Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex edited by Melvin Jules Bukiet. Recommended.
“Witness the people of the book, in bed.” Thus editor Melvin Jules Bukiet invites the reader into the intimacies of Neurotica: Jewish Writers on Sex. In this collection, everyone from Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Isaac Bashevis Singer to Woody Allen and Erica Jong gets into the act of exploring sex in its many varieties — heterosexual, homosexual, incestuous, paid, humorous, poignant, intellectual, sadistic, masochistic, costumed — always from a distinctive, wry Jewish perspective. Note, though, that you don’t have to be interested in erotica to appreciateNeurotica — just in good stories.
The anthology begins with a memorable story by Woody Allen, “The Whores of Mensa,” an over-the-top private eye tale that cleverly and humorously reveals what many of us know but some have yet to discover — that sex is less a function of the nether regions and more one of the mind. This theme is continued and expanded in “The Courtship” from The Mind-Body Problem” by Rebecca Goldstein, in which the narrator says, “And I remember too the intensity of my pleasure, which wasn’t at all physical . . . my head sang the triumphant thought: I am making love to this man . . . to Noam Himmel, the genius.” Unfortunately, “The Courtship” is marred somewhat by this ending and the tone throughout, which makes it resemble less of a literary work and more of the author’s personal fantasy, or what is known in fan fiction as a “Mary Sue” story.
Philip Roth adds imagination to the mix in an excerpt from The Counterlife in which a dentist suggest to his new assistant that they play dentist and assistant. She says, “Why is it so exciting when all we’re pretending to be is what we are?” When his physical deficiencies win over his imagination, he plummets to the world that is, not what could be, which he cannot long survive.
No matter the theme, any anthology focused on Jewish writers is bound to include references to Germans, World War II, and the Holocaust. In “Jews Have No Business Being Enamored of Germans,” Binnie Kirshenbaum’s narrator confronts the Jewish self-hatred that could make a Jewish man with a “short and convenient view of history” prefer and seek out Germans and “Aryan intellectualism.” Even the narrator’s parents have succumbed to postmodern sense of tolerance or denial. “‘Oh, none of that concerned us,’ my mother waved off the Holocaust and a world war.”
Michael Lowenthal takes a psychologically richer approach in “Infinity of Angles,” in which a Jewish homosexual connects with a German, only to find his would-be lover identifies too closely with the persecuted and demands an unusual punishment.
While there’s some humour in Neurotica, there is also mental illness. The two are combined in “Elvis, Axl, and Me” by Janice Eidus, who proves that Elvis isn’t dead; he lives in The Bronx disguised as a Hasidic Jew. Mental illness appears again in “The Quality of Being a Ruby” by Cheryl Pearl Sucher, a thoroughly modern tale of a bipolar girl experiencing anxiety neurosis who picks up lovers, drops lithium, experiments with cocaine, and resists the advice of her protective father. “For Ruby, the distillation of the illness was ‘Rubessence,’ the perfect calm of inspired originality, the longed-for union of the desired and the real.”
One of the best stories is “Taibele and Her Demon” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who brings a fairy-tale simplicity to this complex tale of deception and love. As with any collection, there are several stories I didn’t like, such as “Romancing the Yohrzeit Light” by Thane Rosenbaum, who tries too self-consciously to combine the sacred, the profane, and the silly. My favourite story was by Nathan Englander, titled “Peep Show.” The troubled protagonist asks, “What is a boy raised in a world of absolutes to do when he is faced with contradictions?” The answer is, “You question. That’s what you do,” according to the nude rabbi his imagination has conjured. Despite the humorous and ludicrous situations in which the protagonist finds himself at the peep show, the tone of the story is strangely eerie in its reference to peep show nostalgia — a little like the tone of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Although a few stories are set in places such as France, Germany, Italy, and Israel, most take place in the United States and are by Jewish-American authors. All are from the 20th century, which is disappointing since surely erotica by Jewish writers has been around at least as long as erotica by writers from other traditions. I would like to have seen more representation from other countries and time periods.
The location and time period, however, give Neurotica a couple of themes meant to appeal to a broad audience, including assimilation and secularization. In many of these stories, the faith, traditions, and rituals of Judaism are a mystery to the characters, primarily the younger ones. Noam Himmel, the genius, is an atheist ignorant of his cultural past. At one point, his seducer says, “You have heard of the Talmud?” He says later, “Sometimes, especially on insomniac nights, I start worrying that there may be a God, and worse, that he may be Jewish.” In “Romancing the Yohrzeit Light,” Adam doesn’t “really care to go” to that part of the world, and he allows his Swedish lover to extinguish his mother’s yohrzeit light. Like Adam, many of the characters actively seek goyim as lovers. Some of the older people speak Yiddish, but the young people do not. Yet, while religious, cultural, and even social bonds may seem to be disintegrating with assimilation after World War II,Neurotica shows that there is still a literary voice that has not been silenced and that remains uniquely Jewish.
5 September 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf