A Measure of Memory: Storytelling and Identity in American Jewish Fiction convincingly argues for the central importance of storytelling in exploring and articulating individual and communal identity in twentieth-century American Jewish fiction. While the emphasis is on twentieth-century American Jewish fiction, Aarons demonstrates that this obsession with storytelling is hardly new in Jewish literature. In the Bible and throughout Jewish history, storytelling has served both as the means of bearing witness to the events of the past and also of defining Jewish identity.
One of the major strengths of this study is the author’s knowledge of earlier Jewish writing, especially the work of the three major Yiddish fiction writers: Mendele Mocher Sforim, I. L. Peretz, and, most importantly, Sholom Aleichem. Thus she is able to explore the similarities and links between the themes and rhetorical strategies of the most contemporary American writers and of Yiddish writers of past decades. For example, she demonstrates that bearing witness constitutes the main narrative device in the construction of character for Philip Roth’s Zuckerman and Grace Paley’s Faith but also for Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye. Likewise the ambivalent posture as both outsider and insider is deeply ingrained in the Jewish tradition of storytelling from Sholom Aleichem to Susan Fromburg Schaeffer. Without neglecting or underestimating what is new or distinctive in contemporary American Jewish writing, A Measure of Memory explores how some of the most sophisticated and postmodern techniques are anticipated in the work of the earlier Yiddish storytellers.
Another important strength of this study is its concentration on the short story as a form. Unlike most studies of American Jewish fiction which stress the novel, Aarons’s study argues that the short story rather than the novel best reveals the ironic tensions of comic understatement that characterize Jewish storytelling and the creation of character through voice. Voice itself, she argues, emerges as the central controlling characteristic of American Jewish literature both thematically and formally. Much of the book is a lucid and compelling study of the complicated devices and rhetorical strategies that together create [End Page 478] that complex narrative voice we have come to associate with American Jewish literature, a voice that is both personal and communal, both American and Jewish.
After an excellent overall introduction to the subject and background of American Jewish fiction, Aarons’s study focuses on Delmore Schwartz’s stories with their self-absorbed narrators, Malamud’s comic-tragic stories of bumbling protagonists, and Grace Paley’s ironic first person stories within stories. Interspersed are brief but powerful analyses of the stories of lesser established figures, such as Jerome Weidman, Gilbert Rogin, and Leslea Newman.
The author’s knowledge of a wide range of Jewish literature, well-argued thesis, and shrewd interpretation of individual writers and stories make this an important contribution to the study of American Jewish fiction.