The ProsenPeople

A Flower of Ashkenazi Frizz

Friday, July 31, 2009 | Permalink

In her last blogs, Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote about some of her favorite books.

In the months preceding its publication, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission received more than its share of tabloid-style hype, all of which focused on, let’s say, the nonfiction aspect of the novel: the glimpse Korelitz offers of the Ivy League admissions process, a subject of rabid fascination for the American middle class.

In fact, while the novel is very much about that process — it follows a Princeton admissions officer through one application season — it’s really a sort of latter-day Victorian novel, a thick, satisfying page-turner in the vein of Eliot or perhaps Hardy, with a lovely, maddening heroine at its center. That heroine, 38-year-old Portia Nathan — the admissions officer in question — finds her carefully constructed life begins to unravel during the very months when she must read through thousands of undergraduate essays.

Portia is Jewish, but her ethnicity (for she is deeply secular and somewhat self-consciously assimilated) doesn’t truly come into play until the novel’s third section, a flashback to her college years at Dartmouth, when she finds herself slightly alienated from her prep school peers. Raised by a radical feminist mother in Northampton, Portia isn’t quite your typical Dartmouth student, and at first she falls in with the campus’ tiny Bohemian fringe. The group is led by Rebecca Marrow, “a flower of Ashkenazi frizz in a sea of limp WASP coiffure,” who runs a salon of sorts in her cinderblock dorm room, serving smoked salmon and French wine to the poets and actors and other refugees from the Greek scene.

But Portia has, perversely, been nursing a crush on Tom Stadley, a handsome jock and (of course) member of the school’s most conservative fraternity, whose mother is rumored to be a rabid anti-Semite—and who himself, according to Rebecca, has a “thing for Jewish girls.” Midway through their sophomore year, Tom turns his attention to Portia, asking her at the start of their courtship, “You’re Jewish, right?” Recalling Rebecca’s offhand comment about Tom’s romantic inclinations, lovesick Portia knows that she should simply answer ‘yes,’ for this is, strictly speaking, the truth.

And yet she pauses, “turning [the] question in her addled brain,” thinking over the varying ways in which she could answers, the various truths available to her: that she is an atheist, that she cannot speak Hebrew, that she never knew her father and he actually might not be or have been Jewish. “Her religious upbringing was limited to the brass menorah Susannah had produced one year when she was small, lit two nights running and abandoned…on the mantelpiece, and also to Susannah’s brief flirtation with feminist seders.….”

Her musings, in short, perfectly define the peculiar situation of the secular American Jew, complete with her slight discomfort—a discomfort she can’t quite articulate—that in answering “yes,” as she finally does, she’s somehow admitting to a whole host of stereotypes and clichés, somehow turning herself into an object. And yet this, for the moment, is what she wants—to be the object of Tom’s affection, no matter if he’s drawn to her because of misplaced ideas about sensual, passionate Jewesses.

Joanna Smith Rakoff has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Her book, A Fortunate Age, is available now.

Joanna Smith Rakoff: The Smell of Old England

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 | Permalink

In her last blog, Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote about a family “more identifiably old American than Jewish.

Here in the U.S., Margaret Drabble’s novels are nowhere near as widely read as those of her older sister, A.S. Byatt, perhaps because they, to a one, seek to explore -– or, perhaps, “interrogate” might be a better word — contemporary British society, in rather the same way Philip Roth probes the uncomfortable corners of the American psyche. I lived in London in the mid-1990s—and suffered through a weird and surprising bout of anti-Semitism, which somehow did little to harm my love for the city—and, thus, I’m particularly attached to her 1996 novel, The Witch of Exmoor, a comedy of manners set in and around London during the period of my sojourn there.

Told in bold, masterful strokes—including a bossy, Forster-like narrator (“Begin on a summer evening,” she instructs at the novel’s start. “Let them have everything that is pleasant”). The story concerns a trio of grown British siblings, the daughters of a famous feminist writer who’s gone slightly mad in her old age, taking up residence in a gloomy old hotel by the sea and obsessing over her allegedly-Viking ancestry. While her son, Daniel, has chosen a cheerful British bourgeois for a mate—who happily tends to the garden of her country home, while ignoring the mounting evidence of her son’s crack addiction—her two daughters have “married out.” Grace, the elder, to a handsome Guyanese politician, David D’Anger a self-designated emblem of and spokesperson for the New Britain. Rosemary, the youngest, to Nathan Herz, who is, of course, Jewish.

