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

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 [email protected].

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Eliza Albert