Author Archives: Judy Bolton-Fasman

Judy Bolton-Fasman

About Judy Bolton-Fasman

Judy Bolton-Fasman is writing a memoir about saying Kaddish for her father.

In the Image

Reprinted with permission from JBooks.com.

One of the more arresting images in Dara Horn’s rich first novel is a set of tefillin bobbing in New York Harbor. A century later, the book’s protagonist, Leora, spies the same pair of tefillin in a Manhattan antique shop. Horn, whose book is a pastiche of Jewish folklore, Yiddish tales, mystical concepts, and ruthless history, mines and then integrates the symbol-laden images in her narrative. The tefillin that so captivate Leora evoke the words of the Sh’ma–Judaism’s central prayer–that prominently allude to tefillin in the third paragraph. "And you shall bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, and let them be an emblem in the center of your head."

Leora’s fiancée buys the tefillin as a surprise for her. These leather boxes that contain the words of the Sh’ma originally belonged to a new immigrant at the turn of the 20th century. In anticipation of life as a modern man in America, he threw them overboard in front of the Statue of Liberty. The metaphor of the tefillin floating away in New York Harbor only to end up in the hands of a young woman a century later, connects two disparate eras across space and time.

The connection between people and the objects they once possessed is a pivotal theme of In the Image. The book opens with the tragic death of Leora’s best friend, Naomi. Naomi is hit by a car on her way home from high school, and Leora’s initial grief draws her to Naomi’s grandfather, Bill Landsmann. Bill is a living embodiment of Jewish suffering. His family escaped Czarist Russia for Eastern Europe, only to be deported to Nazi concentration camps.

Bill is a quirky man who attempts to bond with Leora by sharing his extensive collection of travel slides. It becomes clear during these extended travelogue sessions that Leora and Bill grieve differently for Naomi. Their grief is a result of how each generation perceives its destiny as Jews.

One of Horn’s preoccupations is the way historical events affect a given generation of Jews. For Bill Landsmann, it was a cruel Diaspora, in which anti-Semitism and ultimately genocide of the Jews defined him. Leora, on the other hand, confronts God as did her biblical forbearers. Just as Abraham’s monotheism is distinguished by his penchant for arguing with God, Leora questions God’s hand in Jewish tragedy. The God of free will is the same God that tolerates evil in the world. Leora’s ba’al teshuva college boyfriend–who comes to embrace Orthodox Judaism during their relationship–further fuels her skepticism towards all things traditionally Jewish.

Leora’s skepticism occasionally veers toward mysticism. Horn deftly shapes that mysticism into a Jewish version of magical realism. When Leora remarks that she feels like a tourist in her own life, she harks back to the Biblical spies who were sent into Canaan. They were overwhelmed by giant men and large insects. Leora is similarly overwhelmed by gigantic themes such as tragedy, romance, history, and faith.

Bill and Leora and their families, those who came before them and will come after them, are inextricably linked. Horn reiterates the point towards the end of the novel by recasting the Book of Job with Landsmann as Job and Leora the New Jerseyite as one of Job’s friends. As Horn’s rendition of the classic Jewish text makes clear, Naomi’s death was one of many tragedies in Bill Landsmann’s life. At a young age, he lost his parents to historical events beyond his control. Later in life, he loses his wife to Alzheimer’s Disease. Ironically, the most significant tragedy is derived from the environment in the form of a "great wave [that] washed up against the wall of his living room, and took with it the boxes containing the seven thousand slides of distant lands." In the end it was God, through an act of nature, who robbed Bill Landsmann of his memories.

Unlike the biblical Job, Bill Landsmann does not recoup his life or his faith. Nor does he have patience for the young Leora, whose simplistic idea of faith is connected to erroneous concepts of "’good’ and ‘bad,’ of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’" Jewish suffering is not a judgment rendered from the heavens but one that is caused by people here on earth.

Dara Horn’s fresh, vibrant voice shapes and dramatizes 100 years of Jewish American history–a history generated by catastrophes and the free will that caused them. In the Image is the work of a young writer already demonstrating considerable literary power.

Everything is Illuminated

Reprinted with permission from JBooks.com.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel showcases two distinct narratives that illuminate the truths embedded in historical events and acts of memory. It’s an ambitious agenda that Safran Foer advances with sharp observation. But Everything is Illuminated is also a very funny book, a laugh-out-loud funny book that earns the reader’s admiration through linguistic acrobatics and feats of good, old-fashioned storytelling.

At the heart of Safran Foer’s narrative beats the classic road-trip novel, replete with unlikely buddies. Think of a Jewish-American version of Don Quixote. The hero of the book–the author’s fictional alter ego is also named Jonathan Safran Foer–is on a quest to the Ukraine to find a woman named Augustine, who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, the only thing that Jonathan has to identify this woman with is an old photograph that he found in his late grandfather’s personal effects. The Sancho Panza of this story is Alexander Perchov. Safran Foer constructs a brilliant parallel narrative using Alex’s mangled English. I’m not a fan of written dialect, but Safran Foer has gone beyond presenting odd spellings and strange random words: he has constructed a new language (let’s call it Russienglish). Alex is a young, self-consciously hip Ukrainian who embodies post-Soviet culture. He is an amusing rogue who provides the book with a unique vibe.

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother.

A mother would have to be "manufacturing Zs" not to know that Alexander is desperate to "get carnal" with a girl, or that he loves anything to do with Manhattan’s Greenwich "shtetl." Alex is a bundle of contradictions and inadvertent insights. He thinks of himself as a babe magnet, and that he’s "fluid" enough in English to work as a translator in his father’s crooked guided-tour business.

Heritage Tours arranges customized trips for American Jews looking for their pre-Holocaust Eastern European roots. Alex sees it as an important service that satisfies the "cravings" of the Jews who want to see where their families once "existed." American Jews like Jonathan Safran Foer.

It speaks volumes that the driver for this slapdash tour is Alex’s blind grandfather, a sour anti-Semite whose sightlessness is psychosomatic. His seeing-eye dog is a salacious, smelly mutt whom he calls Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, after his favorite singer. He promptly changes the dog’s name to Dean Martin, Junior, when Jonathan informs him that his idol was a black man who converted to Judaism.

While Alex’s voice is lively, his narrative vivid to the point of absurdity, Jonathan is more contemplative, his thoughts dream-like. Jonathan’s state of mind is explicitly illustrated in the novel he is writing. The book is an ambitious, fabulist rendition of his family’s history, set in their ancestral hometown of Trachimbord. Jonathan’s fictional biography covers three centuries, in which he consistently and deftly distinguishes between loving and lusting, living and existing, and death and oblivion.

Throughout, the fictional Jonathan conjures Chagall-like images, forging a Jewish magical realism that is a paean to its South American counterparts. Jonathan sends Alex chapters of the novel for his feedback. Borrowing from Alex’s lexicon, the fictional Jonathan’s work is "most premium" when paired with Alex’s frank and deceptively simple critiques of the novel. "There were parts of it I did not understand," he tells Jonathan. "But I conjecture that this is because they were very Jewish, and only a Jewish person could understand something so Jewish. Is that why you think you are chosen by God, because you can only understand the funnies that you make about yourself?"

Jonathan’s self-absorption is the result of trying to illuminate everything about his past and future through memory, history, and fantasy. The present is a viewing platform of the past and the future. Jonathan Safran Foer, the writer, demonstrates his genius by transforming the fictional Jonathan’s exploration of Jewish identity as a wholly American enterprise.