Drabble’s agenda, in assigning her characters these most multicultural of spouses, is purposefully transparent: This is a novel about the evolving fabric of British society, in which—contrary to popular mythology—a David D’Anger or a Nathan Herz can be as perfectly English as a Daniel Palmer, and in which the days of the Daniel Palmers wielding all the power (all the seats in Parliament) are decidedly over.

But rather than a happy melting pot, the England of Drabble’s novel is a land of eternal outsiders, each more alienated than the next, which is precisely what makes Nathan Herz such a surprising, thrilling, and attractive character. Raised poor in East Finchley, now a wealthy ad man with a sleek, modern flat in the newly fashionable East End (the area his grandparents “worked day and night” to flee) Nathan is ostensibly more of an outsider than any of the others, including his Guyanese brother-in-law, and yet it is he who has the ease and self-possession to scoff at the silly scuffles and pretensions of his adopted family and, in the larger sense, his fellow countrymen.

While his brother-in-law (who appears, at the novel’s start, to be a heroic figure) talks a good game about social justice, ultimately it’s Nathan who truly sees the British class structure clearly. It is he who sees through his sister-in-law’s absurd preoccupation with her garden. Her roses, tellingly, smell like death to him, “a rotting, fecal, fungal smell. The smell…of old England.” It is Nathan alone who has no sentimental attachment to that old England, Nathan who is able to enjoy the prosperous and comparatively inclusive age in which he lives.

In the next installment: Jean Hanff Korelitz’s portrait of assimilation.

Joanna Smith Rakoff’s new book, A Fortunate Age, is available now. She’ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Joanna Smith Rakoff: Parallel Lives

Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | Permalink

In her last blog, Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote about how, in her own way, Jane Austen wrote about being an undercover Jewish writer.

Laurie Colwin was, in a way, a sort of heir to Austen’s charms, even if her novels are the opposite of marriage plots: Her female characters struggle endlessly with the confines and meaning of contemporary marriage (contemporary, that is, circa the 1970s and 1980s; Colwin died, at 48, in 1992). Many, if not most, of her characters are Jewish, but none more interestingly so than those in Family Happiness, her most fully-realized novel and a sort of gloss on (or rebuke of) Madame Bovary , a novel about a happily married matron, Polly Solo-Miller Demarest, involved in an ongoing affair with a depressive painter. Who happens, of course, to be Jewish, though you mightn’t guess it if you hadn’t been told on the very first page.

The Solo-Millers are one of those old Jewish families–settled in New York even before the German banking dynasties, like the Schiffs and the Warburgs—“more identifiably old American than Jewish” with vast, dark uptown apartments, and summer houses in Maine, and traditions as labyrinthine and ingrained as any prep school. On Sundays, Polly and her brothers gather around their parents’ stolid dining room table for smoked salmon on toast points—definitely not bagels, that Oestjuden (Eastern Jewish) delight—and subtle chiding from their mother, who has so instilled in Polly her rigid ideas about women’s deportment and obligations that poor Polly almost has a breakdown, at one point, when she’s forced to go grocery shopping on a Sunday.

Polly is a wonderful character, struggling, all too humanly, not to understand but to suppress her conflicting desires for “comfort, order”—and danger and provocation. Colwin by no means ruminates on Polly’s Jewishness—or that of her family. But for me Colwin’s lack of chatter about exactly how and why the Solo-Millers are Jewish is precisely what makes them familiar and comprehensible as Jews: They exist in a milieu so thoroughly and completely Jewish that their identity (or religion) never comes into question.

It is simply woven into the fabric of their beings, as it is for so many American Jews. For Polly, her affair with the decidedly not-Jewish Lincoln, whose values and temperament are almost the opposite of those of everyone else in her life (everyone else being Jewish, of course), serves as a sort of questioning of her world, a pressing at its confines. In a way, the deeply iconoclastic decision she makes toward the novel’s end—I’m going to try not to reveal it—serves as metaphor for the sometimes uneasy, sometimes happy manner in which secular American Jews live sort of parallel lives, at once both fully American and fully Jewish (even if they don’t necessarily think of it that way).

In the next installment: Margaret Drabble’s pitch-perfect depiction of multicultural mid-1990s London.

Joanna Smith Rakoff’s new book, A Fortunate Age, is available now. She’ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Joanna Smith Rakoff: The French Revolution

Monday, July 27, 2009 | Permalink

Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age and former editor of, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Copy of jewish-authors-blog2Some years ago, when I was a doctoral student in English literature, my more conservative-minded peers sometimes made fun of the critics who practiced a more theory-based form of analysis — the followers of Jacques DerridaJulia Kristeva, and, in this case, the movement known as “New Historicism” — by saying, with a sarcastic roll of the eye, something to the effect of, “Right, and in not commenting on the French Revolution, Jane Austen is really commenting on the French Revolution.” Titters would ensue.

