Young-adult novelist Norma Klein taught me about sex and feminism, in a very Jewish world
What I remember most from Norma Klein’s 1983 novel Beginner’s Love—what was, actually, seared into my impressionable young brain—is a description of 17-year-old Leda Boroff’s nipples: as seen by her prostrate boyfriend, Joel Davis, they “touched the tip of my nose, like soft flower petals.” I read the book sometime in the early ’90s, when I was telling anyone who would listen that I was a “preteen.” That scene felt momentous, and instructive.
Joel and Leda started dating soon after they met outside a movie theater (at the time, Leda was wearing two buttons: “Castrate Rapists” and “He’s Cute, But Can He Type?”). They fell in love, lost their virginities to one another with tenderness but without excessive drama, fought a bit, and agonized about where to go to college. Then Leda found out she was pregnant, and the young couple had the following exchange:
“Do you think I should have the baby?” Leda asked in a very low voice, looking down at her lap.
“There aren’t very many Jewish babies,” she said, sniffing, trying to smile. “There’d be nine million people who’d want it. I could probably sell it for a year’s tuition at Yale.”
Reading this passage today, many years after poring over the book for the first time, I was taken aback. Of course I remembered the sex and the abortion and the nipples (and the radical feminism!), but the pervasive Jewishness of the novel was a revelation. Though Klein’s books loom large in my memory, that memory is apparently incomplete—whether a result of hasty reading, inattentiveness, or just the passage of time. These books, I figured, were worth revisiting both for what I remembered and what I might, in my voraciousness, have missed.
Norma Klein wrote some 30 books for adults and young adults from 1972 until her untimely death in 1989, at age 50. (They’re all now out of print.) I first discovered them when I was 11 or 12, during my ritual weekend pillaging of our public library’s YA section, where her many novels lived on a plastic revolving rack in un-alphabetized disarray, their warped paperback husks pressed up against those by Paul Zindel, Lois Duncan, and Norma Fox Mazer. As a category, YA was and remains vague; in my experience it tended to attract kids whose ages and bodies hadn’t yet caught up with their fascinations, and who would move on to the grown-up stuff by the time they turned 13.
In Klein’s stories, everyone lives or ends up in New York, a city populated by secular Jews who keep yellowing back issues of the New York Review of Books stacked on their coffee tables (and where Klein herself was born and lived for most of her life). The parents are often professors or writers, friendly, progressive types who love their children but insist on having their own lives, too. They all own The Joy of Sex and are happy to discuss its contents with their precocious, introspective offspring, but those kids would rather study it furtively on their own. There are affairs, divorces, abortions, ardent feminists, gay characters, and lots of sex—all portrayed with Klein’s distinctive casualness and honesty, at a time when nearly all of those things were destined to stir up controversy. Predictably, her signature candor attracted critics: several of her books were banned from libraries, and her 1985 novel Family Secrets is on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.
For Klein, sex was a natural part of life, no more or less complicated than anything else. Like where to go to college, where to stand politically, and how to feel about your parents, romance and sex were things to be figured out—not before you were ready, to be sure, but why wait to get started? Some of Klein’s critics argued that she arrived too easily at happy endings, an occasional casualty of her determination to show that sexual liberation could actually be, well, liberating. To her, sexuality was about selfhood. Surrounded by books, art, politics, and family, it became a lot less scary, and a lot more real.
As a kid, I plunged straight into the deep end with That’s My Baby (1988), in which high school senior and aspiring playwright Paul Gold has an affair with a married 22-year-old named Zoe Bernstein. I read No More Saturday Nights (1988), the story of a nice, small town guy who gets his classmate pregnant; when she decides to give the baby up for adoption, he resolves to raise the child himself while attending Columbia University. I read Domestic Arrangements (1981), which finds 14-year-old fledgling starlet Tatiana Engelberg nonchalantly detailing her sexual awakening (“[Daddy] takes everything very hard, which is probably why he got so hysterical last night when he found Joshua and me fucking in the bathroom at four in the morning”).
Growing up, Klein attended New York’s progressive Dalton and Elizabeth Irwin schools, where seemingly everyone came from a family of “extremely liberal left wing Jews,” as she explained in a 1989 autobiographical sketch published in an anthology about YA authors. Her father was a psychoanalyst, and in their home, “Freud had replaced the God in whom my father had decided early on he didn’t believe.” Klein graduated from Barnard in 1960, where she majored in Russian, and earned a master’s degree in Slavic languages from Columbia in 1963. That same year, she married Erwin Fleissner, a Rhodes Scholar and biochemist, who—despite a name sounding Jewish enough that it may have led Life magazine to reject him as the subject of a 1957 article on the ideal American college student (at least according to a 1998 history of the Rhodes program)—was not Jewish. Her marriage, she writes, taught her that the “wry, Woody Allen-ish sensibility based on a mocking inner commentary,” which she’d thought universal, was in fact not.
