Tales of Jewish Houston
Houston (pronounced HOW-stun) Street on New York’s Lower East Side is a major landmark in American Jewish history. Houston (pronounced HYOO-stun) in Texas is not, though one of the city’s busiest roads, Westheimer, was named for its Jewish builder. Kinky Friedman has built an entire quirky career on the incongruity of being a “Texas Jewboy.” In her 1990 memoir Lost in Translation, Eva Hoffman recounts how she, a Polish Jew who emigrated to North America when she was thirteen, felt most estranged when she enrolled at Rice University and lived in Houston. “This is the real America,” she tells herself, and discovers how very foreign that reality is to her.
Much of The Sweetheart Is In is set in Houston, in a prosperous Jewish neighborhood similar to Meyerland, the subdivision in which its author, S. L. Wisenberg, herself grew up. In this fictional cycle, her first book (a second, Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions, is scheduled by the University of Nebraska Press for publication in 2002), Wisenberg records the affections and disaffections of a sensitive Jewish Texan. The second of the volume’s two sections consists of playful variations on familiar legends and fairy tales, but most of the stories in the first part focus on Cecilia “Ceci” Rubin, the youngest of two daughters in a family of modern observant Jews who live in a city where seldom is heard a word in Yiddish. When a mysterious stranger shows up for a seder at the Rubin home speaking the Ashkenazic tongue, he is thought to be the prophet Elijah.
Ceci’s father Ruben opens a nonkosher deli, “Ruben Rubin’s Reubens,” in downtown Houston, before returning to the fold and joining his father’s thriving bubble-bath business. Ceci is born into privilege made all the more striking by the fact that, when he served in the Third Army during World War II, Ruben Rubin liberated the emaciated Jews of Mauthausen. Her mother, called Big Ruthie, is chronically overweight. Though a Latino lover later calls her his “bubble-bath princess,” Ceci is a Jewish American Princess with republican aspirations. She colludes with Quaker pacifists, assists union organizers in Central America, and teaches English to struggling immigrants. She questions the “handed-down Superstition” of her Jewish heritage, in Talmudic interrogations.
In the title story, the longest entry in the collection, Ceci, still in junior high school, envies her older sister Ellen, who has begun to attract swarms of (nice Jewish) boys. Facing the driveway of their house, a whimsical sign indicates whether Ellen, who was crowned belle of the Sweetheart Dance, is receiving visitors that day. In “The Sweetheart Is In,” the year is 1970, and, while Ellen’s suitors fret about getting into Ivy League colleges and staying out of Vietnam, Ceci’s adolescent heart begins to long for the kinds of erotic experiences hinted at in her sister’s diary, which she reads in secret. Many of the other stories in the book follow Ceci’s later romantic tribulations with a variety of men and, in a piece called “Love,” with a woman, Jewish, who does not return her affections. After leaving Houston, Ceci works as a journalist, artist, and teacher. Like Wisenberg, who graduated from Northwestern University, received an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and held a job with the Miami Herald, Ceci ends up living in Chicago.
Because much of Wisenberg’s book is a meditation on origins, in a relatively stable Houston household, it is preoccupied with the sexuality of Ceci’s parents. The first piece, “Big Ruthie Imagines Sex Without Pain,” is not so much a story as a brief interior monologue that is sufficiently summarized by its title. What is remarkable about it is not so much the trite orgasmic fantasies of a middle-aged, middle-class matron whose husband has been her only partner as the fact that she is indulging these fantasies, and that her daughter is imagining her imagining them. It is as if Ceci is struggling to reconceive her conception as an act of unalloyed bliss. In “Liberator,” it takes divine intervention to make her mother fertile. “The Children Who Swim from You” recounts how Ruth and Ruben met, courted, and married. As in Delmore Schwartz’s famous story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” where the protagonist imagines his mother and father before they assumed those roles and tries to avert his own inception, the convergence of Ruth and Ruben is seen as neither inevitable nor graceful. They coupled, writes Wisenberg, “like well-meaning fish in the wrong kind of tank.” When a child invades and appraises the primal scene of her own genesis on a conjugal bed back in Houston, she presumes to be a better matchmaker than fate. Even while contesting her identity, she flaunts her own chutzpah.
