A comparison of selected contemporary Jewish American prose
by Allen Hoffman
I returned to Jerusalem and it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy because time is different here. Time may move as quickly as it does in other places, but it doesn’t relinquish its past as it advances. Other cities may be eternal, but only Jerusalem’s eternity is an active part of its present. No visitor is a stranger in Jerusalem. With the past so near, his roots are apparent.
Allen Hoffman, “Balancing Acts”1
About twenty years ago Bonnie K. Lyons suggested that every writer, regardless of which cultural origin, writes out of a culture serving as the battlefield of conflicting visions and values. Eventually, the writer may either embrace or attack his cultural heritage.2 At a first glance it seems to be indefinite where to pigeonhole the abstract above regarding to Lyons’ distinction but after opening oneself to the tales of the reviewed contemporary Jewish American writer the classification becomes definite. Taken from one of his short stories, the excerpt gives a brief glimpse into the authentic, exhilarant writing of Allen Hoffman.
Truly refreshing characters who argue about things of mundane and devout significance as well as the usage of partially genuine parallels to the author himself determine Hoffman’s prose which has sustainable effects on readers.
He covers Jews, Jewish values, and idiosyncratic Jewish topics as actually urgent and particular characteristics of Jewish American prose. Although his literature comprises humorous and ironic valuations the respect and appreciation for the Jewish culture in times of clashes between tradition and renewal never gets lost.
It is stated that a remarkable literary trend has occurred within this genre since the 1970s and “writers have produced a new, inward-turning sort of fiction which explores the individual Jew’s connection to the Jewish people, to Jewish religion, culture, and tradition.”3
Hoffman, being an award winning novelist, apparently, greatly succeeded in presenting a collection of stories which nonchalantly grasp natural tensions between preservation and faith and renewal and doubt.
This essay illustrates possible causes of Hoffman’s achievement. More precisely, I compare and emphasize particular literary aspects such as narrative voice and styles used within the short stories “Balancing Acts”, “Building Blocks” and “Hymie The Torch” from his collection “Kagan’s Superfecta: And Other Stories”. Furthermore, an analysis of particular motifs and themes will affirm the story’s features being typical for contemporary Jewish American literature.
Journeys told from the Holy City to the United States
Hymie Grosbart, being the protagonist in “Hymie The Torch”, is an efficient and successful shopkeeper of a hardware store with Jewish origins. In rough times as the Depression worsened he unaffectedly sells brooms, hammers and fly swatters to his American fellows until his passion for the dancing flames of fire finally becomes a life-dominating task.
Anyone who needed a burner naturally thought of Hymie, Hymie the torch. [.] He needed no one and he trusted no one as his movements became unaccountable. For the first few arsons, Hymie stayed to view the illuminating fruits of his labors. His soul laughed as the entire fiery bouquet burst forth with its luminous petals, showering the building in sparks.4
Hymie’s favor for the glowing flames has developed very early what gradually became conspicuous when his family concelebrated Jewish ceremonies. Other characters in the story habitually fulfil the obligations of their Jewish religious traditions as well and unsurprisingly, prayers such as havdalah play an important role in their spiritual lives.
Moses had his burning bush, the wandering Jews their pillar of fire, Elijah his fiery bolt from heaven, the Maccabees their twinkling menorah, and Hymie Grosbart his dancing flame of havdalah. Hymie had discovered that thrill as a child. After the sun set on Saturday, the family gathered in the kitchen to heard havdalah, the ceremony ending the Sabbath.5
The presence of living out Jewish traditions as an American Jew in America also occurs in “Building Blocks”. The protagonist closely associates with other fellow Jewish Americans and practices various traditional prayers.
I arrived late for the afternoon prayers on Shivah Asar be-Tammuz. On the Seventeenth Day of the month of Tammuz, a fast day, one laments the breaching of Jerusalem’s wall by Roman legions in the final days of the Second Temple. Shivah Asar be-Tammuz is not our average fast day by any means. It kicks off the whole mourning season that runs for a full three weeks culminating in Tisha b’Av, the day the Temple itself was destroyed.6
In contrast to the protagonists of these stories and their settings, “Balancing Acts” is about an American Jewish who makes money by selling his paintings and who, after growing up in the Midwestern region of the United States, moves or rather returns to his religious origins, namely to the holy city of Jerusalem. Being his spiritual home on the one side, he is so greatly overwhelmed by the amazing impressions of his new destination that he is not able to mentally arrive there on the other side. It rather seems that the protagonist is still too absorbed by the American culture and that he is not ready for that enormous kind of cultural immersion.
