What it's like to be young, American, Jewish

By MICHAEL JANAIRO, Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007; I-4

In the title story of Elisa Albert’s comic and irreverent debut collection, “How This Night is Different” (Free Press; 208 pages; $18), a young woman brings her boyfriend home to meet the family during Passover and to introduce him to his first seder.

She describes him to her mother as “Kind of like a Jew for Jesus, but minus the Jew part.” And to him, she summarizes the meal as “You get constipated, you get sick on bad wine, you talk biblical mythology until everyone nods off in their bone-dry matzo cake.”

The holiday doesn’t hold much meaning for her. Her parents treat her like a little kid. Worse yet, and this is a brilliant touch, during the holiday in which leavened bread is forbidden so Jews can remember the hardships of the Exodus, she is suffering from a yeast infection, “with yeast multiplying exponentially in her crotch, maybe enough by now to bake a loaf or two of forbidden bread.”

Feeling unkosher and uncertain about her boyfriend, she responds to his, “I want to show you that I’m amenable to Judaism,” by retorting: “I believe that’s the official motto of post-World War II Europe, honey.”

With that quip, Albert shows a biting knowingness about contemporary Jewish life that reflects the very real American unease with an ongoing cultural conflict between assimilation and tradition. Albert’s point isn’t to offer solutions, but to open up readers’ eyes to the peculiarities and absurdities of contemporary Judaism through lively characters and generous descriptions.

For example, a young woman in “So Long” watches her best friend become more religiously Jewish as her wedding approaches, and expresses her bewilderment at the change with snarky asides, as in: “Her intended’s name is Dov. He’s ba’al tshuva like her. It means ‘returned.’ (Don’t kid yourself: born again). There’s, like, a whole world of these people.”

In “The Mother is Always Upset,” a young father is about to watch his son’s ritual circumcision, or bris, but is accosted by his wife’s feminist friend who calls the ceremony “some barbaric, public act where we’re all supposed to stand around and cheer or whatever.” And though he wants to dismiss her harangue, it forces him to think about his own circumcised penis and his sexual history, and that maybe he wasn’t such a good guy. He comes to the conclusion that he “used its powers for evil rather than good.”

Other stories find complex humor and pathos in situations with intimate ties to Judaism: a youth group’s trip to Auschwitz in “The Living”; a woman at a bar mitzvah realizing her youth had passed her by in “Everything But”; and a sister dealing with her younger sister’s anorexia during Yom Kippur, a day of atonement that includes fasting, in “We Have Trespassed.”

The story that closes the collection, “Etta or Bessie or Dora or Rose,” is a postmodern turn that shows off Albert’s smarts with a love letter from one “Elisa Albert” to another writer who has examined similarly complex territory of Jews in America, Philip Roth.

In the letter, Albert (or “Albert”) not only offers an exegesis on Roth’s life and work that includes an invitation to have his first (and perhaps only) baby, but also probes her uncertainty and complexity of her role as a young writer in America, her very identity.

“The potential was endless and unbelievably exciting,” she (or “she”) writes of an idea she has for a novel about the female Jewish immigrants who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. “I was out for some Safran Foer blood, man. I would get a grant, I would go to an artists’ colony, I would sell first serial to the Paris Review, I would have a stunning black-and-white portrait taken by Marion Ettlinger, I would sell the collection in a massive two-book deal which would warrant a clipping in Shtetl Fabulous magazine, that glossy, much-hyped bimonthly effort to turn cultural Jewish identity into the coolest shtick on the block, the new black. I could not have been more excited, more — if you’ll excuse the expression in this context — fired up.”

Reading that paragraph, I flipped to the book jacket: Albert’s author photo was indeed taken by Marion Ettlinger. Obviously, Albert isn’t the only one fired up by her writing.

So watch out, Philip Roth. You, too, Jonathan Safran Foer. Make way for Elisa Albert.

Michael Janairo can be reached at 518-454-5829 or by email at mjanairo@timesunion.com.

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Eliza Albert