Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn and Oth­er Stories

Blume Lem­pel; Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub, trans.
  • Review
By – December 12, 2016

Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn is a var­ied and rich col­lec­tion of short sto­ries and per­son­al essays by Blume Lem­pel (19071999), mas­ter­ful­ly trans­lat­ed from Yid­dish by Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub. Lem­pel, whose work was wide­ly pub­lished in Yid­dish jour­nals, immi­grat­ed to New York when Hitler rose to pow­er, and her writ­ing reflects the trau­ma of wit­ness­ing, from a dis­tance, the dev­as­ta­tion of the world she left behind.

The col­lec­tion com­bines works from the two books of sto­ries that Lem­pel pub­lished dur­ing her life­time. The pieces, set in Gali­cia, France, and Amer­i­ca, offer a wide array of char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions, but share in the inti­mate por­tray­al of the emo­tion­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence of know­ing that human beings are capa­ble of hor­ri­fy­ing acts of vio­lence, and try­ing to live with that knowl­edge. Some sto­ries deal more direct­ly with her expe­ri­ence and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Oth­ers are about the cul­ture of her Amer­i­can sur­round­ings, but har­ness these new set­tings to express her pri­ma­ry con­cerns — a female voice, dis­em­pow­er­ment, mem­o­ry of trau­ma, emo­tion­al sur­vival over human cru­el­ty, faith and doubt.

Lem­pel brings togeth­er sharp and unex­pect­ed images in ways that make the inter­nal and the exter­nal, the past and the present, seem to con­verge and speak through one anoth­er toward some greater truth about suf­fer­ing and long­ing. The sto­ries move not only through plot arcs but also, and per­haps more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, through waves of emo­tion: grief, hor­ror, accep­tance, long­ing, that are con­quered through the act of sto­ry­telling. The sto­ries seem to bear the pri­va­cy of inti­mate thought that the author is hes­i­tant to share with the world, and a sense of an urgent mis­sion to make the most pri­vate expe­ri­ences known, so that writ­ing and read­ing become acts of sur­vival in the midst of the unspeak­able, the inexpressible.

Lempel’s writ­ing gives a woman’s voice to con­tro­ver­sial top­ics such as abor­tion, incest, divorce, and rape. But per­haps more strik­ing­ly, her work gives voice to women’s inter­nal thoughts and expe­ri­ences in moments in which they appear to have sur­ren­dered self­hood. The women in her sto­ries have men­tal auton­o­my even when their bod­ies have become mere objects of male desire and abuse. Their thoughts are not nec­es­sar­i­ly empow­er­ing, rather they draw the read­er in to the expe­ri­ence of being dis­em­pow­ered. In Images on a Black Can­vas,” for instance, Zusye, who was repeat­ed­ly sex­u­al­ly abused in exchange for life-sav­ing pro­tec­tion dur­ing the Holo­caust, expe­ri­ences phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­se­quences of her abuse, dev­as­tat­ing­ly pun­ish­ing her­self with self-tor­ment for her own sur­vival and her own vic­tim­hood. In The Debt,” a woman prone on an oper­at­ing table, under­go­ing an abor­tion, takes in her sur­round­ings and feels the sharp pain of the oper­a­tion as she reflects on the des­per­a­tion that brought her to this moment, and the frag­ment of hope that her life could be dif­fer­ent. In sev­er­al cas­es, the sto­ries cen­ter on descrip­tions of women who make them­selves pas­sive to needy men’s desires – a moth­er who gives in to her blind son’s sex­u­al desire; a girl who silent­ly allows her adopt­ed broth­er, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, to touch her naked body; a vibrant, beau­ti­ful young woman who out of pity for a tuber­cu­lar neigh­bor sur­ren­ders her­self to his desirous arms. Each of these women expe­ri­ence a bur­den of guilt that seems to require them to sur­ren­der their own bod­ies to assuage male suf­fer­ing through female submissiveness.

The sto­ries are lit­er­ar­i­ly thick, ref­er­enc­ing Ibsen, Tol­stoy, Shake­speare, Greek mythol­o­gy and the Bible, even as they are doc­u­men­tar­i­ly unyield­ing in their sim­ple, jar­ring mat­ter-of-fact pre­sen­ta­tion of details of vio­lence and pain. And, even in their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of vic­tim­hood, abuse, sui­cide, and suf­fer­ing, they are sur­pris­ing­ly hope­ful, imbued with a sense of mis­sion, a hope for sur­vival when sur­vival itself is so doubtable. As Lem­pel writes in her sto­ry Even the Heav­ens Tell Lies,” I’m seek­ing the faith that I’ve lost, a way out of chaos, a place where my bro­ken self can put down roots.” Ulti­mate­ly, the col­lec­tion leaves the read­er with this sense of ques­tion­ing, of search­ing for a way for­ward through over­whelm­ing dark­ness and pain which can be some­how redeemed through the act of writing.

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Ellen Cassedy and Yer­miyahu Ahron Taub

Oedi­pus in Brook­lyn? And in Yiddish?

Hid­den in Plain Sight: Dis­cov­er­ing Yid­dish Lit­er­a­ture’s Ele­na Ferrante

Her Green Days”: Nature in the Yid­dish Narrative

Jes­si­ca Kirzane holds a PhD in Yid­dish Stud­ies from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the Ped­a­gogy Edi­tor for In Geveb: A Jour­nal of Yid­dish Stud­ies, a 2017 Trans­la­tion Fel­low at the Yid­dish Book Cen­ter, and a lec­tur­er in Jew­ish Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas.

Discussion Questions