Review by Julie R. Enszer
Although they differ in narrative time and place, Judith Katz’s novels Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound (1992) and The Escape Artist (1997), both explore gender and sexuality in Jewish life.
Winner of a Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Fiction, Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound tells the story of the Morningstar family. Sisters Electa, Nadine, and Jane Morningstar barrel into adulthood as their elders’ expectations collide with the modern world. The novel opens with Nadine setting her head on fire with the Shabbes candles; afterward, Nadine “spent many days and many nights in the psychiatric ward of the hospital” before escaping the family home to New Chelm, an imagined town in western Massachusetts with a flourishing lesbian and feminist community. There, Nadine takes the surname Pagan and works at the collectively-run, women’s restaurant Lechem V’Shalom.
Meanwhile, youngest sister Jane enrolls in a college near New Chelm and comes out as a lesbian, while sister Electa, finishing law school, makes plans to marry Michael Robbins. Drawing on the magical language and imagery of Yiddish traditions, similar to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Katz renders sisters Nadine and Jane as mirror images. Nadine is the daughter who disappears then crashes back into the family confirming her mother’s belief that a dybbuk was lodged inside her; Nadine is the lesbian daughter rendered through absence. Jane, on the other hand, is the daughter who stays, continuing to engage with her parents and her sister Electa in difficult conversations about lesbianism, feminism, and how women should live their lives; Jane is the lesbian daughter rendered through presence.
In the novel’s dramatic climax, Nadine returns to the wild to live on land with her grandmother’s violin. In a dream sequence, Nadine envisions a wedding where her two sisters marry and her mother officiates as a rabbi; then she dreams “a hundred people were marrying each other, and we all were women.” The fantastical sequence features sisters, real and imagined, and foremothers, celebrating the possibilities of women’s communities in Jewish contexts. Running Fiercely Toward a High Thin Sound makes lesbian lives visible in a Jewish world where families struggle with feminism and lesbianism together.
By contrast, The Escape Artist is a historical novel set in Argentina during World War One. Tutsik Goldenberg travels each year from Argentina to Poland to find a young girl from a poor family looking to arrange a marriage. Tutsik presents himself as an Argentine merchant to secure the marriage, then he brings the girl to his sister, Perle Goldenberg, who runs a brothel in Buenos Aires.
As The Escape Artist opens, Tutsik arranges one such “marriage” between himself and Sophia Teitelbaum. Sophia, young, naïve and never before out of her Polish shtetl, discovers the world first locked in a room on a transatlantic ship and then locked in a bedroom in the Jewish section of Buenos Aires. Perle and another young woman, Sara, teach Sophia the fine arts of satisfying men who hire her for sexual pleasure.
Meanwhile, Hankus Lubarsky similarly lands in Buenos Aires after a series of unfortunate events, including the murder of his family in a pogrom. Born Hannah, Hankus masquerades as a man, a deception which gives him more flexibility to move in the world while also endangering him. Hankus is a magician, a practitioner of the arts of legerdemain and escape. The earning potential of Hankus’s skills brings him to the attention of the Jewish underworld in Buenos Aires—including Tutsik Goldenberg.
While waiting for an arrangement to have his own show and become Argentina’s Harry Houdini, Hankus becomes a fixture at Perle’s brothel. Sophia discovers the secret that Hankus was born a woman, and the two fall in love. Yet, Perle still holds Sophia captive in the brothel, and, although Hankus enjoys his freedom, he has few resources. Through an elaborate series of magical ploys and escape plots, Hankus and Sophia secure their freedom. Fast-paced and filled with narrative twists, The Escape Artist demonstrates Katz’s prowess as a popular novelist while centering questions of gender and sexuality to render imaginatively a past where lesbians found space in Jewish communities.
Firebrand Books, an independent press founded by Nancy Bereano in 1985, originally published both these novels. Firebrand flourished in the 1990s, securing multiple awards and accolades for the books it published and assembling a list of influential books by Jewish feminist writers. Independent publisher Bywater Books recently reissued The Escape Artist in paper and electronic editions.
Julie R. Enszer is the author of Sisterhood (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2013) and Handmade Love (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2010), and editor of Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2011). She is also the editor of Sinister Wisdom, a multicultural lesbian literary and art journal. More at www.JulieREnszer.com.