EXCLUSIVE: Steve Stern on The Pinch, Pogroms, Enclaves, and “Yiddishkeit Lite”
With all respect paid to Saul Bellow and Michael Chabon, Jewish and Black communities getting along in the South, and maybe even some castration jokes.
June 2, 2015
Steve Stern is one of the best American fiction writers you’ve never heard of. Critically acclaimed — his 2012 collection, The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2012 — yet flying well under the average reader’s radar, Stern’s acrobatic exercises in prose fabulism have dug deep into Jewish identity and mythology since his third book, Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, hit shelves in 1986. (This is a man, after all, with a book called The Frozen Rabbi to his name.)
Stern’s most recent novel, The Pinch, is out today from Graywolf Press, and it doesn’t disappoint. Following three major protagonists and spanning multiple decades and realities, Stern turns his eye again to a setting dear to his heart: Memphis’s Pinch district, nicknamed long ago for the “pinch-gut” appearance of its residents. Stern sat down with Outcryer to talk Tennessee, mystical Judaism, and everything in between in an interview at once wry and riotous, candid and self-knowing.
(Nota bene: The author is a friend and former student of Stern, who teaches fiction and literature at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.)
OUTCRYER: Hello, Steve! How are you?
STEVE STERN: I’m in the midst of looking up castration jokes on the Internet.
Find any good ones?
Well, there’s some good ones, but they just aren’t … germane to my current narrative.
If your current narrative involves castration jokes, you’re clearly on the right path.
I’m clearly in a state of arrested development is what I am…. OK, so how should we start?
Well, I think we need to start off with the big question: What is The Pinch?
Well, it’s a novel! [Laughs.] And a history…. But, OK. The original Pinch was the locus of an East European Jewish ghetto on and around North Main Street in Memphis, Tennessee, a place that I had absolutely no knowledge of growing up. It was way past its prime and in decline by the time I was born anyway. It was a place where the first generation of East European immigrants settled and more or less thrived, in the way that anybody thrives in that kind of environment, in that they had shops and lived over the shops in pretty stifling airless apartments, tenement apartments. But they had a very close-knit community, very Orthodox. Yiddish would have been the lingua franca of that generation. So it was a very vital place — again, in the way those kinds of ghettos were in virtually every city in this country. It always seemed a little more ironic to have a ghetto like that in the South, simply because at first you don’t think of Jews being in the South, and also because it was a kind of understood anti-Semitic atmosphere. But there was also a sort of weird symbiosis too because the Klan, who marched along North Main Street regularly to intimidate the Jews regularly, were all wearing sheets that they bought wholesale from the Jewish haberdashers and whatnot. [Laughs.]
Anyway, that’s the place. And my relation to it comes late. I was raised in a reform Jewish synagogue in Memphis, which was really like being a Methodist practically. I didn’t know I was Jewish until I was in my 30s. [Laughs.] Well, that’s a joke. But I was never really touched by the heritage or the history very much. I didn’t get much further into a Jewish education than Bible stories, and was confirmed instead of bar mitzvahed. We didn’t have bar mitzvahs. The rabbi wore ecclesiastical robes and preached in front of a big pipe organ and a choir loft, and there was very little Hebrew left in the liturgy. So I left and sort of kicked the dust of the city off my heels, and certainly left behind my Jewishness without a backward glance. But oddly, when I started writing stories, a sort of undigested fragment of Jewishness kept surfacing. Characters had Jewish names and little bits of Yiddish appeared here and there, and it came as sort of a surprise to me, that I leaned in that direction.
