- Magical American Jew: The Enigma of Difference in Contemporary Jewish American Short Fiction and Film by Aaron Tillman
BY AARON TILLMAN
LANHAM, MD: LEXINGTON BOOKS, 2018. 158 PAGES. $90.00.
Aaron Tillman's Magical American Jew: The Enigma of Difference in Contemporary Jewish American Short Fiction and Film is a worthy contribution to our understanding of the workings of Jewish identity within a number of canonical as well as less known short stories, a movie, and a stand-up performance. Tillman is skilled at reading the interplay of belonging in the United States and being an outsider at the same time, even in texts by writers and performers who are deeply assimilated into American culture. He brings forward a variety of themes and perspectives such as excess, masochism, shame, trauma, Judaism as a religion, and narcissism to present different aspects of his main theme, which is the dual identity of Jews as it is expressed in magical realist works of fiction and film.
This main theme, magical realism in Jewish American culture, however, is the Achilles' heel of this book when one looks at it as a unified text and not one chapter at a time. Even though each chapter on its own is highly useful for either teaching or building one's own argument about a specific artist, I remain unconvinced by the argument that Magical American Jew presents as a whole. The issue that bothers Tillman is that of the elusive difference within Jewish American identity. American Jews feel, look, and act more or less like any other white American, and yet there remains a sense that they maintain a unique identity. Tillman characterizes this "indefinite yet undeniable difference" as "enigmatic" (2). That is to say, the survival of Jewish particularity is explored not on the basis of sociology or culture, but as mystifying conundrum, indeed an enigma. [End Page 248]
If—a big if—Jewish American identity is mysterious rather than a result of certain social-cultural constellations that might be explained by researchers and scholars, it makes perfect sense to analyze this magic of being an American Jew through a mode of magical realism. And I think that paying attention to texts that are not realist in the traditional sense is a good direction, especially if one shares Tillman's preoccupations. However, it seems to me that "magical realism," the central term in the book, is defined so widely and so amorphously that it does justice neither to magic nor to realism, nor to Jewishness for that matter.
In this book magical realism is a label that is attached to any text that features events that are impossible in our own world but still connected to our sense of reality. That is to say, Tolkien-derived fantasy novels are not magical realism because they are set in a distinct universe. But this exclusion of hardcore fantasy still leaves many texts in. Tillman therefore includes texts that I do not believe to be productively labeled magical realism because they have little to do with realism. There is no expectation of realism from a standup special like Sarah Silverman's Jesus Is Magic, the subject of the final chapter. Rather, we expect the exaggeration, farce, and absurdity that are common features of comedy. The fact that Silverman's gags (like a flying car) are more visual than those of most other stand-up comedians does not make her a magical realist. I would make a similar argument regarding Woody Allen's Annie Hall, where the nonrealistic features are part of a comic language, rather than a magical one.
Granted, Tillman is not alone in expanding the term (he quotes many sources to show this trend). Still, I think magical realism's definition should be more restricted. Mainly, this term is most effective when describing moments when the nonrealistic or magical elements are in some ways part of what the characters (or sometimes the writer) can see as possibly existing in their world, where magic is part of reality, not an intrusion upon it. So, if Isaac Bashevis Singer...