LONDON — Lenny Sklarew is a 1960s kind of guy: a bookstore assistant who simultaneously earns his living selling acid tabs and bags of speed to his hippy friends. By mere chance, Lenny happens to come across a book known as “The Pinch.”
As he delves into the narrative, Lenny finds out that he is actually a character in the book he is reading from. The author of “The Pinch” is Muni Pinsker, a Russian Jewish emigre who came to the United States in the early 20th century after narrowly escaping from a Siberian labor camp. Muni was originally sentenced there for distributing a radical socialist newspaper called The Hammer.
We are also informed that Muni’s father was murdered in a Russian Passover pogrom, and that he is the nephew of Pinchas Pinsker, an Eastern European peddler who traveled to Memphis in 1878, because he heard the population there were good people of the book, who respected Hebrew with reverence.
This story-within-a-story device serves as the beginnings of another story, a new novel by Steve Stern — also called “The Pinch,” which is the real-life name of the once Jewish neighborhood in Memphis that serves as its setting.
If one casually browses through Steve Stern’s back catalog — with titles such as “Isaac and the Undertaker’s Daughter,” “The Frozen Rabbi,” “The North of God,” and “The Book of Mischief” — it becomes apparent that Yiddish folklore and Jewish mysticism are never far from his thoughts.
“The Pinch,” Stern’s 13th book, and fifth novel to date, is, in many ways, several books amalgamated into one. The plot spans over nearly an entire century, in a Jewish neighborhood in Memphis.
Stern’s compelling and colorful new novel is written in a language that concurrently dips its toes half way between the real world and a mythical one. The result is a narrative where metaphor, mythology, and time eventually become inseparable entities: dissolving into one another without distinction.
The book has so many plot lines, and characters, that it’s often hard to keep track of what destination, or era, the author is leading us to at any given moment.
I mention to Stern when we begin chatting that his skewed postmodern style reminded me of Irish novelist Flann O’ Brien, who also had a penchant for penning narratives with several books contained within one narrative.
“I love Flann O’ Brien,” Stern admits enthusiastically. “But I think my attitude towards the book within the book really comes from this idea of Jews as people of the book. I guess it’s a metaphor that I, and other Jews throughout history, have pretty much taken literally.”
It’s no coincidence that the very first line of Stern’s novel begins with the sentence: “In the beginning was the book.”
“I’m intrigued with a character like Lenny, who exists both inside, and outside of a book,” says Stern. “It’s a metafictional trope, sure. But it also seems very natural too.”
Books within books, or stories within stories, are pretty much the way Stern approaches literature anyway, he says. He likes to think that the boundaries between the historical and the mythic reality in which they live are “pretty ambiguous.”
‘Because the book contains a literature full of myth and fabulous events that occur in time and space, its content becomes as real as the historical world around it’
Literary critic George Steiner once said the book is the homeland of the Jews, says Stern. “Because the book contains a literature full of myth and fabulous events that occur in time and space, its content becomes as real as the historical world around it. It also becomes literal, palpable, and experiential,” says Stern.
The Memphis Jewish neighborhood that serves as the backdrop of “The Pinch” is a subject Stern has gleaned inspiration from now for the past 30 years.
Stern grew up in the city, attending a Reform Jewish temple, and says that even though he was aware of his father’s German Jewish roots, he really had no idea that an Eastern European ghetto neighborhood had once existed in the place where he spent his childhood.
After a brief stint in London,where he lived during the 1970s in numerous squats and performed with a number of street theater groups, Stern returned to Memphis in his early 30s. Here he took job at a local folklore center, where he soon became ethnic heritage director.
“My main job was to go around with a tape recorder, researching the roots of the Memphis Jewish community,” he explains.
“I began talking to the Pawn Brokers who had grown up on Beale Street, and on North Main Street, in the neighborhood they called the Pinch. And this world began to reassemble itself in my mind. The place had a very Eastern European aura about it. Yiddish would have been the lingua franca of the day,” he says.
“I wasn’t really exposed to much in the way of Jewish culture, history or heritage before this,” Stern admits. “So I began to mine that area, and era, for stories. And I have been doing it ever since.”
