Johanna Kaplan's Serious American Jewish Comedy

The characters in her new story collection are fully formed creatures of that transitional 20th-century moment between European Jewish survivors and American forgetters.


Ruth R. Wisse
COLUMN
April 27 2022
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

In an issue of Commentary magazine in 1969 I discovered a story by Johanna Kaplan that seemed to come straight out of my own past. A girl named Miriam plays a partisan of the Warsaw Ghetto in her summer camp’s Yiddish dramatic production for Parents’ Day. Having spent fourteen years at similar Jewish summer camps, sometimes also starring in such plays, I found several points of comparison, and I even knew the words to the song Miriam sings that brings down the curtain: “exhausted from this small victory, for our new, free generation.” But great fiction has it all over personal experience, for though I was not at all like Kaplan’s heroine, her summer at camp has remained more vivid to me than any of mine. Literature put life into sharper perspective.

I was thrilled to rediscover this story, “Sour or Suntanned, It Makes No Difference,” in Johanna Kaplan’s new story collection, Loss of Memory is Only Temporary. Kaplan’s every work distills whole swaths of experience. Had Miriam in her story been slightly older, she might have known that the concluding song was actually written by Hirsh Glik for the Vilna partisans, not those of Warsaw, but she might have let it pass because literature must allow itself the dramatic connections that historians are obliged to correct. The story’s heroine notices more than she is expected to, which doesn’t please the grown-ups and doesn’t make her the perfect camper. Like their author, Kaplan’s protagonists excel in observation that is often too close for comfort. However, we readers may savor precisely the insights that discomfit the people in the stories.

Johanna Kaplan was born in New York City in 1942, and educated mostly locally at the High School of Music and Art, New York University, and Columbia University Teachers College. Her degree in special education led to a lifetime career as teacher of emotionally disturbed children in New York public schools—consuming work that was not easy to combine with an equally consuming literary life. Kaplan was fortunate to be part of an astonishing array of contemporary women writers, a dozen of whom Cynthia Ozick lists by their first names in the dedication of her novel The Puttermesser Papers, suggesting how much creative energy was generated in that literary circle. “Johanna” in that list had the good fortune to begin writing at that high point of Jewish participation in American literature, but being a fully-employed self-sustaining woman in such a cooperative-competitive environment may not always have worked to the benefit of someone with her exacting literary standards. She wrote much more than has yet gotten into print, and she has more literary awards than publications.

In 1981, Kaplan published her first and so-far only novel, O My America, which is the book to read if you want to catch the spirit of the 1960s. Serious comedy is a favored Jewish genre: this seriously funny family saga is a pleasurable way of tracking one intellectual-cultural Jewish immigrant clan through several generations. Most of Kaplan’s shorter fiction was collected in Other People’s Lives (1975), and this new book adds to that edition two stories of a more personal nature that hopefully hint at another book in the making. But first, let me recover some of the pleasures of readings past.

 

The summer-camp story that made such an impression on me is written from the point of view of an unhappy girl, someone who is wounded in a way that sharpens her faculties, like a threatened creature that is preternaturally alert to what she fearfully anticipates. Miriam’s attentiveness is a tool of survival. She has been sent to camp against her will, and expects that when her mother comes to the performance, she, Miriam, will be rescued and taken home. Miriam and the young woman whom she portrays in the ghetto play are thus both trapped and trying to get out of their situation. The author registers the contrast between the American child who resents summer camp and the starving Jew under Hitler—without belittling Miriam’s predicament. American Jewry may be a shabby, unworthy successor to the Jews of Europe, but Kaplan is their writer, and she dignifies her characters by how carefully she listens to them and captures their voices.

This heroine, for example, deconstructs her situation—a term that was coming into literary use when this story was written.

What could make sense? The Israeli playwright [of the summer camp’s production] had such long legs it was hard to believe he was Jewish.

“Little girl,” he said, coming up to Miriam with his very short pants and his heavy brown sandals that looked like they were made out of a whole rocky gang’s Garrison belts, “little girl, which languages are you speaking?”

