Off the Shelf: Confused identities make for compelling narratives

Identity crisis, a term coined by Erik Erikson, may feel like a modern phenomenon, but it is felt deeply in Jewish tradition. Consider Moses the Egyptian upon discovering his parent-age; Queen Esther determining wheth-er to inform her husband that she’s Jewish; or the Jews of the Chanukah story weighing whether to follow the Greek path.

This perhaps contributes to why I find compelling three new books that follow entirely different cases of identity confusion.

Howard Freedman

Joy Ladin became a recognized name in the Jewish world quite against her will. Formerly a male English professor at Yeshiva University, she informed the school in 2006 that she would be teaching thereafter as a woman. She was placed on leave and barred from campus. After much controversy from all sides, as well as legal challenges, Yeshiva ultimately elected to retain her on the faculty.

Ladin’s memoir “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders” offers the story that the newspaper articles could not possibly have conveyed. The beaming face on the cover does not prepare the reader for just how much pain there is within, as Ladin recounts her decades-long struggle with gender identity. The “door of life” in the title is not just a feel-good metaphor but a reference to her turning away from plans for suicide.

What exacerbated the pain was that Ladin had a wife and three children. Ladin’s wife was emphatic that shifting genders was not an option within their family. Once Ladin chose to lead her life as a woman, it meant breaking up the family, giving up a love that had lasted over two decades and becoming the source of confusion and anguish for the children.

The book is not all darkness, however. Some of its charm comes from Ladin’s description of her awkward experience learning to present herself as a woman. And the Jewish dimension of her story is pronounced, with many of Ladin’s milestones approached through Jewish frameworks. She does not, however, use the book as an arena for exploring Jewish positions on transgender issues — for this, see Bay Area writer Noach Dzmura’s anthology “Balancing on the Mechitzah,” to which Ladin is a contributor.

Set in the mid-1970s, Ellen Ullman’s novel “By Blood” follows an adopted woman’s pained pursuit of the mystery of her newly discovered Jewish roots. However, its unusual point of view is that of a disgraced middle-age college professor who has relocated temporarily to San Francisco. He takes a downtown office space that happens to adjoin a psychologist’s office. There, he begins to listen through the thin walls to the sessions of the adopted woman.

The book takes a decidedly creepy turn as the narrator becomes obsessive and shifts from an eavesdropper to an agent in the story. He sets into motion a search for identity that will reach into a painful past. But because the book hinges on these revelations, I will not provide any additional spoilers.

“By Blood” offers rewards for local readers, but the San Francisco portrayed is a decidedly unromantic place, with its backdrop dominated by the Zodiac and Zebra killings and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. Particularly dramatic is the narrator’s nightly retreat into the fog and wind of the Sunset District, an image not lost on me, as someone who shares his commute on the N-Judah line.

Also striking is the presentation of a pre-Internet world. This is perhaps felt more keenly because Ullman, who lives in San Francisco, is best known for her 2001 book “Close to the Machine,” capturing Silicon Valley’s nascent technology industry. Much of “By Blood” is about the pursuit of information. But the revelations depend on visits to many libraries, letters sent to adoption agencies and phone calls and visits to Israel, and they take time.

In his third novel, “Second Person Singular,” Sayed Kashua continues to explore the contradictions of Israeli-Arab identity that he has brought to the fore as a novelist and journalist, and as the force behind the biting Israeli sitcom “Arab Labor.”

Writing in Hebrew, Kashua presents Israel with a mirror that inverts the dominant story of Jewish marginalization. Here it is Arabs who carry the burden of alienation that is so familiar from Jewish existence in the diaspora.

The novel focuses on an Arab from the Galilee who is now a successful attorney in West Jerusalem. He feels his position to be precarious, and he fights his insecurities by disassociating from his village background and attaching himself to status symbols such as fine wines, sushi and fancy cars. However, these preoccupations evaporate when he comes to suspect that his wife is having an affair, and he becomes set on discovery and revenge.

The novel then shifts to a separate narrative, told in the voice of an Arab from a background similar to the lawyer’s, but with little of his success. He has been working as a caregiver to a young Jew whose failed attempt at suicide has left him in a vegetative state. With the blessing of the patient’s mother, he takes on the young man’s identity and enrolls in art school, where, having shed his Arab identity, he reinvents himself.

The tension in the novel is in preparing for the point where the two protagonists will inevitably meet. Along that road, it seems as if every aspect of their lives bears ambivalence about nationality, religion, class, geography, relationships or tradition, with neither character ever knowing who he is.

Howard Freedman is the director of the BJE Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All of the books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.