Even though Stern can trace his own family roots back to German Jews who emigrated to the United States during the the 1840s, it was the poorer Jews who came from Russia and Lithuania, towards the end of the 19th century that really interested him, he says.
“The German Jews came in the 1840s with money and education. But the Jewish experience [in Memphis] I was most interested in was that ghetto community that was imported from the shtetls,” he says.
Because they were poverty stricken, says Stern, these particular communities tended to preserve much more of their tradition, heritage, culture, literature and folklore, than the well-off German Jews.
“These Eastern European Jews kept that orthodoxy, and even their Yiddish pretty much intact for that first generation,” says Stern.
“The pattern was the same in any [Jewish] ghetto neighborhood in the United States: from the Lower East Side in New York, to Maxwell Street in Chicago. In America, it really was a phenomena that lasted a generation. And it did preserve a culture for a while that wasn’t that quick to assimilate,” he says.
What Stern mainly took from reading and studying Yiddish literature was the way in which it straddles between the world of folklore and a very constricted, impoverished, and perilous reality that the Jews lived through in Eastern Europe for centuries.
“Ever since I began reading [Yiddish] literature, I became intrigued with this idea of people who essentially inhabited two worlds: One which is a historical and geographical place, and one that is defined by lots of danger and poverty. While at the same time inhabiting ‘the book,’ which for those Eastern European Jews was the Torah,” he says.
The Bible, he says, is a book that generates fabulous timeless literature which coexists with historical moments.
“That bipolar attitude you tend to get a lot of in my writing: there are these fabulous phenomena that cohabit with a very earthy and sometimes constricted reality,” he says.
Stern relates the life story of Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide during World War II after attempting to evade the Nazis. Benjamin was inspired by a painting by Paul Klee called “Angelus Novus” from 1920.
‘It’s really the past that makes the future, or a beleaguer present bearable’
“Benjamin saw this painting as a representative angel of history,” says Stern.
“The angel is being blown forward in flight, while looking backwards at the past.”
“This characterizes my attitude to Jewish history and also to my writing: You are looking at a mythic past that involves a mythology. And being driven into a history that is a series of catastrophes. So that the means of survival has to do with looking backwards towards the past. Because it’s really the past that makes the future, or a beleaguer present bearable,” he says.
The more we begin speaking about Jewish history and politics, the more hesitant Stern becomes to speak his mind, even though he clearly has strong views on the current state of Israel. Eventually, however, he opens up.
“The history of Israel is a complicated one, which is quite tragic,” says Stern. “Even though the original Zionist pulse was a secular one, so much of Israeli politics these days is hijacked by right-wing Orthodox extremists. This is one of the great ironies of modern Israel.”
Stern has lived in Israel, very briefly, where he taught there for one semester at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
“I was astonished and heartbroken by the place,” he confesses. “If the political situation wasn’t the way it is, Israel really could be a paradise.”
“It’s a sobering experience for a Diaspora Jew like myself. I go to Israel as a Jew in the kind of neurotic tradition of Woody Allen. Then I am suddenly confronted by these Jewish warriors, who seem to me to be this species of Jew that I had never really encountered before. So I am full of admiration and fear,” he says.
Stern says when he was last out in Israel, he was confronted by the Israeli novelist, David Grossman.
‘Jews in Israel know exactly where they belong. Whereas in America, the Jews have always reserved the right to feel somewhat in exile’
“Grossman immediately launched into this interrogation, asking me: ‘What is with you American Jews and your identity complex?’ And it’s true, these Jews in Israel know exactly where they belong. Whereas in America, the Jews have always reserved the right to feel somewhat in exile, despite the fact that they are Americans.”
Stern steers our conversation back towards literature before we part ways. Detecting my Dublin accent, he explains how the city has a special place in his imagination.
“I guess I started out writing stories as a sort of idolater to James Joyce… I’ve always thought there was a similarity between the Irish and the Jewish imagination,” says Stern. “That sort of fluidity between a fabulous world, and a very literal historical world.”
“There are these little literatures, like the Irish, the Jews, and the Czechs, where small minority folk breed a kind of genius,” says Stern.
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