Could Be Worse
Jewish Writings Hit Upon Hurt and Humor
By Jeanne McDonald
from Knoxville's Metro Pulse
Eliezer Sobel could be a standup comic, and
maybe he is — what do I know? But reading his new novel,
Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That
is Heartbroken (University
of Tennessee Press's 2003
Peter Taylor Prize winner), you
find yourself laughing out loud at the barrage of priceless
anecdotes he aims at you, page after page after page. Even
the sad episodes are presented in a dry, energetic style
that is — how can I explain this? — funny.
Most of us have certain friends with whom our
interaction is so dynamic that we can finish each other's
sentences, simultaneously pull up the same running jokes
without prior agreement, and bat sarcastic evaluations back
like an unending ping pong game — the pong of the ball overshadowed
by the next story, the next intuition. Norbert Wilner and
his Jewish friends are like that. Except — wait! They're
all depressed, afraid, and sexually challenged. Why?
Because they're carrying on their backs the weight of their
fathers' disappointments in them, their mothers' daily certainty
of their imminent and violent deaths (electrocution by a
video game, e.g.), the guilt of the Holocaust, and the terrible
responsiblity of being shleppers (hopeless failures) in an
otherwise functional world.
We meet the characters on the first page at
the funeral of Freddy Lipschitz. Norbert, who is searching
for the meaning of life, introduces the others: Finkelstein,
the big shot; Goldberg, a composer who doesn't compose; Greenblatt,
a Sufi who believes in God but thinks God hates him; Weissbaum,
who had a religious crisis when Willie Mays retired; Breshman,
the atheist, who smells of bagel; Bernstein, the dope dealer
who wears a Hindu getup, and Moscowitz, the New Ager.
These men fear to seek happiness because at
any moment it can be snatched away just as quickly as it
is found. They avoid pursuing women because they might be
turned down, or worse, be accepted, and then there is always
the chance that somebody prettier, and yes, with bigger breasts,
might come along.
So it is it easier to strive for happiness
because they are so miserable or to avoid it and its eventual--perhaps
immediate — withdrawal, and be worse off than before? Wilner
explains: "I was
born frozen with fear of the specter that had permeated the
world, that had generated terror in the minds and hearts
of all Jews everywhere… I was the world's first paranoid
baby. And I've been scared of everything, ever since."
Their therapists don't help. Jerry Greenblatt
spills his guts to Dr. Myron Spotnick: "I feel like
there's a big hole in my being, and I can't fill it up. I'm
terrified of my very existence..."
"You've come a long way since you first started seeing
"I'm not happy."
"Why do I have to listen to you complain every week?
Who told you that you should be happy?...If you were happy,
you wouldn't be seeing Myron Spotnick, Ph.D., am I right?" Theses
sessions last three to four minutes, and they do this for
years and years.
It's not perfect for Wilner, either, but after
37 years of suffering, he admits, "I am Jewish, and
I am here."