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Book Review : Jewish Novel Without the Stereotypes

December 22, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Titch by Chaim Bermant (St. Martin's $13.95; 192 pages)

The change of venue from the American to England provides an entirely new perspective on that tough old recidivist, the Jewish Family Novel. The first volume of a planned trilogy, "Titch" is short, ironic, and affectionate; the book reflecting the salient characteristics of its narrator.

Sammy Hoch is the energetic but undersized son of parents who emigrated from Poland to England when he was a toddler and his sister, Soshana, a mere babe in arms. Brisk and matter of fact, the book bypasses the temptations of the Hochs' pre-English history to concentrate upon the family's strenuous efforts to Anglicize themselves; the father becoming so receptive that his speech reflects the various class and regional accents of his work mates.

As He Prospers

As soon as the elder Hoch's Manchester dairy business begins to prosper, he acquires a bowler hat and umbrella, and with these props and his Lancashire inflections, "he was regarded among newcomers--and certainly liked to regard himself--as an English gentleman." Later, during the war, Hoch senior adopts the pipe and sonorous Yorkshire mannerisms of J. B. Priestley, though his own acerbic personality continues to surface in moments of stress. Overshadowed by her domineering husband, her sexually precocious daughter and her articulate son, Hoch's mother remains a gentle but unobtrusive presence; a significant variation from the mixture as before. "Titch" is a Jewish family novel virtually without the familiar stereotypes.

The pace marches us in quickstep through Sammy's school days, and by Page 50, he's eligible for a university scholarship. Rejected by the army--still choosy in 1938--because of poor eyesight and short stature, he's obliged to become a mathematician in spite of himself. By 1942, standards are considerably relaxed and the scholar is called up. "They'll take you all right, as long as you have enough breath to moisten a mirror," and Hoch finds himself in a rag-tag, bottom-of-the-barrel army unit. Nevertheless, he's not only happy to be serving his country, he's stimulated by his fellow soldiers, few of whom resemble anyone he has ever known.

Paralleling the narrator's progress is his sister's development from a winsome pretty child to an outright heartbreaker; a transition accelerated by wartime, though in Soshana's case, one suspects that the process wouldn't haven't taken much longer under any circumstances. The war merely provides her with a larger pool of suitors, the adoring Yank she eventually marries among them. We're also given revealing vignettes of the Hoch's more prosperous relations, the Rodgers, whose head start in England has enabled them to rise to the pinnacle of Manchester's Jewish society; spare but detailed sketches that belong in that often overlooked side gallery between cartoon and portrait.

The centerpiece of the novel is Sammy Hoch's abrupt and traumatic transfer to the Polish army, a posting explained by the record of his birth in that country. Unable to speak a single word of the language, hurt and bewildered by what seems an egregious rejection of a British subject by Britain, Hoch is hardly consoled by the presence in the Polish forces by his Aunt Malka's runaway husband, the reluctant rabbi Holtzhacker.

Imported from Poland years before to marry the stolid Malka and serve the spiritual needs of the Manchester community, Holtzhacker became a rabbi not because of any particular vocation but because the immigration authorities were more receptive to men of the cloth with accredited sponsors than to the general rabble clamoring for British citizenship. This rabbi by default has become a chaplain in the Polish division, his name radically changed to Gilchrist. Sammy Hoch observes that Holtzhacker "had acquired the self-confident resonance and the pukka expression of the officer class."

Having achieved a position of some authority, Gilchrist provides his old pupil and quondam nephew with a cushy berth in this strange pocket of the army, a favor the narrator undervalues, but one that gives the book some of its funniest and most original scenes. Eventually reason prevails, and the honors graduate in math is reassigned to work better suited to his abilities.

The time in the Polish unit has not been wasted. While functioning as Gilchrist's assistant, Sammy Hoch has enjoyed a rewarding romance with the uninhibited wife of a stuffy ophthalmologist. After a series of amorous encounters, we leave Sammy Hoch just as he proposes marriage to a far more appropriate and available candidate. By then, readers should be sufficiently involved with these characters to watch eagerly for the succeeding volumes.

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