Anglo-Jewish Writers: Twentieth Century
There was no renaissance of Jewish women’s writing in Britain in the early twentieth century. Writing by Anglo-Jewish women, heralded in the nineteenth century by a very few, such as Grace Aguilar, a champion of Judaism who wrote the first significant Anglo-Jewish novel, Home Influence: A Tale for Mothers and Daughters (1836–1837), Amy Levy and Julia Frankau (Frank Danby, 1859?–1916) and poets Alice Lucas (1852–1935) and Nina Salaman (Davis), flourished only after World War II. Between the wars there was little written by Jewish men, let alone by Jewish women.
One of the rare exceptions was novelist Naomi Jacob (1889–1964), born in Yorkshire, who produced a huge output of novels. The Founder of the House (1930) is a Jewish family saga, in which women are subordinate to the patriarchal culture, while The Gollantz Saga (1952) depicts the progressive assimilation of a Jewish family. Paul Bailey describes Jacob as a “terrible but prolific novelist, broadcaster and cross-dresser” (Three Queer Lives: An Alternative Biography of Naomi Jacob, Fred Barnes and Arthur Marshall, 2001). From his account it is clear that Jacob defied the sexual prejudices of her age and lived by her own rules.
Another prolific but mediocre Jewish woman writer was London-born G. B. (Gladys Bronwyn) Stern (1890–1973), whose home background and travels in Germany and Italy lent color and an exotic quality to many of her works. She wrote a series of somewhat superficial novels about the Rakonitz family, who retain family loyalties but are happy to assimilate, relinquishing their Jewishness. Matriarch Chronicles (1936) is the culmination of this series of works set in a pre-Hitler milieu of assimilated, middle-class European Jewry. Like many of her fictional female protagonists, Stern married a non-Jew and abandoned Judaism.
The change in Anglo-Jewish writing occurred in the wake of both the Holocaust and its aftermath and the birth and consolidation of the State of Israel—momentous events which shattered old illusions. In addition, the ideas of the feminist movement helped Jewish women to find a voice.
From amongst the Kindertransport children three poets emerged who proved important to the development of Anglo-Jewish literature. Initially Karen Gershon, Lotte Kramer (b. 1923) and Gerda Mayer repressed their experiences of Nazi life, expressing them openly only years later. Gershon was the first to emerge, with her publication in 1966 of We Came as Children, an account of the Kindertransport, and Selected Poems. Gerda Mayer waited until 1970, while Lotte Kramer’s poetry was first published as late as 1979. All three had been compelled to relinquish their childhood identities and become reconciled with their experience of being displaced, alienated refugees in an English world.
Karen Gershon (Kate Loewenthal, 1923–1993) was born in Bielefeld, Germany into a liberal Jewish family whose members were later murdered in a concentration camp in Riga. Gershon, who came to England on a Kindertransport in 1938, left her first foster home in Scotland to work as a domestic servant and office clerk in Leeds, then as a house-mother and matron in boarding schools. She was described in her obituary in The Times (April 15, 1993) as “a lone voice in the Holocaust poetry of the 1960s.” She also wrote three novels and three autobiographical works. Her last work, A Lesser Child, published posthumously in 1994, is a powerful memoir of her time under Nazi repression. She records her first ventures into poetry, in German, revealing how an early poem was rejected because it was “too serious, it doesn’t fit in.”
Her moral seriousness and honesty were to become her preoccupations. In many poems, as early as Selected Poems of 1966, she writes of her childhood exodus in elegiac verse. Her enduring pain is sustained in lines like “Whenever I sit in a train/I see my parents in a truck/events in themselves innocent/bring their experiences back.” Biblical muscularity of rhythm is revealed in lines such as “At Dovercourt the winter sea/was like God’s mercy vast and wild.” The need to bear witness or recall the events she had experienced is central and achieves extraordinary emotional power. She asserts her Jewish consciousness as she comes to terms with reality: “In fear and pride I walked alone/as if I were an enemy/and each stone seemed to look at me/there is no rancour in a stone.” Karen Gershon rejected Germany, becoming instead a Zionist; she spent several years (1969–1975) in Israel, but later returned to England.
