Praise, Money, and Self-Education


On November 30, Hadassah Magazine presented the Harold U. Ribalow Prize to author Joseph Epstein for Fabulous Small Jews, his 2003 collection of short stories. In his keynote address at New York’s historic Players Club, Commentary editor Neal Kozodoy, who has known Epstein for four decades, introduced the collection of 18 stories set in Chicago.

The Jews in the collection have no visible nationalist view, Kozodoy observed. They have no longing for Zion, they live on the periphery of Jewish communal life, and do not need the community except for lifecycle events. If they belong to Hadassah, Kozodoy imagines in a nod to the audience, it is only out of a feeling of obligation. By the same token, he concedes, these characters feel at home in their Jewishness, even feel rather blessed by it.

In a recent phone interview, Epstein noted how much he appreciated his colleague’s comments. “In a lot of criticism, people decide they like or don’t like what you’ve done. They give you grades. But there’s not much criticism that gives you insight into what you’ve done. In his intro, Kozodoy said certain things that I hadn’t really realized myself; it was pleasing in its revealing nature.”

The Harold U. Ribalow Prize is awarded annually to an author who has created an outstanding work of fiction on a Jewish theme. This year’s panel of judges included Elie Wiesel, N. Scott Momaday and last year’s Ribalow Prize winner, Jonathan Safran Foer. Meir Ribalow, the late honoree’s son, spoke about his father’s “deep and abiding love for literary talent—he devoted most of his life to supporting the work of young talented writers.” Ribalow said of his late father: “He had a genius and generosity in promoting the work of others.”

When the bowtie-clad Epstein took the stage, he paid tribute to his parents, particularly his mother. Epstein recalled his mother’s reactions to achievements in his life: when he got a teaching job at Northwestern (“that’s nice, a job in the neighborhood…”), won a prize from the Chicago Tribune (“We get that crap in the mail all the time”) and won a prize from the Chicago Society of Literature (“They’re all crooks, those politicians”).  Epstein related that his mother did not live for her children, and did not lavish great care upon them, but that she did let them know that “she had complete love for us. We were not intimate, we did not share our deepest thoughts, but we didn’t need to. We were beyond intimacy.” Epstein imagined his mother’s reaction to his receiving a prize. “She would have been secretly as proud as I am openly proud,” he said, to the delight of the applauding crowd.

The collection is not about shiny, happy people. Its characters are struggling—coming to terms with changing family dynamics, waning romantic relationships, their own loneliness, the aging-related breakdown of their parents’ generation, and their own mortality. Many characters recognize greatness in others but cannot see their own potential; they acutely feel their own limitations, and often watch as their icons and idols disintegrate into their own inescapable humanity.

The title is so apt that one might easily think that inspired the theme of the collection. But, Epstein explains, the stories came first, and then he found himself “entranced” by the phrase from a poem by Karl Shapiro. The phrase “fabulous small Jews,” when applied to the collection of tales, “suddenly illuminated the stories, and the simple pleasure in the rhythm of the stories and characters.”

”I love a charming title: there’s something about it,” says Epstein. He cited some of his other titles: Narcissus Leaves the Pool and With My Trousers Rolled as further examples. But some people were offended. “I wasn’t clear why, except I had the feeling they thought there was something vulgar about it. But,” he says, recalling the resonance of the title, “everyone under 5’6 felt that it was their autobiography.”

Although he had made his initial name in articles, reviews, and essays, and as editor for the Phi Beta Kappa quarterly,The American Scholar, fiction was always on Epstein's mind. He had written some stories in his 20s, and always felt that they were “unsatisfactory.” But leaving the subject of politics made writing fiction easier. “You stop dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, and can focus on the enigma of human character,” he observes.

Although Epstein’s writing has been greeted with critical acclaim (the New York Times called him “a graceful writer, [who] also happens to possess a stand-up comic’s gift for punch lines”), the reactions he prizes most come from non-academic readers. “I’ve been very lucky in getting a rich response from a wide variety of people. The point is getting the good readers; it always pleases me when someone who’s not usually a passionate reader reports that the stories knocked them out, that the characters reminded them of people they knew.”

Readers of every stripe react to Epstein’s characters because they are the stuff of everyday; readers need no advanced degrees, only human experience, to relate. They are just people, going through their Chicago-area lives. They tend bar at the neighborhood watering hole and play handball, they keep house and go to therapists, they have medical problems and affairs. “Some are based on people I’ve known and some are pure inventions,” Epstein admits, noting that when a character is based on a real person, there’s lots of “transforming” involved. "In some ways, one of the most difficult things to do is to use a character you know real well from real life—you say ‘he would never do that’, and that can inhibit the imagination.”  He also points to the strong “literary magic” of Chicago, which served as home to Dreiser, Bellow, and others, as a reason that “certain streets come alive. People feel the density of the details that are very useful to a writer of fiction.”

Long after that prize-winning night in November, Epstein proudly reflects on the memory of the Ribalow Award. “It’s nice to win a prize,” he says modestly. “Praise, money, and self-education…that’s a good day.”