Ethnic Women Writers II "Of Dwelling Places" || Tradition and Independence in Jewish Feminist Novels

Download Ethnic Women Writers II

Post on 15-Apr-2017




0 download

Embed Size (px)


  • Tradition and Independence in Jewish Feminist NovelsAuthor(s): Evelyn Gross AverySource: MELUS, Vol. 7, No. 4, Ethnic Women Writers II "Of Dwelling Places" (Winter, 1980),pp. 49-55Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for the Study of the Multi-EthnicLiterature of the United States (MELUS)Stable URL: .Accessed: 20/12/2014 11:41

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

    .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact


    Oxford University Press and The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States(MELUS) are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to MELUS.

    This content downloaded from on Sat, 20 Dec 2014 11:41:21 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • Tradition and Independence in Jewish Feminist Novels

    Evelyn Gross Avery

    More than fifty years ago, Anzia Yezierska, a struggling immigrant writer, depicted the anguish of poor Jewish women, triply burdened by heritage, gender, and class. In her best novel, Bread Givers (1925), Yezierska pas- sionately portrays the trials of Sara Smolinsky who battles an environment more impoverished, sexist, and tyrannical than most contemporary hero- ines confront. Determined to survive with dignity, Sara acquires an educa- tion, career, and husband, and finally achieves partial reconciliation with her authoritarian father. Such resolutions, however, have been rare in

    Jewish-American novels. In fact, before the seventies, Jewish women writing fiction generally neglected Yezierska's concerns. Memorable stories such as Tillie Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle" and Grace Paley's "Faith" tales poig- nantly reveal feminine predicaments, but they were not representative of the literature.

    As Sarah Blacher Cohen points out, not until "the revival of feminism in the late sixties" did Jewish feminist authors emerge. Suddenly a spate of novels by writers such as Sue Kaufman, Gail Parent, Ann Roiphe, and Erica Jong appeared in New York Times book reviews and on best seller lists.

    Flippant in tone, middle class in setting, novels such as Diary of a Mad

    Housewife, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, and Falling Bodies lack the intensity and purpose of Yezierska's work, but their message is also serious. Beneath the glibness and bravado are confused Jewish women uncertain of their roles and goals. Where Sara Smolinsky determinedly combined marriage and career, these protagonists, bereft of tradition and love, drift towards isolation, insanity, and suicide. Because the conven- tional panaceas, husband, home, and even profession, seem unavailable or

    unsatisfying, the Jewish women become bitter, assailing men and their

    heritage. But at least three recent novels, which I will analyze in this article, attempt to transcend anger. In Ann Roiphe's Long Division, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, and Susan Fromberg Schaeffer's Falling, the heroines even-

    tually acknowledge their Judaism, comprehend their predicament, and seek positive solutions. While Long Division and Fear of Flying are light

    MELUS, Volume 7, No. 4, Winter 1980.


    This content downloaded from on Sat, 20 Dec 2014 11:41:21 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    satire, Falling is a serious, complex, and in its resolutions, more satisfying work.

    The similarities among these works are obvious. Each novel traces the

    physical and psychological journey of an insecure, self-destructive third

    generation Jewish-American woman. Terrified of living, she blames her

    inadequacies on family and heritage. Even the titles suggest disintegration. Long Division refers to Emily Brimberg Johnson's impending divorce, the division within herself, her alienation from her daughter, and her determination to leave her past. It also applies to the cultural chasm between the self-consciously Jewish Emily and the WASP America she encounters. Fear of Flying aptly describes Isadora Wing's uncertain voyage toward self-

    acceptance and self-sufficiency. The process involves both sexual and emo- tional liberation which permits Isadora to "fly" in all senses of the word.

    Despite its title, Falling is the most optimistic, the most Jewish, and ulti-

    mately the least bitter of the three novels. In the course of falling apart, Elizabeth Kamen's life falls into place, and her personality is integrated. Falling is a novel of reconciliation between the generations and the sexes.2

    At the outset the three heroines resemble each other. In their late twenties and early thirties, they are Jewish but choose Gentiles, often doctors, as lovers and husbands. In all three cases the relationships fail, and the pro- tagonists run away. Long Division opens with Emily Brimberg Johnson, a New Yorker in her mid-thirties, driving with her daughter Sarah to Mexico for a quickie divorce. The object of separation is her husband Alexander who requires the admiration and sexual favors of the multitudes. Cold and

    imperious, an alcoholic who is alternately morose and manic, Alex has given Emily an inferiority complex and a bratty, demanding ten-year-old daughter.

    As in the other two novels, most of the heroine's problems stem from her ambivalence about her Jewish background. Raised by immigrant grand- parents after her parents had died in a car accident, Emily vividly recalls her Sunday school emphasizing inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, the

    pain and suffering bequeathed to all Jews. At some point, she consciously rejected this heritage. Not only did she refuse religious instruction, but she "planned an escape - a painless genocide, a pleasure-filled life that . . . would hold no persecution. Marry out - each little Jewish girl had an obli-

    gation to marry out."3 Unfortunately, Emily overlooked the inherent dan-

    ger - in "marrying out" one risked marrying the enemy, an anti-Semite intent on tormenting his mate. With hindsight she realizes that "Alex was in some ways like a storm trooper, and she, Jewish maiden, thrilled by his alien nature, could never get over the fact that she was under the sheets with the enemy" (p. 130). In choosing Alex she tries to distance herself from the weak Jewish men, praying and swaying while their wives were raped, their children butchered.


    This content downloaded from on Sat, 20 Dec 2014 11:41:21 AMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    Emily's desire to protect herself and her daughter is doomed to failure.

    Fleeing New York, her "Nazi" husband, and her Jewish past, she makes the same mistakes, by seeking salvation in the American dream. Confused and rebellious, she learns through a series of painful adventures that she has sold her heritage for a shoddy, commercial, overrated package. A trip to

    Hershey Park, for example, results in Sarah nearly drowning in a vat of excrement-colored chocolate, while the crowd, described as "crucifiers of

    Jewish children," looks silently on. Later, at a Christian revival, Emily is distressed when Sarah sings and claps joyfully for Jesus. What had gone wrong? she wonders. "No God had been intended for Sarah, no religion for the child of an Episcopalian painter and a Jewish renegade. [She] was to be the child of the future, the gold at the bottom of the melting pot" (p. 40). It will take Emily many more experiences before she discovers what the reader has known from the beginning. "Marrying out" invites psychological and possibly physical destruction.

    If Emily's crises were not so painful, they would be laughable. But author Ann Roiphe clearly uses farce to portray a bleak picture of American life and values. Determined to banish her grandmother's shtetl mentality and become liberated, Emily seduces a WASP dentist. Not only is this all- American male impotent, but he blames his problems on her bad breath. Grandmother was right - in the eyes of America, Jews will always stink. But Emily doesn't give up. Drawn to an Indian reservation, "the cradle of real culture" in her fantasies, she searches for tall, proud warriors who will

    vanquish memories of stooped, overly-intellectual, passive Jews. Instead she finds broken televisions, washing machines, plastic crosses, and dirty brown diapers, one of which she is left holding.

    Exhausted, Emily seeks peace at a senior citizens' trailer park where she and her daughter bask temporarily in the affection of the elderly. But unlike her immigrant grandparents, these people have no roots, no traditions, no vitality. Their children have deserted them, just as the older people have abandoned their past for plastic, antiseptic trailers. Their generosity is

    suffocating, and only a growing determination to survive allows Emily and Sarah to escape. One