The Israeli playwright and visiting counselor, Amnon by name, is the only one in camp who tries to draw Miriam out by drawing her in—to the Yiddish play that he is producing for parents in this Zionist-leftist camp who are, as he realizes, “not interesting themselves in the theater and they are not interesting themselves in the children. They are only obsessing themselves with Yiddish. For this they will come.” From Miriam’s description of Amnon, we sense that the playwright and his performer are two of a kind—the Israeli drama instructor whose clumsy English does not prevent him from accurately assessing how best to fulfill his contract and the girl who wants to know all about others without letting anyone know about her. They both feel like outsiders, which is odd, given that a bona-fide Israeli and a child who speaks Yiddish ought to be the most Jewishly “qualified” members of this Jewish camp. Yet this is precisely what makes them outsiders among fellow Jews who are already bona-fide Americans. The Israeli and the young Yiddish-speaker carry the national responsibilities that flow from their knowledge and awareness; the unburdened Americans take life and their Jewishness much more lightly.

The story builds on such incongruities, while revealing that in some important respects, the past has seeped into the present. Miriam had already heard quite a lot about Warsaw from her mother who had once come to that big city as a wide-eyed teenager only to become a victim of its wartime destruction. From the little we learn about this impaired survivor, we anticipate that she will not make it to the performance. Instead, the mother’s sister, Miriam’s aunt, comes with her husband and another couple in tow, and everything the mother has said about them in private Miriam now blurts out in angry disappointment. “I don’t want any advice from you,” she says to her uncle:

“You can’t even figure out which countries are faking it with socialism, and if you’re supposed to care about it so much why don’t you just write a letter to a person in the country and ask them? All they have to tell you is if they’re selfish or if they share around the things they’ve got.”

The inauthenticity of American Jewish Communists like this uncle is one of Kaplan’s many send-ups. Another is the moral sleepwalking of Jewish liberals. Miriam’s fellow campers may be less burdened than she is, but this has made them only thoughtless rather than carefree, inadequate custodians of their Jewish legacy and the American future. She, on the other hand, never stops worrying, as when she sees the action around a naked lightbulb above the stage:

Back and forth, over and around, the different insects crowded and buzzed, all with each other, so that, watching them, Miriam started to wonder whether these were socialist bugs who believed in sharing with each other what they had, or else bugs who were secretly wishing to keep the whole bulb for themselves and, by politely flying close together, just faking it.

This is as far into nature as our witty camper will venture. She is no Marjorie Morningstar of acculturating Jewry nor a satiric foil to its unraveling, Miriam is a fully formed creature of that transitional moment between the European Jewish survivors and the American forgetters. Not many writers had the skill to excel at so lackluster a subject.

By the time Miriam came on the American scene, the prototype adolescent who calls out the hypocrisy and inadequacy of adults had been etched in the figure of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger’s gift to the immediate post-war generation. Whereas Salinger is sweetly protective of the unhappy Holden and the beloved members of his fragile Glass family, Kaplan expects her hardened female protagonists to cultivate hardened readers. Miriam would be more likely to throttle her fellow campers than to catch them in the rye. As the girl partisan on stage plays dead in order to live to see another day, Miriam determines to survive by doing the same, “keeping all her aliveness a secret.” Her aunt’s verdict about this child, “sour or suntanned, it makes no difference,” gives the story its title and its outlook: nothing is likely to change her nature or the imperfect society which she will have to navigate.

Indeed, Miriam may grow into someone like Naomi, the psychiatrist in the title story of this new story collection, who, when we first see her on a workday in the clinic, is preparing to administer electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) to a patient. She has no patience whatsoever for her visiting aunt (a version of Miriam’s mother’s sister) who fears this patient will lose her memory as a result of the treatment.

“But she’ll forget things. I know what happened to Schreibman’s sister-in-law. She woke in the morning and didn’t know what day it was, she went to the bakery and couldn’t remember a single salesgirl.”

“Loss of memory is only temporary,” the stone said. “There are conditions in which ECT is indicated. Involutional depression, for instance.”

The stone is what the story calls Naomi, making no excuses for this young woman who has survived the death of both her parents in an accident when she was twelve. To her credit, Naomi has overcome some of the effects of that trauma and perhaps turned it to advantage by becoming the physician who administers the shocks to others. To her further advantage, she still sees right through her aunt as ably as Miriam saw through hers, and has so far managed to avoid her ordained destiny as a Jewish mother and housewife. Careless in her dress and habits, Naomi is liked and respected by hospital colleagues who share her selective indifference. Nonetheless, rather than inviting our unqualified admiration for this professional success, the story shows that Naomi herself is seriously impoverished by her loss of affective memory. In keeping her “aliveness” a secret, Miriam, the heroine of that earlier story, may have become the stone in this one. An unfeeling stone is not a rock.

