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October 11, 2012 - Image 64

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2012-10-11

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arts & entertainment

A Gilded Cage

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56

October 11 • 2012

The Jews of North London
face the constrictions of
Edith Wharton's New York.

Rachel Shukert

Tablet Magazine

I is one of the professional hazards of
writing for a Jewish magazine that
you begin to reflexively excavate
Jewish subtext in popular culture where
probably (and preferably) none was
intended.
In this realm of thought, Downton
Abbey becomes a toff (upper-class) re-
imagining of Fiddler on the Roof True
Blood a cautionary tale on the trials of
assimilation (or anti-Semitic blood libel,
take your pick) and the Harry Potter saga
an elaborate magical allegory for the
Holocaust (although did she really have
to make the inhuman goblins hook-nosed
and bankers?).
So many Jews, lurking around every
corner, casting their shadow over every
aspect of society and culture, no mat-
ter how unrelated! One almost starts to
understand how the anti-Semites feel.
Mel Gibson, c'est moi.
Its a relief, then, to come across some-
thing like Francesca Segal's skillfully
rendered and delightful debut novel,
The Innocents (Voice), which subverts
the paradigm by putting the inferable
Yiddishkeit of an iconic work front and
center.
In her Hebraized — and cleverly literal
— retelling of The Age of Innocence, Segal
substitutes Edith Wharton's Gilded-Age
Manhattan upper crust for the tightly
knit Jewish community of north London
suburb Temple Fortune (disclosure: My
husband was born, if not raised, in pre-
cisely such environs).
The primly vacillating Newland Archer
is converted into Adam Newman, a
30-ish lawyer and professional Nice
Jewish Boy beginning to feel hemmed in
by all the Shabbat dinners and mandatory
chauffeuring of old ladies and unimagi-
native sexual positions and wondering if
there might be some sort of wonderful
wonders awaiting him in the glamorous
world of gentiles.
Newland's intended, the innocent May
Welland, becomes Rachel Gilbert, Adam's
recent fiancee and girlfriend since high
school (they met on a teen tour of Israel
and were instantly smitten; readers —
not to mention Rachel's parents — may
be forgiven for asking what took them so
long); Ellen Olenska, the wounded tempt-
ress who entices Newland to stray from

the well-traveled path of propriety, finds Raised in London and America,
Francesca Segal, author of the new
her counterpart in Rachel's cousin Ellie
novel The Innocents, is the daughter
Schneider, a 6-foot-tall, 22-year-old
of the late novelist Erich Segal (Love
blond Jewish supermodel. If that last
Story).
one strikes you as a little, shall we say,
then
congratulations!
You're
as
unlikely,
self-hating as I am.
At first glance, the parallels Segal draws (and schmeckl; in books like these they
are so often the same thing) and leave
are remarkably, even ingeniously, cun-
poor Rachel for Ellie, who is sexy and
ning.
unpredictable and effortlessly thin, what
The close, nearly incestuous bonds of
will really happen?
the community she describes, with its
True, he might have to leave his cushy
endless and inescapable litanies of mar-
job at his father-in-law's law firm; but he's
riages and deaths and who is related to
a qualified attorney! Surely he could find
whom and who flunked out of medical
another job. The yentas would have plen-
school and who is getting a divorce and
ty to discuss. His mother would certainly
why and when will she be ready to date
be pretty pissed off, but she's not going to
again and where's the shivah, uncannily
stop speaking forever to her only son.
mirrors Wharton's insularity (not to men-
Adam, ever logistical even in his deep-
tion my own; an early description of the
est flights of fantasy, acknowledges this to
congregation standing in silent judgment
himself. A Jewish son of Adam's caliber is
of one another during a Friday night ser-
vice made me close the book for few min- too valuable an asset to be allowed to fade
from the fold. The "Community," however
utes of quiet, hyperventilating panic).
rattled, would forgive, if not forget.
The Jews of North London, it seems,
Who would not forgive (apart, of
occupy a biosphere all their own.
course,
from Rachel) is Adam himself. To
Outsiders who wander into their midst
give
in
to
his desires would forever taint
— a convert upon marriage; a univer-
his
image
of himself as a dutiful Jewish
sity friend of Adam's who happens to be
son,
a
good
person, a mentsh — more
Jewish on the wrong half — are either
than
his
love
for his wife, or any love for
quickly subsumed or sentenced to suf-
his
community
(although Segal pays deft
fer a kind of shadow membership in the
and
touching
tribute
to his love affair
club, i.e., they can eat at the snack bar but
with
his
own
image,
his own goodness).
can't use the pool.
This
sense
of
rectitude,
explicit in The
Given the pointed sense of place and
and
implicit
here, is the
Age
of
Innocence
loving wealth of detail Segal supplies, I
dark
side
of
self-segregation,
if
not its
have no doubt that she is as intimately
root.
Other
people
might
do
whatever
familiar with her setting as Wharton was
with hers. But this raises a question: Why, they want, but not us, because we know
better, and therefore are better, than any-
exactly, are these people so isolated? Or
one else.
rather, perhaps more pertinently, why
Innocents, indeed.
have they chosen to isolate themselves?
In The Age of Innocence, the answer
Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist
is clear: Wharton's characters occupy
on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs
the very pinnacle of 19th-century New
Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going
York society. Should they break any of
to
Be Great.
the unspoken (and spoken) strictures
regulating such a rarified stratum, there's
nowhere to go but down.
During the Jewish Community
And as Lily Barth in Wharton's The
Center's
annual Jewish Book Fair,
House of Mirth illustrates, down means
running
Nov.
7-18, Francesca Segal
all the way down — broke, friendless,
will
appear
as
part of Lunch with
coughing-up-blood-on-the-filthy-sheets-
the
Authors,
with
fellow novelists
of-the-boardinghouse-you're-about-to-
Wedding Beat)
Devan
Sipher
(The
be-evicted-from down.
(Say
Nice Things
and
Scott
Lasser
In 21st-century London, where every-
at
noon
Thursday,
About
Detroit),
body, even most of the royal family, gets
Nov.
15,
at
the
Jewish
Community
to do pretty much whatever they want,
Center in West Bloomfield. www.
the stakes are necessarily quite a bit
.
jccdet.org
lower. If Adam chooses to follow his heart



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