Thursday, February 12, 2009

Brooklyn and Jewish Byzantium

When Richard Price's novel Lush Life was published last year, I was intrigued by the author's frequent use of the term Byzantine to describe the Lower East Side in almost every interview. My posting "Byzantium N O W" (April 24, 2008) explored those issues. Reading William Styron's Sophie's Choice (1979), I am discovering that the literary tradition that associates Byzantium with Jewish New York has some precedent. After getting fired from his Manhattan job at McGraw-Hill, an aspiring southern writer finds himself on Flatbush Avenue. The year is 1947 and, with Styron's sharp autobiographical prose, Brooklyn comes to life as a Jewish enclave, a foreign land to Calvinist sensibilities. Stingo, the hero, rents a pink room from Mrs. Yetta Zimmerman. After enumerating the contents of his apartment, he extends his attention to the names of his neighbors.

"Each name had been affixed on small cards by the orderly Yetta...Nathan Landau, Lillian Grossman, Morris Fink, Sophie Zawistowska, Astrid Weinstein, Moishe Muskatblit. I loved these names for nothing other than their marvelous variety, after the Cunninghams and Bradshaws I had been brought up with. Muskatblit I fancied for a certain Byzantine flavor." (Modern Library edition, p. 42).

Styron and Price have animated Byzantium in Jewish New York. Mittel-Europa's Jewish diaspora in the United States seems to have been fashioned by Byzantine flavors, at least from a sensibility already developed by late-19th-c. aestheticism and the Vienna Secession. Roland Lauder's Neue Gallerie in New York makes this particularly relevant, with Jewish tastes explored by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker profile "An Acquiring Eye" (Jan. 15, 2007). Byzantium passed through the Vienna Secession, whose anti-classicism directed attention further East. Jewish Byzantium is self-Orientalizing. Synagogues of the 1920s heavily capitalize on Byzantine and--shocking to the contemporary viewer--Islamic forms. Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia is my favorite exampe (left). Although surrounded by the devastated urban landscape of North Broad Street, the synagogue still functions; this is where my good friends Nick and Jill got married (and they are now expecting their first child).

I am sure that Brooklyn's Byzantine motifs have been explored in scholarship.
I was simply surprised to see the connection made so literally in both Styron and Price. I have just started Sophie's Choice, and I cannot get over what a satisfying read it is. Particularly amusing is the Jewish condemnation of the South by Nathan Landau, Sophie's temperamental boyfriend (who Morris Fink calls a golem). I have only read the first 100 pages and I'm looking forward to see how the relationship between Stingo and Sophie (a Polish concentration camp survivor) will develop. Luckily, I have not seen the 1982 movie and my imagination has not been tainted by Maryl Streep. I am surprised that the book does not get more attention. Styron's reputation resurfaced in 2008 with the publication of his collected essays, Havanas in Camelot. My favorite essay addresses Styron's friendship with James Baldwin and their realization that both of their grandparents were affected by slavery. In Sophie's Choice, Styron explores slavery in the touching story of Aristide, whose sale provides the financial means for Stingo's life in Brooklyn.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States