The life of aging Rose Markowitz is not central to “Oral History,” the first story in the collection, but its telling is. Rose refuses to offer up her life in a neat Marxist package, despite the admonition of researcher Alma Renquist. When Alma’s own life comes undone, Rose comforts her; the old woman, confusing what Alma has said with her own memories of lost loves, reminds the historian that life goes on. One fashions one’s own responses, one’s own rituals, in order to deal with each daily holocaust.
“Total Immersion,” the final story, parallels the frustrations of French instructor Sandra Lefkowitz at Oahu Prep in Hawaii with the split in the synagogue she attends. The “Bet Knesset Connection” fails to survive the struggle between traditional male leadership and calls for egalitarianism. In the breakup both groups are diminished. At the school Sandra is hounded by another French teacher who demands that the students be totally immersed in the language and culture of France. Sandra refuses, and in fits and starts tries slowly to nurture her students. When one of them places well on a national exam, Sandra tells her struggling class that even a bit of progress counts--and that redemption can come on the final. A patina of culture, the story seems to say, whether French or Jewish, is another name for hypocrisy.
In an age of transition, Allegra Goodman’s characters find that their lives do not quite fit the prescribed ritual. Cecil Birnbaum, a nonsexist deconstructionist who insists on being an observant Jew, must justify to himself, in the story “Variant Text,” why the Law is beautiful in itself and does not need the kind of interpretation he would give to other texts. In the midst of struggles, Goodman’s characters--some of them, at least--find that sustenance comes in drawing from ritual, bit by bit, rather than in an artificial immersion.
TOTAL IMMERSION, written by a twenty-one-year-old senior at Radcliffe College, is a carefully structured and memorable debut.