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Hungering for Meaning

Growing up Jewish and female in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Through language that is rich, sensual, and almost hypnotic, Joanne Jacobson recounts her experiences growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood (Bottom Dog Press, $16). This remarkable memoir captures the sense of possibility that characterized Jewish suburbia in the years after WWII, as well as the tensions surrounding gender and ethnicity that simmered underneath the idyllic surface.

Jacobson is not only a talented memoirist but also a professor of English and a scholar of the Jewish-American experience. With an academic’s eye for historical context, she weaves the crucial events of the postwar years into the narrative without ever sacrificing her poetic tone or the realism of her childlike perspective. We see her react to the fear of nuclear war by “stockpiling toilet paper and cans of tuna fish, filched one by one from kitchen cabinets,” and burying her provisions in an empty lot across the street. When the news that President Kennedy had been shot rips through their suburban town in the middle of a school day, she recalls that their mothers tried to keep them safely at home for just a little bit longer during their lunch hour, “reluctant to release their children into the suddenly changed world.” In the wake of the Holcoaust, she writes of the Sunday school teachers who “inform us that we are the future of the Jewish people… that America and Israel are miracles in our time, that modern Hebrew is the language of redemption, and the suburban prosperity that we take so gracelessly for granted — dumping halffull containers of chocolate milk into the garbage in the middle of class! — is a gift of life that they could never have dreamed during their own childhoods in Poland.”

Many of the finest, most poignant sections of this memoir evoke the particular pressures of being Jewish and female in 1950s suburbia. Jacobson recalls one particularly painful episode in which her mother must reluctantly drive her out of the suburbs toward Chicago’s Devon Avenue, “where the shops owned by elderly Jewish Eastern European immigrants cater to ‘special’ sizes,” in order to find her a dress for her cousin’s upcoming wedding. Her bulky childhood body, redolent of old-world, Jewish ideals of solidity and a far cry from the small, space in bright, form-fitting cloth,” she writes. And yet, in spite of the shame she feels at her inability to quell her appetite, there is an element of proud resistance in Jacobson’s childhood desire for mandelbrot, cheesecake and brownies. Her prepubescent girth becomes the literal embodiment of her refusal to ignore her particular hungers as a girl and a Jew, given poignant voice in this tender and sympathetic memoir.

Rachel Kranson is a Ph.D candidate in Jewish history at New York University, and a contributing editor of Lilith.