Even though you’d already been reading a lot of Jewish American novelists, as much as some of those novelists would hate that name and that label. You’d been reading Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth—
Yeah, but I read them in the same way that I read John Updike or Joseph Heller, you know, the wonderful writers of that period like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. These were people that I really idolized as a kid, and I saw Bellow and Roth and Malamud, the triumvirate, as great writers of the ‘60s. If I was attracted to them because of their Jewishness, it was something that I wasn’t even conscious of at the time. I think that Judaism — though I don’t think the religion even played into it — Jewishness as a cultural awareness didn’t really prick me until I was in my early 30s and living on a dirt farm hippie commune in the Arkansas Ozarks, reading books by kerosene lantern in a teepee at night under four blankets and two dogs. And that’s when someone passed me a book of stories by Isaac Babel, and I’m reading The Odessa Tales and Red Cavalry and thinking, Wow, but for the grace of a few generations and a middle-class suburban neighborhood, I could have been the victim of pogroms and I could have been stomped by Cossacks and the subject of all manner of oppression and discrimination. But I also would have been the heir to the kind of vital community that I later imagined the Pinch as embodying.
A community that is heavily influenced by magic. And I think one of the interesting things about hearing you talk about Babel — and I know Isaac Bashevis Singer also factors into this — is these different perceptions of the world that come from an aspect of Jewishness that didn’t really trickle into the United States as heavily as it could have, or at least not as it did for you.
Well, that’s a big piece of it. The truth is, it probably wouldn’t have been as large an element even in these Eastern European enclaves. You’d have to go back to the shtetls to find a population that’s as fluent in Jewish folklore and superstitions as, say, my characters. But certainly it was through Babel and Singer that I began to understand that there was a dimension of Jewish culture and literature that partook of a whole sea of these magical tales — that Judaism had a mythology. It was as if that was this huge secret that the rabbis had kept from us all! And in a way, that’s not an exaggeration. Without getting too pedantic about it, the 19th-century Jewish historiographers, as they were called, like Heinrich Graetz, they undertook a project that had never been undertaken in the history of Judaism, and that was to write the history of Judaism. [Laughs.] Because the history had always been the Torah. You needed look no further than Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses.
And now it was time to look back at the history of those who looked back at that history.
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. But they were writing in the mid- to late-19th century, at a time when Judaism was almost everywhere. Except in pockets in — ironically — Germany, Jews were really under attack. So they wanted to present a rational version of the religion. And in doing so, they pretty much glossed over Jewish mysticism, which is the sort of magma that contains all of these magical tales and magical creatures like golems and dybbuks and the gilgulim, and tales like the Thirty-Six Just Men, whose existence — these are the hidden saints, without whose existence God would destroy the world. There are thousands of these stories, and they were swept under the carpet really, so by the time you get to an assimilated American Judaism, that whole dimension is lost.
Jewishness as a cultural awareness didn’t really prick me until I was in my early 30s and living on a dirt farm hippie commune in the Arkansas Ozarks, reading books by kerosene lantern in a teepee at night under four blankets and two dogs.
It’s interesting, because growing up Catholic, I learned to think that the Catholic Church did the same thing, but for a very different reason. Do you think there’s a sort of expectation, at least among these historiographers, for a sort of Jewish hyper-rationalism in the face of persecution?
Well, there’s no question, that’s the strategy. This is a time when the Jews in Western Europe, in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were being emancipated. And emancipation equals assimilation here, and assimilation is frequently another name for invisibility. Certainly, the Jews in the South that I grew up in — especially the Reform Jews, which were essentially the Germans, the Jews that came to America with money and education, and were able to quickly assimilate — they were trying their best to be invisible and to look like the churches that surrounded them.
I recently wrote an essay, which had some fanciful moments in it, where the adolescent stand-in for me goes looking in the old synagogue for some kind of mystery. He breaks into this attic behind the choir loft, not knowing exactly what he’s looking for, and discovers … nothing! [Laughs.] Some old Hebrew books, and copies of the Memphis Hebrew Watchman. And he returns about a decade or so later — would have been more than a decade in my case — thinking, OK, I’m going to give the place another once-over. And he discovers, as if they were fugitives in the Underground Railroad, all of these creatures from Jewish lore, and what the rabbis had been hiding, lo, these many decades. And that’s how I felt about discovering this stuff.
