Fran Lebowitz

A post-holiday musing on Jewish literature: Paul Rudnick is my Isaac Bashevis Singer

Come the High Holidays, as previously mentioned, I re-read certain books; the cycle is repeated around Passover. This year's High Holiday season gave me more time than usual to contemplate my personal canon of Jewish literature. My thinking was further prodded by reading in the New York Times of the death of Paul Rudnick's mother. Rudnick wrote one of the books high on my list, a novel called I'll Take It, which is about a young man traveling through New England one October with his mother and her two sisters. They're ostensibly leaf-peepers, but Joe and his mother have an agenda, which is to rob L.L. Bean so that she can get the money to redecorate the living room. I love this book but feel like no one's ever read it except me and my mother. The voracious reader's canon of Jewish literature apparently always has on it Serious Major Works by Serious Writers. I did a casual survey via Facebook (that tells you a lot right there) asking "What Jewish writers or books make up your personal Jewish canon?" Oddly, more Gentiles than Jews responded. But overwhelmingly the names were just what you'd expect to see on a college syllabus for a course entitled "Survey of 20th Century Jewish Literature." Potok; Singer; Roth; Bellow. I was bored thinking about this. One young woman, the brilliant Bekah Dickstein, posted a response immediately that warmed my heart, though: S.J. Perelman. Oh, yes.

To Bekah's eminently sensible suggestion, let me tack on my own list, a short list that came to me with shocking speed once I started thinking about it.

Sydney Taylor's All of a Kind Family books, which are the best way I know to introduce anyone to the Jewish calendar, to Jewish rites and rituals, and to the world of immigrant Jewish life in the early 20th century. The books are written with humor and love and the illustrations (in three of the books by Mary Stevens, in one by Beth and Joe Krush) are imprinted in my head. The Stevens illustrations have a delicacy that I particularly love.

Paul Rudnick's I'll Take It. There will, I'm sure, be someone out there's who's read this and who will be offended by my putting this on my list, saying, "It perpetuates negative Jewish stereotypes" or something like that. Well, it does. On the other hand, it's incredibly funny. Rudnick wrote this before he got big as a screenwriter and the number of genius throwaway lines in here is just astounding.

E.L. Konigsburg's About the B'nai Bagels: a Young Adult novel about little league, being bar mitzvah'd, and stuffed cabbage. Illustrated by Konigsburg, this is one of her earlier titles, and one which I feel gets short shrift, possibly because most people feel its appeal is too specific. That may be. But I don't give a crap about baseball and I read this book all the time.

Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem. I admit I haven't read this in quite a few years but I've always really liked this book. I enjoyed it a lot more than her other novels, which got a little too brainy for me, and I freely admit I've never read any of her non-fiction (what, like I'm going to read a book about Spinoza?).

A recent addition to the Eva Geertz canon of Jewish literature is Elinor Lipman's The Inn at Lake Devine, another light comic novel, about anti-Semitism in America in the 1960s and 1970s. Somehow that sentence strikes me as sounding absurd and heavy-handed, but really, that's what it is.

The essays of Fran Lebowitz are on my list. Judy Blume's Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself would make the cut.

Someone pointed out to me that my list is essentially bigoted, that I've got a bad attitude about people like Roth and Bellow, etc. etc. "Just because they're on everyone else's list doesn't mean they're not worth reading," he said, more or less accusing me of being a snot and a whiner. I'm not saying they're not worth reading though; what I'm saying is that I don't personally want to curl up with a little Saul Bellow when I'm looking for a comforting read. This is not material I'd read for fun, entertainment, relaxation, or escapism. I don't want books that try to ask or answer Big Questions. If anything, clearly, I'm interested in books that will say, "Ok, so, there are Big Questions. Very nice, all well and good but -- do you want another slide of babka? A cup of coffee? I can heat up the milk for you if you want."