It 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 me..."

"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."


Winner of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild 2003 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel
  “… you find yourself laughing out loud at the barrage of priceless anecdotes…”