The fact is, nobody outside of Singer and outside of a bunch of dead Yiddish authors had touched upon any of this in American letters, certainly not Roth or Bellow. Malamud came closest, and Malamud is the writer of that group that sort of preserves a Yiddish inflection in his work, and had a kind of Old World consciousness, much more than Bellow and Roth — which is why he’s always been my kind of sentimental favorite. And also a writer whose work could veer into fantasy, and occupy a mythic and a perfectly psychologically realistic milieu simultaneously.
That was the thrill of both encountering the Pinch, that culture, that community, and the sort of comet’s tail of literature and lore that it was dragging behind it all the way back to the Old World, the shtetls. But for me it was a total accident that I came upon, and it happened at a time when my stories took place in a kind of Jewish limbo. I had an agent who was peddling a novel and a book of stories in New York, and she called me in the afternoon to say the publishers were lukewarm and frankly, so was she, and three minutes later the school that I had been adjuncting at called to say that enrollment was down and my services would not be needed. So I went crawling, somewhat desperately to the Center for Southern Folklore in town, the director of which had been a childhood friend, thinking, Well, folklore is sort of the stepchild of literature, so maybe it will have some sore of significance to me. And I was given a job transcribing oral history tapes of old Beale Street characters, Beale Street being the once-upon-a-time Black Main Street of the South, a place of nightclubs and barrel houses and brothels. But it also turned out to have a Jewish component, the pawn shops and the discount houses. So my awakening — at least to the history of the city, which had always been a good place for wishing I was someplace else, and where I’d kind of washed up after years in the counterculture — is that there was this kind of cross-pollination of Jews and Blacks.
Two invisibles. In very different ways.
Yeah, yeah. Perceptive of you, because that’s true. The Jews were the only ones employing Blacks in their stores — not to give the Jews too much credit, because their clientele was Black, so it was useful and pragmatic of them to have Black employees. But the Blacks would pick up the Yiddish, and the Jews would pick up some of the Black culture. The gamblers would come up from one end of Beale Street when they needed some more money, and they would hock a toothpick [laughs] because the pawnbrokers knew they were a safe bet, and they’d go back and win some money and then redeem the toothpick for much more than they sold it for in the first place, and so there was that kind of interaction. And I was fascinated, and suddenly this — well, the operative word for Memphis was always “backwater,” but suddenly it began to assume a color and richness that it hadn’t before. And the fact that the Jews figured into it was significant for me, so I was sort of celebrating this. And the powers of the folklore center overheard me celebrating all by myself where I was transcribing tapes in this room, which was a deadly boring job, and said, “Well, you know, he’s local, he works cheap, and he’s a Jew! So let’s make him the Ethnic Heritage Director of the so-called ‘Lox and Grits’ project.”
Anyway, that’s when I began to interview these old folks, starting with the pawnbrokers. And everybody was raised in the Pinch. Well, what the hell was the Pinch? Well, it was this neighborhood along North Main Street. You go and look at it and it’s a totally blighted, desolate downtown district where most of the buildings have been torn down. The only Jewish survivors were this warehouse that had once been a Russian bathhouse and the Blockman’s junkyard that had been in the family for four generations, and the Anshei Mishnah Shul, which in the ’60s had become the Rainbow Club, which was the one gay nightclub in the city, and a kind of famously transvestite destination. The band would play in the mikveh, which was the ritual bath. And that was it. But these memories that I was harvesting from the old folks, the survivors of that generation — the original immigrants — and the children of the immigrants, they began to resurrect for me the place.
And then you resurrected the place in prose.
Yeah, well, it’s funny because for me, it was like hauling the Titanic up from the bottom of the sea. It was this great momentous event to which I attributed a measure of destiny. And in my very self-aggrandizing way, I wrote a series of stories that were set on North Main Street. The book was called Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, and the survivors of the Pinch, who were so grateful for seeing their old neighborhood mythologized in that way, sued me for a quarter of a million dollars. [Laughs.] Which was a lot of money in those days!
What was their reason?
