Edgy Lost Tribe anthology taps into hard issues confronting young Jews

Jake is in his early 30s and recently turned Orthodox. At his bachelor party, he recounts his hot but twisted affair with his boss’ Teutonic, non-Jewish daughter — who happens to have the last name Himmler.

Is the boss a Nazi in hiding? Is the daughter trying to make up for her father’s atrocities through strange sex? The ambiguity and irreverence of “The Bachelor Party” by Gabriel Brownstein points to a sad and relatively unexplored fact: Soon, every Holocaust survivor will be dead, and there will be no living witnesses to remind us of Nazi horrors.

This profound situation forms a shadow over many of the stories in the anthology “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge,” a collection designed to showcase what the editor dubs the post-Philip Roth generation of Jewish writers.

The authors in “Lost Tribe” are generally well established, with many having won awards and critical praise for their first or second novels. Conspicuous among the list are Myla Goldberg, author of the best-selling “Bee Season,” and Jonathan Safran Foer of “Everything Is Illuminated” fame.

It is always difficult to review an anthology of fiction. How can you speak generally about 25 different stories? The fact is that, when read back to back, the stories in “Lost Tribe” are nearly all engaging, and a good half of them are great. They range in tone from awestruck (“A Dream of Sleep”) to grotesque (“Bachelor Party”), straightforward (“The Argument”) to purposefully obscure (“The Very Rigid Search”).

Across the spectrum of styles, the changing legacy of the Holocaust anchors the author’s collective concerns. The main characters of many of the stories have an ambivalent or misinformed understanding of the Shoah, and the stories don’t wrap themselves up in a neat bundle at the end. It is almost as if the authors are unconsciously searching for their own way to relate to the tragic events of their grandparents’ passing era.

“Ordinary Pain” by Michael Lowenthal deals with this sense of uncertainty head-on and in a very painful way. Larry Blank, a bar mitzvah-age boy, attends a school for rich kids where “true status came from underprivilege.” In order to gain some sense of social status, Blank makes up a story that his grandparents died in Buchenwald fighting against the Nazis. As he piles lie upon lie about his grandfather’s supposed heroic martyrdom to get attention, some very messy trouble ensues.

Ellen Umansky’s “How to Make it to the Promised Land” tackles the dilemma from a more visceral and satirical tact. Her 15-year-old character narrates the story, and she is a snotty narrator — an outcast at a stereotypical Jewish summer camp. The camp plays a perverse game, a simulation of the Holocaust that is supposed to teach the campers about the tragedy of the Jews in Europe. The narrator does everything she can to avoid the simulation, but her own sense of isolation at the camp intertwines with the sense of doom brought on by the exercise.

Some of the most interesting pieces in the collection are the hardest to summarize. Take for example, the opening of the haunting story “Hershel” by Judy Budnitz:

“When I was your age, back in the old country, they didn’t make babies the way they do now. Back then people didn’t dirty their hands in the business; they went to the baby-maker instead.”

The story goes on to take the conceit literally and in great detail: how the baby-maker literally shaped the babies out of some special clay and baked them in an oven for nine months. It seems like an allegory for many different things, but what exactly can’t be pinned down.

Nothing in the collection is an easy read, but almost every piece is worth the effort. Perhaps the greatest reward also takes the most work. That would the piece by Foer, which is an early, shorter version of his novel “Everything is Illuminated.” This predecessor is called “The Very Rigid Search.”

“Lost Tribe” showcases a competent and diverse slew of young Jewish writers. But the volume is equally valuable for what it illustrates about the evolution of Jewish cultural concerns.

Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge,” edited by Paul Zakrzewski (548 pages, Perennial, $14.95).