Tag Archives: Jewish identity

Review: Rich Boy

Class and wealth dominate the pages of the novel Rich Boy, and the reader is cognizant that it is a primary concern for the protagonist, Robert Vishniak, as he aspires to gain favors that will allow him to move up in the societal stratum.

Vishniak is from a working class Jewish family who live in Philadelphia. He is self-indulgent, and with his handsomeness, charm, and superficial exterior. His mother, Stacia has continually hammered into him the fact that he needs to make money in order to become a respected person, and in order to move up in society’s ladder.

He is constantly embarrassed by his mother, and her old school ways and train of thought. Yet, those words do prove helpful to him in his quest for success and identity in a world where money and financial gain speak volumes. He works at odd jobs, and drives a cab to earn money in order to make his way through college. Nothing is too menial for him.

Vishniak manages to forge his way into the upper end of the social echelon. This occurs during his time at university where meets others who come from respectable upper class families, families whose wealth can buy them anything, and families whose American roots are firmly planted in the ancestral realm.

He is quick with the verbalizing, and fast with the conveyance of a charming attitude. One of his fall backs is the fact that he doesn’t exhibit the manners befitting those who belong to the upper class circle. His roommate at college teaches him the proper etiquette to be used in varied situations. From there he is presented with new opportunities.

He has several superficial relationships, some that end due to his immaturity. He is good at seduction, to his own undoing. He falls for a young woman with angelic charm, and a woman who he doesn’t truly know, emotionally. His feelings stem from the external appearance she presents to him. The fact that he can not see what is occurring before his eyes is what coats this relationship with doom (I won’t go into the circumstances, as it will spoil it for you). He does marry, eventually, to a woman of great wealth, and a woman whose father has dictated her every move, financially. He is hired to work for his father-in-law’s law firm, where he literally begins to work from the bottom up.

Some of Vishniak’s success has depended on interactions with others, yet, most of it is due to his own resources, endeavors and capabilities. He is a quick learner, an avid and hard worker, and is striving to meet his goal of making a salary that will qualify to support his wife as an equal in contributing to the family finances. He is not secure in that fact, and often feels that his success lies on the actions and directions put forth by others. He has a definite ability in the legal maneuvers and management of real estate, and great potential in becoming future partner in his father-in-law’s law firm. This, is all on his own merit.

Pomerantz’s prose is spot on, direct and strong, and she adeptly manages to convey the working class Jewish American experience brilliantly. She masterfully portrays the characters, and this reader felt that they were realized in every aspect. The wealthy background of some of them, doesn’t help them succeed as far as their emotional intelligence is concerned. They appear as insecure as some of their less wealthy counterparts. Their mindsets, emotions, successes and failings are all depicted in vivid word imagery, and depicted with realistic personality traits, in all their variances.

Vishniak has the brains and the good looks, and can present an excellent appearance, but it takes him years to realize that he has actually made it as far as he has on is own, through his own expertise. It takes his having a child for him to understand and realize what is truly important in the scheme of life. Money does not necessarily buy contentment and happiness. It might be a means to an end, as the euphemism goes, but it can also turn out to be the end of meaningfulness.

