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History, Memory and Other Obsessions

by S.L. Wisenberg

Pub Date: Sept. 16th, 2002
ISBN: 0-8032-4801-6
Publisher: Univ. of Nebraska

Fugitive essays on the experience of being a Jewish woman in the post-Holocaust world, set in Theresienstadt, Houston, and points between.

Wisenberg (The Sweetheart Is In, 2001) has a good eye for offbeat detail, evoking loud German tourists smoking cigarettes at the entrance to the Jewish cemetery in Prague, who would somehow “know I was Jewish, despite my 1972 nose job,” cataloguing the many Yiddish words for “vagina,” deploring the strange irony of the ice-cream stands at the Terezín ghetto, now a tourist attraction for curious Americans. In these bite-size pieces, most published in venues such as Tikkun and Chicago Reader, Wisenberg explores two large subjects: the meaning of the Holocaust, and herself. Though she comes close to trivializing the former at points, she is an entertaining, self-aware narrator. A high point comes when Wisenberg considers the matter of Monica Lewinsky, reading whose biography, she writes, “is like taking a five-hour call from your most annoying friend when you were fourteen years old, the one with constant boy problems.” In a weird but inspired turn, Wisenberg compares Lewinsky to the Holocaust martyr Hannah Senesh, each representing the different paths that “privileged young Jewish women in the developed world can take, have open to them, make open to themselves.” (Lewinsky, of course, opened herself to such comparisons when she complained that her post–Clinton affair life “reminded me of The Diary of Anne Frank.”) Other good moments come when Wisenberg writes of being unable to cope outside the city, despite its pickpockets and street crazies; open space scares her, she confesses, and “Franz Kafka is less foreign to me than Wendell Berry.” Against such strengths, the occasional burst of workshoppy prose (“In Prague I thought, Do I fly during sex? Does she fly higher than I do? Does he?”) is jarring, and one wishes that Wisenberg had exercised a sharper pencil in editing.

Still, equal parts Fran Lebowitz and Leon Wieseltier: smart and satisfying.