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BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Tales of Jewish Houston BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN THE SWEETHEART IS IN: STORIES By S. L. Wisenberg Evanston, Illinois, Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2001, 138 pp., $17.95. ouston H Street on \(pronounced New York’s Lower East Side is a major landmark in American Jewish histo ry. Houston \(pronounced 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 publiaffections 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 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 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 8/17/01