Yes, I was inspired, but I was overwhelmed. The beauty increased, but I was diminished. [.] In Jerusalem I stared at my watch in disbelief and wondered where my day had gone. In answer, it ticked; the game had not begun and we were already in overtime.7
To sum up, it could be said, therefore, that all stories share Jewish American protagonists. Apart from that, different settings and individual histories clearly define all three stories making Hoffman’s prose interculturally complex and multiperspective.
The importance of passion
An old English proverb says that the happiness of a man in this life does not consist in the absence but in the mastery of his passions.8 Concrete themes in the stories “Hymie The Torch” and “Balancing Acts” are indeed the protagonists’ passions and their acting out.
While Hymie Grosbart repeatedly indulges his passion for fire and kindling, the passion for art plays a determining role for the protagonist of the latter story. As mentioned before, Hymie’s immense favor for fire even gradually became an inner calling. What really matters concerning passion in “Balancing Acts” is rather creation than destruction. The protagonist who is a painter bit by bit copes with the new situation in Jerusalem and finally is able to use the beautiful and dazzling impressions for his paintings.
I had been struck by Jerusalem’s overwhelming beauty. If that didn’t inspire me, what would? Later however, after I had no errands, I continued to walk the streets. The beauty increased. [.] How I wanted to capture the colors of fertile barrenness.9
Both kinds of passions are also of great importance in Jewish spirituality. Hymie’s arsons in particular are against Jewish values as the destruction of anything from which humans may benefit is traditionally prohibited. Admittedly, Hymie benefits from his burnings and safeguarded his family in this way.
From his after-hours proceeds Hymie filled a safe-deposit box with cash. Although he didn’t like to think about it, he knew that he might need it. The business could run without him, but if he had to become a guest of the state, well, at least Sarah and the children would be well fixed.10
It is evident throughout the story that Hymie does not feel very comfortable with his unofficial profession as he is not proud of his destructive achievements. Apart from that he simply tries to help his fellows in times where everybody struggles for existence. ‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’ thus perfectly fits to Hymie’s position within his community. Whereas the process of creation indirectly thematized in “Balancing Acts” in form of the paintings of Jewish life in Jerusalem has always been spiritually weighty in Judaism. Therefore, clear parallels can be drawn between both stories. For one thing, to put it in concrete term, a certain kind of passion is present and for another thing these passions have traditionally important spiritual references.
Another important and apparent aspect both stories “Balancing Acts” and “Hymie The Torch” have in common is a development that takes places throughout the storytelling.
The development the protagonist in “Balancing Acts” experiences can be compactly declared as an individual change from emotional confusion to inner peace. Moving and beginning a new life in a foreign country and leaving familiar surroundings always imply psychological challenges of adjustment. Just having arrived in Jerusalem, the protagonist indeed experiences serious adaptive difficulties.
1 Allen Hoffman, “Balancing Acts,” Kagan’s Superfecta and Other Stories (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981) 273.
2 Cf. Bonnie K. Lyons, “American–Jewish Fiction since 1945,” Handbook of American–Jewish Literature: An Analytical Guide to Topics, Themes, and Sources. ed. Lewis Fried, Gene Brown, Jules Chametsky, and Louis Harap. (Westport: Greenwood, 1988) 62.
3 Sylvia B. Fishman, “American Jewish Fiction Turns Inward, 1960-1990,“American Jewish Yearbook 1991: A Record of Events and Trends in American and World Jewish Life. ed. David Singer, Ruth R. Seldin. (Scranton: Haddon, 1991) 35.
4 Allen Hoffman, “Hymie The Torch,” Kagan’s Superfecta and Other Stories. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981) 246.
5 Ibid., 243.
6 Allen Hoffman, “Building Blocks,” Kagan’s Superfecta and Other Stories. (New York: Abbeville Press, 1981) 217.
7 Hoffman, Balancing Acts, 275.
8 http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/1588.html (02.12.08)
9 Hoffman, Balancing Acts, 274.
10 Hoffman, Hymie The Torch, 249.