The Angel of Forgetfulness
Some observers have called into question the future of Jewish American literature. Where, they wonder, are the worthy successors to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud, who brought yiddishkaytthe culture of the Eastern European Diasporainto American life, offering fable, melancholy humor, and quirky syntax as a vehicle for serious contemplation of human existence.
Some have even called into the question the viability of the Yiddish culture that underlies much of Jewish American literature. In 2004 Janet Hadda, retired professor of Yiddish at the University of California, Los Angeles, voiced doubt that Jews could “connect to a culture that doesn’t really exist anymore authentically, which was the culture of Ashkenaz in Eastern Europe. It . . . existed in tremendous vibrancy before World War II and existed in remnants afterward through immigration, but is now gone.”
A year earlier, however, in the magazine Pakn Treger, Hadda identified the one force she expects to bear the torch of Yiddish literary tradition into the twenty-first century: contemporary American Jewish novelists who write in English but whose themes are in keeping with the Yiddish literary tradition. “Through their work,” she predicted, “the cultureand with it, the soulof Ashkenaz, of Jewish Eastern Europe, will continue to breathe fire and light.”
Hadda, along with other critics, has singled out Jewish American novelist Steve Stern as an exceptional bearer of that light. In a review of Stern’s 1986 story collection Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, Hadda described the work as luminous, remarkable, and filled with “dreamy brilliance.” Calling Stern’s work “a new link in the chain of Jewish fiction,” she has likened him to such renowned Jewish writers as Moyshe Kulbak and I. J. Schwartz. She hastens to add that Stern’s work is not derivative but original within the Jewish literary tradition. About his newest offering, The Jewish Reader magazine weighed in with enthusiasm: “Steve Stern’s The Angel of Forgetfulness is proof positive that it is possible to write a ’Yiddish novel in English’one that doesn’t derive its yidishkayt from phony oy’s or imagined shtetls, but from a profound knowledge of Yiddish literature, with all its intellectual and imaginative powers.”
Indeed, Stern displays a skill with language and a knowledge of Yiddish literature rivaling that of Singer or Malamud. He tells his tale with all the verbal razzmatazz, inverted syntax, and fanciful naming one expected from the past golden era of Jewish American literature. Stern’s lower East Sidethe principal setting for The Angel of Forgetfulnessabounds with underworld characters (some of them historic) sporting names such as Big Jack Zelig, Lighthouse Freddy, and Gyp the Blood. Here is a typical locution from one of the lower East Side characters engaged in intellectual debate: “Don’t give me no more your so-called Jewish Gothic. . . . Enough already with the characters that from the trees, which they sway like daveners under a sky like a wedding canopy, are all the time hanging themselves with their prayer shawls.”
Here is a scene witnessed by one immigrant character on his first job in 1910 New York, “lugging piecework from the garment factories west of Broadway to the downtown sweatshops”:Along the way he got an eyeful of the Golden Land. His route might take him through the Hester Street market, where men in gory aprons sank their cleavers into meat seething with blue fly larvae. Rail-thin women fingered the entrails of hanging fowl to determine their kosherness, haggled with merchants who alternated between deference and poisonous invective. There were streets like Allen, known as ’the street of perpetual shadow,’ lousy with pickpockets and strutting pimps.
Though Stern’s name is not a household word, The Angel of Forgetfulness seems likely to bring him wider notice among Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. This ambitious novel presents a complicated plot, actually three stories in one, which may remind readers of nesting boxes. The “outer box” is the story of young Saul Bozoff, from Memphis, who has begun a directionless college career at New York University. The year is 1969, but Saul finds himself out of step with his fellow students’ quest for sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Instead, on lonely impulse, he goes to pay respects to his elderly Aunt Keni in New York’s lower East Side, once a teeming center of Yiddish American culture and now a hub of protest happenings. After an awkward and slightly abrasive beginning, Keni recruits Saul to escort her to medical appointments that become a pretext for nostalgic walking tours of her neighborhood. Seeing past modern storefronts and crash pads to landmarks more than half a century old, and expounding on their significance to her nephew, Keni soon reveals herself as a kind of archeological...
(The entire section is 2029 words.)