The Arty Semite

Malamud's 'Refugee' at 50

By Erika Dreifus

A version of this post originally appeared on Ron Hogan’s Beatrice blog.

I owe my discovery of Bernard Malamud’s “The German Refugee” — published 50 years ago Saturday — to “The Best American Short Stories of the Century,” which joined my bookshelf shortly after its release. And although I don’t normally use the word “frisson” in everyday conversation, it describes exactly what went through me when I saw the title of Malamud’s story in the anthology’s table of contents.

Reading this story as a writer, I noticed several elements. First, there is the first-person narrator through whose eyes we learn of another character and his conflicts. Perhaps the most famous example of this technique is the Nick Carraway narrative of Jay Gatsby’s story in “The Great Gatsby.” In “The German Refugee,” American Martin Goldberg recounts the tale of the eponymous “German Refugee,” an older German-Jewish man named Oskar Gassner, whom Martin describes as “the Berlin critic and journalist” who had fled Germany in the months after the Kristallnacht of November 1938. In those days, Martin tells us, he “made a little living” by tutoring such refugees in English, and the meat of the story recalls the summer of 1939, when Martin worked with Gassner in preparation for the latter’s delivery of a lecture in English.

Then, too, for anyone who focuses on language, this story yields rich rewards. One sees how a character — in this case, a refugee character — gains definition through speech: “‘Zis heat,’ he muttered…. ‘Impozzible. I do not know such heat.’ It was bad enough for me but terrible for him. He had difficulty breathing.”

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Women Helped Jewish Lit Evolve in 2012

By Erika Dreifus

On December 6, the Center for the Humanities at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York hosted a panel with an intriguing title: “Contemporary Jewish-American Writing: What Has Changed?” Equally interesting, especially when attention is being paid to gender (in)equities in publishing, the panel proposed to discuss how women writers, in particular, have influenced the shifts. Although the event didn’t address all of its anticipated questions, it left me considering how my own recent reading in Jewish books — works whose content reflects an engagement with identifiably Jewish subjects, such as Jewish history, prayer, ritual, language and Israel — may reflect some of those shifts and changes.

I recently compiled a list of the “Jewish” reading I completed in 2012, and it confirmed what I suspected: Anyone who believes that Jewish-American writing remains rooted in tales of New York and neurosis, with gratuitous Yiddishims sprinkled in for good measure, is simply wrong. In fact, Jewish-American literature continues to grow richer and more far-reaching. Moreover, as samples from my year-end list suggest, women writers are contributing significantly to its evolution.

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Remembering Munich, in Fact and Fiction

By Erika Dreifus

In case you haven’t realized it, the Olympics are coming. I refer, of course, to the London Summer Olympics, which will begin with the opening ceremony on July 27.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about these Olympics, not because I’m an athlete (although I will proudly tell anyone who will listen about my first successful 5K run this spring), and not because I’m planning a trip to England to join in the festivities there. I’m thinking about the Olympiad because this year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich Summer Games and the murder of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team.

For the past weeks and months, there have been efforts to honor the memory of the slain Israelis. And I’ve been following them all. I’ve signed the petition launched by Ankie Spitzer, whose husband Andrei was among the murdered athletes, asking the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to observe a moment of silence in memory of the victims. I’ve watched YouTube videos and liked Facebook pages. I’ve wondered what exactly it would take for the IOC to do the right thing. And I’ve been thinking about a much smaller, though related battle that I waged about a decade ago, when I drafted a short story titled “Homecomings.”

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Mark Twain, “Mishpocha,” and Me

By Erika Dreifus

In her previous posts, Erika Dreifus blogged on her upcoming panel at AWP, “Beyond Bagels and Lox,” and the inspiration for “Quiet Americans.” Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:


The online literary world has been atwitter (please pardon the pun!) about the changes — some are calling it censorship — that appear in a new edition that presents “updated” versions of Mark Twain’s classic novels, “Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” The change that has attracted the most discussion is the new book’s replacement of the word “nigger” with “slave”; a second modification is the substitution of “Indian” for “injun.” (For general summaries, I’ll point you to news items from The New York Times and Publishers Weekly; for a sample of some of the commentaries, I recommend an AOL News column by Tayari Jones, a blog post by The Christian Science Monitor‘s Marjorie Kehe, and the multiple contributions featured within the NYT Room for Debate forum.)

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A Birthday and an Anniversary: A Book and Its Inspiration

By Erika Dreifus

On Monday, Erika Dreifus, the author of “Quiet Americans,” wrote about Jewish-American Literature as Multicultural Literature. Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Today is a special day: It’s the official “pub date” for my debut short-story collection, “Quiet Americans,” which is being released by Last Light Studio, a new, Boston-based micropress.

It is also a special day on an even more personal level: It is the 70th anniversary of the date on which my paternal grandparents, Ruth and Sam Dreifus, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s and met here in Manhattan, were married.

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Jewish-American Literature as Multicultural Literature

By Erika Dreifus

Erika Dreifus‘s first book, “Quiet Americans,” will be published on January 19th. Her blog posts are being featured this week on The Arty Semite courtesy of the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series. For more information on the series, please visit:


Early next month, four other writers — Andrew Furman, Kevin Haworth, Margot Singer, and Anna Solomonand I will gather in a conference room for a panel titled “Beyond Bagels & Lox: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century.” (Hopefully, some semblance of a critical mass of an audience will be there as well.)

This session is just one among a dizzying array of offerings organized by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) for its annual conference. If you aren’t familiar with AWP, you may find this description from Executive Director David Fenza to be helpful:

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