Lotte Kramer has produced a bilingual volume of poetry called Heimweh-Homesick (1999). Her poems, written in English, contain resonant silences recalling her loss and the barbarism that continues to haunt twentieth-century politics. She is a daring poet, experimenting with form, rhythm and language. Walking with a German friend from her childhood at Burghley House, she recalls Kristallnacht as a moment of transition, “When flames had taken/Our holiest places/overnight./We had learnt the terror, but still could walk/ Carelessly, as children will/ By that river that shone.” She suggests a consciousness growing from innocence to experience and describes the conditions leading to her new identity. Gerda Mayer’s response to her tragic loss of family and her homeland, Czechoslovakia, is a deep sadness, juxtaposed with bleak, black humour occasionally reminiscent of Sylvia Plath. She also uses whimsical or fairytale metaphor to great effect. “Make Believe” explains why she records her name and birth date in every publisher’s note. This is because she is still hoping to hear from her vanished father. In a delightful verse in which she vows to “drop my Aunt Selfpity,” who “brought me up in a little wooden hut,” Mayer declares her debt to Stevie Smith, who lived with an aunt. She achieves emotional growth and artistic sensitivity, transcending the difficulties of her past. All three poets are troubled by the question of how to find their own voice, how to start anew as writers in a new language, in a new country, without the certainties of their families. The subject of their work is inevitably a sense of loss.
The imperative of Zakhor, the ethical duty to remember, gave integrity to those who had witnessed the terrible events. After the Holocaust the sense of dispossession and suffering was overwhelming. It took some years before the survivors were able to write of their trauma. In Britain their readership appeared hostile; the emphasis was on forgetting and moving on, not re-examining the past. Memoirs emerged, though writers often wrote only a single work.
Janina David, born in 1930 in Kalisz, Poland, was nine when the Germans invaded. Within a year she and her formerly affluent Jewish family were facing starvation in the Warsaw ghetto. A Square of Sky (1964), a gripping account of wartime Warsaw, was an immediate success in the U.K. and even more so in Germany. It was followed by A Touch of Earth (1966), which tells of her time in Australia, where she emigrated after her escape from Poland and two years spent in an international orphanage in Paris. She settled in the U.K. in 1958. Her books became enormously popular and paved the way for the many Holocaust memoir writers in the U.K., many of whose works are extremely moving and constitute a great contribution to Anglo-Jewish literature.
Kitty Hart-Moxon (b. 1927) survived two years in Auschwitz. Her book Kitty Goes to Auschwitz, which chronicles her life before and after the Holocaust, was made into a popular film. An updated version called Return to Auschwitz was published in 2000. Have You Seen My Little Sister? (1998) by Janina Fischler-Martinho (b. 1930), Gwen Edelman’s War Story (2001), Janet Reibstein’s Staying Alive: A Family Memoir (2002), Gerda Weissmann-Klein’s All But My Life (1957), Helen Lewis’s A Time to Speak (1992), Kerry Bluglass’s Hidden from the Holocaust: Stories of Resilient Children Who Survived and Thrived (2003) and Elli: Coming of Age (1980) by Livia Bitton-Jackson (b. 1931) are among the harrowing but memorable Holocaust stories by Anglo-Jewish women writers.
The “New Wave” of Jewish writers in the 1960s included Bernice Rubens and Gerda Charles, as well as the male writers, Brian Glanville, Frederic Raphael and Alexander Baron. Rubens, daughter of a Polish-Jewish mother and Lithuanian-Jewish father, has memorably said that it was only after her father had been buried in British soil that she no longer felt merely a guest on her best behaviour in Britain. She is the author of some twenty novels, the first of which, Set on Edge (1960), deals with the life of her maternal grandmother and shows how destructive possessive relationships within the family can be. Brothers (1983) is a Jewish family saga about the Bindel family who leave Russia after suffering pogroms, only to find themselves back there where antisemitism still holds sway. The Elected Member, which won the Booker prize in 1969, is concerned with a rabbi’s son and is full of black Jewish humor. In I, Dreyfus (1999), an updated spoof of the Dreyfus affair, she notes wryly that “the English are known to be of a polite persuasion and their antisemitism is of the most courteous kind.” Alfred Dreyfus, a worthy school headmaster, is unjustly convicted of a murder and the literary agent who persuades him to write an account of his unfortunate story is not much liked because “he too was one of ‘those.’” Bernice Rubens has written often on Jewish themes, openly and without embarrassment.