They were referring, of course, to the famous lack of historical context in Austen’s much-loved novels, and to the critic Warren Roberts’ then-famous (or, in some circles, infamous) book on the subject, Jane Austen and the French Revolution. Roberts set out to prove that Austen was not just a frippery writer of proto-chick-lit novels about shabby genteel young ladies in search of husbands, but a politically- and culturally-engaged chronicler of the major events of her day, who very much had the French and American Revolutions on her mind while writing Mansfield Park.

As a scholar, I was on the old-fashioned side and, thus, happy to simply read Austen’s novels for pleasure, rather than scrutinizing dialogue for coded ideas about the Napoleonic Wars — which may well be why I dropped out of said doctoral program and began writing my own marriage plots. But, though I laughed along with my classmates whenever that French Revolution comment was uttered, I was secretly attracted to the idea that a writer’s silence on a subject might say as much as her explicit exploration of a subject.

A.Fortunate.AgeAnd so it was that years later, when I took a job as books editor of the Jewish culture magazineNextbook (now Tablet), that I found myself drawn to fiction that was less than straightforward in its approach to Jewish ideas or, more often, identity. It was easy to discuss the Jewish content of, say, The Counterlife or Bee Season. What interested me more — and still interests me — were the ways in which, for instance, a character’s Jewishness comes into play in a novel (or story) that doesn’t necessarily center on things Jewish.

Thus, over the next three days, I’ll be looking at a few favorite characters from such fiction, characters who, to my mind, say as much about the state of Anglo-American Judaism (in the cultural, if not the religious sense) as those in more explicitly and obviously Jewish fiction, characters from a few novels of recent decades: Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor, and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission.

Joanna Smith Rakoff’s new book, A Fortunate Age, is available now. She’ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Jewish, Sad, Young, and Literary

Wednesday, November 05, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the past weekend I found myself completely absorbed in the literary universe of Joanna Smith Rakoff ‘s debut novel A Fortunate Age and wondering about the next generation of Jewish authors to emerge onto the literary scene. Rakoff’s novel opens with the line “[o]n a gray October day in 1998, Lillian Roth found herself walking down the stone-floored aisle of Temple Emanu-El, clad in a gown of dark ivory satin and flanked by her thin, smiling parents, who had flow into New York from Los Angeles…,” setting the stage for a cast of disillusioned twenty-somethings in search of their place in 21st century Manhattan. The “set” of friends (as Lillian Roth deems them) that Rakoff has envisioned seek to carve lives for themselves that evoke their liberal arts education, their intellectual capacity, and their nostalgia for the good old day of a more radically, intellectually charged Manhttan. For several of Rakoff’s characters, their Jewish heritage becomes a part of the backdrop–their Judaism is not front and center–but it’s a part of their foundation, making brief appearances throughout the book. None of the characters are particularly religious (although one does end up exploring Israel outside the boundaries of the narrative), and none comment on their Judaism as a negative factor within their life (or particularly positive)–it’s just a fact. They don’t wear it on their sleeve, but it’s there on the first page of the book, and it seeps back in throughout the course of the narrative.

Prior to reading Rakoff’s novel, I had just finished Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, which muses on a similar set of characters (albeit male) facing similar questions at the turn of the 21st century. Where does the liberally arts educated, idealistic, intellectual end up in today’s world? What does it mean to (finally) finish your Ph.D.? What’s next? Success? Failure? Disillusionment? Reality? Gessen’s debut novel touches on questions related to Judaism (specifically Israel) more directly than Rakoff, specifically in the character of Sam who sets himself to the task of writing the the Great Zionist novel (having never been to Israel), naively (he’s Jewish, so he must identify with Israel, right?) attempting to weave Israel into his identity. Like Rakoff’s novel, none of Gessen’s characters are particularly religious, but their Judaism does exist as inescapable part of their identity—even if it is is mostly in the backdrop. How does the non-religious, liberally arts educated, Jew, incorporate Judaism into their life without the traditional foundation? And then what does this mean for their children? How does Israel factor in? Does Jewish = Israel?

Two novels in two weeks that focus on Jewish twenty-something liberal arts graduates searching for themselves…with a little Judaism thrown in? A trend? We’ll keep you posted.