Out of Brownsville: Encoun­ters with Nobel Lau­re­ates and Oth­er Jew­ish Writ­ers — A Cul­tur­al Memoir

Jules Chamet­zky
  • Review
By – July 30, 2013

An author comes onto a stage at a book­store, stands behind the podi­um, while the crowd of fans looks on ador­ing­ly. The author looks up at the peo­ple and smil­ing, puts on read­ing glass­es, tells the sto­ries behind the lat­est nov­el or col­lec­tion of poems or essays. The audi­ence gasps, smiles, moans, and laughs at the appro­pri­ate parts. After, the author answers a few ques­tions about his or her writ­ing life, inspi­ra­tion, and char­ac­ters. It’s a sce­nario book lovers can iden­ti­fy with. Many of those book lovers may won­der about the per­son behind this pub­lic persona.

Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Jules Chametzky’s book Out of Brownsville: Encoun­ters with Nobel Lau­re­ates and Oth­er Jew­ish Writ­ers — A Cul­tur­al Mem­oir recounts his many, many, many encoun­ters with authors, some well-known and oth­ers obscure. Lumi­nar­ies include Grace Paley, Saul Bel­low, Eri­ca Jong, Irv­ing Howe, Allen Gins­berg, and Nat Hentoff. The sto­ries are told in the con­text of the lit­er­ary world, reveal­ing insights into their work and into that realm. The vignettes answer ques­tions read­ers may have such as: Are writ­ers friend­ly with each oth­er? If we like writ­ers’ work, would we like them as peo­ple? Are they nice peo­ple? Appar­ent­ly Allen Gins­berg was.

Infor­ma­tion about more obscure writ­ers doc­u­ments their work. Chamet­zky quotes from the aching­ly beau­ti­ful poem God of Mer­cy,” by the ver­sa­tile and pro­lif­ic Yid­dish writer Kadya Molodowsky. She came to the U.S. in 1935 already over forty and died in 1975.

O God of Mer­cy
Anoth­er peo­ple.
We are tired of death, tired of corpses We have no
more prayers.
Anoth­er peo­ple.

Chamet­zky is a char­ac­ter in the book but he main­tains a remote, pro­fessorial atti­tude with his read­er, keep­ing us at arms length. A stronger over­ar­ch­ing, per­son­al theme through­out the book would have cre­at­ed a stronger premise and nar­ra­tive. Chametzky’s details reveal lit­tle about his emo­tion­al, per­son­al, or pro­fes­sion­al trans­for­ma­tion, chal­lenges or vic­to­ries from poor New York City ghet­to tough to tweed-wear­ing aca­d­e­m­ic in west­ern Mass­a­chu­setts. That thread would make this more than just a list of lumi­nar­ies the author met and more of a poignant jour­ney linked through lit­er­a­ture. Chametzky’s mem­oir does bring to light or as he puts it viv­i­fy” the sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion and personali­ties of these writ­ers, many of whom are regret­tably forgotten.

Discussion Questions