Gerda Charles (Edna Lipson, 1914–1996) started writing in the 1960s. While her fiction began by describing the Orthodox background of her youth in Liverpool and her rebellion against the “insensitivities” of provincial life, she went on to use the more general theme of marginality in order to avoid the problem of a limited readership. Her oeuvre includes The True Voice (1959), The Crossing Point (1960) and The Slanting Light (1963), but she struggled to find a publisher for The Destiny Waltz (1971), her last novel. She described her writing as being about “the job of maintaining sanity, dignity and order” in a world in which she seemed to be increasingly marginalized and alone. Her introspective and inward-looking battle with the world prevented her from producing more novels in the last twenty years of her life.
Novelist Anita Brookner has said she does not wish to be “ghettoized” and deplores any “Jewish eagerness to reclaim lost souls.” Instead she prefers to be known as an “English” writer and has indeed achieved fame and recognition as one of the most accomplished writers of English fiction, winning the Booker prize in 1984 for Hotel du Lac. She is known for her elegant turn of phrase and elegiac description of mood, often a deep well of inner loneliness. Few of her readers are aware of her Jewish background.
Brookner’s mother was born in England to Polish-Jewish immigrants and her father was a Polish Jew. “I think my parents’ lives were blighted—and in some sense mine is too—largely by the fact … of being strangers in England, not quite understanding what was happening and being done to them” (Interview with John Haffenden, Literary Review, September 1984). Many writers in Britain have been made to feel uncomfortable with their Jewishness, so it is hardly surprising to find that Brookner rarely writes overtly about Jews. Yet her characters are often refugees who inhabit the outsider’s world of St John’s Wood. In Brookner’s first novel, A Start in Life (1981), Ruth Weiss’s grandmother has “a sad European past,” is surrounded by the dark, heavy pieces of furniture brought from Berlin, and enjoys, as a source of warmth and security, the food she knew back home—buttermilk, rye bread, caraway seeds, cucumbers. Ethnic food habits often constitute identity and by transgressing kashrut in Paris, eating lobster for the first time, the heroine casts off an outworn identity.
Brookner prefers discretion to disclosure. In a personal letter she revealed that she wished to be known as Jewish only after her death. Yet she is a quintessentially Anglo-Jewish writer. It may have proved easier for her to reach an English audience by drawing a discreet veil over her many Jewish characters. Her people are subject to doubt and dislocation, despondency and alienation; like her, they are aware “of what it is like to be lonely, perceptive, an observer.” At the same time Brookner mirrors the way in which British Jewry has preferred to keep a low profile. Her writing epitomises the way in which it has been easier for some Jews in Britain to assimilate within society. Yet they may find themselves with a poignant sense of loss—the loss of Jewish warmth and community—while enduring the contradictions of Diaspora life.
Muriel Spark is an interesting avant-garde fiction writer, poet and literary critic, and a potentially controversial entry in this encyclopedia. Though she maintains that she is only “half Jewish,” records show that her parents were married in a United Hebrew synagogue (an Orthodox institution) and that her brother had his bar mitzvah in the Edinburgh synagogue. Her parents’ marriage could have been celebrated in such a synagogue only if the Chief Rabbi’s office was satisfied that both partners were fully Jewish. On both the ketubbah and the civil marriage certificate her mother is referred to as Sarah Uezzell Hyams, a common Jewish surname. Thus halakhically Muriel Spark is fully Jewish. Yet following her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1954 she seems anxious to distance herself from Judaism. The question of Jewishness occurs both in the novel The Mandelbaum Gate (1965) and in the short story “The Gentile Jewesses.” The story, collected in Bang-Bang You’re Dead (1981), begins with a description of her grandmother’s general store in Watford and then notes satirically, “I was a Gentile Jewess like my grandmother. … To [my parents] it was no great shock when I turned Catholic, since with Roman Catholics too, it all boils down to the Almighty in the end.”
