Thane Rosenbaum: Elijah Visible - a mirror of Jewish life torn between history and tradition and contemporary American society

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008
37 Pages, Grade: 1




1 The author

2 Elijah Visible
2.1 Structure and general context
2.2 The protagonist
2.3 Themes approached in the short stories- problems of the Jews
2.4 The author as protagonist?

3 Selected stories
3.1 Cattle Car Complex
3.1.1 Characters and their relationship, context and structure
3.1.2 References to the past
3.2 The Rabbi Double-faults
3.2.2 Characters and their relationships, context and structure
3.2.2 Observation of the story’s end
3.3 An Act of Defiance
3.3.1 Characters and their relationships
3.3.2 A posthumous victory?

4 Criticism and conclusion
4.1 Language and style- the use of Jewish elements and phrases
4.2 The connection between structure and context and the stories within
4.3 Conclusion- Elijah Visible: a means of warning or of coping?



„He writes like he talks and talks like he writes“[1]

Although the cruelties people of Europe had to suffer from during the early decades of the 20th century, when Adolf Hitler began to establish his Nazi-regime, are part of a sad and dark chapter in German history, the aftermaths of the Rassengesetze, the war itself and the concentration camps are still shaking the minds of those who are faced with this issue during their studies, as well as the memories and lives of the people which either had to live according to the ideologies of the Third Reich and experience the tortures and pain the Nazis had brought upon them, or belong to the younger generation of those people’s descendants.

Thane Rosenbaum himself is one of them, a member of the generation whose parents had been there, had to live during the Third Reich and had survived the Holocaust. His novel Elijah Visible treats the issue of Nazi-Germany, the concentration camps and the consequences of this brutal era of German politics and ideologies from a rather indirect Jewish point of view (for further explanation cf. 2.1).

During the tenor of this work the author, Thane Rosenbaum, shall be introduced and his novel-in-stories Elijah Visible will be analyzed with the help of three selected short stories; the structure of the complete novel and connections between single stories will be illustrated. It is expounded in how far and in which manner the author’s past and family background have influenced the (events described throughout the) stories and thus, which autobiographical elements can be found. The last chapter will lay the focus on Rosenbaum’s language and style as well as the purpose of writing his novel.

This work is written in American English.

1 The author

Thane Rosenbaum came into the world on the 8th of January in 1960 in Washington Heights, New York. In contrast to the characters Rosenbaum describes throughout his stories- in a very detailed manner- their thoughts and emotions, their despairs and longings as well as their daily routines, little information is available on his personal background. His father, Norman Rosenbaum, had carried on the profession of a lawyer while his mother Betty had been a homemaker[3]. When he had been 21 years old, his parents, both survivors of the Holocaust (his mother had been a prisoner of the Nazi death camp in Majdanek, whereas his father had besides others been sent to Auschwitz)[4], died within two months and thus he was completely on his own, not having any siblings[5]. Furthermore we know, throughout Thane’s own sayings, that his parents’ past, their experiences in terms of the concentration camps in particular, had never been a topic of conversation within his family:

The Holocaust was basically an unmentionable subject,[2]

although I did know that they had been in the camps.

Somehow I realized that they didn’t want to share those

experiences with me, or with others[6].

As far as his schooling is concerned, it is known that he “earned his B.A. in English, philosophy, and political science summa cum laude from the University of Florida in 1981 and went on to finish an M.P.A. at Columbia University in 1983”[7]. Although it is said, following his words concerning an “innate sense of vulnerability”[8], that the “financial security promised by the legal profession”[9], had strengthened his commitment to the career decision for the studies of law, his father’s further occupation (cf. above) had surely been a not very unimportant factor as well. However, Rosenbaum “had gained a scholarship at the University of Miami- more precise at its law school- “where he earned his J.D. in 1986 [and later] became a professor at Fordham University School of Law in 1992”[10]

