Hath Not a Jew

  • Nora Gold
    The Dead Man. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • David Rakoff and Timothy G. Young (Editor)
    The Uncollected David Rakoff. Anchor Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Stuart Ross
    Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer. Anvil Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by MLA Chernoff

Stuart Ross, David Rakoff, and Nora Gold unwittingly offer curious insights into the current state of Jewish Canadian identity; specifically, they posit permutations of our capacity to produce a cohesive vision of Jewish Canada as a place of liminality and vagary. Between the conceptual chasms of cultural Jewishness, the Judaic (i.e., religiosity), and “the Canadian,” defining such a Canada is an extremely slippery task. Ought we to look to the flimsy documents of citizenship; the intricacies of geographical (dis)placement and diaspora; the question of genealogy, secularity, and (de)theologization; or, simply, faith? What is arguably most “Jewish” in the books reviewed here is the inescapability of this line of questioning, and the perpetual search for answers this loop of inquiry creates. Accordingly, a yearning to understand the self-as-Jewish necessitates the most absorbing and discordant moments of these disparate works.

Ross’s Further Confessions of a Small Press Racketeer is the prolonged moan of a tireless but ever-bellicose author whose invaluable dedication to literature remains largely unnoticed. Ross may linger on the margins of CanLit, but his role is nevertheless central. In addition to his impressive body of (post-)surrealist writings, he is the founder of the Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv, which keeps Torontonians privy to literary happenings—even if Ross, currently a resident of Cobourg, Ontario, is no longer there to enjoy them. This small collection of sardonic interviews and essays-cum-rants offers a rare look into the joys and anxieties of the Canadian small-press and literary-reading scenes; there are anecdotes about Ross’s experience as a juror for the Canada Council for the Arts (that panel of “evil fuckers, eating the very fabric of our nation’s poetry”), the politics of literary friendships, and the difficulties of cultivating community. He spares no detail and overlooks no opportunity to brag, making sure to take credit where it is due—Ross is a curmudgeon, but a diligent one. For more than thirty-five years, he has prevailed over the setbacks of a cluttered mind and overworked life. Apropos his occasional bouts of writer’s block or simple disorganization, he admits that certain works of his own have existed “only as catharsis,” whereas others resemble an “old fart with its ponderous sentences that go on forever”—this is particularly true of his “surreal exploration[s] of anti-Semitism.” Here, Ross is referencing what might be his magnum opus—Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew—the eerie tale of survivor’s guilt turned murderous outside a North York hardware store. In Further Confessions, he dedicates Snowball to his mother, who always wanted him “to be a better Jew,” if not a rabbi. No doubt his identification as a Jewish writer is most vivid when it comes from outside: for instance, when a student offers a close reading of his work, or when Ross recounts the excitement of co-winning the Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction and Poetry on a Jewish Theme, a memory he holds quite dearly—lo and behold, the unpredictable joy of Jewishness, which is, for Ross, an unending process of interpellation.

Whereas Ross’s confessions are nonchalant, The Uncollected David Rakoff is a sorrowful attempt at canonizing an author whose premature death put to a halt a rather impressive and diverse line of literary metamorphoses. The editor of this collection, Timothy G. Young, chronologically gathers representative essays, interviews, diary entries, and the odd long poem by the deceased Rakoff in order to highlight his transformation from humble Canadian expat to proud New Yorker and well-known contributor to This American Life. Rakoff writes on a medley of subjects, from his upbringing in a “liberal-Jewish-medical-psychiatric family,” to the Semitic origins of Disney’s Bambi, all the way to a fictional correspondence between Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Dr. Seuss. No matter the theme, nearly every piece stutters with the uncanniness of being a Jew—specifically, a diasporic and increasingly Americanized “normal-looking Jewish guy” with an overbearing guilt complex—in other words, a quintessential stereotype of Ashkenazim. Even his terminal cancer harbours these associations. After a surgery left Rakoff with a flail limb, his corporeal sensibilities became transmuted, as though his body, in some kind of cultural dysmorphia, had been infused with his Jewishness. He writes of his limb: “It is attached, but aside from being able to shrug Talmudically, I can neither move nor feel my left arm.”

Rakoff plays on and within the anxieties and virulence of pigeonholing: “Jewy McHebrew,” as he notes, is a set of anti-Semitic roles he was repeatedly cast in, prompting him to give up acting. Feminized and “furrowed-browed,” Jewy McHebrew is a “bookish-type,” typically a “humanist rabbi” or a psychiatrist. Rakoff nonetheless oscillates between humorous pessimism and utter confusion concerning his typecasting, an incertitude which culminates in an act of reclamation. In a performance piece entitled “Fraud,” Rakoff spends one Christmas in the window of Barneys dressed as Sigmund Freud, “the anti-Santa,” asking, “What does it mean that I’m impersonating the father of psychoanalysis in a store window to commemorate a religious holiday?” A mystifying question which no doubt calls for further analysis.

In contrast to these sappy secular confessions, Nora Gold’s The Dead Man depicts in prosaic fashion the long-lasting effects of a short-lived affair between Eve, a Torontonian music therapist and composer, and Jake, a renowned Israeli music critic who is not only married but definitively psychopathic. After promising Eve a lifetime of love, Jake abandons her, as though their tryst had never happened. The narrative consists of her eventual return to Israel-Palestine for a conference on Jewish music, effectively critiquing the male-dominated and flat-out misogynistic underpinnings of these circles, as Eve struggles to be heard despite her immense talent. No doubt Gold finds solace in the certitude afforded by Liberal Zionism’s fixation on self-actualization and, or as, redemption. In this way, The Dead Man could easily be read as a plea, a travelogue, and a self-help book, with the crux of the text mirroring the fugue-like intensities of cognitive behavioural therapy, without any closure in sight, as it simultaneously romanticizes and debunks the wiles of emotional abuse.

Much like Gold’s first novel, Fields of Exile, the text displays a certain disdain for the apparent drabness of diasporic life, from which Eve is eager to flee. Here, Zionism, romance, and the trauma of repeatedly living out one’s Oedipus/Electra complex all intertwine against the backdrop of a pastoral, if not politically and socially sanitized, Israel-Palestine, as two bourgeois melancholics find comfort in the beauty of the land despite their shortcomings as lovers: “Everything is music here.” With this in mind, we can look to the narrative as the anguish of a hampered Aliyah, a Hebrew term which roughly translates to “rising up” and is used to describe the transformation of a person abandoning the supposedly hopeless “exile” of diasporic life in favour of the rootedness of the hermetic nation-state. Because Eve cannot reside with Jake, she must incessantly move to and from Toronto and her would-be Zion, oscillating between lonely profanation and joyous religiosity—in hopeful proximity to the man who is, ultimately, her abuser. Once again, Jewishness is an open question, but this time, both “exile” and “homeland” seem equally agonizing and Aliyah is always, in advance, met by its poignant opposite, yerida—a descent.

Though the question of Canadianness and its many problematics remains suspended for each of these authors, Jewishness retains an enigmatic and playful role, even amidst the throes of dejection. Like A. M. Klein’s determination to translate Talmudic teachings into the Anglo literary tradition, and vice versa, Ross, Rakoff, and (to a hyperbolic extent) Gold manage to assert their Jewishness and, quite simply, humanize themselves or their characters in the non-Jewish world, pondering and sighing melodically—in the same vein as Klein’s invocation of a certain Shylock“Hath not a Jew eyes?”

This review “Hath Not a Jew” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 147-149.

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