Here I Am book review

Book review of Here I Am:  Contemporary Jewish Stories from Around the World, edited by Marsha Lee Berkman and Elaine Marcus Starkman (Jewish Publication Society, 1998).

The review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News.

When I scan my bookshelves at home, I see lots and lots of Jewish fiction.  We are a people of the book, and as this century comes to a close we are writing about ourselves more than ever.  I hunger for stories about contemporary Jewish life, for which of us does not like to read stories about ourself?

For these reasons, I was particularly excited about the release of the new book Here I Am:  Contemporary Jewish Stories from Around the World, edited by Marsha Lee Berkman and Elaine Marcus Starkman.  At 433 pages (plus another 30 of biographies and bibliographies), this promises to be the up-to-date compendium of world Jewish fiction.  And Here I Am does deliver – at least mostly:  there are some stories of aching emotion, of such poignancy and feeling that I was left in tears.  

Here I Am gives a great introduction to a number of lesser-known writers – avoiding the old trilogy of classic Jewish American writers – Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow.  Many of the writers and stories in Here I Am are almost impossible to find in bookshops (unless you delight in ordering books from University of Syracuse Press via amazon.com).  I particularly enjoyed (yes, her real name) Persis Knobbe’s story “Here I Am” (after which the whole book is named); Cynthia Ozick’s classic “Puttermesser:  Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife” about a Jewish woman working as a lawyer in New York City; the fascinating Ethiopian “Escape Westward” by Shmuel Avraham; and Savyon Liebrecht’s “A Room on the Roof” (Israel).  My collection favourite is “Madagascar”, by Steven Schwartz, about the narrator’s relationship with his Holocaust survivor father.  Schwartz’ prose is gentle, but the emotions are searing, and I will be seeking to read just about everything else this man has written.

With two female editors, it is not surprising that women are well-represented in the selections, with 13 out of the 35 stories written by women.  A full 22 stories are translated, and these translations are uniformly excellent, although Australian readers may be bothered by the American idiomatic language used throughout.  This does tend to homogenise the book slightly, which will probably not be noticed in the USA (the primary market for Here I Am), but is obvious in the non-North American Diaspora.  (World Jewish stories edited outside the USA would inevitably have a much different feel, selection and tone.)

Here I Am is terribly ambitious, and probably promises too much, ultimately not delivering on all that it suggests it will.  Here are stories from around the world:  the USA, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Italy, England, Germany, Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, Russia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, South Africa, Australia, China, Ethiopia, Iraq, Egypt and Israel.  With the exception of the USA (seven stories), Canada (two) and Israel (five), each country is represented by only one story.  Australia’s contribution is “Two Years in Exile”, a lovely migrant-becoming-Australian piece by Serge Liberman, originally published in On Firmer Shores (Globe Press, 1981).  As wonderful as this story is, how can it somehow represent all of Australian Jewish writing, particularly when a number of edited collections (such as Alan Jacobs’ just published Enough Already) exist?

Here I Am acts as a follow-up (of sorts) to the very successful book Writing Our Way Home:  Contemporary Stories by American Jewish Writers (Schocken Books, 1992), although the earlier book seemed to “hang together” a bit more.  Another problem with Here I Am is that its definition of “contemporary” includes stories written or translated since 1975 – a span of almost 25 years.  This makes the collection neither particularly recent, nor is it necessarily “classic”, sitting somewhere uncertainly in-between.

While these problems are irritating, they are by no means major.  The editors have made Here I Am intelligent and reader-friendly, and have chosen frequently captivating pieces for inclusion.  The biography, bibliography and “further reading” sections are up-to-date and will set the interested reader on many months of modern Jewish literary enjoyment.

The editors note that “Today Jews are characterised not only by what we have in common, but also by our differences”, and that “the anthology illustrates the way in which the common threads of Jewish communities all over the world are transmuted into certain universal themes.”  These themes include the psychological aftermath of the Holocaust, shared cultural and religious memories, the experience of Diaspora and exile and migration, fear of assimilation, the search for an authentic Jewish culture, Jewish ritual, the centrality of Israel in the Jewish imagination, Jewish humour in all of its forms and the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenzi Jews.

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