Let's Talk About it!
Let's Talk About It: Jewish Literature, a reading and discussion series, has been made possible through a grant from Nextbook and the American Library Association. Additional funding was provided by Gettysburg College.
©2006 Gettysburg College
Books to Read
In these works of modern fiction, love and desire cross paths in the math department, on the analyst's couch, in an Israeli garage–and often with surprising results: an arranged marriage heats up, a ménage à trois turns cozy.
Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
Tuesday, September 12 at 7:00pm
Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz! Enough! (p. 37)
Alexander Portnoy is hostile, oversexed, and seething with guilt. His libido simply will not behave. On the analyst's couch, he performs a stand-up routine that doubles as an anti-bildungsroman. An equal-opportunity offender, Portnoy rails against his father, Jews, blacks, women, WASPs. He also relishes his own self-hatred by deploying vaudevillian humor ("a man's cartilage is his fate"). At stake for the sympathetic reader are larger questions about religion and morality. Opposed to decency and dignity, Portnoy exhibits the kind of attitude only an assimilated immigrant can afford.
The 1969 novel is best known for Portnoy's onanistic exploits and his explosive anger toward his mother—but therein Roth offers the notion of love as anger, or why else would his antihero spend so much time on the couch?
The Little Disturbances of Man by Grace Paley
Wednesday, October 4 at 7:00pm
I held him so and rocked him. I cradled him. I closed my eyes and leaned on his dark head. But the sun in its course emerged from among the water towers of downtown office buildings and suddenly shone white and bright on me. Then through the short fat fingers of my son, interred forever, like a black and white barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes. (p. 145)
Paley's first collection is populated with gutsy, sensuous women and the breezy, selfish men they fall for against their better judgment. The power of these brief, anecdotal stories stems from the generosity and complexity of the author's worldview. Rather than vilifying her feckless antiheroes, who struggle "till time's end...to get away in one piece" from the women who adore them, she offers them up without judgment, exposing both warts and charms.
In subtle, Yiddish-inflected prose, Paley perfectly captures the humor of couplings in a bygone New York. But her earthy stories often turn on moments of intense lyricism, as when one character cradles her son in bright sunlight, his fingers "interred forever, like a black and white barred king in Alcatraz, my heart lit up in stripes."
A Simple Story by S.Y. Agnon
Thursday, October 26 at 7:00pm
Sophia's thoughts were mostly of an intimate nature. She was still in her teens when she married Gildenhorn, who could pick her up in one arm and carry her about the house from room to room. How she had loved his stylish checked pants and swooned at the sound of his voice! Now, however, his voice had grown worn from selling too much life insurance… After two years of marriage she still had no children. (p. 98)
Set at the turn of the 20th century and first published in 1935, A Simple Story floats the anti-romantic, anti-modern idea that it is better to love the person you marry than marry the person you love. Hirshl, the only child of prosperous shopkeepers in northern Poland, is entranced by his intelligent and penniless cousin, Blume. An arranged marriage to Mina, who comes with a dowry, clothes, and no interest in books, brings on a bout with madness, but Hirshl emerges from the sanatorium resigned to keep shop in his parents' world. Eventually he embraces its traditions.
Agnon's narrator delivers this not-so-simple story with a folklorist's comic touch, and draws from the Nobel laureate's experiences growing up in a Galician shtetl before he emigrated to Palestine
The Lover by A. B. Yehoshua
Monday, November 13 at 7:00pm
How to describe her? My wife. So familiar, not only from twenty-five years of marriage but also from the years before that, childhood, youth, from the days that I remember in the first class of the little school near the harbor, the green and stuffy huts with their smell of milk and rotten bananas, the red-painted swings, the big sand pit, a derelict car with a giant steering wheel, the broken fence. (p. 37)
Asya, a high school teacher, begins an adulterous affair with Gabriel, an Israeli émigré, back in the country for a brief visit. But when the 1973 Yom Kippur war breaks out and Gabriel disappears, it is Asya's husband, Adam, who becomes obsessed with his whereabouts: Has he fled the country? Has he been pressed into service by the military? Has he been captured by Egyptian forces? Is he lying wounded in a hospital? Is he lost forever?
The story of Adam's unlikely search, told from multiple viewpoints in the manner of Faulkner, reveals a family in which everyone is a missing person—misunderstood, ignored, silent—and a society riven by differences in class, background, and political outlook.
The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein
Tuesday, December 5 at 7:00pm
'Mom, I've had it. You're never satisfied. I give you a son-in-law, a Jewish genius son-in-law, you want a rabbi to marry us. I give you your rabbi, you want a party. I give you a party, you want me to go bobbing around naked in holy waters. I've had it. No mikvah, no party, no rabbi. Be happy you're getting a son-in-law and an honest daughter.' In the end, we were married by a justice of the peace in Trenton. (p. 79)
After shaking off the vestiges of her Orthodox upbringing, Renee Feuer—the self-deprecating philosophy graduate student who narrates Goldstein's witty debut—embarks on a series of raucous affairs. A crisis of confidence in her intellectual prowess leads her to settle down with an aging mathematician whose genius, she believes, affirms her own: "I was floundering and thus quite prepared to follow the venerably old feminine tradition of being saved by marriage." Soon, though, she's back on the prowl.
Goldstein deftly veers between hilarious anecdotes about Renee's charmingly familiar family and philosophical ruminations on the nature of human romantic interaction—the rift between the "outer public place of bodies and the inner private one of minds."