The Frumkiss Family Business

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9780307397768: The Frumkiss Family Business

Thomas Mann meets Mordecai Richler in this outstanding novel of great intellect and humour that already reads like a classic.

The Frumkiss family doesn't look much different from any of the others in Toronto's Bathurst Manor. Grandpa survived the Holocaust; Grandma the Second came from Poland at the age of five. Dad's a foot doctor; Mom is dead, and her mother — Grandma Number One —died while giving birth to her in Kazakhstan. Her three kids — the oldest is forty-two — are as frustrated and directionless as most baby boomers with no real financial worries. One's in Toronto, there's one in the suburbs and the third lives in Israel. As far as the Frumkisses know, all that distinguishes them from anybody else is that Grandpa is a famous Yiddish writer who ended up working for the CBC. But Grandpa's death sets off a chain of events that force the Frumkisses to see how different their family is from all the others.

The Frumkiss Family Business, Michael Wex's brilliant and hilarious new novel, is a family saga for the twenty-first century, a lovingly accurate portrait of middle-class Canadian life at the turn of the century and of the Toronto neighbourhood that has produced such famous Canadians as Howie Mandel and Wex himself. Imagine Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks without the stodgy Germans or The Brothers Karamazov with only one brother. Finally, a novel that does for Toronto what Mordecai Richler's books did for Montreal.

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About the Author:

MICHAEL WEX was born in Lethbridge, Alberta. The family moved first to Calgary, and then to Toronto, where they lived in Toronto's Bathurst Manor before migrating a few blocks north to Bathurst Village. Wex is the author of two works of fiction, Shlepping the Exile and The Adventures of Micah Mushmelon, Boy Talmudist, and three works of non-fiction: Born to Kvetch; Just Say Nu; and How to Be a Mentsh (and Not a Shmuck). He is also well known as a speaker on matters relating to Yiddish language and culture and more general aspects of Judaism. He lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
THE FINAL DAY


It was probably the all-kugel diet that killed him.Probably. It’s hard to be sure with a man of 103: hecould trip down the stairs, get hit by a car, succumb to the kind of illness that young people don’t get any more—phthisis, diphtheria, the neurosyph—but Faktor was never accident-prone, and not even his bitterest enemies—a good three or four of whom lived long enough to see him die—could recall him ever having so much as a toothache or runny nose. A touch of scurvy during the War, when it was almost compulsory—unless he induced it to keep out of the army—but Faktor? Sick?
 
When the Yiddish paper of record called for details of his death, his wife repeated the question as if she didn’t quite understand. “Sick? I don’t know about sick.” It was like they’d asked if he had two foreskins. “Faktor was never sick.” Mrs. Aubrey, the professional name she insisted the paper use, had been in Toronto since 1927, but she never entertained any idea of calling her husband by his given name, not even when they were alone. He was Faktor when they met and Faktor is who he stayed. It was a sign of affection and respect, and was what everyone else called him, too. “He was too busy getting under people’s skin to spend time getting sick. We were married for sixty years, I know what I’m saying.”
 
She didn’t know the half of it. Faktor’s whole life was about getting under skins, driving others up a wall. “I want to be a yatesh,” he wrote, the gnat that burrowed into Titus’s head to punish him for his mockery of God. It banged against his brain and didn’t give him a moment’s peace: its claws were made of iron, its beak of brass. “That’s me all over,” he said. “A yatesh, but without the God. Every time a Jew is born, the rest of the world gets a headache. Most of us do it inadvertently; the difference between me and the rest of the Jews is that I want to cause headaches on purpose. We have to work on the world like the yatesh worked on Titus after he burned down the Temple and ruined our lives. Heinrich Heine had the same idea. And now—there’s me.”
 
He started in 1926, when he was living in Paris and frequenting brothels that specialized in religious themes. He was young, naive enough to fall in love with a whore who appeared everywhere, in private and in public, in the brothel or in church, in full Carmelite habit. She told Faktor that she was in the middle of her temporary vows when she lost her vocation, as well as her faith. She didn’t say why, and he wasn’t naive enough to ask how or why she became a whore. He just knew that he felt a real bond with her. “We had a great deal in common, having both been religious once.” When Faktor realized that it was strictly business on her end, he published a book of French sonnets called Ma Soeur, Ma Fiancée: Chants d’amour pour une Religieuse. He used the pseudonym André Zhid.
 
Mrs. Aubrey, his second and most long-lasting wife, knew nothing about this. She didn’t know that back in Poland two years later, he published his first novel, anonymously and at his own expense. A contemporary critic described Memoirs of Jesus’ Moyel, the man who circumcised Christ, as “the first plea for a pogrom ever to have been issued in Yiddish.” It was condemned by the government, forget about the Church, and not a single copy is known to have survived. Those who saw it—and there were plenty—said that it was a virtual encyclopedia of foreskin jokes and anti-Christian slurs, including a number invented by Faktor himself, all of it presented as the after-dinner speeches from the banquet portion of Jesus’ circumcision. The Nazarene’s foreskin was described as broad, leathery and marked with the sign of the cross; no matter how often the narrator sliced it off, it grew back again in a very few minutes, which is why he was able to make so many speeches.
 
