Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
A dedicated reader of American Jewish literature, no matter how enthusiastic, will inevitably feel, at one point or another, that he or she would rather browse the tax code than read yet another book about intermarriage.
Perhaps that explains why Myron S. Kaufmann’s outstanding novel, Remember Me to God, is so rarely mentioned anymore; it is, after all, a book concerned with the question of whether Richard Amsterdam, a Harvard student, will marry a Christian girl. With that said, it is tragic that Kaufmann’s novel is not more widely read. As is the case with many authors, for Kaufmann intermarriage is a justification for exploring the feelings, frustrations, and philosophies of American Jews about their Jewishness. He takes this as his starting point and produces a fiction of extraordinary insight and emotional depth.
Richard’s love interest is Wimsy Talbot, a doltish blue-blooded Radcliffe student. Richard’s desire for her grows out of his enchantment with and envy of the wealthy, pedigreed Protestant community of Boston, who are known to Richard’s suburban Boston family as Yankees. Egged on by the sly and genteel anti-Semitism that dominates the most prestigious Harvard institutions (he gains acceptance to the Lampoon and the Hasty Pudding Club), as well as his own boyish insecurities, Richard imagines not only that he needs Wimsy but also that he should convert to Christianity.
His parents, as one might expect, throw a fit. The prominence accorded to Richard’s dilemmas should not obscure the book’s careful attention to his sister, Dorothy, a high school misfit-too smart and not confident enough to be popular-as well as his father, Adam, the son of immigrants, orphaned as a child, who has risen from an abattoir to become a judge, even though he still harbors doubts about his own intelligence.
While many of the book’s long speeches, rendered in the distinct voices of various characters, center on questions of Jewish distinctiveness and survival, the novel ultimately is a family story, in which the intricate psychologies of each member reflect their complicated relationships to the rest. Kaufmann’s massive novel has much to recommend it.
A finely detailed portrait of Harvard during World War II, the book is deeply empathetic to its characters and is, furthermore, an unappreciated masterpiece of literary realism. Kaufmann’s prose is simple, unassuming, but astonishingly precise; he learned from Hemingway how to write sentences and paragraphs in which everyday words resound with meaning. Kaufmann never tells his reader how to feel about the action he describes-and the book does not offer any didactic solutions to the question of intermarriage-but he orchestrates his scenes so thoughtfully as to make each a powerful window into the minds of his characters.
Given its technical accomplishment and intellectual ambitions, it is no surprise that Remember Me to God spent more than 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; what is shocking, and unfortunate, is that so few people know of it today.
Further reading: Kaufmann’s second novel, Thy Daughter’s Nakedness, appeared in 1968 and his third, The Love of Elspeth Baker, not until 1982; all three books take place in Boston and deal intensely and at length with Jewish issues. Though Remember Me to God is occasionally mentioned in bibliographies and was praised in Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself (1959), nothing significant has been written on Kaufmann aside from newspaper reviews of his novels. As of 2008, Kaufmann, who is well into his 80s, is still serving as a gabbai for daily services at an Orthodox synagogue in Sharon, Massachusetts. The protagonists of Jack Ludwig’s Confusions (1963) and James Atlas’s The Great Pretender (1986) pass through Harvard a decade or two after Richard Amsterdam.
Pronounced: GAH-bye, Origin: Aramaic, literally “tax collector,” but today means someone who assists with the Torah reading in synagogue.The gabbai usually determines who will be called up to the Torah for an aliyah and also assists with other aspects of coordinating worship.