The main action of The Mandelbaum Gate occurs in 1961, a decisive year during which Spark herself spent two months researching in Israel. This was the year in which Israel launched its first guided rocket and it was also when the Eichmann trial took place. Like Spark, the heroine of The Mandelbaum Gate attends the trial and is profoundly affected. The Mandelbaum gate, which divides the city of Jerusalem symbolically, is a suitable place for the conflicted heroine to feel herself temperamentally and geographically divided. Spark comments insightfully on the state of mind of Arabic teacher Abdul Ramdez who, she notes, is an intelligent man bored by “the mentality that now presented to every Arab in Palestine the blood-duty of becoming a professional victim.” On another occasion, Spark ironically recounts how “the bewildered homeless souls, in thousands and tens of thousands, agreed and then convinced themselves, and were to hold for long years to come, that they had, every man of them, been driven from vast holdings in their bit of Palestine, from green hilly pastures and so many acres of lush orange groves as would have covered Arabia.”
The heroine, Barbara Vaughan, explains to an Israeli guide that she is half Jewish. The guide insists she is fully Jewish; that is the Law. Vaughan disagrees, saying she is also bound by Gentile rules, “What was your father’s Law?” asks the guide. “I’m afraid he was a law unto himself,” she replies, in a witty response that is typical of all Spark’s writing. Both heritage and the search for identity are keys to many of her novels, all of them handled with restrained irony and wit.
Elaine Feinstein is yet another gifted Anglo-Jewish novelist; she is also a fine poet, literary biographer, critic and translator. She says she at first felt disadvantaged by being a Northerner, Jewish and a woman. Nevertheless she has achieved great success and has won many prestigious awards for her work. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1980. Jewish themes pervade her writing. All four grandparents were Russian Jews and Jewishness comes easily. Children of the Rose (1975) describes the return of Jewish refugees to Poland after thirty years and explores the difficulty of memory. Set in Liverpool, The Survivors (1982) follows the fortunes of three generations of immigrant Jews, exploring issues of assimilation. The novel The Border (1984) depicts Inga and Hans escaping from Vienna as Hitler’s power spreads across Europe. The story is told through linked diaries, letters, interviews and poems which reveal the three main characters. The lonely figure of Walter Benjamin, betrayed at the Spanish border, adds poignancy to their hopes and fate. Feinstein’s translations of the Russian poets have influenced her own poetry, enriching it with a European eloquence and wisdom. According to the Poetry Book selectors, her poems “distil the store of a working life spent making Eastern Europe at home in England.”
Poet Ruth Fainlight (b. 1931), though American born, has spent many writing years in Britain, producing nineteen fine volumes of poems, apart from short stories, and libretti for the Royal Opera House and Channel Four. She defines herself in “translations Vertical”: “I am released by language …/which sets me free/From whomsoever’s definition:/Jew. Woman. Poet.” Hers is a rare voice and she has received many awards for her work, including the Cholmondeley Award for Poets, 1994. Sugar-Paper Blue (1997) was shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread Prize.
Eva Figes (Eva Unger), another novelist of this generation, was born in 1932 to a German Jewish family who escaped to England in 1939, but her Berlin grandparents were killed in a concentration camp in Poland. Her first novel Equinox (1966) is a partly autobiographical and largely pessimistic account of a woman’s search for meaning. Her novels are distinguished by a poetic use of language and an exploration of the uncertainties and fragmentation of identity. Brunel University’s citation when she was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of letters stated that “she has highlighted the value of creativity and self-expression as a vital part of the educational process … made a significant contribution to the social and cultural debate concerning the needs, expectations and rights of women in society.” Significantly her so-called Gothic novel The Tenancy (1993) focuses on Martha and Frederick Wolf, who are Jewish exiles from the Nazi terror that dehumanizes. The library of books they manage to rescue from Germany is consumed by a fire that destroys their house in England (an allusion to the “Bücherverbrennung” of 1938.) Others of her novels dealing with Jewish questions include Little Eden: A Child at War (1978) and Tales of Innocence and Experience (2003).