I used the real name of a woman. Peggy Dubrovner. The name was irresistible to me, and I never thought anybody would really read the book anyway, and so I used it. The worst thing she does is eat a ham sandwich in her father’s kosher home. But Peggy, being a good Jewish daughter, was scandalized. And she had a son who was a kind of ambulance-chasing lawyer, so he decided to go after me. And the publisher, Viking at that time, took it very seriously. They refused to release the paperback of the book, they had a team of lawyers I had to meet with who sort of shook my book in my face. [Laughs.] In the end, they managed to just kind of intimidate the Memphis lawyer, but not before I had to write a public apology that was published in the Hebrew Watchman, which had a readership of about three. But it pretty much killed the book, and I’ve been banished to the outer dark ever since.
But in that outer dark you’ve found a great light — this sort of place that really, I don’t see any other writer in our time even considering. There are those who tap into myth. And we’ve had our conversations about myth, and how some of these narratives feel almost — well, mythic. And you find this light in the dark. In all of these stories, these people are so trampled upon, and through all of these tramplings, they still find these little glowing pieces to hold on to. Especially, in this work, the mystic rabbi, Eliakum ben Yahya. Did I get that right?
[Laughs.] Yeah, ben Yahya. Actually, that was not that uncommon a name. Look into the Mishnah and you’ll find a ben Yahya or two. You’re very kind. The truth is, I wasn’t aware of anybody mining this lore when I began writing the kinds of things I do, but since then, there’s a whole generation, like Michael Chabon and Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer, and they’re conversant with it. And boy, they’ve run with it in a way that has gotten them an acclaim that I will certainly never touch. And I don’t disparage what they’ve done at all, except sometimes, in my bitter, sour grapes sort of way thing, you know … Yiddishkeit Lite. It’s a way of just sort of bootlegging some of the lore into the contemporary world.
Sure, and Chabon writes with that understanding, but even Kavalier & Clay isn’t really about Jewishness, it’s about comics. And Jewishness factors in because Jewishness factors into the history of comics. Yes, he’s interested in Jewishness, but I don’t know if that was ever his prime mover.
No, I don’t think it is. I don’t think it is for any of these writers, per se. I think for Safran Foer and Krauss it certainly informs their work, in a way that I think is very authentic and genuine. And again, these are virtuosic talents. And you certainly can’t argue with success.
You can’t, and yet at the same time, I’m talking to someone who performs a pretty virtuosic feat here. You have this ability to — when I read The Frozen Rabbi, one of the things I thought about the whole time was your ability to juggle a couple of different narratives over a couple of hundred years. And within The Pinch, not only do you juggle three major narratives at least, if not a couple more — and that’s just the three or four main characters — then you’ve got the sociopolitical narratives, and the assessments of these really weird, and not particularly popular, aspects of Jewish folklore. And they all bleed into one another, to the point where, by about three-quarters of the way into the book, none of these characters seem sure which world they’re inhabiting.
Well, there’s myth, and then there’s everything else. And of course myth occupies a timeless realm. And if you’re trying to tap those roots, deep as they are — Thomas Mann talked about the past: “Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?” So if you’re dropping stones into that well and hoping that whenever they hit bottom there’s an echo, then you’re in the process of imposing a kind of timeless atmosphere over an historical milieu. It’s in the same ethos as the holidays, including the Jewish sabbath, which the philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called a “palace in time.” Meaning you are outside ordinary chronology when you’re celebrating this holiday. You’re contemporaneous with the patriarchs and the prophets. In other words, you’ve entered a sort of mythic space. It’s a connection that the 21st century has lost, by and large, and it was lost quite a while ago. But if you’re a writer, and if you’re a storyteller, then at least you can aspire to make that connection. And one way of doing it is trying to haul some of this old, forgotten magic back into historic moments.
Take it from the darkness and put it back into the light.
Yeah, and with the hope that the reader is going to experience the timelessness along with the specific historic moment. It’s not a thing that happens in experience very often, but it can happen in literature. It’s a terrible distinction that I’m sort of running into all the time, and maybe it’s a kind of fundamental thing with me — that the impossibilities of art don’t translate into the possibilities of history. And I hate that! [Laughs.] So, you try to dissolve that distinction in the writing.