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Steve Stern's "The Wedding Jester"

Steve Stern is a gifted comic writer. Like Nathan Englander, he weaves into his stories legends and mystic figures of the Jewish people: Dybbuk, Golem, shekinah, tzaddik, doppleganger, demons, wonder rabbis, the True World, transmigration of souls. Both writers allude to the tales of The Baal Shem Tov, Nachman of Bratslav, Mendele the Bookseller, Sholem Aleichem, the panoply of Yiddish short story writers published in eastern Europe and in The Jewish Daily Forward, as well as Bellow, Malamud, and Ozick. I. B. Singer is perhaps their most recognizable model.
This kind of story allows readers to understand the part-anguished, part-mystical world the Jewish people of the Diaspora lived and breathed in the context of the American world into which they have been, by now, oh so thoroughly assimilated. A hell of a trick, when successful. Sometimes, these stories indeed do prove timeless, and enrich their characters psyches. Leslie Fiedler asked, “Is there a Jewish identity which survives the abandonment of ghetto life and ghetto beliefs, which for so long defined the Jew? Or has the Jew left in Europe, along with the pain and squalor he fled, the possibility of any definition?” It is a brilliantly composed question. No 21st Century American Jew can live in the world of Cantor Rabinowitz, or the world of his show biz son. Nor do we have to face the non-Jewish world, and have to make the choices, of archetypal Jews such as:
-- the young narrator (Nathan Zuckerman) of The Plot Against America, facing unwritten rules about conditions under which a minority could be tolerated by Christian Americans in the 1940s..
--Woody Allen’s Zelig, a shape-changing trickster trying to protect some core that, itself infected by other people’s stares, would not let him find out if it really existed any more.
--Meyer Hirsch, the alrightnik’s alrighnik, in Samuel Ornitz’s Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl (1923). Meyer allied himself with unions, and used public opinion (and gangland hoodlums) to defeat the wealthy clothing industry’s uptown, protestant owners. Behind his toothless but vote-getting speeches about the evils of discrimination against Jews in hiring and real estate lay the corruption he brought to union affairs. As a lawyer, and judge, he fulfilled his full Darwinian potential. The workers and tenement dwellers were the ultimate losers. “All we get is what we get from somebody else. The weak live only to nourish the strong.” What’s it all about?: pot roast and latkes, his only remaining connection to the Lower East Side, and the “losers” he’s screwed over on his way up to Riverside Drive. They can’t touch him now.

I could mention other treasures of American Jewish literature about ancient and modern insecurities , echoes of Biblical conscience, identity with other Jews, and confrontation with demon-doubles. There is Bellow ( Humboldt’s Gift), Malamud The Magic Barrel, Anna Yezierska (Hungry Hearts), Abraham Cahan (The Rise of David Levinsky), Sholem Asch (East River), Cynthia Ozick (The Puttermesser Papers, “The Pagan Rabbi”), Tillie Olson (“Tell Me a Riddle”) and, Tony Kushner.

Kushner’s redaction of S Ansky’s A Dybbuk is set in Europe, but combines a Romeo and Juliet plot with the defiance of a Yeshiva student and a daughter (Chonen and Leah) who refuses to be sacrificed to marriage plans of a loving father. Very Yiddish, with a tzaddik, a wonder rabbi, a Dybbuk, a transformation of souls). But this is a very American Jewish retelling. Kushner’s Chonen and Leah have an American-type dream of individualism and self-fulfillment that will not be assimilated to any Golden Land. God himself had better do something about this injustice, or make himself disappear. That sounds American to me. I mean the old, hopeful America “commensurate with [Jay Gatsby’s] capacity with wonder.
. . . . . . .
I can’t reveal the mystery narrator of “The Wedding Singer”—too much of a spoiler. Saul Bozoff is a failed writer of stories featuring Jewish history and myth, the “other world” left behind in old Poland. His inspiration has dried up, and along with it comes impotence; failed marriage; disinterest in teaching; low self-esteem; no sex; no inspiration to write any more. A sad sack, teaching English in a cow college. He accompanied his mother to the aging Concord Borsch Belt resort, for what must have been one of the last Jewish marriages performed there.

Even his mom finds a new beau, among the steam tables piled with roast beef, potato kugel, fruit cake. Saul grits his teeth, and fends off Myra Halevy, who has good posture and nice legs but who knows nothing of the 11th century poet Judah Halevi. She has begun to warm him up, however, when Stern’s story is taken over by a Dybbuk, the too-long-unemployed spirit of Borsch Belt comic Eddie Romaine. He’s no Groucho (look right) but does get off a couple of one-liners:

“So this Jewish lady’s on the subway when a pervert opens his raincoat. / Feh, you call that a lining?”
Myra bats her eyelashes and tells Saul to save the bride. He of all people would know the proper Hasidic prayer. Now we’re in Seinfeld territory. Saul steps forward, makes a pronouncement, and blacks out . . .

There’s a smash ending, with a real kick in it, even a “lost soul dancing grotesquely on the ruins.” Samson Raphaelson again. He would like this tale. There is not only blind prayer, and the dybbuk, but a transformation of souls. Laughter, marriage, and relief from desolation replace lassitude. Saul will no longer need to rely on his reconstructions of the folklore of Old Poland to communicate. He will probably marry Myra, make lots of jokes, maybe even turn into Soupy Sales, and definitely get better student evaluations. But--big but--his lost, now wandering soul has the last word. You gotta read it.

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