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Voices of the Diaspora: Jewish Women Writing in Contemporary Europe.

Voices of the Diaspora: Jewish Women Writing in Contemporary Europe, edited by Thomas Nolden and Frances Malino. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005.146 pp. $59.95 (c); $21.95 (p).

This anthology offers a selection of contemporary stories and essays by Jewish women writers from across Europe, thereby providing both a judicious sampling for scholars wanting to expand their acquaintance with writers from various traditions and a handy collection suitable for classroom purposes. The introduction by Thomas Nolden deftly balances the portrayal of the women authors in the context of Jewish writers (male and female), of earlier Jewish women writers, and of their national traditions. This anthology allows readers to make a first acquaintance with these diverse writers so that their positions both as a group and as individuals within modern (Jewish) literature can be studied further. Each story is prefaced by a brief biography of the author.

These texts provide a rich sampling in various short prose forms, beginning with the French-Moroccan Marlene Amar's "On the Edge of the World," the story of an obsessively observant girl, Fortune, who lives at the edge of the desert. The story's title alludes to her marginality on several levels. She is "on the edge of the world" geographically in her childhood home, socially at the margins of her family and community, and individually through her self-imposed isolation. The story opens with a stark depiction of how the male child is infinitely preferable to the female one and closes with the celebrations for the birth of a son, accompanied by the raucous drunkenness of the men and Fortune's deliberate self-exclusion by taking refuge on the other side of the wadi. Reina Roffe continues this theme of female marginality in her "Exotic Birds," a story of the narrator's aunt. Truly a strange bird, her relative, full of unnamed longings, is invisible to others, even members of her own family, who pass her on the street without notice as she expectantly awaits a familiar greeting. Tellingly, her only two known transgressions are to have twice posed as a male to complete a minyan. The conclusion focuses on the aunt's eyes, her gaze compared to that of a gamekeeper surveying rare birds. In this reflex she has accomplished a profound perspectival switch, now everyone else is strange to her. The title of this subdivision, "Displacement," alludes to the displacement not only of the protagonists of these stories, but also of the authors and their emigration.

The section called "Reemergence" opens with the Austrian Ruth Beckman's "Beyond the Bridges," an essay about the absence of the past in the present, tracing her walk through "Matzoh Island," as Vienna's largely Jewish second district was known. Beckman's text reminds readers of the profound differences between the experiences of post-Holocaust German and Austrian Jews and thematizes the lacunae in the new generation's knowledge of pre-war Vienna. The editors should have revised the extremely stiff, Teutonic prose of this awkward translation into idiomatic English for republication here. The Russian-born French writer Myriam Assinimow's insightful essay, "A Yiddish Writer Who Writes in French," recalls the world of Yiddish--its language and its culture--and alludes to yet another sphere of loss with the Shoah. She sensitively explores what it means to be a child survivor with a modern hybrid identity, explaining how, while she writes in French, her work is imbued with the Yiddish world. The Italian author Clara Sereni's story "Jews" differs from the other two in this section in that is not an autobiographical essay explaining the author's position in contemporary literature and instead is a work of fiction, depicting cross-generational experiences with Jewish playmates. She deftly shows how insidious patterns of childhood prejudice during the Shoah are replicated in the life of the granddaughter. With her anti-Jewishness, the grandmother cuts short her granddaughter's opportunity to have a Jewish playmate, passing on hurtful behavior to another generation.

The section "Defiance" opens with a complex tale, "March 1953," of Stalinist Russia by Ludmila E. Ulitskaya, in which an observant great-grandfather passes on Jewish knowledge and lore to his attentive great-granddaughter. She is dealing with the normal changes from childhood to puberty, while simultaneously fighting her tormentor Brodrik, son of a drunken single mother, every day after school. Finally, the girl flies into a rage after his forceful groping and literally beats the impoverished boy, who both desires her and has been taught it is permissible to despise her, senseless. Her grandparents, secular Jewish doctors who are raising her, are outraged. The great-grandfather's death and the plight of Soviet Jews in general are juxtaposed with Stalin's death. "Holy Fire" by the female Dutch author Carl Friedman provides the most sustained engagement with contemporary issues, juxtaposing the experiences and attitudes of a modern Dutch woman, who has fled an orthodox home, and her circle of survivors with the radically Zionist and anti-Palestinian beliefs of Hans, the son of members of this liberal group. Hans's increasing orthodoxy and rabidly conservative beliefs lead him to gun down a Palestinian youth in Hebron.

The essay, "On my Great-Grandfather, My Grandfather, My Father, and Me," by the former East German writer Barbara Honigmann complements those by Beckmann and Assinimow, exploring how she became the female representative in a long line of Jewish-German intellectuals. Her move from Prenzlauer Berg to Strassburg, three blocks across the German border, is a defining moment which transforms her from an enabler of others' literary careers to an author in her own right. The historical medieval romance story, "Song of the Jewish Princess," by the British writer Michelene Wandor, is the most experimental of the collection, portraying the sensuous interplay between desire and music, male and female musicians. The Jewish princess of the title is a poet-lutenist, and her mother's and her own experiences and unions chronicle requited loves, losses, and betrayals in a brief magical tale of Jewish minstrels. The title of this section, "Reinventions," is therefore to be understood on two levels: as Honigmann's reinvention of herself and as Wandor's protagonist, depicting the serially recurring Jewish troubadors, their repeated expulsions, and their murders.

There is a strong sense of women's voices in these stories and essays, as the fictional tales are narrated without exception from a female point of view and the essays depict female authors' coming to terms with their legacies. Many of the stories also treat multiple generations of women. The editors are to be commended for making such a diverse, attractive body of work available to a broad readership.

Mara R. Wade

Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Author:Wade, Mara R.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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