- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2003

FABULOUS SMALL JEWS

By Joseph Epstein

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 340 pages

REVIEWED BY WOODY WEST

Moe Bernstein and his three usual handball partners at a Chicago Jewish community center are in the locker room after their weekly game, all of the quartet on the shadow side of middle age. “Dinosaurs,” says Lou Levin. “Guys like us are destined no longer to appear on the face of the earth. We’re soon to be extinct.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Irv Brodsky asks in “Moe,” one of the stories in Joseph Epstein’s “Fabulous Small Jews” (the title is from a Karl Shapiro poem, “Hospital” — “This Oxford of all sicknesses / Kings have lain here and fabulous small Jews / And actresses whose legs were always news”).

“Look, boys, the rules have changed. We got caught in the switch,” Lou responds. “Everyone now can do what he likes. It’s open season on everything. Delay no desire. Stop saving. Stick it anywhere you please. Walk away from any mess, any time. All this comes a little late for us, but whose fault is that?”

Moe is 67, widowed, for 34 years a salesman. He’s done pretty well. He put his only son through law school, but has watched Norman leave his wife and young son for a flashy paralegal and now wears a gold chain around his neck. Moe’s concluded that Norman is “a phony and a putz.”

Then, one evening as Moe sits in front of the television, the chest pains come. He’s told he needs a heart bypass on the double. He thinks about it and rejects the operation. He’s had his innings and he’ll go as destiny decrees. Shortly, however, he gets a call from his daughter-in-law asking if he can sit for his grandson for a weekend. This is unusual. Moe sees Nathaniel infrequently — the kid’s trendy mother makes him feel awkward. But of course he agrees.

Nathaniel is a skinny, withdrawn kid with thick glasses and braces. His mother decrees yoghurt, designer water, and that Nathaniel — not “Natey,” as Moe calls him — is not to eat spicy foods. She cautions that the kid must take his allergy pills. His grandfather learns that Nathaniel sees a therapist once a week. And he’s a bedwetter. As Moe listens to the youngster describe his sessions with the shrink, “Bernstein felt a stab of protective love such as he had never felt before in his life.”

As he returns his grandson, after taking him to a session of the handball gang, Moe gives him an avuncular pep talk, and then asks whether Natey would like his grandfather to teach him to play handball. “It sounds like fun,” says Natey. And Moe Bernstein calls the doctor to sign up for the bypass.

This prcis suggests the affecting themes of Mr. Epstein’s stories — a coming to terms with one’s life, often rather far down the road, a tough-minded sentiment that disdains sentimentality, and the inevitable twisted skein of individual emotions. His protagonists for the most part are in late middle age (and, in fact, “small” Jews), from working-class backgrounds where the Depression was the landscape. Most are widowed or divorced.

Mr. Epstein is best known as an essayist and literary critic. For nearly three decades he was a lecturer in English and writing at Northeastern University, and for 22 years the editor of The American Scholar. The stories in this new collection have a regional flavor— Chicago as a locale and in the details of the city’s streets and neighborhoods, restaurants and hotels provides a center of gravity to most of the tales.

An eon or so ago when freshman English was a college standard, one of the fits-all-sizes definitions was that short stories centered on action and novels on character. In Mr. Epstein’s stories, character is the pivot and illumination of action. “Action” consists as much as a protagonist facing one of the tense and testing exigencies of every life — love, loss, honor, duty — as in more particular combinations of scene and event.

The Jewishness of Mr. Epstein’s stories is partly expressed in “Howie’s Gift.” Howie Rosen’s father, a salesman, was intent that his son would become a doctor, and so he did. The narrator, his boyhood pal in middling-class West Rogers Park, has become a sociologist. Though he hasn’t seen Howie in five years, he’s invited to the very successful physician’s 50th birthday part in the exclusive suburb of Glencoe — known once to anti-Semites as Glen Cohen. Howie has made it big, and the narrator reflects on their past.

“Growing up in West Rogers Park was not the Jewish upbringing I would later read about in memoirs by second generation Jewish artists and intellectuals: all violin lessons, revolutionary politics discussed at the dinner table, bubbe in her room reading Tolstoy in Yiddish. In our neighborhood, politics, modern art, and psychotherapy played no role whatsoever. Fathers were too busy at their work as salesmen, owners of small businessmen, or one-man law practices. Their horizons ended with making a good living and being excellent providers.”

That’s as much a class as an ethnic description, pretty much interchangeable probably in the Chicago of half a century ago with other ethnic groups — cultural habits and perspectives marking the distinctions. There are few observant Jews in these stories, and in a number of them the men are involved one way or another with gentile women. In short, Mr. Epstein’s characters seem Jewish in their skeptical and sometimes bitter watch on the radar of the wider world, ironic and satiric, as a legacy from a hard history.

The sons of these fathers and mothers tend to have climbed a rung or two up the social ladder, in business or medicine. Artists of one sort or another feature in several of these urbane stories, though in only one is a woman the principal. Family is a dominant theme, requiring decisions that bore into self and motive, decisions that involve ambiguous choices and complex evasions. The protagonists are mugs like the rest of us, frantically bailing their quotidian boats to keep from swamping.

Mr. Epstein, as essayist and critic, never puts his thumb on the literary scale — one gets full weight, with wit, easy erudition and an uncommonly acute sense of human flailing. These stories are a joy to read. For such careful and affecting craftsmanship, there must be a word in Yiddish.

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.


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