Yet in nearly all of her books, a protagonist pauses to offer a relaxed aside that testifies to his or her Jewish background—something Klein’s characters tend to embrace ambivalently and question constantly. Brett, the main character in Klein’s first novel, Mom, the Wolf Man and Me (1972), confides, “It’s odd: Grandma, Grandpa and Mom are Jewish, but they never talk about it or do anything about it except make jokes sometimes. But [my friend] Andrew’s family really talks about it all the time. They think it’s strange that I don’t know anything about it.” Caroline, a shy high school senior who falls in love with her chemistry teacher in Love is One of the Choices (1978), “wasn’t Jewish herself, although almost everyone in the school was, and she was utterly unable to tell who was and who wasn’t the way Maggie, who was, could at a glance.” In Klein’s 1976 adult novel, Girls Turn Wives (a women’s-lib relic with a cover declaring it “The novel women won’t tell their husbands about!”), Levi King gets an offer to be a visiting scientist at a lab in Tel Aviv, and explains that he wants to go partly because “It’s really important to me as a Jew, to find my roots.” When his wife Hannah protests, pointing out that he never goes to synagogue, he says, “That’s different. Here it’s a farce.”
In Klein’s books, Jewishness is a basic fact and a reference point, something for her characters to define themselves in accordance with, or, more frequently, against. Characters speculate about the effect their Jewishness has on their appearance, opinions, and appetites. In Taking Sides, Klein’s 1983 novel about divorce, 13-year-old Nell relates, “Daddy always says it’s because of his Jewish genes—his mother was Jewish—that he likes terribly rich things.” My Life as a Body, from 1987, is the story of smart, gawky Augie Lloyd falling in love with a wheelchair-bound former athlete named Sam Feldman. Augie describes Sam’s mother as “A Jewish Mary Tyler Moore.… By which I mean [she has] a sense of style, of restraint, a touch more warmth, but a professional kind of warmth.” Her own mother is not Jewish, while her father is—mixed marriages are common throughout Klein’s body of work.
Though it was the forthright sexuality I remember most from reading Klein as a kid, it’s clear upon rereading that her consideration of Jewish identity is not unrelated. In 1977’s It’s OK If You Don’t Love Me, 17-year-old Jody Epstein suggests to her boyfriend’s Catholic sister, Renee, that she take care of her unwanted pregnancy by having an abortion. Renee is appalled. “Who is this Jewish atheist kid who has seduced my poor innocent baby brother?” Jody imagines her thinking. Hannah, in Girls Turn Wives, looks back on how she first charmed her husband with a mix of pride and embarrassment: “He had enjoyed it, but it hadn’t seemed quite kosher—a Jewish girl tumbling so easily into bed and enjoying it to boot.”
Klein’s Jews are the mainstream, but they’re still wary of others drawing conclusions from their religious orientation. Tellingly, they tend to be skeptical about all religions—though Judaism is cast in the better light than most, as a faith (or here, really a cultural allegiance) that offers multiple interpretations and levels of commitment, perfect for characters who are figuring out their place in the world. It’s OK If You Don’t Love Me is Klein’s rare book to deal with the idea that Jews might be seen as somehow different. Jody Epstein gets involved with Lyle Alexander, “a real non-New Yorker” (to her, this means he’s a virgin and doesn’t know any Jews). Early in their relationship, Jody meets some of Lyle’s family, and out of the blue, his brother-in-law starts talking about Israel. “It took me awhile to catch on to the fact that he was saying all this because he’d heard I was Jewish and he wanted to make me feel at ease,” Jody considers.
“It’s sort of ironical, considering how everyone in our family is supposedly a raving atheist. But I didn’t exactly feel I could say ‘Look, folks, cool the Jewish thing,’ because basically they were just trying to be polite…. At the same time I kept wondering what Lyle had said to them. Had he said, ‘I met this girl and she’s Jewish,’ as though that was the most important thing ever about me?”
Jody also has her share of hang-ups about what being Jewish is supposed to mean. She’s always really liked sports, even though she’s “read in all these magazines that Jewish girls aren’t supposed to be interested in sports, that they’re afraid they’ll get their hair messed up, stupid stereotypes like that.” When Lyle beats her at tennis and claims he doesn’t really care about his victory, Jody does some pigeonholing of her own: “Maybe that’s because you’re not Jewish. Jews always want to win, to be the best.”
When I first read these books, I was living inside my own Jewish bubble, some 50 miles north of Klein’s New York City. Both my parents worked in the liberal Jewish world—my father as a Reform rabbi, my mother as an educator—and my life was suffused with Judaism in a way that didn’t require much thought or effort on my part. The world of freethinking, secular Jews was Klein’s comfort zone, and it was mine, too.
So maybe it just seemed obvious to me that the characters I identified with would be Jews: though I read books about people of all ethnicities and religions, Jewish kids and teens figured prominently into enough of them that Klein’s didn’t feel like an exception to me then. Readers of all ages are always latching onto fictional characters because of what they have in common, so it makes sense that I would have related to Jody, Augie, and Leda based on what we shared.
As an ultra-receptive preteen, though, I wasn’t reading to confirm what I already knew. It was these characters’ differences from me—their fledgling adulthood, their trysts and experiments—that really held promise, and kept me skimming for the dirty parts.