Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Shabbes the rabbi wore panties

Wallace Markfield, Rosenzweig’s Panties (New York: Stein & Day, 2009). 401 pp. $27.00.

Novels about rabbis are a rarity. Noah Gordon was able to call his 1965 novel simply The Rabbi, because it was very nearly the first of its kind. Harry Kemelman wrote a week’s worth of mysteries about the crime-solving Rabbi David Small, starting in 1964 with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. The only serious novelist to tackle the subject was Stanley Elkin, whose third-to-last novel The Rabbi of Lud (1987) marked his return to Jewish subjects.

All of which makes Wallace Markfield’s posthumous novel Rosenzweig’s Panties, released today by Stein & Day, an occasion for literary rejoicing. Although Markfield had made something of a first-novel splash with To an Early Grave in 1964—reviewers made the ritual comparisons to Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Chaim Potok—his second novel, Teitelbaum’s Window, was a disappointment even to his mother. As Daniel Belasco wrote in Heeb, Markfield “effectively withdrew from the literary scene” after publishing one more novel. “The American Jewish novel as a genre is quite dead,” he explained to an interviewer.

Not quite. Markfield told no one, not even his closest friend Alfred Kazin, who had done so much to lift Teitelbaum’s Window into the pantheon of Jewish classics with a glowing review in the Sunday New York Times, and who, as Markfield himself later said, “by any kind of moral or ethical principle should have turned it down,” that he was making one last stab at reviving the genre—with a dense, 400-page “confession” from Rabbi Kevin Rosenzweig, whose “sin” is transvestism. To be specific, Rabbi Rosenzweig enjoys wearing panties. Especially on Shabbes mornings, when he leads services at Temple Maaseh Kundes. He explains:

Ascending the bima to grasp the Torah like a demon lover, I feel the soft swish of Mrs. Rosenfeld’s frilly pink silk pass over my tuchis like the hand of a Japanese masseuse, who charges maybe twenty-five dollars an hour, thirty tops. Next week, I tell myself, I shall wear Mrs. Fackenheim’s white cotton grandma panties and pull them up over my stomach till the elastic band just tickles my nipples.As this passage suggests, Rosenzweig is also guilty of stealing his congregants’ underwear. Invited to Shabbes lunch, he excuses himself to “go to the little boys’ room, or, as we say in Yiddish, the Yeshivah bokher’s real Yeshivah,” and darts into the master bedroom, where an unfailing moral compass leads him straight to the missus’s chifarobe. Even he is shocked when he opens the underwear drawer of Heather Heschel, a “heavyset mother of three with a scrapbooking business on the side,” to find black crotchless panties. But that is not the only place he draws the line. “If I find a pair with even the shadow of a remnant of a blood stain,” he says, “I drop it like a pork chop.”

Such fastidiousness about biblical “cleanliness” is the only traditional taboo that has any hold over him. In the mornings, when an Orthodox Jewish male thanks God shelo asani isha, “for not making me a woman,” Rabbi Rosenzweig prays: “Blessed art Thou, O LORD our God, king of the universe, who hast made me to wear high-cut step-ins, and sometimes boyshorts.” The reason he likes to don panties, he explains, is “out of solidarity with one half of the Jewish race, who were subject for centuries to such unbearable restrictions as not having to pray three times a day.” The only times he does not put on women’s undergarments is when he must take the car to a wedding or funeral, “always mindful of Mama’s advice to ‘wear clean undies in case you should get into an accident.’ ” He drives commando, and upon arrival makes a bee line for the can, where he snaps open his attaché case and selects a pair of lacy hipsters. And when he finally does have an accident, sideswiping Mrs. Cohen-Levy’s car in the Temple parking lot, he starts shaking like a man in a fit, and temporarily promises himself to “go cold turkey on the knickers.”

Markfield’s literary problem was to sustain interest in Rosenzweig’s “sacred unholy predilection,” as the rabbi calls it, for four hundred pages. Halfway through the novel, then, “Going on a Bear Hunt” takes Rosenzweig into the Ontario woods with the president of his congregation, who confesses one night by the campfire—that he enjoys wearing pantyhose. The rabbi is both relieved and outraged. “Pantyhose!” he shouts. “Good God, man, don’t you get itchy in the crotch?” Markfield left the novel unfinished at his death seven years ago, and so was unable to write the last scene, in which Rosenzweig is finally exposed by a congregant whose vintage chiffon pin-up panties the rabbi stole. But that is the only defect in an otherwise penetrating peek at a rabbi’s private life.

Go here for an important update.


Robert Levy said...

Great review! You've made me want to read the book. Markfield is a neglected genius. It's really good to see him get some respectful attention at last.

One question. Is Rabbi Rosenzweig married? How does Markfield handle that problem?

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks for the question, Rob.

Rosenzweig is unmarried. The ladies of Temple Rimat Iyar are appalled. “A shanda for a rabbi not to be married,” one woman says. “You know what the Talmud says,” offers another: “a man without a wife is half a man.” “In my case,” Rosenzweig thinks, “the lower half.”

The women in the congregation try to set him up with a nice Jewish girl. Rosenzweig is uninterested in finding a girl, but he does welcome dates, and going up to the girls’ apartments afterwards—where he can rummage for “newer, more fashionable, smaller-sized prizes,” he confides.

Michael Chabon said...

Mr. Myers,

Usually, a recommendation from you is reason enough for me to avoid a novel. But a new novel from Wallace Markfield is a different matter. I might as well just come all the way out and confess that there were many times in the course of the writing The Yiddish Policeman's Union when I felt, as the dial-a-psychics say, that Markfield was with me. Whenever I hit a rough spot, he would help me over it. His comic genius, the infinite loveliness of his prose, are for me the ne plus ultra, not merely of American Jewish fiction, but of all fiction everywhere at all times.

Thank you for this wonderful review of his posthumous novel.

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

You have a really esoteric sense of humor...

D. G. Myers said...

Well, if that’s the worst that can be said about it. . . .