Michelene Wandor (b. 1940) was born in London to Russian Jewish emigrés and has written plays, radio plays, a novel, short stories and verse. She has been involved with the women’s liberation movement since 1969 and has been part of the avant-garde of British feminist writing, supporting gay liberation in Britain. In an essay, “The Sex Divide in Jewish Culture” (1997), she points to the mythic duality in received Jewish ideology. The patriarchal Jewish father figure and the dominant Jewish mother could match each other, but there is a fear in both the male and female figures that each wishes to control the other. This, she says, creates a love-hate ambivalence that has not yet been addressed in creative Jewish female fiction. “We do not yet have a substantial tradition of fiction by female Jewish writers to redress the balance.” While the founding mothers of American feminism were Jewish women such as Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin, British Jewish women writers, with the exception of Michelene Wandor, were not in the forefront of the feminist movement.
In the latter years of the twentieth century, as several ethnic minorities became increasingly outspoken and accepted in Britain, it became easier for Jewish writers to write openly and honestly about their perceptions of being Jewish. Publishers in Britain were less wary of producing novels with a “limited” appeal on account of their Jewishness. No longer was it necessary for writers to be Jewish at home but English on the street. Yet the malign archetypal image of the Jew in nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction continues to permeate the subconscious of many Britons. The conscious or unconscious repetition of myths, clichés and fantasies surrounding the stereotypes of the Jew, hostile, denigratory and debasing, are still frequently represented both in the high-minded world of literature and in popular culture. Jewish women writers, even those who are not particularly self-hating, may come unconsciously to share some of the antisemitic attitudes about Jews. Though the Labor government introduced an annual Holocaust day on which the past is recalled in schools, the overall situation remains difficult for Jewish writers. The Arts Council maintains that “Jews are not a priority,” though it readily finds funds for Black, Caribbean and Islamic projects. With the increasing incidence of antisemitic attacks on Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, the confidence that Jews once had in Britain as a safe haven is being eroded.
In America, the best Jewish writing of the mid-twentieth century was produced by the sons of immigrants; and this writing was explicitly about fathers and sons. Irving Howe maintained that the creativity of the period was bound up with the tension between the writers and the world they had left behind, Howe’s “world of our fathers.” The power and intensity of much of this fiction derived from nostalgia for the past (nostos is Greek for “return,” algos is “suffering”), the sense of loss of what had been left behind, including the loss of the Yiddish language spoken at home, of rabbinical knowledge and of the Hebrew used in the synagogues of old. Ironically, despite the increase in assimilation and intermarriage, and the “vestigial” Jewishness of more and more Jews who profess to be only “culturally” or marginally Jewish, there is a greater readiness on the part of Jewish writers to be more open, to find an authentic Jewish voice.
It is also true that when Jewish writers in America were being accepted into the mainstream culture, their renaissance was supported and indeed popularized by a number of influential Jewish academics and critics (e.g. Leslie Fiedler, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin). It is only in recent years that Jewish women academics such as Lisa Jardine, Sue Vice, Louise Sylvester, Jill Swale, Tamar Garb and others have encouraged young Jewish women writers. Nevertheless, the critic Jessica Mann, reviewing Linda Grant’s Still Here (2002) in The Daily Telegraph of March 2, 2002, is still able to comment that “the theme of Jewishness outweighs everything else in the book and becomes monotonous.”
There have been striking changes in novels by Anglo-Jewish women writers in the last thirty years. No longer are the protagonists men, fathers and sons. The subject matter of much of the best of Anglo-Jewish women writers’ fiction, poetry and drama has been the Holocaust and memory, with its complexities and ambiguities; and the protagonists are now women, mothers, daughters, sisters. Furthermore, the Anglo-Jewish women writers of the generation that emerged after the 1970s are themselves survivors or the children of survivors or refugees. Their work attests to an ongoing and dynamic process of exploration, a continual inner search for new meaning.
Anne Karpf (b. 1950), who was born to Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors, has written memorably in The War After: Living With the Holocaust (1996) about how she came to feel responsible for her parents’ well-being. The need to nourish and protect them was paramount in her childhood development. She provides an insightful account of the complex emotional issues facing survivors’ children, the second generation.