In “Making Heroes, Beginning with One Sentence,” Ceci morphs into Rosa, the granddaughter of Eastern European Jews who found refuge in a repressive Latin American country. Her father is a wealthy businessman, and when he is assassinated by revolutionaries, while she is off attending Northwestern University, Rosa, who reads Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Fanon, is ambivalent about the death of a capitalist. Yet she cannot rejoice in her symbolic patricide, and, during a chilly winter in Illinois, poses a question that haunts Wisenberg’s collection: “What are you doing here?” Whether the stress falls on the verb doing (wallowing in opulence? striving for social justice?) or the adverb here (Chicago? Central America? Europe? Houston?), Wisenberg portrays an anxious woman at home and at ease only while fleeing.
In “After the Procession,” Wisenberg’s version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” exposure of the fatuous but well-meaning monarch’s pretensions brings misfortune to the nation when he is forced to cede power to a successor who is properly clad but corrupt. The girl who dared to call the emperor naked is ostracized by her resentful neighbors. Forced into exile, she accepts her banishment as just. “It was right that I be outcast from the community,” she concludes. “The Frog/Prince” retells the old tale of the frog whom a kiss transforms into a handsome prince.
However, this time, the protagonist is a lonely princess-yet another version of Ceci Rubin-who feels trapped by her impending marriage to the former amphibian. At the end of the story, we see her casting off her royal robes and swimming away from her father’s kingdom, alone into the unknown, another Wisenberg princess who embraces abdication.
In “My Mother’s War,” another story set in Jewish Houston but in which the mother, unlike Ruth Rubin, is an artistic rebel, Wisenberg poses the riddle: “What would you do if you were inside a brick house with scissors and a piece of paper?” Her answer is a puerile pun: “Cut the paper in half. Two halves make a whole. Crawl out through the hole.” As if to insist that authors are escape artists, the story ends by asserting: “That is art.” Much of the fiction in The Sweetheart Is In is a drama of deliverance, of crawling out through a hole that only the artist can create. Though Ceci Rubin hopes to devise an art whose role is “to bind unlike peoples. To destroy differences. Be ambassador to souls,” her world is more aptly characterized as hollow than whole. While evading the romantic advances of a Reaganite professor named Stephen, Ceci “wants to be an artist who works for world peace.” Yet she is never at ease in the world.
In “Pageant,” Ceci at age eight occasionally absents herself from weekend charm-school classes at Neiman’s and acting lessons at the Alley Theater’s children’s school. She travels with her mother through Texas to compete in talent contests in which her shtick is to declaim passages from edifying literary texts, such as the memoirs of Eleanor Roosevelt or Helen Keller. But, though a frequent finalist, precocious Ceci rarely ever wins, because her presentations lack “words that reach into the audience and grab souls.” Grabbing souls is no less difficult for grownup writers. If S. L. Wisenberg so far fails in competition with those authors whose words seize and transform the soul, it is because, instead of exposing their acrid hearts, The Sweetheart Is In makes do with a skein of savvy assertions about its characters. “Brunch,” for example, details the overlapping liaisons of a couple of dozen political activists. But instead of dramatizing their passions, much of it merely iterates their ages and affiliations. “I am twenty-nine,” begins one paragraph. “Helen is twenty-eight. Bruce is thirty-two and has worked in three presidential campaigns. Sally is twenty-eight. Barry and Theo are both thirty. Sam is thirty-four. Ben is thirty-five….” Wisenberg continues with additional information without revelation. It takes more than bubble bath to penetrate beneath the froth, to the grit and tref of human flesh.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at UT-San Antonio.