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Wasserstein's Elements of Style

I stayed up late last night reading Wendy Wasserstein’s posthumously published novel, Elements of Style. (Click here for JWA's "We Remember" piece on Wasserstein.) Like all of Wasserstein’s work, her novel is witty, fun, biting, clever, with a strong thread of social criticism. I am always amazed by Wasserstein’s gift to explore tragic themes with such humor and right-on descriptions (e.g., in describing a suicide bombing at a Starbucks, she writes: “Glass was scattered on the street like an American Kristallnacht, except the shards were splattered with nonfat Frappuccinos.”)

The story takes place in post-9/11 New York City, in the world of the Upper East Side elite. The picture Wasserstein paints of socialites of old and new money and their generally ineffectual husbands is not pretty (though it’s toned and flawless, thanks to pilates and chemical peels). Most of the characters can’t seem to hold onto the basic wisdom articulated by the celebrity dermatologist who injects his clients’ butt fat into their faces: “…not only are we all the same beneath the surface, but the surface can be altered in so many ways that what gives us real character is using your mind and never forgetting about your heart.” Again Wasserstein succeeds at creating characters that are over-the-top satirical and yet somehow human, even appealing.

The heroine of the book is Dr. Francesca (Frankie) Weissman, an A-list pediatrician to the socialite set who tends to the children of Harlem on the side. Although she holds the moral center of the book, she is decidedly marginalized in all other ways: she is Jewish in a scene of WASPs, frumpy among the obsessively styled, single in a world of marrieds. She’s lonely, but she’s witty and insightful; in other words, she’s Wendy.

What interested me most is that this narrative – Jewish woman as symbol of outsider, in New York City of all places! – still works in the 21st century. Frankie, after all, is not exactly an arriviste: though the daughter of an immigrant hosiery manufacturer and originally from Queens, she grew up on the Upper East Side and went to Spence, Princeton, and Harvard Medical School – a weightier pedigree than many of the socialites with whom she hobnobs. Jewish women have access to these worlds now, and to the power that goes along with them. In New York City, how marginalized can Jews really feel these days? And yet the metaphor of the Jew as outsider continues to resonate, at least for some Jewish women like Wasserstein, and many of her readers, I would bet. How integrated are we really?

Maybe Wasserstein introduced this theme in part to emphasize the message of her book: that social power, style, and money don’t ultimately protect anyone – a lesson that Jewish history teaches pointedly.

Though I didn’t find this book quite as hard-hitting as some of Wasserstein’s other work, it was a pleasure to read and a bummer to put down, knowing that we won’t be the beneficiaries of any further wisdom and wit from Wendy. May her memory be for a blessing.

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Readers of this blog will be interested in the book described below since it explores the work of Jewish artists Miriam Benjamin, Helen Mayer Harrision, Mierle Ukeles, etc., curators Sylvia Herskowitz (Yeshiva University Museum) and Michaela Hajkova (Jewish Museum of Prague, and art critic Dore Ashton.

The Jewish Women's Archive should have this book in its library and shop since it deals with Jewish women's contributions to shaping the art of the future.

Shalom u'vracha, Miriam Benjamin Petach Tikvah, Israel

The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness by Mel Alexenberg

Published by Intellect Books, 2006.

This is a wonderful and important book. The author links the history of art to the important role played by various forms of thinking in the Jewish tradition and connects that to the emerging culture of digital expression. Brilliant insights and new ways of seeing make this a must-read for anyone interested in the intellectual history of images in the 21st Century. - Ron Burnett, author of How Images Think (MIT Press, 2005), President of Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, Canada.

The author succeeds in opening a unique channel to the universe of present and future art in a highly original and inspiring way. His connection between ancient concepts (Judaism) and the present digital age will force us to thoroughly rethink our ideas about art, society and technology. This book is evidence that Golem is alive! - Michael Bielicky, Professor of Media Arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, Czech Republic, and at Hochschule fur Gestaltung, ZKM Center for Art and Media, in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Alexenberg has provided us with powerful new lenses to allow us to "see" how postmodern art movements and classical Judaic traditions compliment and fructify one another as the visual arts are now enlarging and adding a spiritual dimension to our lives in the digital era. This book is simply a must read analysis for anyone interested in where we and the visual arts are going in our future. - Moshe Dror, co-author of Futurizing the Jews: Alternative Futures for the 21st Century (Praeger, 2003), President of World Network of Religious Futurists, and Israel Coordinator of World Future Society.

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How to cite this page

Rosenbaum, Judith. "Wasserstein's Elements of Style." 26 April 2006. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 19, 2018) <>.


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