Unfortunately, his occupation never really brought him a feeling of happiness or satisfaction[11] and thus he turned towards the field of writing and is now, as an essayist and novelist, highly praised for both, his style and his associations with the fate of his people, (being that of Jews who may, on the one hand “have resisted their cultural identification as American Jews”[12] or, on the other hand, may have to undergo the teshuvah - the search for one’s own past and history since, being Jews of the second or already third generation past the Hitler regime and the Holocaust, they had never been directly confronted with the ordeals their forefathers had to go through and suffer from). This wondering about and uncertainties of their own heritage are nurtured even more by the avoidance within the families to talk about the cruel and tragic memories and experiences, like it had been the case with Thane’s parents. Rosenbaum thus “addresses the fragmentation of the Jewish family, his generation’s weak identification with their faith, and the widening chasm of experience between Holocaust survivors and their descendants”[13] and furthermore

[Rosenbaum] speaks on topics as diverse as art, culture, law and society, as well as on the most relevant issues of the day- namely, How [sic] are we to respond to such a new world filled with madness and mass death? How do we balance our moral duties to acknowledge pain and grievances, and yet deal forcefully with those who cause harm? And through it all, how is it possible to still remain essentially human?[14]

During the writing process of his first stories, Rosenbaum started to decode the “fears that once belonged to [his] parents, and had now been passed on to [him]”[15]. However, the question remains in what manner such a passing on could have been done after all, for it is known, through Rosenbaum’s own words, that the Holocaust and his parents’ lives through it had never been talked about (cf. page 2). A possible answer to that issue could be found in the last short story of Rosenbaum’s novel-in-stories Elijah Visible, namely The Little Blue Snowman of Washington Heights. Reading this story, one is faced with the everlasting fear and skepticism of Jewish parents who do not trust anyone or anything at all, but always remain feeling watched or haunted as well as doubting any good coming from non-Jewish people[16], a behavior which does not escape the protagonist’s observation.

Elijah Visible, although it had been his literary debut, had instantly established Thane Rosenbaum’s name in the league of well known contemporary critical writers for the novel received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American fiction[17] and made him “one of the leading young Jewish intellectuals of his generation”[18]. Furthermore he had been “finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 1999, for Second Hand Smoke [and had won the prize of] San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Book, for The Golems of Gotham [in 2002]”[19].

Although the processing as well as the digestion of the Jewish history and suffering during World War II are of profound meaning for most of his stories (as Elie Wiesel puts it: “[Rosenbaum] is totally obsessed with the Holocaust. His stories reflect that obsession [for they] are written with sensitivity and pain”[20] ) Thane Rosenbaum furthermore “tackles complicated philosophical questions about [Jews’] longing for moral justice [and] takes a critical look at what [the] legal system does to the spirits of those who must come before the law, along with those who practice within it”[21]. Though he is observing life in diverse terms such as moral necessities or respect[22] as well as basic living essentials and goods like “sufficient food, shelter, health care, medicine (…)”[23], his primary concerns are limited to the lives of Jews, a strong indication of his own deep roots in and identification with his Jewish heritage whose preservation and maintenance seems the greatest good for him, a factor which can be proven and confirmed by every single story within his novel Elijah Visible, which shall be introduced and examined in further detail throughout the following chapters.

2 Elijah Visible

As it had already been mentioned, Elijah Visible was Rosenbaum’s debut as a writer and although it “received few reviews [it] was praised by critics for its originality and sensitivity”[24] and original it is indeed. Thane Rosenbaum himself explains his novel’s context the following way:

My parents, no longer alive but continually reinvented,

revised, hostage to my own private therapy. The Holocaust

survivor as myth, as fairy tale, as bedtime story. I had created

my own ghosts from memories that were not mine.

I wasn’t there, in Poland, among the true martyrs. Everything

about my rage was borrowed. My imagination had done all

the work- invented suffering, without the physical scars, the

incontestable proof.[25]

2.1 Structure and general context

Being a novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible consists of nine separate short stories which share one very obvious common feature: the protagonist. Although, as Andrew Furman quotes Lionel Trilling, “there is no possible way of responding to Belsen and Buchenwald [and the] activity of mind fails before the incommunicability of man’s suffering”[26], Rosenbaum, throughout the course of the plots of both, the stories themselves and of the whole novel, has made the detailed description of the Holocaust’s aftermaths which still shake the (Jewish) minds of today his business and furthermore tries to give an explanatory, deeper view into the “Second-Generation Survivor[‘s]”[27] emotional life, his hopes and fears. Alas, he projects all of these as well as the interpersonal problems Jews have to deal with, still today, onto one person, the protagonist Adam Posner. In contrast to Cynthia Ozick, who, being “an American Jew, a nonwitness [sic], […] does not believe that she has the right to depict the Holocaust in her work (…)”[28], it seems like Rosenbaum holds the opinion that the maintenance of the past is almost primarily the right of the second generation, for means of their “own private therapy”[29] and thus Rosenbaum digests his personal issues through Adam Posner[30].

