My Jewish Face & Other Stories
Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1990, $9.95
“See how you like my face, see how you like my Jewish-looking face,'” pronounces one character in Melanie Kaye/ Kantrowitz’s My Jewish Face, and the statement is as much confession as challenge. In a collection of stories spanning years of political activism and personal observation, Kaye/Kantrowitz examines what it means to have a Jewish face or a Jewish heart in the midst of so many other conflicting loyalties.
If My Jewish Face reflects a particularly political strain of our emerging Jewish women’s tradition, it is largely because of the relentless honesty of Kaye/ Kantrowitz’s characters. These women are urban (“In the beginning was a sidewalk and then a tree broke through”), they are lesbian (“I can’t be friends with someone straight until we talk about \t”), they are idealistic or jaded, and they speak their doubts and fears freely. Characters learn to speak up—to shout, and what they are saying is often we are not the privileged minority you think we are.
While stories like “”Dance on the Face of the Earth” and “Runaway Bunny” are entertaining and often moving, the heart of My Jewish Face is Kaye/Kantrowitz’s political commentary. In a dual piece entitled “War Stories: 197-,” she explores the choices facing women in an awakening world of feminist rage. In “The Day We Didn’t Declare War.” a group of women contemplates and ultimately rejects taking the law into their own hands to end the attacks of a serial rapist. These women idolize those who have fought back in the past, but cannot bring themselves to take similar action. “And I feel a little ashamed,” the piece concludes, “like maybe my freedom, such as it is is getting staked on someone else’s bold, daring, perhaps imprisoned back.”
But Kaye/Kantrowitz cannot let the issues rest with this. “‘Maybe it happened this way. Maybe a couple of us had studied self-defense intensively, and three of us had guns. . . .” In “The Day We Did,” the second half of “War Stories.” Kaye/ Kantrowitz’s characters do take the law into their own hands. And the rapes stop.
Kantrowitz’s voice is humorous, with a light touch on the most painful of subjects. And no matter what the subject, it is always distinctly Jewish. In the pair of stories that conclude the collection, entitled “All Weekend No One Mentions Israel” and “In the Middle of the Barbeque She Brings up Israel,” the author makes her most pointed political commentary on the anguished issue of American Jews’ torn loyalties to Israel in the age of the Intifada.
“She wants the world to be nice, like we taught her, but we lied,” the narrator comments of a young and idealistic Jewish woman.
We never showed her the world’s true face, the one we saw, the one we believe in—I could call it Hitler’s face but it’s all the faces who liked Hitler, who chose Hitler, millions of them and nobody stopped it. Take care of your own, chickie, I want to warn, even though she is right this minute spouting words we taught her, equal, peace, justice, swords into . . . . No one knows what to say to Nadine. not even Marjorie. That it’s okay to beat into swords?
The process of being a Jew and an American and a woman is Kaye/ Kantrowitz’s subject. Her language is the relaxed language of the conversationalist— she does not purport to be a prose stylist, and her stories often read like essays—but her pieces are rivetingly political, intensely fun, liberating, painful, and undeniably real.