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Great Escapes, Part Two

Six more characters to spend the summer with

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Nextbook asked a dozen contributors to choose a character they’d like to meet from the wide world of Jewish fiction. The first installment of their imaginative replies appeared last month. Here is the balance, and let us know below the fictional personality you’d want to meet.

Janice Erlbaum on Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie
The All-of-a-Kind Family books were favorites of mine as a kid—the adventures of five Jewish sisters living on the Lower East Side around the turn of the century—going to Coney Island, buying penny candy, watching their dad hondle with merchants in his store. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, but for Jews! I’m going to re-order them right now.

AUDIO
This week, we bring back one of our favorite stories, from writer and performer Janice Erlbaum. Weddings are often the source of inter-generational conflict, but this one, involving a bride-to-be and her lounge-singer mother, is particularly fraught.
Listen >>

Melanie Rehak on Zooey Glass
Zooey is the youngest son of a radio-show genius family. I think I would definitely go out to have drinks and hear music with him. I picture him as this charming young man about town, this engaging intelligent actor, often a contradiction in terms. For his entire half of the book, he’s in the bathtub, rereading a letter from his eldest living brother, and he’s also reading a script and smoking cigarettes, and at one point has a whole conversation with his mother through the shower curtain. It’s sort of like his office, and as a kid, that idea really appealed to me, because you don’t have a space like that anywhere.

Douglas Century on Tod Hackett
Tod Hackett‘s a young Yale graduate with aspirations to be a great painter, and he sold them out basically to be a glorified carpenter in the Hollywood machine, designing sets. But it’s this cast of characters that he interacts with—B-level starlets and crazy dwarfs, and cowboys. There’s a description of some of these poolside opulent Beverly Hills parties of the 1930s—it just seemed like one absolute vivid Technicolor dream. They’re not nice people, and it’s a very depressing world, but I’d love to walk through that carnival.

Boris Fishman on Yakov Bok
Yakov‘s not as clannish as the rest of the shtetl, and after his wife leaves him, he decides, “I’ve had enough, I’m going to strike out for Kiev.” And he goes there and he gets tossed into prison for a crime that he didn’t commit, through which he grows from a well-meaning but small-minded individual to a person with an incredible amount of moral courage. So the outside world is a very deleterious force, but it’s also a necessary one. It’s this trip outside the shtetl that forces him to undergo this enlargement of mind and conscience. That’s the most impressive about it is that we’re not locked in to the personalities we have, we do not have to be our parents. I would love to take him to the Upper West Side, to walk down the streets with him, and hear what he makes of Jewish freedom, of Jewish engagement with the larger world, and whether the way that Jews are doing it in New York at this time has any relationship to what he went through.

Shalom Auslander on Ellerbee
If I were hanging out in the universe of Jewish fiction, it could only mean one thing, and the thing it would mean was that I was in Hell. And if my rabbis in yeshiva were correct, then I wouldn’t just be in Hell, I would be simmering in a pot of all the semen I wasted while here on Earth. So basically, if I was in Hell, and if I was simmering in a pot of my own wasted semen, I guess I wouldn’t mind if the pot next to mine happened to be the pot of Ellerbee from Stanley Elkin’s The Living End, but only after the book ended, because by then he’d be really down and pessimistic, and we could do a lot of really good bitching about God without any of that oh-but-He’s-still-merciful” crap. I’ve got to imagine that the worst thing about Hell—worse than the fire or the toil or the flaying or the beatings—will be the schmuck in the pot next to you, still believing in God’s mercy.

Ben Birnbaum on Marjorie Morningstar
Marjorie Morningstar reminded me of a certain kind of Jewish woman that I longed to save. She was growing up on the Upper West Side, far from the eastern edge of Brooklyn on Jamaica Bay where I grew up. She was a woman to whom I could only aspire, who actually knew how to shop on Fifth Avenue—the girls I knew were frankly a little more déclassé. This seemed to me, a woman who could be a wonderfully exciting, sexually and otherwise, companion. Of course it didn’t turn out that way for Marjorie. She literally gives up every passion and every piece of imagination she has. Wouk, who’s an unrequited moralist, sets her up. This is his point of view, that Marjorie reaching for freedom is going to be miserable but Marjorie accepting middle-class married existence with a fine Jewish boy, will be happy. At that time everything in my heart and soul told me something else.

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Great Escapes, Part Two

Six more characters to spend the summer with

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