After all, who if not members of the second generation should have ‘permission’ to make it (the past as well as its aftermaths) their subject of discussion and writing- they, who must find their way in an environment which leaves them struggling with their relatives’ memories, with their religious traditions in contrast to the modern American world and the search for their own identity? Who if not them could have the right to explain to the ‘outside world’[31] the occasionally omnipresent fears and feelings of distrust which some Jews, Jewish families or whole communities show for others; and who if not descendants of Holocaust survivors could describe both, their doubts in the good within people’s souls, and reasons for their refusal of assimilating themselves to their environment, for, as they fear, that “an assimilated American identity was no guarantee against imminent persecution in America”[32]. After all, assimilation had not helped the Jews in the past, especially not during the Third Reich.

2.2 The protagonist

Rosenbaum uses a rather unconventional method of describing his protagonist, Adam Posner: although his main character bears the same name throughout all of the nine stories, the character of Adam varies; however, his family background basically remains unchanged. Adam Posner is described and characterized as an “American-born Jew [whose] parents are survivors of concentration camps, and their undetailed [sic] history seems more real to him than his own”[33]. According to Furman, Rosenbaum uses this technique in order to “engage [the Jews’] burdens as thoroughly as he can”[34]. Reading through the single stories, the facets forming or creating Posner’s character become, on the one hand, more numerous; however, on the other hand, the fundamental characteristics, those of his religious roots and his personal background[35] typify a rather solid basis for Rosenbaum’s description of a son of Holocaust survivors on his search and craving for identity. Whereas in the first story, Cattle Car Complex, the protagonist is a lawyer, in Romancing the Yohrzeit Light he is a painter, in The pants in the family, Adam Posner is portrayed as a sixteen year old who is burdened with fulfilling tasks that should never have been put on him but rather on his father... The settings as well as the protagonist’s colloquial environment (once he is “orphaned, sometimes well-sheltered and lovingly parented”[36] ) may change, , but the common features of all Adam Posner(s) in the stories overrule such variations. It can be discussed why Rosenbaum uses such a “mosaic figure to capture the complex, nuanced and […] diverse experiences of the Holocaust survivor’s child in America”[37]. Adam Posner, described in such various manners and with several different attitudes towards life and religion as well as his contemporary place in American society, thus typifies and embodies a great number of diverse Jewish personalities which may find themselves in his character, see their own experiences brought on paper. Adam represents the whole Jewish community living in the United States whose members are, like he- and also Thane Rosenbaum himself- is, struggling with their own maintenance of the past in order to find a future, a home and, more important, a certainty of who they are and where they truly belong to. This can be proven by the protagonist’s marital status: throughout almost all stories, Adam is portrayed as a single[38] ; it can be speculated whether Rosenbaum thus wants to clarify that someone can only find the right partner if he or she has found his or her place in society and an identity. Otherwise, how could someone who is not sure of him- or herself reveal to other persons who he or she truly is? Without the urges of certainty and security being fulfilled, the human being is unable to reach the next higher level of needs[39]. Which urges and issues are illustrated through the characters in Elijah Visible shall be illustrated in the following chapter.