Faktor had the book printed by ostjüdische anarchists living in Berlin. They had it smuggled into Poland, where copies were handed out on street corners, in front of popular theatres and restaurants, and beside newspaper kiosks all over Jewish Warsaw by boys yelling, “Extra! Extra! The truth about Yoyzl’s bris!” It was distributed for free, and they gave away five thousand copies in a single day. Faktor also sent one to every bishop in the country. Insiders, including Yiddish-speakers in the pay of the police, were pretty sure that they recognized the anonymous author’s style. Faktor was a well-known journalist by then, and his weekly columns in the Warsaw Haynt were stuffed with slightly milder near-blasphemies. Faktor threw his hands into the air and denied everything. There was nothing to connect him to this regrettable perturbation: at the Tachkemoni seminary where he had studied, Jesus, with a foreskin or without, had no place in the curriculum.
 
He never admitted responsibility for the Memoirs. Neither of his wives knew anything about it, and the secret of its authorship would have died with Faktor, had he not explained the whole affair to his biographer only a few weeks before he died. Loud as Faktor could sometimes be, self-restraint for the sake of a punch line or prank was one of the guiding principles of his life, perhaps the only guiding principle of his life. He was a tzaddik of shtik, a saint of shenanigans. He had a talent for strategic self-effacement and was willing to sacrifice anything, possibly even his life, to safeguard the purity of his japes. In the real world, Faktor craved all the attention he could get; when it came to hoaxes and provocations, though, he could conceal his name and forgo any credit, while patting himself on the back for his near superhuman self-abnegation: he craved efficacy, not renown—he got enough of that in literature and the theatre. He didn’t want a vulgar craving for reputation to come between the work and its victims: “Crazy ol’ Faktor, up to his crazy ol’ tricks again,” could dampen the most incendiary prank.
 
And Faktor could afford to play pranks. His father was one of the wealthiest textile manufacturers in Lodz, and Faktor grew up in the very bosom of early-twentieth-century Polish-Jewish luxury, all velvets and tutors, music lessons and Hebrew grammar. His father saw him as heir to an empire, a new, better educated sort of businessman who was just a bit of a rabbi on the side. Along with the usual religious education, Faktor received extensive instruction in French, German, Russian and English—the language of any country where he might have to do business with people who didn’t know Yiddish or Hebrew. His father was an old-fashioned Orthodox intellectual who believed in the kind of education that he himself could never have obtained. In 1923 he sent Faktor abroad to learn the international end of the business. Though the boy was only eighteen, he was bright and eager and, as even his father realized, temperamentally unsuited to the rabbinate. He had finished at the top of his class at the recently established Tachkemoni school in Warsaw, but showed no evidence of any feelings of piety. He was as ambivalent about God as he was about work: he knew that they existed, but could see no reason to bother with either.
 
He lived in Manchester for a year, a stay that marked his English forever after, giving it more in common with Coronation Street than with Isaac Bashevis Singer, his classmate at the Tachkemoni. He spent another year boarding with his father’s French agent, a religious Jew from Poland who kept a kosher home, but finally got up the nerve to take digs on the Left Bank and throw himself wholeheartedly into student life and la vie parisienne. He was beholden to no one, not even his father; his maternal grandfather, who had taken his father into the business, passed away not long before Faktor went to Paris and left him a monthly stipend: Faktor was an Old-World trust fund child who could do whatever he wanted and buy his way out of any trouble that he’d either caused or gotten into. He quit the job at his father’s firm and spent the next two years writing poetry and mailing the results to French, Polish and Yiddish journals, where he started to gain a reputation as a talented youngster who didn’t take himself or anything else too seriously.
 
He chased girls but didn’t get very far. Faktor was heavy and pale, with a spare tire that seemed to sag from his navel to his knees and that no amount of vigorous walking ever changed. Floppy, with folds of hidden skin almost everywhere, he had the curly red hair and pasty, freckle-splotched skin of a Japanese demon. He was known variously as di miyeskayt—the ugliness— le rideau à chair and le cochon cacher. His granddaughter Rachel described a photo of Faktor taken around that time as, “Bozo goes Poland. With schmaltz on every side.” For all his wealth and all his wit, Faktor spent three or four years in Hemingway’s Paris and never had sex with anyone but prostitutes; some of his cheaper conquests actually winced on going off with him, but Faktor pretended not to see.
 
He went back to Poland for his mother’s funeral and found himself with enough of a reputation to be invited by one of the editors of Haynt, the Warsaw-based Yiddish daily, to contribute a weekly column of humorous verse on issues of the day. He called it Der Mazik— the li’l devil, the troublemaker, Lucifer Junior or Satan in shorts—and the name soon stuck to him: in Yiddish circles he was known as Der Mazik for the rest of his life. The column ran until September 1939, and was picked up after the...

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