The Holocaust Trilogy (2000) by Julia Pascal (b. 1949) examines Jewishness, memory and the way in which the Holocaust is memorialized. Pascal has worked closely with the actress Ruth Posner, a Holocaust survivor, and with Thomas Kampe, son of a Wehrmacht veteran. In these plays she celebrates the survival of Jewish culture in post-war years, while responding to the emerging understanding of the Holocaust as a focal point of a new European “shared memory.” (See Susanne Greenhaigh’s “‘A Space for Me’: Jewishness, Memory and Identity in Pascal’s Holocaust Trilogy.”) Theresa is the story of Theresa Steiner, who escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna only to be deported from Guernsey and sent to her death in Auschwitz. The play is the first of Pascal’s Holocaust Trilogy (2000) with Dead Woman on Holiday and The Dybbuk completing it. Woman on the Moon, Pascal’s twelfth play, arises out of research with survivors of the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp and draws on the experiences of a hidden child who survived the Holocaust as a baby.
Kindertransport (1993) by Diane Samuels (b. 1960) is a powerful contribution to Holocaust literature. The play, which is about Eva, who comes to Manchester on board a Kindertransport train in 1938, reveals her struggles with survivor guilt and the angst of her traumatic past. She feels rage at having been abandoned by her parents. When they are sent to the gas chambers and fail to return, the girl changes her name, beginning the process of denying her roots. It is only when her own daughter finds a bundle of letters in the attic that she is compelled to confront the truth about her past.
With the publication of Exodus: The Particulars of Rapture (2001) by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, a sequel to her study, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (1995), there develops the discovery of the Bible and Judaism as literary subjects. (In the United States, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, a fictionalized account of the Biblical tale of Dinah’s rape, has been an astonishing success, selling millions of copies, and has been translated into fifteen languages.) Born in London in 1944, Zornberg, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1969, was steeped in a world of rabbinic tradition and scholarship (her father was a dayan and av bet din [head of a rabbinic court] in Glasgow). Her quest in her second book, as she writes in the introduction, is “to find those who will hear with me a particular idiom of redemption,” who will hear “within the particulars of rapture … what cannot be expressed.” Zornberg is less concerned with what the Bible means than with the dialectical process of experiencing existential dramas faced by the people we read about in the Bible. She is concerned with Abraham’s thoughts and conflicts as he prepared the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) on Mount Moriah, and relives the Exodus from Egypt differently from the Haggadah, helping to see how Pharaoh or Moses felt and the traumas of their decisions on Israelite redemption.
Eva Hoffman was born in Cracow, Poland, in 1945, but moved to Canada and the United States with her parents in 1959 before deciding to live in London. In Lost in Translation (1989) she wrote about her emigration and her decision at the age of fourteen to write in English, precisely because this was the language she would need to live in. Polish was still her language of interiority, but she was young enough to make the transition. Caught between two worlds, she gradually began to understand the inner life of her new culture. Shtetl (1997) focuses on the lost world of Bransk, a small town in Poland where there are today few survivors of a vibrant pre-war Jewish life. With much compassion she describes what happened when the Germans invaded and considers the influences that persuaded Christian villagers either to conceal and save, or betray, their Jewish neighbors. She reflects on a difficult past and considers the current preoccupation with memory.
Another writer foregrounding the importance of memory is Rachel Lichtenstein (b. 1970). Rodinsky’s Room (with Iain Sinclair, 1999) tells the story of David Rodinsky, an Orthodox Jew who lived in a room above the Princelet Street Synagogue in London’s East End. The room was left undisturbed for twenty years. Lichtenstein examines his papers, the fragments left behind, to unearth der Heim in Poland and the Whitechapel that was the New Old Country. The book tells about the end of an era, the deserted East End, reminding us of the fragility of our histories. She discovers that Rodinsky left his room when he was institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital, after living a Polish-Jewish life in an alien environment. An idiosyncratic and very Jewish book which could never have found a publisher thirty years earlier, it is an enormous success in today’s more tolerant climate.
