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My Jewish Mother Was a Communist, and Other Tales of Lost Leftists

Jonathan Lethem’s new novel ‘Dissident Gardens’ traces three generations of American Jewish radicalism

Adam Kirsch
September 03, 2013
(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

Dissident Gardens, the new novel by Jonathan Lethem, offers a fascinating snapshot of our moment in the evolution of Jewish cultural memory. There is, one might say, a 50-year horizon for cultural memory, corresponding roughly to the lifespan of an adult. Once a period of history gets to be 50 years old, the sun of memory sets over that horizon and is replaced by the moonlight of myth. Moonlight is more romantic and produces shadows and glints that are invisible by day. But it is also not very good to see by; and myth never displays the past as accurately as history does, or tries to.

As time goes on, many kinds of modern Jewish experience have slipped over the horizon of memory and exist for us now only as myth. It happened to the old world of Eastern European Jewry, which now appears to us, most inaccurately, as a sepia image of shtetls and piety. It happened to the first generation of American Jewish immigrants—the Lower East Side of tenements and pushcarts and All-of-a-Kind Family. For the last 10 years, it has been happening very notably with the Holocaust, which has become a dark inspiration for legions of American Jewish novelists and filmmakers. And now, Dissident Gardens suggests, it is happening with American Jewish leftism—once a vital politics, then a set of cultural signifiers, and now a dissolving dreamscape.

Dissident Gardens is built around an ingenious and fruitful conceit. Lethem traces three generations of an American Jewish family, showing how its tradition of radicalism mutates to meet the fashions of each new decade, and leaving us with the question of whether that radicalism still exists in any meaningful form. The matriarch of this family is Rose Zimmer, whom we meet on the novel’s first page as she is being expelled from the Sunnyside Gardens branch of the American Communist Party: “Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party,” is the book’s arresting first line.

Rose represents, or is meant to represent, the stern Jewish Communists of the 1930s and 1940s—the disciplined souls who followed the party line through all its meanderings. Her husband, Albert, is also a Party member, but from a very different Jewish background. While Rose comes from proletarian Queens, Albert is a refugee from Germany, bringing with him the manners and cultivation of the Old World’s haute bourgeoisie. It’s no wonder, then, that their union eventually dissolves, when Albert, after the war, is ordered by the Party to go back to East Germany to help build socialism there.

He leaves Rose with a daughter, Miriam, who will grow up to rebel against and, inevitably, reenact her mother’s extremism. Miriam, whom we first glimpse as a sexually adventurous teenager, marries another kind of American progressive—a Greenwich Village folksinger named Peter Gogan—and settles into a 1960s utopia of communal living, protests, and pot smoking. She, too, has one child, a son, with the most un-Jewish name of Sergius Gogan. Yet by the end of the novel we see that Sergius, too, after a childhood marked by a decisive trauma, remains partly connected to his Jewish and radical past, as he starts to explore the Occupy movement.

There is also a crucial collateral branch of this family tree. The black policeman Rose is told to stop consorting with—of course, she refuses—is named Douglas Lookins, and he has a son, the brilliant, obese, and gay Cicero Lookins. Rose takes Cicero under her wing, and he too grows up to be a radical, though of a very different and rather dubious kind: a professor of critical theory, stripping illusions from young minds at a small liberal-arts college in Maine. Cicero, who is probably the best, most convincing character in the book, thinks of Rose all these years later as his “spirit animal,” and we see him engaged in long, acrimonious talks with her ghostly memory.

Yet when, early in the novel, Sergius comes to him asking for information about the grandmother he barely knew, Cicero refuses to reconnect him with Rose: “Why should Cicero Lookins choose to be Sergius Gogan’s magical negro, his Bagger Vance, his Obama to entice him through a ‘teachable moment’?” Neither Cicero nor her natural daughter Miriam, in fact, want anything to do with Rose. That is because she is, as Lethem portrays her, a seething pit of grievance and resentment, who during one argument actually sticks Miriam’s head into an oven and threatens to gas her to death.

The Holocaust associations of such an act are not lost on Miriam, or on the reader. Indeed, the confusion of the historical and the personal, of public grievance and private fury, is the very definition of Rose as a character, as Miriam reflects:

Within her mother was a volcano of death. Rose had spent her whole life stoking it, trying to keep the mess inside contained but fuming. In Rose’s lava of disappointment the ideals of American Communism had gone to die their slow death eternally; Rose would never die precisely because she needed to live forever, a flesh monument, commemorating socialism’s failure as an intimate wound.

Here we see the central idea of Dissident Gardens, which is also its central weakness. Politics, for Lethem, can only be conceived in characterological terms. This is a sign that he is a novelist of our own time, which believes in individuals and not classes or movements. In his understanding of Rose, being a Communist is somehow the same thing as being sexually promiscuous and a resentful mother and a neighborhood busybody; all these are expressions of the inner “volcano” that makes her, and everybody around her, miserable. At her core, in fact, Rose is simply a Jewish mother from hell, and if Dissident Gardens is on one level a story about radical inheritances, it is at the same time about the inheritance of trauma—the multigenerational effects of a monster in the family.

The problem with this equation is that it falsifies the reality of what left politics meant to Jews of Rose’s generation. Rose’s Communism is central to the novel’s scheme, but it functions more like an afterthought, because we never see her doing any of the things that real Communists did. Lethem does not explore, for instance, the iron-gray world of Communist language, perhaps because it is so foreign from his own incessantly, even tiringly “colorful” style. (The prose in Dissident Gardens is, like Dreiser’s, alive despite its intense clumsiness, replete with mixed metaphors, circumlocution, and pointlessly dropped pronouns.) The political details, especially when it comes to the career of Albert Zimmer, fail to make sense. This is not, one feels, the way American Jewish Communists thought, spoke, or acted.

It makes sense that with each subsequent generation, as he approaches his own time, Lethem becomes more sure-footed and convincing. Miriam Zimmer’s milieu is imaginatively and wittily rendered. We hear, for instance, about the resentment of the early-1960s Greenwich Village folk scene as it gets wiped out by the tidal wave that was Bob Dylan:

And so, to think yourself defined, however cursory one’s own talent, by immersion in a collective voicing deeper than that of which any sole practitioner could be capable, and then to have every third remark be did you ever open for Dylan, did you ever meet Dylan, was Dylan there is Dylan coming was it like Dylan I think I saw Dylan he’s a second-rate Dylan he’s no Dylan at all and why don’t just pull down the signs and rename all the streets here Dylan.

It is toward the end of the novel, when Sergius and Cicero become the main characters, that Dissident Gardens really hits its stride. The story of the child Sergius, raised by teachers at a Quaker boarding school, and of the young adult Cicero, having his sexual education in pre-AIDS New York, have a specificity that Rose and even Miriam’s stories lack. Notably, with these characters, Jewishness and Communism basically depart the novel, to be replaced by more hybrid American identities and more identity-based notions of politics. Our world is what Dissident Gardens knows best; the world of our fathers remains stubbornly out of its grasp.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.