His Daughter’s Dissection of a Counterculture Guru

by Johanna Kaplan. New York: Avon paperback, 1981, $3.50.

Johanna Kaplan’s novel O My America! captures the exhilarating spirit of the New York Jewish world of the last five decades. Cast as a biography of an American Jewish hero, Ezra Slavin, the book goes beyond the constraints of the family novel to portray the inner values of a wide variety of Jews.

The story traces the career of Ez Slavin—anarchist, writer, teacher, and rebel, a second-generation Jew who rises to national fame from the poverty of the Lower East Side. While the novel’s story line appears to be yet another version of the American Jewish success story—Slavin as a David Levinsky who retails ideas—Kaplan transcends the framework she sets for herself.

Like Levinsky, Slavin spends the resources of his heritage to prove himself the self-made man. “Hellbent on winning a private, impossible sweepstake, a prize you could never touch, he had put all his money on an idea of America he had just gone ahead and made up. It was what he had lived for: a horse with such long odds it would never come in.” At least, this is how Merry Slavin, the one child of many whom Slavin really acknowledges as his own, sees her father.

Slavin feeds his passion for his America through the women he marries, loves, and leaves behind. Thus, while the novel’s hero is a man, in many ways this is a book about women.

The voices of Slavin’s wives, lovers and daughters dominate the book’s episodic scenes. Kaplan etches extraordinary portraits for us, ranging from Ffrenchy, the Jewish flower-child of the 70’s and Slavin’s illegitimate daughter, to Isobel, Slavin’s second wife, a Protestant writer from Wisconsin.

Unlike Slavin, the women do not pursue an impossible vision of self-generation, but struggle to carve out a piece of private space where they can learn to know themselves. Slavin becomes the prism of their struggle; his inadequacies reveal their self-worth.

O My America! is a marvelous book, a wonderful, wordy exploration of the Jews’ American dream, full of tender humor and subtle insight.

Deborah Dash Moore, a historian at Vas-sar College and fellow at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is the author of At Home in America: Second Generation Jews in New York.