Rich Boy is an excellent coming of age story, and a novel that emphasizes the journey of one Jewish American man to find identity and acceptance on his own, in a world of social status and extreme wealth. I applaud Sharon Pomerantz for this well-written, poignant and insightful story.

~~~~~~

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Book Diva Review: Hester Among the Ruins

hesteramongtheruins Hester Among the Ruins, by Binnie Kirshenbaum is a thought provoking novel. Kirshenbaum’s writing is filled with insight and depth, and she approaches love, and what defines it, be it lust, intimacy, truth, betrayal, forgiveness, imagination, denial and historical legacy. All of the above attributes are explored in this beautiful and heartfelt novel.

Kirshenbaum brings us two lovers, Peter Falk, a German Professor (who has some clouded-over concepts and ideals, and can not even bring himself to say the word ‘Jew’) and Hester Rosenfeld, an author (Jewish, but not practicing. She also has clouded-over concepts and ideals, and in a state of constant denial, who can not bring herself to forgive her parents for the ideals she feels they forced on her). Each one brings their history, their past and their truth, into their present, and their relationship, in this dark, and sometimes comical novel.

Hester has traveled to Germany to do research, and her adviser is Peter. Once there a pattern emerges within their relationship, and an affair begins. The affair and other issues cause her to investigate Peter’s background. By doing that she forms a biography about his life.

Within the boundaries of her research, she begins to ponder her own German ancestry. Kirshenbaum is brilliant with word-images, and with defining Hester and her emotions, whether through comical episodes or serious ones.

What is truth for one person isn’t necessarily so for another. For me, the book was a well-written book, with wonderful word images, and with insight into human behavior, human acceptance, and also lack of acceptance in an intimate relationship. It makes the reader wonder about historical legacy, and what is acceptable in relationships when two people come from opposite ends of the history chain. I highly recommend Hester Among the Ruins, by Binnie Kirshenbaum to those who question history, acceptance and what defines truth and boundaries, in relationships.

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Book Diva Review: Bread Givers

bread givers Bread Givers, by Anzia Yezierska is a compelling book, not only in its vivid descriptions of life in Manhattan during the 1910s-1920s, but also its look into an Orthodox Jewish family, and its standards. It is a coming of age story, of the youngest of three children.

The familial patriarch is Rabbi Smolinksy, and his wife is Shenah, who is in awe of him, despite her nagging manner. His interactions, decisions and doctrine influence his daughters, Fania, Bessie, Mashah, and Sara in ways that mold their lives, in a negative manner. The three older daughters go along with his dogmatic and fanatical whims and attitude. His manipulations, rants and raves eventually cause them to give in to his dictates. The youngest daughter, Sara, learns at the age of ten, about the family dynamics, and how each daughter was expected to turn over their entire income to support the family. She learns what she wants early in life, due to her father’s looming presence and demands. She is very strong-willed. Family life is seen through her eyes, and they are the eyes of a three-dimensional person, a person of substance and depth.

She begins to sell herring at the age of ten in order to help support the family. In the back of her mind she is determined to be independent, and not to be lead through life by her father’s decisions. His decisions are often determined due to the fact that he is ignorant in the ways of American life. Rabbi Smolinsky is ignorant in the area of business dealings, and the dealings of life in general. He is bound by Eastern European tradition, and religious tradition, which he enforces with his harsh vocalizations. No man is good enough for his older daughters, despite the fact that they want to marry particular individuals. He finds fault with all of them, and he ends up choosing who they marry, and they do not live happily ever after. His determinations and final edicts are not necessarily positive ones for his daughters, but somehow decisions that gain him some monetary dowry or enhancement.

Rabbi Smolinsky lives by the text of the Talmud, in every aspect. In fact the Talmud is quoted through much of the book to justify why he acts the way he does. He uses religion to enhance his decisions, and is fanatical about vocalizing the teachings, to the extent that hourly and daily life is disrupted. He is a tyrant, a bully, a man of many words, words that are emotionally disgruntling. He hangs on tightly to every thread of his Eastern Europe culture and life style, unable to adjust to change, unable to assimilate into the modern world. While his wife and four daughters struggle to earn money to survive with the basics, he deals with his studies, unaware of the reality of life. They beg him to work, even part time, he refuses, and goes back to his studies, even if it means they go hungry. He is a pampered individual, and his every desire is what rules the family. He is not a responsible person, and his family suffers greatly. I found him to be pathetic, in the way he used and manipulated his daughters for his own benefit.

Sara, meanwhile, has decided she will not succumb to her father’s domination, and his demands. She will not let him marry her off to someone she doesn’t love. She leaves home at the age of 17, finds a dark room to rent, works, saves money, and puts herself through college. She is a woman of strength and determination, which is what allows her to reach her goals. She has an identity, at a young age, and is discontent with the way the females of the family are treated. Yet, with her independence, she is often bound to her familial ties. Love hate relationships were strong within the pages.


Yezierska
is brilliant in her writing, strong in her ability to depict tradition and assimilation into the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Tradition and modern America do not blend together in a positive fashion, in this novel. Sara is not the ideal of the Rabbi’s daughter.

Yezierska weaves a story that incorporates struggles, both emotional and mental, within the pages. Women are considered to be less than life, to be used, manipulated and abused for the gain of the family patriarch. Female identity and immigrant assimilation are major forces that Yezierska evokes within the pages. The conflicts are vividly written, and the reader feels the emotions behind the words. It is a look into the early twentieth century, and Jewish life within the confines of immigration and steadfast ideals.

Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers is a masterpiece, and an inspiring one at that. Linguistics is a force within the pages, and Sara literally works her way through high school, and learns to speak correct English. Yezierska brings honor, determination and strength to Sara, and shows how through all of Sara’s sacrifices, she was able to reach her dream. She rose from poverty to a position of respect, and did it on her own. She was able to conquer her fears and accomplish her goals. The masterful writing of Anzia Yezierska has given us an inspiring character to admire. The book has much historical value, giving the reader a perspective on the Jewish immigrant experience, and bringing the reader insight into the life of Jews trying to assimilate. The past is ever present, no matter how hard we try to leave it behind. One world was trying to compete with another, and not always successfully, as culture clashes were abundant.

I highly recommend Bread Givers. It is an extremely illuminating novel, on many levels.

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The Counterlife, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth has long been one of my favorite male authors, and in his novel, The Counterlife, I am reminded of his ability to blend the bizarre twists and turns that life throws us into a work of art that resounds with his full range and depth of literary intensity.

Nathan and Henry Zuckerman are estranged brothers, so very different, yet unaware how much alike they actually are. Nathan is an author, Henry is a dentist. For one of them, the reason for living borders on being able to be sexually active. In this respect, he decides to undergo surgery in order to counteract that problem. Even though the surgery could kill him, he elects to take that chance, all in the name of sexual identity. It is his counter life, to fit a desired outcome, a longing for what many of us want, a home, a family, marriage, and the “idealized” life.

Nathan, has long been estranged from Henry, and as an author, seems to live through his brother, writing novels whose characters include Henry. He has a counterlife through his stories, his fantasies and fiction, and his identity is one that is alive due to Henry. Although he is a prolific author in his own right, his works are derived from Henry’s life.

Therein lies the clue in this well written novel. The issue of identity, and what it means to us, is at the core of the story line. What one will do, in order to preserve identity, to create the life we long for, and what we view as our Self, our essence, is the soul of the book. The characters each invent a counter life, a life invented, a life created, in order to transfer their current life, into one they believe is better. The reader is exposed to the characters fears and how they choose to rewrite their own histories.

From travels to Israel, and connecting with one’s Jewish spirituality, to funeral attendance, and delivering a eulogy, from the streets of the U.S, to France, and England, we are confronted with issues of identity, including spirtiual, emotional, sexual, and all the levels and tiers in between. We are confronted with our own questions of identity, who we are, what we believe, and, finally the question of whether the end result is our own creation of ourselves?

Roth writes with humor, with seriousness, and with a profound and intense insight into the humanity, the insecurities, the deep fears, and the identity crises that exists within all of us. Roth’s strong words and strong theme, shows us how a counter life is not always productive, but could produce undesirable effects, in the end. We might not always receive what we wish for, but then again, we might receive it, but it could turn out that our counter life is actually counter-productive. Philip Roth’s The Counterlife is excellent, and his writing is masterful and brilliant, encapsulating the full range of emotions, and writing down to the bare bones, as only he knows how.

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American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is a novel that is filled with so much insight, description, vivid details, emotion, and intensity, that I read it straight through. It is a novel I have wanted to read for quite some time, and I am definitely glad I finally did. I am an avid Roth fan, and have read most of his books, and am always intrigued by his brilliance in writing on the emotional aspects of the human story, why we become who we are within our environment, and how we not only perceive ourselves but how others perceive us, and how we view others within the scheme of our lives.

The main character is a man named Swede Levov, a Jew, who feels he is living the so-called “American Dream” the life pastoral. His light hair, fair complexion and skill in sports earned him the nickname of Swede. This name carried with him throughout his life, evoking adoration from others, evoking a false sense of security within himself, evoking promises of the good life, for those who shoulder the burdens of life, for those who internalize their feelings.

Swede is the good son, the son that his parents adore for the attention and admiration he brings to them, in a world where Jews are not normally paid attention to. He brings them luck, and brings himself luck. He is the high school hero, the one the boys and girls look up to, the one that all girls dream of marrying. He marries a former Miss New Jersey, and they build a life together. Swede inherits his father’s glove factory. He and his wife, Dawn, find a stone house that he loves, and they buy it. They seem to be living the idyllic life in the New Jersey suburbs, in the village of Old Rimrock. They have a daughter named Merry, who turns out to be the thorn in their side.

Merry commits a crime of passion and terrorism, which causes Swede, his wife, and other family members to turn inward, causing their lives to become overturned, emotionally and physically. Life is never the same for this “American Pastoral” family, and Merry’s act of crime and violence bring Swede to his knees with sorrow, anger, leaving him to question his own life. The once calm Swede, turns violent within his internal Being, screaming inside himself, unable to emit and belch out his true feelings, in order not to upset his wife and the rest of his family. He shoulders all the emotional burdens, because that is what is expected of him.

This is all he knows, his life burdens kept in quietude, on the back burner, in order to keep up the illusion of the hero, the man with everything, the man everyone admires and looks up to, the man everyone wants to become. When Swede’s daughter commits the unthinkable act, his very essence is questioned, and the deplorable aspects of who he is and what he has become are shown with a clarity he never knew existed.

His pastoral life is suddenly a life of acute disgust. He goes beserk, talks to himself, is in a state of panic, constantly questioning his entire existence, and wondering how things could go so wrong. There doesn’t seem to be a clear answer, other than the pastoral life has become one of inner and outer turmoil, condemnation and disgust.

How Swede handles the repercussions of Merry’s devious deed is brought to the forefront through Philip Roth’s brilliant writing, his insight into the human mind and emotions, and through his emotional intelligence. His word imagery is filled with clarity, and vibrancy. American Pastoral is definitely a masterpiece, in my opinion, written by a master. I highly recommend American Pastoral to everyone.

~~Book Diva

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