The American Library Association and Nextbook have been sponsoring a series of lectures on Jewish Literature at my local library for four or five seasons. Last fall's lecture series was called "A Mind of Her Own" and the theme was fathers and daughters in the Jewish American immigrant experience. The books we read are:
- Tevye the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem (written 1894-1916)
- Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (1925)
- O My America by Johanna Kaplan (1980)
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)
- The Bee Season by Myla Goldberg (2000)
Tevye is a series of stories, a novel really, on which Fiddler on the Roof was loosely based. Tevye dearly loves his daughters and wants to do the best he can for them but conditions for Jews in Russia at the turn of the last century made everything more difficult. As the stories progress everything deteriorates and the family has less and less to cling to. The novel is much more profound than the musical, which was perceptive enough.
Yezierska's Bread Givers is about an immigrant family living on the lower east side in New York. The father, who was a respected scholar in the old country, is struggling to maintain authority over his daughters. He spends all his time studying while the women work to support the family. The men the father chooses as husbands for the older girls are a disaster and so the youngest girl goes out on her own, determined to get an education and become a teacher. This was more or less the experience of the author and her family. It's a wonderful book, very sad, but with a hopeful ending.
I didn't like O My America at all. It takes place in New York in the 1940s and the 1960s and tells the story of a political gadfly, Ezra Slavin, who is a sociopath. The world revolves around him and his daughters struggle to understand and finally to forgive him.
I have been slowly reading my way through the oeuvre of Philip Roth and American Pastoral is perhaps my favorite of his books so far. It's the story of a Jew from Weequahic area of Newark, New Jersey, which is where Roth himself grew up. "Swede" Levov struggles to live the American pastoral life and to do what the world expects of him. The effect on his daughter is traumatic.
The Bee Season refers to the annual run up to the national spelling bee. Eliza Naumann is an underachiever in a family of talented people until she wins her school spelling bee. As she goes on to win other preliminary bees her father loses interest in her brother, Aaron, and focuses entirely on Eliza, throwing the dysfunctional family out of whack. Aaron joins the Hare Krishna and her mother becomes a kleptomaniac. This is a profoundly sad book.
The series beginning this fall is about graphic novels. I'm going to force myself to sign up. Graphic novels were never my thing, even when they were called comic books (though Classic Comics did attract my attention for a time.)