America and I

America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers edited and with an introduction by Joyce Antler

Boston: Beacon Press, 1990

351 pp., $19.95

As the first historically based anthology of writings by American Jewish women, America and I reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of the historical approach to literature. Its 23 stories are divided into four sections: “From the Ghetto and Beyond: 1900-1929′,’ “Troubles in the New World: 1930-1961;’ “Wider Glimpses: 1960-1979′,’ and “The Past as Present: the L980’s.”

The memories in this collection are rich, conflicting, complex and heart-rending: Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” (a concise encyclopedia of Jewish suffering); Anzia Yezierska’s “America and I” (in which the eternal immigrant cries out, “I was in America, among the Americans, but not of them “); Rebecca Goldstein’s chilling “The Legacy of Raizel Kaidish: A Story;” and Mary Antin’s fairy tale, “Malinke’s Atonement” (about a rebellious, starving girl’s attempt to pass off a non-kosher chicken as kosher).

Some stories in this book are pure wonder: Tess Slesinger’s tour de force, “Missis Flinders;’ that documents a woman’s cab ride home from the hospital after a 1932 abortion, and Ivy Goodman’s elliptical “Remnants: A Family Pattern’,’ which takes a woman’s traditional task of sewing and translates it into a collage of inescapable Jewish history: “You can never run away. They’re behind me; they are with me. I am nearing them. They’re my family.”

Other welcome surprises are Edith Konecky’s funny-sour voice that perfectly suits the garment district in “The Place” and Leslea Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” [which appeared in LILITH, Fall 1989], a striking example of Jewish pain reaching out into the world and teaching tolerance of homosexuality.

But perhaps as befits an historically based collection, the tone is more often somber, even grim. Stories are included that have solely historical relevance: Fannie Hurst’s shrill soap-opera that is far too long, and the fragmentary stories, “Room in the World” and “Z’mira;’ each of which documents Jewish life, but does not transform it into art. Also missing: a sense of the pure joy of being both female and Jewish. In terms of literary forms, there is a dearth of stories that take risks with language, that are unafraid to leave ragged edges and to stir up trouble on all levels at once — philosophical, religious, sexual and linguistic.

The characters in these stories are predominantly passive on the outside, simmering on the inside. The women’s focus is outward too — on husbands, families, neighborhoods. The stories of the 1980’s are oddly bloodless, giving no sign of the agonizing struggles and ecstatic journeys into the re-vision of sacred texts and ancient taboos that symbolize this decade for so many Jewish women. Where are the stories about the contradictions of being a Jew and a feminist? Of women’s different relationship with their God? Excellent stories along these themes do exist, and I wish they had been courageously included here.

America and I is a stable, important volume, its themes carved out clearly. As a professor of American Jewish literature, I welcome its emergence, sorely needed in the annals of American Jewish fiction.

Ruth Knafo Setton teaches English at Lafayette College