Whereas in his essay of 2000 (“Thane Rosenbaum’s Elijah Visible”) Furman points out that the name Adam itself “suggests rebirth or regeneration, and throughout the collection, Rosenbaum scrutinizes the possibility of such continuity”[40], this commentary can not be found within his essay of 1999 which Hilene Flanzbaum had included into her essay collection “The Americanization of the Holocaust”. Although this aspect of naming the protagonist the way it had happened is rather important, judged from Furman’s addition to his former essay, his explanation of the name Adam lacks another aspect: The biblical figure of Adam and his fate. He had been the first human being created by God ever accompanied by Eve, and had been left by his God and expelled from the Garden of Eden; thus he had had to live in a foreign world which did no longer offer to him the harmony and security which he had been able and allowed to experience in the holy garden. Adam Posner, therefore, symbolizes the Jews which had been driven out of their former and familiar environment to live in an unknown world. The reason for the banishment, however, differs slightly, for in the biblical context it is Eve who makes Adam eat the forbidden fruit and thus evokes God’s wrath and as a consequence they both have to leave their home, never to return; the Jews on the other hand, especially the survivors of the Holocaust, had been driven out of their homes because of their religion.


[1] Michael Maslanka, “Thane Rosenbaum”. HWA BIOGRAPHY. 2005

< > (25.04.2008).

[2] The biographical facts are quoted from : Hannah Adelman Komy, “Thane Rosenbaum,” BookRags. 2005-2006 <> (16.05.2008).

[3] “Thane Rosenbaum,” BookRags. ibid.

[4] “Thane Rosenbaum,” BookRags. ibid.

[5] Maureen Mullen, “Rosenbaum to give lecture on remembering the Holocaust,” University of Notre Dame: News & Information. March 31, 2008 <> (24.04.2008).

[6] Adelman Komy, “Thane Rosenbaum,” ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Michael Maslanka, “Thane Rosenbaum”, ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Adelman Komy, “Thane Rosenbaum,” ibid.

[16] Cf. Rosenbaum, Thane. Elijah Visible. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996: 189-205.

[17] Michael Maslanka, “Thane Rosenbaum”, ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Thane Rosenbaum,” Thane Rosenbaum- Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2008 <> (24.04.2008).

[20] Rosenbaum, Thane. Elijah Visible. ibid: cover.

[21] Michael Maslanka, “Thane Rosenbaum,” ibid.

[22] Thane Rosenbaum, “Red State Jews,” The Wall Street Journal. August 9, 2006 <> (25.04.2008).

[23] Thane Rosenbaum, “Losing Count,” Losing Count- New York Times. June 14, 2007 <> (24.04.2008).

[24] Adelman Komy, “Thane Rosenbaum,” ibid.

[25] Andrew Furman, “Inheriting the Holocaust: Jewish American Fiction and the Double Bind of the Second-Generation Survivor,” The Americanization of the Holocaust, ed. Hilene Flanzbaum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) 83.

[26] Furman, “Inheriting the Holocaust”, 83.

[27] Ibid., 83.

[28] Ibid., 87.

[29] Ibid., 83.

[30] In how far the author and protagonist correspond will be discussed in chapter 2.4.

[31] The ‘outside world’ represents basically the non-Jewish population.

[32] Furman, “Inheriting the Holocaust”, 88.

[33] Marcie Hershman, “Elijah Visible,” Ploughshares, the literary journal. 2006 <> (24.04.2008).

[34] Furman, “Inheriting the Holocaust”, 89.

[35] The background in this term is referred to as the protagonist’s parents being survivors of the Holocaust.

[36] Marcie Hershman, “Elijah Visible,” ibid.

[37] Furman, “Inheriting the Holocaust”, 89.

[38] Romancing the Yohrzeit Light could be mistaken as a counterexample but Adam, although he does have a physical relationship with that woman, has not found a fitting partner in mind in her. She rather makes him adjusting himself to a completely different culture (her own) rather than following his own roots and following his ancestors’ traditions. Furthermore in Bingo by the Bungalow the author talks about a son Adam has but not of a wife.

[39] Cf. Maslowshe Bedürfnispyramide

[40] Andrew Furman, Contemporary Jewish American writers and the multicultural dilemma: the return of the exiled (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2000) 64.

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Thane Rosenbaum: Elijah Visible - a mirror of Jewish life torn between history and tradition and contemporary American society
Martin Luther University
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Franziska Lottes (Author), 2008, Thane Rosenbaum: Elijah Visible - a mirror of Jewish life torn between history and tradition and contemporary American society, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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