Thou Worm Jacob
The Carpenter Years
Three of these novels deal with a sizable part of American Jewish life in the twentieth century. Mr. Mirsky writes about a declining community in urban Boston; Mr. Gold in his “novel in the form of a memoir” tells the life story of Sam Gold, who came from czarist Russia as a penniless boy, rose to be a rich businessman in Cleveland, and at the age of eighty is still making money and grabbing at life with both hands; Mr. Cohen covers a few crucial days in the life of Edgar Morrison, born Morris Edelman, a New York Jew who has changed his name and passed for a Gentile, directing the YMCA in a small Pennsylvania town.
The first two books have much in common, being concerned essentially with immigrant experience: one pole rooted in the pogrom-ridden life of Holy Russia in the last century, the other in the conspicuous successes and failures of modern America. Both of them offer such a dense texture of idioms and feelings that the goy reviewer, at a loss with so much richness of emotion, so many heavily charged tags of Yiddish and Hebrew, feels like a reluctant guest who is being crammed with good food by an archetypal Yiddishe mamma: “You want my guests should go away hungry? Eat, eat!” Mr. Mirsky and Mr. Gold have such big hearts, which are so obviously in the right place, that it’s a great temptation to lie back, relax, and let them get away with everything.
Mr. Mirsky writes very well, which is not to say that I like the way he writes. Some sophisticated readers may assume that he’s really parodying a familiar genre, where the joys and miseries of the humble Jewish poor are treated with a deliberate lightness of touch, an arch and elaborate whimsicality. There is, certainly, a nice touch of satire on page two, where the narrator, a bookbinder, describes some of the books he has to restore. Their titles, in fact, reflect the solemn debate about Jewish identity and destiny that provides the theme of Arthur Cohen’s novel:
What I bind for the Jews, my father wouldn’t have used for his outhouse. I am ashamed to look between the covers. What’s Jewish about Being Jewish? by Professor Hyman Rosenberg; The Disintegration of Jewish Suburbia by Endelbaum the Episcopalian; Let’s Give Up! by Rabbi Harold Himmelfarb; Don’t Kick a Dead Dog—Mendele Weepe.
Such large questions, Mr. Mirsky makes it clear, are not for him:
Why? Why not? Why not let our community go to pot. Why be Jewish? You think I’m going to answer you? Well…I’ll answer you. Like they answer the ignorant son, I’ll answer you. I’ll tell you a story.
And he does. This persistent hectoring of the reader, grabbing him by the lapel, poking him in the ribs, breathing in his face, is a strong feature of Mirsky’s style. I found it little short …