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Oedipus in Brooklyn

Bennett Muraskin
August 22, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

Discussed in this essay: Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel, translated from the Yiddish by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, Mandel Vilar Press/Dryad Press, 2016, 225 pages.

Social Media JPGTHERE WAS A TIME when female Yiddish writers were virtually unknown in English translation. Irving Howe did not include a single one in his groundbreaking A Treasury of Yiddish Short Stories (1954). But this is no longer the case. I know of four anthologies of Yiddish short stories written by Jewish women: Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (1994), Beautiful as the Moon, Radiant as the Stars (2003), Arguing with the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers (2008) and The Exile Book of Yiddish Women Writers (2013). Now comes an anthology devoted to just one: Blume Lempel.

Lempel was born in the Galicia region of Central-Eastern Europe in 1907 (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), grew up in a shtetl and left home at age 22. She originally planned to move to Palestine, but changed her mind while in Paris, visiting her brother. She married in Paris, had two children, and in 1939 immigrated to America to escape Hitler. She and her family settled in New York City, where she began to write short stories in Yiddish. She wrote a novel about prewar Paris called Between Two Worlds that was serialized in the Morgn Freiheit, the Yiddish communist newspaper. It was translated into English and published as Storm over Paris in 1954.

Lempel’s literary career was sidetracked by mounting family obligations and then stalled by the impact of the Holocaust, which took the lives of close relatives and caused her father to commit suicide. She was unable to write again until the 1970s, when she decided to “speak for those who could no longer speak, feel for those who could no longer feel, immerse myself in their unlived lives, their sorrows, their joys, their struggle and their death.” Her short stories and poems then began to appear in a wide range of Yiddish journals in the U.S. and abroad, and were collected in a two-volume anthology published in Israel in 1981 and 1986. By the time of her death in 1999, Lempel was well known and respected in the shrinking Yiddish literary world. Indeed, some of her stories appear in English translation in the anthologies cited above.

I am sorry to say that I am not impressed. The title story, “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” is downright creepy. A single mother and her blind son commit incest, causing the mother to kill herself. Why the editor chose this story as the lead is hard to fathom. Although there is gratefully only one story about incest, suicide is a recurring theme. In “Images,” set in Israel, a Holocaust survivor who became a prostitute kills herself.

Some of the stories are a bit weird. In “Yosele,” a woman who lost her husband in the Holocaust falls to her death from an apartment window because she thinks she sees him in the street. In “Neighbors,” even the death of a housefly causes a Jewish woman to think about the Holocaust.

EVERY STORY, without exception, is sad — even the stronger ones. In “Even the Heavens Tell Lies,” memories of the horrors of the Holocaust render a survivor mute. In “Lost Claude,” an American Jewish family adopts a child survivor of the Holocaust who grows up to be a troubled man. In “Her Last Date,” a Jewish woman who disguises herself as the mistress of a Vichy police chief to save herself and aid endangered Jews is discovered and shot. In what I consider to be the most compelling story, “Twin Sisters,” the mystery of why a Holocaust survivor decided to settle in Berlin after the war is slowly revealed.

The stories that do not deal with the Holocaust are no merrier. In “Pastorale,” a kind woman living in a nursing home throws herself out of a window for no apparent reason. In “The Death of My Aunt,” a nursing home fails to inform a caring niece that her aunt is dying. In “The Debt,” a young woman gets pregnant from a man to whom she owed money.

Social Media JPGJust because a writer tells a story in the first person does not necessarily mean that it is autobiographical, but in Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, it appears more likely than not. If this is the case, Lempel’s own life in America was grim. There are two stories set with the narrator on vacation. In “A Snow Storm in Summerland,” she and her husband get lost while driving to Florida in a freak storm. There appears to be no love lost between the couple. In “Yosemite Park,” despite the natural beauty around her, she cannot help thinking of a pathetic wedding in a graveyard in Europe staged by superstitious Jews to stop a plague. In none of the stories is there any account of a healthy loving relationship, except in the context of mourning a dead partner or relative.

Two stories betray what I believe are Lempel’s ethnocentric and conservative values. In “Little Song,” she speculates that a Jewish girl committed suicide over marrying a Gentile. In “En Route to Reno,” I get the sense that she blames feminism for causing the breakup of marriages.

The most improbable story is “Bag Lady” in which a woman who regularly gives money to a street person discovers that she is a long-lost relative. Of course, the bag lady first has to die for the woman to find this out.

Did I say that these stories are depressing? Well, to be fair, they are also well written and beautifully translated. When it comes to style, I give Lempel an “A”. As to substance, I think by now my opinion is clear. These days, it may be anathema to criticize newly translated Yiddish literature: If it's Yiddish, it must be precious. But I got little pleasure out of reading this collection.

Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.