August 2006

Rachel J. K. Grace

fiction

Scribblers on the Roof: Contemporary American Jewish Fiction edited by Melvin Jules Bukiet and David G. Roskies

Lots of people dream of moving to New York City. It’s a place where people can get a fresh start, be anonymous, get ahead, go nuts, or go nowhere. It has good food, intriguing people, and any number of diversions, some of which are even legal. Falling into the last category is Scribblers on the Roof, a summer reading series in its 7th year put on by Ansche Chesed Synagogue on the Upper West Side.

Scribblers on the Roof: Contemporary American Jewish Fiction is an anthology based on that reading series. Edited by Melvin Jules Bukiet (author of Strange Fire and A Faker’s Dozen) and David G. Roskies (author of A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling), this collection features 21 stories by some of the authors who have read for the series. It includes well-known authors, such as Cynthia Ozick and Max Apple, to the lesser-known and blooming, like Dara Horn and Jon Papernick.

In 2000, when the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature was published, the introduction grappled with “Jewish American” as opposed to “American Jewish.” Placing “Jewish” in front of “American” distinguishes this kind of literature from other American literatures. Reverse that, and it distinguishes it from other kinds of Jewish literature. But more than just the title, the variety and depth of the stories in this new collection argue against A. B. Yehoshua’s recent statement that Jews in the Diaspora are only partial Jews to Israel’s full Jews.

Ozick’s story, “Stone,” is perhaps the brightest gem in the collection. It is a haunting story about a statue of Mohammed removed from atop the Beaux Arts New York State Court of Appeals in the 1950s. It continues to weigh on the reader for several days. Though the author herself called it “conventional, pedestrian, and tritely time-bound,” it is a bit thrilling to read one of Ozick’s early stories, first published in -- and not republished since -- 1957.

Dara Horn’s story, “Readers Digest,” will delight bibliophiles. In this story there are dive bars in Paradise where the not-yets can drink bottled books. “They are arranged, the wine cellars, like libraries, by vineyard, varietal, vintage -- author, genre, date. The librarian-sommeliers bring up the requested bottles carefully.” Intrigued? You should be. I’ve already ordered Horn’s two novels, In the Image and The World to Come.

Still, there are a few stories that fall flat. Janice Eidus’s story, “Elvis, Axl, and Me,” is a vaguely funny but ultimately boring story about a woman who, in spite of her obsession with Axl Rose, starts a relationship with Elvis (who is posing as a Hasidic Jew in the Bronx). Also unsatisfying is Binnie Kirshenbaum’s story, “Faith Is a Girl’s Name.” It is a perplexing hodgepodge of the central character’s memories that leaves the reader wondering, “Nu? So?” What is particularly disappointing about these two stories is that they are by authors I usually like.

Some of these stories may not seem particularly Jewish, but they all bear the markings of Jewishness, most notably humor and tragedy. Though most have been published in other volumes, this rich array of stories serves as a solid introduction to the genre, a representative of the summer reading series (especially for those outside New York City), and a refresher for those who have been away from the genre too long.

Scribblers on the Roof: Contemporary American Jewish Fiction edited by Melvin Jules Bukiet and David G. Roskies
Persea Books
ISBN 089255326X
301 pages