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As Jewish as Cannoli

A novel places Shushan in the American Midwest

Good For The Jews (University of Michigan Press, $24) by Debra Spark affords a rare, if fictional, glimpse into the lives of Jews in the non-metropolitan Midwest during the era of George W. Bush’s presidency.

Ellen Hirschorn, a beautiful and radiant woman in her twenties, is allegedly the protagonist of the story. In fact, the real protagonist is her older cousin, Mose Sheinbaum. Mose is less of a cousin and more of a father to Ellen, having raised her and her sister Barbara after their parents were killed in a car accident.

In an attenuated retelling of the Purim story, Mose is the one who feels that being Jewish is an important part of his identity. He is a high school history teacher, an eccentric beloved by his students who serves as the town conscience. He writes much-publicized letters to the editor regarding town council when they attempt to link Madison with the Palestinian city Rafah as a sister city: “Israel’s existence is precarious. If we assent to this proposal, we say yes to a community that has said yes to suicide bombers, we say yes to anti-Semitism clothed as liberalism, which sees the failings of Israel — no one would deny the state’s failings — without seeing the failings of the Palestinians.” In contrast to her cousin’s agitated preoccupations, Ellen is allowed to cruise through life, her blond hair and beauty sparing her from questions about identity.

So what is “good for the Jews,” the book implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — asks? Is it the blond Americana of Ellen’s question-free life, or being aware of the underside of identity: prejudice, and even hatred? Ellen sees Mose as having a persecution complex: “He was the one who thought of himself as a victim: a victim of history. Good for the Jews, bad for the Jews, please. In her entire life, no one had ever made an issue of Ellen’s religion.” Mose responds, “You’re as Jewish as a cannoli, so you don’t know what it is like for the Jews.”

When Mose’s normally positive teacher reviews turn poor under the leadership of Alex, a new assistant superintendent, the plot thickens: are his problems at work testament to his diminishing abilities, or to anti-Semitism? And how does Ellen’s tepid romance with Alex fit in? Ellen is clearly Esther; Mose is Mordechai. But what happens in the new Shushan of Middle America?

Debra Spark’s prose is best in its asides. Never throw-aways, each reflects the depth of the author behind them. Simply contemplating that the assistant superintendent signs his e-mails, “Smiles, Hyman,” Ellen thinks, “Everyone she knew who used that sign-off had an appalling well of anger behind the antiquated, sugarcoated veneer…. In junior high, girls who put smiley faces under their names (or dotted their “i”s with hearts) were invariably full of venom.” I’ll never look at the letters my kindergartner brings home from his teacher the same way again.

Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.