It’s one of the professional hazards of writing for a Jewish magazine that you begin to reflexively excavate Jewish subtext in popular culture where probably (and preferably) none was intended. In this realm of thought, Downton Abbey becomes a toff re-imagining of Fiddler on the Roof, True Blood a cautionary tale on the trials of assimilation (or anti-Semitic blood libel, take your pick), and the Harry Potter saga an elaborate magical allegory for the Holocaust (although did she really have to make the inhuman goblins hook-nosed and bankers?). So many Jews, lurking around every corner, casting their shadow over every aspect of society and culture, no matter how unrelated! One almost starts to understand how the anti-Semites feel. Mel Gibson, c’est moi.
It’s a relief, then, to come across something like Francesca Segal’s skillfully rendered and delightful debut novel, The Innocents, which subverts the paradigm by putting the inferable Yiddishkeit of an iconic work front and center. In her Hebraized—and cleverly literal—retelling of The Age of Innocence, Segal substitutes Edith Wharton’s Gilded-Age Manhattan upper crust for the tightly knit Jewish community of north London suburb Temple Fortune (disclosure: My husband was born, if not raised, in precisely such environs). The primly vacillating Newland Archer is converted into Adam Newman, a thirty-ish lawyer and professional Nice Jewish Boy beginning to feel hemmed in by all the Shabbat dinners and mandatory chauffeuring of old ladies and unimaginative sexual positions and wondering if there might be some sort of wonderful wonders awaiting him in the glamorous world of gentiles. Newland’s intended, the innocent May Welland, becomes Rachel Gilbert, Adam’s recent fiancée and girlfriend since high school (they met on a teen tour of Israel and were instantly smitten; readers—not to mention Rachel’s parents—may be forgiven for asking what took them so long); Ellen Olenska, the wounded temptress who entices Newland to stray from the well-traveled path of propriety, finds her counterpart in Rachel’s cousin Ellie Schneider, a 6-foot-tall, 22-year-old blonde Jewish supermodel. If that last one strikes you as a little, shall we say, unlikely, then congratulations! You’re as self-hating as I am.
At first glance, the parallels Segal draws are remarkably, even ingeniously, cunning—the close, nearly incestuous bonds of the community she describes, with its endless and inescapable litanies of marriages and deaths and who is related to whom and who flunked out of medical school and who is getting a divorce and why and when will she be ready to date again and where’s the shiva, uncannily mirrors Wharton’s insularity (not to mention my own; an early description of the congregation standing in silent judgment of each other during a Friday night service made me close the book for few minutes of quiet, hyperventilating panic). The Jews of North London, it seems, occupy a biosphere all their own. Outsiders who wander into their midst—a convert upon marriage; a university friend of Adam’s who happens to be Jewish on the wrong half—are either quickly subsumed or sentenced to suffer a kind of shadow membership in the club, i.e., they can eat at the snack bar but can’t use the pool.
Given the pointed sense of place and loving wealth of detail Segal supplies, I have no doubt that she is as intimately familiar with her setting as Wharton was with hers. But this raises a question: Why, exactly, are these people so isolated? Or rather, perhaps more pertinently, why have they chosen to isolate themselves?
In The Age of Innocence, the answer is clear: Wharton’s characters occupy the very pinnacle of 19th-century New York society. Should they break any of the unspoken (and spoken) strictures regulating such a rarified stratum, there’s nowhere to go but down. And as Lily Barth in The House of Mirth illustrates, down means all the way down—broke, friendless, coughing-up-blood-on-the-filthy-sheets-of-the-boardinghouse-you’re-about-to-be-evicted-from down.
In 21st-century London, where everybody, even most of the royal family, gets to do pretty much whatever they want, the stakes are necessarily quite a bit lower. If Adam chooses to follow his heart (and schmeckl; in books like these they are so often the same thing) and leave poor Rachel for Ellie, who is sexy and unpredictable and effortlessly thin, what will really happen? True, he might have to leave his cushy job at his father-in-law’s law firm; but he’s a qualified attorney! Surely he could find another job. The yentas would have plenty to discuss. His mother would certainly be pretty pissed off, but she’s not going to stop speaking forever to her only son. Adam, ever logistical even in his deepest flights of fantasy, acknowledges this to himself. A Jewish son of Adam’s caliber is too valuable an asset to be allowed to fade from the fold. The Community, however rattled, would forgive, if not forget.
Who would not forgive (apart, of course, from Rachel) is Adam himself. To give in to his desires would forever taint his image of himself as a dutiful Jewish son, a good person, a mensch—more than his love for his wife, or any love for his community (although Segal pays deft and touching tribute to his love affair with his own image, his own goodness).
This sense of rectitude, explicit in The Age of Innocence and implicit here, is the dark side of self-segregation, if not its root. Other people might do whatever they want, but not us, because we know better, and therefore are better, than anyone else.
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