The College’s Committee for Cultural and Intellectual Community along with the English Department and the Visiting Writers Series sponsored a program of Jewish Fiction held on Oct. 18 in the New Library auditorium, inviting the campus literati to learn first-hand about Jewish culture.
Elisa Albert and Edward Schwarzschild, two Jewish writers, read excerpts from their collections of stories and answered questions regarding their writing in a panel discussion after the reading.
Ellen Friedman, professor of English and women’s and gender studies, introduced the program and identified a unique quality about both writers.
“Jewish-American writers seem to have an obsession with the Holocaust, but Albert and Schwarzschild are two exceptions,” Friedman said. “Even if they touch on the Holocaust, they write about how Jews live.”
Albert was the first to read, sharing the first half of her story “The Mother is Always Upset,” part of the “How This Night is Different” collection. The story is set in the present day where Mark, a Jewish man and a first-time father, awaits his son’s bris – a tradition in Judaism where a newborn male is circumcised.
The speaker’s observations about those in attendance at the bris work hand-in-hand with an overwhelmingly sarcastic tone to provide an interesting, modern perspective on an ancient tradition.
Kimberly, a friend of Mark’s wife, is having a baby with her life partner via sperm donor. She is against the whole concept of a bris and voices this opinion to Mark.
“Don’t you think it’s selfish to push your views on an infant?” Kimberly asks.
In his story “No Rest for the Middle Man” Schwarzschild also addresses familial issues. Set in 1923, “No Rest…” is told from the perspective of Abraham, a young boy who recounts his father’s immigration and acclimatization to the United States. Abraham looks up to his father, Solomon, and sees him as a hero.
During religious services, two associates of his father’s claim that Solomon owes them something and corner Abraham in the men’s room of the synagogue. Abraham’s vision of his father never waivers, despite his father being beaten bloody by one of the men.
Keeping with the motif of atonement, Solomon delivers a message that is applicable to both his family and the Jewish people as a whole:
“Without forgiveness we cannot last,” he says. “We are fragile.”
During the Q-and-A session Albert and Schwarzschild were asked about the significance of family and identity in their work.
“Family dynamics are ingrained in me,” Albert said. “It all comes down to relationships.”
In an interview after the reading, professor of English David Blake commented on the importance of these writers’ works.
“These writers are so interesting because they are young and contemporary yet they are dealing with questions of age and religion and the impacts of family on identity,” he said.
It is fitting that Albert and Schwarzschild presented excerpts exploring the impact of family – the two are engaged to be married.