the very tusks he seeks,
would flay the hide that makes the quarry valuable.
And you know you’re being hunted—
every week, you come upon new corpses,
not only the weak and old among you,
but also the most determined, the fiercest
of your kind, caught up in a net they’d never seen.
Eventually, you will leave the tribe,
decimated as it is, always mourning and fearful.
You will walk to a lake, or a field,
someplace you find peaceful and beautiful,
and simply lie down there,
putting aside any of your last defenses.
You’ll wait for him to find you,
knowing there is no escape anyway,
hoping to get a bullet to the head
before he removes the knives from his sack,
with which he will extract the organs
from your body, one by one.
“There’s someone in the bathroom at night who tries to stop me from getting in,” my father insists a few weeks before his death “I don’t see him, but I know he’s there.”
I nod as if this invisible predator is real, doing his dirty work in the dark. I never challenge my father’s delusion, just as I never challenge the certainty that with advanced, untreatable pancreatic cancer, he will soon die. Though my father’s been a family physician in Alabama for almost fifty years and for the last three months has dressed in a suit and tie and sat for two hours at his desk, he’s never once mentioned that he has cancer. “This problem,” he calls it. “When I get over this problem.”
I nod at this, too.
We’d only just moved to our new house on Summit Street when Dad moved out. He left his toolbox in the basement—some faded Craftsman box filled with wrenches and crowbars. My
brothers and I scrambled to claim it for ourselves, but my older brother, Chris, took it over, staking ownership by decorating it with the stickers he’d gotten from the vending machine at the movie theatre: Freak. Big Attitude. And, of course, the way he often did with my younger brother Jonny and me, proclaiming proudly, “This is mine; don’t fucking touch it.”
Coming of Old Age in Samoa
“How old are you?” local guides and drivers asked as I caned up and down hills and wobbled through woodlands. When I answered—seventy-two—they said, “That’s very old in Vanuatu,” or “You must be very strong.” I wasn’t feeling strong. In airports, adults and children would stop and ask, “Sir, are you all right?”