The Red and the Slack

1272912258kirsch_050310_380pxAdam Kirsch in The Tablet:

Is it too soon to say that the Brandeis novel is having a moment? It is, at least, an intriguing coincidence that two novels published recently are set at Brandeis University in the 1970s and that both feature a comically ineffectual campus protest. In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, which came out at the beginning of this year, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein thinly disguised the school as Frankfurter University (Brandeis was the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Frankfurter the second) and joked about a student uprising against the introduction of fraternities and sororities. Taking a cue from some earlier Jews who didn’t like the Greek system, Goldstein’s protesters call themselves Maccabees.

Politics and protest are far more central to Something Red, the new novel by Jennifer Gilmore, but she too conceives of a Brandeis uprising as something inherently comical. Early in the book, Benji Goldstein, the athlete son of a liberal D.C. clan, stumbles into a ragged rally on the Waltham campus—actually a counterprotest, in which a few students are opposing a larger student movement to ban nonkosher food from the dining halls. Here Benji meets Rachel Feinglass—“olive-skinned, black-haired, short, big-breasted”—who is sufficiently political to fight for the right of Jewish students to eat pork, even though she herself is a vegetarian. “This is about truth, about what this university is supposed to stand for. This is a participatory democracy,” she harangues, and Benji is more than convinced. On the spot, he falls in love with Rachel, with Brandeis, and with the idea of radical protest, all of which are mixed up in his inarticulate but heartfelt declaration, “I fucking love college.”

Of course, student demonstrations at Brandeis were not always so silly. In the 1960s, Benji learns in his class “American Protest!” (the exclamation point is a nice touch), the school produced radicals like Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis. But Gilmore’s novel is set in 1979—the year of the Iran hostage crisis and President Carter’s grain embargo on the Soviet Union—and all that remains of the ’60s spirit is the Grateful Dead and dropping acid. “Each and every day Benji sat in a lecture, he wished he’d been born a decade and a half previously,” Gilmore writes, and this sense of belatedness is the real theme of Something Red. Can Jews in the 1970s—and by implication, in our own time—really lay claim to the legacy of Jewish radicalism that dates back to the early 20th century?