Fabulous Small Jews

by Joseph Epstein
ISBN: 0395944023

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A Review of: Fabulous Small Jews
by Sharon Abron Drache

What is it about Jews? Whether they are rich or poor, religious or secular, there is a bond which defines and unites them-call it paying dues to collective memory about bad things happening to good people. Sartre said another thing: "It is not the Jewish character which evokes anti-Semitism but on the contrary, it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew...."
Sartre's statement is the ongoing, sub-theme in this brilliantly crafted collection of short fiction by Joseph Epstein, born and educated in Chicago, who has served as a lecturer in English and writing at Northwestern University since 1974. From 1975 to 1997, he also served as editor of The American Scholar.
For the most part these 18 stories set in post-war Chicago dip back to the l950s, remarkably conservative years in America, which appear to have shaped the men and women that Epstein portrays. The streets, suburbs, temples, schools, clubs, restaurants and hotels are vividly conjured up-a delicious mix of the urban and suburban, against the backdrop of Lake Michigan. There is hardly a story in which the geography of Chicago doesn't hold firm, yet there is little said about the city's famous architecture. It is the personalities of fabulous small Jews, not the buildings in which they work and live that inspires Epstein.
In a word, I was enthralled with the collection, and I can't help but wonder if the choice of 18, which is the numerical sum of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet that add up to life, "Chai", was not deliberate on the part of the author and/or his editors. With the exception of one or two stories dealing with specific events in Epstein's characters' lives, almost every story is the summing up of an entire life, make that two, the one that happens, and the second imagined one on which the fiction is based-a huge amount to pack into one short story.
Born in 1937, Epstein is a writer whose age gives him slightly more distance from the Holocaust than the two best known Jewish American writers, Saul Bellow (b. 1915) and Philip Roth (b.1933). Still, the awareness of the genocide of six million European Jews and its aftermath which Epstein holds close to his heart is very strong, and this is especially so in the story that for me stands out as his most poignant, "Felix Emeritus". As a critic singling out this wondrous and exceptional tale, I feel much as Saul Bellow must have felt when he discovered Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool" buried in the pages of the Yiddish Forward. But that is just a wild guess.
Epstein's protagonist, Felix Arnstein, is a retired professor of comparative literature, who counts among his life experiences three years in Buchenwald. Felix describes these as "hateful dark years, monstrous in every way and yet in retrospect, Felix sometimes viewed them as a period in his life without the weight of introspection, lived chiefly with survival on his mind, lived truly in a community, however degraded and humiliated the community that one shared with his fellow captives might have been...."
This admission defines Arnstein's character, explains why at age 80, he seeks out a retirement home and abandons three-quarters of his library and why he lets one of his fellow residents con him into reading his autobiography entitled, Dog eat Dog: my Life and Times, by Max C. Schindler. Unlike Arnstein, Schindler was throughout his life blessed with the freedoms that America offered to her citizens, yet Felix finds Schindler's manuscript "unrelievedly dark."
The ending of the story is bleak and tragic, as it bears witness to a disappointment in humanity that the reader concludes comes from having too much freedom, and very little concern for collective historical memory-the kind that Felix Arnstein was forced to experience firsthand, but Schindler was not. Without shouting at the top of his voice, Epstein relies on the theme of collective memory or lack of it, to drive these stories forward.
At times this memory is grounded in profound post-Second World War experiences. One such story is "Moe", about a grandfather who is estranged from his twice-married son. Sadly, Moe rarely sees his grandchild from the son's first marriage. The fiction relates how grandfather and grandson are thrown together for a weekend, which forges a new and unexpected Old Man and the Sea type of bond based on handball in lieu of fishing. It seems that all the Jewish men in this story are "about five feet and weigh in at 180, thick in the legs, and barrel-chested, a real handball build." They form their own communities, not in temples or synagogues, but in Jewish community centres throughout Chicago's downtown and suburbs. Moe gets closer to his seven-year-old grandson than he has ever dreamed possible, after he introduces the boy to handball. Still, the story is sad because Moe sees little of his own son, a womanizer with a moustache "so thick and luxurious, it looks like it might be made of mink.... You planning to store the mustache with Traeger, the furrier, in the summer?" This kind of glib reparte peppers all of Epstein's fictions.
Bittersweet and often humourous, Joseph Epstein is writing about Jews who reside in the metropolis of Chicago, a fertile Jewish community in the great U.S. of A. where suburbs like Glenco-what the Old anti-Semites on the North Shore used to call Glen Cohen-are everywhere.
Which leads me back to where I began: Epstein is trying to nail what it is about the Glenco communities that inspires non-Jews, who may be anti-Semitic, to dislike their neighbours. Epstein looks wide and deep, scratching below the surface of his own flesh, bleeding for his people on the page, while at the same time providing some grand entertainment about fabulous small Jews that is as good as it gets.

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