Admiration for Johanna Kaplan’s writing has focused on “the way in which the sheer control—of language, of observation and reflection—creates a kind of still center amid the rattling cacophony that the narrative describes.” This praise from Francine Prose, who conceived and edited this latest story collection, conveys the way Kaplan’s rendering of other people’s lives lets us see who they really are beyond the troubles they experience. That all-important “still center” of Kaplan’s moral imagination comes from actually inhabiting and thoroughly knowing the part of America that she writes about. She is neither, like Bernard Malamud, nostalgic for the Yiddish-inflected Jews of the Lower East Side, nor, like Philip Roth, condescending to the Jews of New Jersey.

Roth, though not quite as sentimental about his protagonists as Salinger is about his, often parades their sensitivity to show up their callow inferiors. When the assimilating Jews of Woodenton in “Eli the Fanatic,” a story that helped to establish Roth’s reputation, buzz angrily around trying to prevent a yeshiva of immigrant boys from moving into their suburb, the story’s eponymous hero comes to their rabbi’s defense and dons ḥasidic clothing to be, momentarily, a more genuine Jew. That assumed costume remains symptomatic of the author’s own ability to move nimbly from life to counterlife throughout his brilliant career. Roth enjoyed taunting the Jews who bought his books.

By contrast, Kaplan’s protagonists never pretend to be other than they are and cannot understand why anyone else would. “If you don’t respect them, what’s the point of doing what you think they want?” asks a babysitter in the employ of a writer who has let concerns over his career overtake his genuine perceptions and talent (in “Babysitting”). “Maria was a very simple-minded woman,” we read in “Other People’s Lives”; “she had only simple-minded thoughts, and took comfort from the commonplace.” By the time Maria’s story voices that judgment, this once-German immigrant with an impossibly peripatetic life has emerged as the steadiest, most reliable grown-up among her ever so much more sophisticated American-born-and-raised Jewish neighbors. Kaplan does not flatter us into thinking ourselves better than her characters, or invite us to pity or love them.

 

What took me by surprise in this new book is its frank disclosure of what that early heroine, Miriam, vowed never to reveal. Kaplan seems to be writing in her own voice, telling us why a girl might have wanted to spend her life making literature knowing that, though she cannot be someone else, she can learn what it means to be other people. In “Tales of my Great-Grandfathers,” one of two works not previously collected, the narrator acknowledges that she cannot wholly separate her family myths from the historical actuality of her two ancestors, one a saintly rabbi, the other forced to be a “cantonist,” an indentured soldier in the tsar’s army. The second story, “Family Obligations,” harnesses the ghost of Isaac Babel to demonstrate how writers may transform historical facts into fiction in order to get at the underlying “reality” that cannot otherwise be known. Historians do it their way; a child from Kaplan’s storytelling family may do it by mining the past for all that can be transmitted, and then filling in the interstices with what the artist intuits.

Most touching from this author who always stayed well hidden behind her heroines is this revelation of

. . . the hovering imperative I gleaned as a child: the primacy of peoplehood. If, as the Talmud tells us, all Jews are responsible for one another, then isn’t this my larger, latent, hidden family—my nistar family, call it? And that vast nistar family—though at times flying under the radar, and always so far-flung—is at least as generous with its anguish, arguments, exasperations, but also nourishments as the small one I grew up in. So even though I cannot, with my rabbi great-grandfather, negotiate the day-to-day world as it if were a mere waiting room for the Redemption, I am sufficiently inhabited by both family tales to cling, with bemused intensity, and under conditions of American ease my cantonist great-grandfather could never have begun to apprehend, to a complicated, vexing people. Somewhere, among their ancient, unlikely dreams and far-fetched adventures toward fulfillment, lies my own ineluctable walk-on in a drama of catastrophe and renewal any imaginative writer would be hard put to equal.

Nistar is a concept of “hidden” that comes from kabbalistic thinking. Had Kaplan’s early heroines felt themselves to be part of that larger family stretching all the way back to Sinai and all the way around the globe, they might have been less wary, but therefore also less intent on getting to know about other people’s lives. Kaplan’s way of listening and learning was deliberate and artful. Yet the adult author now discloses a moral confidence and connectedness that may have informed her fiction before she was even aware of it.

The two intriguing new stories in this latest collection, though also fiction or semi-fiction, speak in the author’s voice, ready to share more of the person who had been holding herself in reserve. Miriam’s creator now breaks out to say who she is and who she is not. One longs to know more and more of her in stories and books to come.

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More about: American Jewish literature, Arts & Culture, Literature, Philip Roth