Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? 

Adam Kirsch

Yale University Press

The problem with Jewish writers, Adam Kirsch writes, is that even the best of them detest the label.

Philip Roth famously resisted being categorized as such, as did Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling and two unnamed novelists whom Kirsch moderates a discussion between at the beginning of his new collection Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? Why accept a label, as Kirsch characterizes their arguments, that seems to “imply that one loves, hates, and so on in a different way from people who are not Jewish”?

Kirsch, who is quite clearly a Jewish writer, does not accept the premise. To be a Jewish writer, he says in the opening essay of his new collection, is to write with moral seriousness and particularity, the kind that seems so accessible to the James Joyces and William Faulkners of the world. Those two were “describing a particular way of life with great specificity that they could make it meaningful, even to people who led very different lives.” 

The problem for American Jewish writers, Kirsch theorizes, is the same as for American Jews: Their relationship to Judaism is of an “elusive and perspectival quality.”  

Jewish writers in a secular world wish to “transcend” their Jewishness, to be considered simply writers. But there are lots of people who don’t want Jews to live or practice Judaism, he writes. “We don’t escape that danger,” he said, “by clamoring to eliminate ourselves.”

Kirsch interrogates some basic assumptions of the American Jewish mainstream with love and with firmness. And you don’t need to be a Jewish writer to try and understand what he’s saying. 

 

Fleishman Is in Trouble

Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Random House

“Toby Fleishman,” begins Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel, Fleishman Is In Trouble, “awoke one morning inside the city he’d lived in all his adult life and which was suddenly somehow crawling with women who wanted him.” 

Fleishman, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, is inexplicably in a new world after awakening from strange dreams; namely, the dissolution of his marriage, which seems more distant by the day. Armed with a quick and dirty dating app and his newfound freedom, Fleishman’s New York is transformed.

Fleishman, henpecked doctor, self-doubting dieter, loving father and the aggrieved party in his divorce, is a new man. As he settles into this new world, the long and torturous history of his marriage to Rachel is drawn out detail by icky detail, and a picture emerges —  haughty breadwinner, social climber, barely present mother and frigid, nasty wife.

When Toby awakes on a different morning to find that his soon-to-be-ex-wife has dropped their kids at his apartment without warning, and cannot be reached through any form of communication for weeks, this picture only comes more clearly into focus, and Toby’s newfound ability to direct cruelty back to her via snarled text and email is a cause for cheering. He will no longer be made the wife in this divorce, as his lawyer tells him he is. 

It is, of course not so simple, and Brodesser-Akner, who writes enormously popular profiles for The New York Times Magazine, approaches her characters in the same way she approaches her subjects at her day job: She doesn’t allow them to present themselves on their own terms indefinitely. 

Though much of the story is told from Fleishman’s point of view, there are increasingly frequent interventions from his friend Libby Epstein, a former men’s magazine writer. It is through Epstein that the more self-serving aspects of Toby’s storytelling are cast in a new light. Surprise! Toby’s victimhood is often of his own making.  

It seems such an obvious lesson: There’s another side to this story! And yet, by withholding Rachel’s full account, Brodesser-Akner implicates the reader in Toby’s cruelty. It’s a story about the use and misuse of stories, the way that they mutate into grotesquerie or sunshine-y bliss, whichever is more suited to our conception of ourselves. 

Brodesser-Akner is a terrifically funny writer — here and there, she drops in empowerment-slogan yoga tank tops that become funnier with each repetition (Namaste in Bed!) — and one can only hope that she never gets the chance to lift a boulder and look at the creepy-crawlies of your life in the pages of the Times. JN

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