The subject of Jewish identity, not least in relation to Israel, is complex, confusing and fraught with emotion. It is difficult to differentiate between the cultural, religious and ethnic elements that are involved in one’s sense of being Jewish, and their ties, or lack of a tie, to Israel. Linda Grant (b. 1951) encounters Israel head on in When I Lived in Modern Times, winner of the Orange Prize for fiction in 2000. Her protagonist Evelyn Sert sets out for Palestine from the Jewish East End. In Bauhaus-influenced Tel Aviv she sees a world of moral complexity and paradox, a year after the end of World War II. Finding that she has more in common with the hated English overlords, she struggles with a life of shifting identities, secrets and lies, in the heat and surrounded by unfamiliar food and alien ways. The novel is perhaps flawed but demonstrates a quiet strength and purpose.
Her latest offering is also exciting. Still Here (2002) is set in Liverpool, where the heroine Alix Rebick and her brother Sam are the offspring of an emotionally traumatized mother, a survivor from Dresden, and a father who is an established member of the Liverpool Jewish and medical community. Narration is shared by the Jewish ex-New Yorker Joseph who was an Israel Defence Force volunteer in the Yom Kippur War (as a means of dodging the Vietnam draft), so we are enabled to experience his ambivalent feelings about Israel. Alix is part of the “resurrection” industry: she raises funds to restore sites of Jewish interest in Europe. She travels to Dresden and meets a cousin who is contesting her mother’s will, allowing Linda Grant through Alix to comment on the wartime bombing of the city. Grant also reflects on the role played by Jewish refugees from Germany who came to exert enormous influence on Britain’s art and culture; buildings like the Wigmore Hall and Highpoint apartment complex in London are recalled, as are many of the buildings of Liverpool itself. A confidently Jewish novel.
There are at last signs of a new literary energy in Anglo Jewish women’s writing. The 1980s and 1990s were a time of pivotal change in the evolution of Anglo-Jewish female writing. A number of confident British Jewish women writers of varied strengths appeared: novelists Lisa Appignanesi (b. 1946), Leila Berg (b. 1918 or 1919), Sally Berkovic, Claire Calman (b. 1964), Lesley Chamberlain, Lana Citron, Jenny Diski (b. 1947), Lucy Ellman (b. 1956), Esther Freud (b. 1963), Sue Gee, Elena Lappin (b. 1954), Deborah Levy (b. 1959), Kathy Lette (b. 1958), Anna Maxwell, Charlotte Mendelssohn, Joan Michelson, Cheryl Moskowitz (b. 1959), Freya North, Zina Rohan, Rita Rudner, Elizabeth Russell Taylor, Hilda Schiff, Myra Schneider (b. 1936), Gillian Slovo, Gloria Tessler, Erica Wagner (b. 1967) and Shelley Weiner; poets such as Wanda Barford, Lynette Craig, Joyce Herbert, Jose Jaffe, Sonja Linden, Sylvia Paskin and Sibyl Ruth, and new playwrights such as Samantha Ellis, Marion Baraitser and Abigail Morris.
Many of these write about mothers and daughters, love, sex and relationships with both men and women and, hovering above all, the shadow of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Their books are witty, tender, stylish and energetic, with a strong emotional center. The particular insights of Jewish women writers and their intimate dilemmas of contemporary life throw light on how society and family have changed for this new generation of writers. The novels attract a larger readership than anyone could have predicted. These new writers question and frustrate the tradition of being “discreet” about their Jewishness; they refuse to opt for the more socially acceptable convention of assimilating within a framework of “Englishness.” Sensitive and gifted, young Anglo-Jewish women writers evade narrow restrictions and are able to transcend the old issues and limitations of expressing their Jewishness openly. This augurs well for new Jewish female voices in the years to come, voices that celebrate their creative imagination within a Jewish context.
Eva Figes passed away on August 28, 2012 in London, UK.
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© 2003 from Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century, edited by Sorrel Kerbel. Reproduced by permission of Fitzroy Dearborn, Inc., part of the Taylor and Francis Group.
Eva Figes passed away on August 28, 2012 in London, UK.