Johanna Kaplan arrived on the literary scene almost fifty years ago as a superb interpreter of American Jewish life at midcentury – a time of social mobility, yet also an era haunted by the raw traumas of the past. Loss of Memory is Only Temporary gathers her deeply felt, bitingly satirical stories, published mainly in the 1970s, along with more recent stories that focus on her own family history. This expanded collection emblemizes Kaplan’s sly-yet-wondrous art and her power to dramatize what she terms the “grief-pierced” emotional tones of the modern Jewish experience.
Kaplan’s stories explore the comedy, pathos, and resentments of Jewish families, reeling from the pressure of dark memory and unsettled by displacement, in the Bronx and Upper West Side. Kaplan’s voice echoes Anzia Yezierska’s and Grace Paley’s; like these canonical authors, Kaplan exposes the self-absorption of characters who fasten their identities to what is fashionable.
Kaplan’s avatar Miriam in “Suntanned or Sour, It Makes No Difference” avidly seeks a kind of dignity. Miriam is unhappy at summer camp; displaced from the sounds and smells of New York, she misses the city. Miriam comes alive performing in a camp play about the Warsaw Ghetto, a transformative experience that raises her consciousness about the meaning and legacy of Jewish memory.
In the title story “Loss of Memory is Only Temporary,” Kaplan’s heroine, Naomi, summons an inner aliveness against her inane aunt, a surrogate mother who keeps picking at the scars of family tragedy. A psychiatrist with a rich and grounded professional and personal life, Naomi sees through her aunt, who is visiting Naomi in the hospital where she works, to check in with “the stone,” the aunt’s ungenerous nickname for her niece.
Each of these women, we might say, is “grief-pierced” by memory, but it is Naomi who has been able to move on from unspeakable loss; over time she has learned how to provide healing for her patients and, it appears, herself. Naomi’s sharp voice consistently bewilders her aunt, who keeps returning, with unconscious cruelty, to the shards of their shared trauma. Kaplan skewers the aunt, who remains incapable of insight, let alone family feeling; projecting onto her niece, she herself embodies a stone. In the end, Naomi, named “Nechama” in Hebrew, fulfills her Jewish namesake by becoming a source of comfort and healing.
Kaplan’s achievement, which continues to make her fiction relevant, is the creation of “ferociously observant,” embattled-yet-avid young women who possess a complicated consciousness. With remarkable insight and empathy, Kaplan, like the characters in these stories, troubles the surfaces of Jewish family life, revealing an emotional landscape marked by grief and trauma. In the process, Kaplan reawakens the distinctive, and slowly disappearing, Bronx voices of mid-twentieth-century Jewish New York. Both old and new readers will relish Kaplan’s brilliant artwork of ventriloquism.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.