Loss of Mem­o­ry Is Only Tem­po­rary: Stories

  • Review
By – February 14, 2022

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.

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