“[Death...] is not the end of desire. This is the end of memory. An awful prospect, especially for Jews. We don’t mind not being wanted. We mind not being remembered.”
— Leon Wieseltier, Kaddish
I first met Ellen Miller several years ago, at a panel on new Jewish literature I was moderating for The Jewish Week at the 92nd Street Y. I had devoured her first novel, “Like Being Killed,” a rigorous and hysterical work. Little did I know that this book would be her only published novel; she died in December, at age 41, of a heart attack.
No one who met Ellen ever forgot her. She was always smarter, more energetic, more compulsive and more searching than anyone else in the room. Forget about her fiction; even her e-mails, intending to be casual and modestly informative, routinely expressed electric shocks of insight and creativity, moving as they did through the ether of a dark and disorienting humor.
Ellen was, I believe, a proud if suspicious member of the group of New Jewish Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg and Dara Horn, who were first grouped together coherently in Paul Zakrzewski’s still fresh anthology “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge.” Her suspiciousness first surfaced when we discussed the panel on Jewish writing, and she asked whether she had something to offer to this conversation — in print, or in person.
In truth, she was a little shy on the panel (boasting as it did the uber-Jewish writers Jonathan Rosen, Dara Horn and Pearl Abraham). But this reticence about Jewish life evaporated in print, especially in her story “In Memory of Chanveasna Chan, Who is Still Alive,” which first appeared in “Lost Tribe.” If ever there was a story to teach about how subterranean Jewish identity bubbles up among those of us who aren’t sure just where it is within us, this is it.
Beth Tedesky, a working-class Canarsie girl thrust into an Ivy League college at 16, is lonely and repressed. She is both horrified and mystified by her WASP housemate, whose wealth, anorexia and lack of self-scrutiny seem truly exotic, especially when compared with her own background, and that of another housemate, a Cambodian student named Chanveasna Chan.
At heart, the piece is about a mitzvah. Beth sits in a dark movie theater with Chanveasna, whose parents were killed in front of him by the Khmer Rouge, while he watches the film “The Killing Fields.” At the end Beth, who has momentarily fled to the bathroom in recoil from Chan’s pain, has a moment of absurd and almost repugnant transcendence as she recognizes the connections between her Jewish history and the Cambodian massacres.
Facing herself in the mirror, wondering if she should leave the theater or return to her friend, she says: “I looked as if I’d just walked barefoot all the way across Russia from Bialystock...” Wanting to add some color to her face before returning, she imagines Charles Revson designing a line of cosmetics for her miserable, exiled self: “A blood-red lipstick, for when I was feeling impetuous, called Pogrom, and a dramatic gray eyeshadow called Ashes. For a romantic, sexy night out, like my date with Chan, he would have formulated a perfume named Kristallnacht, packaged in an elaborate stained-glass bottle, advertised with the slogan, ‘For Your Special Nights.’”
The point of Beth’s astringent reflections, which come to her unbidden and unwanted, is not to make fun. As she herself explains it: “I had to busy my brain somehow so I wouldn’t contemplate what I was about to do...” — the mitzvah of returning to Chan in order to watch the rest of the film, then accompany him home. Her act of sympathetic imagination ends this way: “The simple fact that he and I were landsleit — two people born in the same town in the Old Country — pierced me. ... In the presence of a weeping landsman, a balbatisheh mensch sits her skinny, peasant ass down, hands over the toilet paper, and leans inward, inward into his storm.”
Thinking about the meaning and future of Jewish literature, this story, by a deeply conflicted Jew, evokes the enduring themes of Jewish writing: the astonishing relevance of history; the almost physical difficulty of discharging our moral responsibilities; and the overwhelming need to remember.
In my relationship with Ellen, often I played the role of the “good Jew” — the one who knew, the one who practiced, the one who prayed. But despite whatever Judaic knowledge I might have imparted to Ellen, I suspect she taught me much more than I taught her about the moral intensity, self-scrutiny and imaginative muscle it takes to be a contemporary Jew.
Daniel Schifrin is writer-in-residence, and director of public programs, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
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