What Americanization costs a Jewish family.
"The pure products of America go crazy," William Carlos Williams informs us in the poem "For Elsie." He's talking about the singular type of American peasant - peasants without traditions or culture, restlessly on the move, half homeless. It's as if something toxic in the American air casts up such people; "Somehow," Williams says, "it seems to destroy us."
At first glance, it's a long way from "Elsie" to the Birnbaums of Queens, New York, the fictional but emblematic American Orthodox family portrayed in Ehud Havazelet's "Like Never Before." The Birnbaums are hardly people without culture or traditions - as religious Jews, they are the very antithesis of such people. And yet "something" seems to destroy them.
The something is partly America, and also partly Judaism itself, or the dangerous intersection where the two meet. And it's also, of course, who they are, a family whose private burdens of love, need, anger, guilt, and disappointment engender in the children the desire to escape, to move on, even to be half homeless themselves.
A novel in the form of short stories, "Like Never Before" is an impressive piece of work. Each story stands on its own; together they create a family portrait of considerable subtlety and depth.
It is a portrait infused with a terrible sadness. To start with, a great boulder of guilt and sorrow lies buried in the family's past: In Europe, as a teenager, Maxim Birnbaum was forced to abandon his older brother to the Nazis. When we meet the family in America about a dozen years after the war, Maxim is married, the father of a son and daughter, and has become (in a painful disappointment to his rabbi father) a yeshivah high school teacher. The family practices the kind of airless - or maybe just clueless - Old Country Orthodoxy that soon becomes irrelevant to the American-born children.
The family TV, Hollywood movies, baseball, American books - these open a road that leads where the parents could never imagine either themselves or their children traveling. Could Rachel's European mother, washing dishes after Shabbat, conceive that her 15-year-old daughter is at that moment casually surrendering her virginity in a play area just outside the house to a boyfriend who will never call her again? Could the scholarly, ineffectual Maxim understand that the combination of pride, expectation and disapproval he offers his son so blocks David that it twists inside him into something like hatred of his father?
Rachel survives adolescence by keeping her true self hidden from her parents, while David develops into a troublemaker, given to sudden cruelties, locked in endless warfare with his father. To the parents, the children's lives are emblems of disappointment and failure. Nearing middle age, David has a wife and two children of his own, but to create this life, he has rejected his father, his past, his career as an architect, moved across the continent, and married a non-Jew; now he works as a nurseryman and mechanic - mere trades - and scrabbles to make ends meet; he and his father have no idea how to speak to one another. Rachel has a job she likes and a skein of men she loves, none of them Jewish, and at 40 remains unmarried and childless.
Rachel's "twin" cousin Leah (the most successful story in the book is named for her), takes the alternate path. Though she goes through torments in seeking a husband, she succeeds finally in becoming an Orthodox wife and mother, fruitful and content. But because this success stems in part from a narrowed conventionality, one cannot help but feel toward her, as Rachel does, a wistful pity.
Combining broad narrative strokes and careful detail, "Like Never Before" succeeds so well as a work of literature that it may serve also as an intimate Jewish sociology. On one level, it particularizes the continuing tragedy that stalks so many families of Holocaust survivors; not least, in these stories, that by the generation of the grandchildren, Maxim's rabbi father has no Jewish inheritors at all.
It is also a volume that the triumphalists of American Orthodoxy, puffed up by the reversal of Orthodox decline, might read with profit. Orthodoxy really knows no better than Reform how to confront the "something" in America that "seems to destroy us," and the statistics suggest that the number of "returners" to the Orthodox fold is still exceeded by the flight of native Orthodox.
The writing throughout these stories is a pleasure - tight, ironic, emotionally powerful. Havazelet's range is admirable, he paints settings and characters with a quick grace, and he has both a good sense of the farcical - always a valuable tool in dealing with Jewish families - and a dependable sense of restraint to match.
This is the second book from the Israeli-born, U.S.-raised Havazelet, who teaches today at the University of Oregon. His first, a collection of stories not much concerned with Jewish life, received generally favorable reviews and won the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award when it was published 11 years ago. One hopes not to have to wait another decade to hear from him again.