Hunger Artist: A suburban Childhood By Joanne Jacobson

Jacobson, Joanne. Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood. Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 2007.


Reviewed by Tamara Mann Tweel, Columbia University, NYC


                  Hunger Artist opens with a lament masquerading as a promise: “In the sweet, lucky June when I was nearly six, my parents turned from the city where they had been children and lovers, and where their own parents had loved them, and hoped for a new beginning.” Joanne Jacobson’s debut, a moving autobiography, transcends its personal and idiosyncratic plot with tender descriptions of a generation seduced and dismantled by an unbridled “appetite” for new things.

                  In the beginning, the objects matter, both the ones they have and the ones they want. The War has ended and Jacobson’s parents move to suburban Chicago. The family looks beyond their “plain and tan and cumbersome” Studebaker Lark to “a block carpeted with spring-green lawns.” Joanne decides on a red tractor in lieu of a bike and her parents, avid gardeners, delight in their “gleaming new tools – pronged trowels, hoes, rakes…” “In a miraculous flash,” Jacobson writes, “we were brought into the presence of excess…” The world glittered not only with new objects but new frontiers. Man could fly to the moon, end all wars, and cure every disease: “Danger itself,” she reflects, “seemed to have atrophied in our time.”  

                  Jacobson is “always hungry.” Her text chronicles the enticing synthetic accoutrements on burgers, fries, and hotdogs and lists the beloved brand names of candies and bars. “Every day,” she writes, “I returned after school for more of what moved me, at the drugstore and at the five-and-ten; at Just for Fun Toys. The darkly wrapped M&Ms and Hershey Bars and the peppermint patties sealed in silver foil waited in the weakening light of the late afternoon—too much for me to bear.” And then the reproach: “Do you have to eat that?” Her body becomes the physical manifestation of craving amidst plenitude.     

                  Nothing is as it should be in Jacobson’s story: material excess does not solve hunger, manicured lawns do not deter crime, and the cultural obsession with the nuclear family does not erase divorce. The hardships come crashing in, leaving our protagonist worn and wanting, looking to the Bible and her history for some way to justify and articulate the love and the loss.

                  In a home, in a suburb, in a country obsessed with the new, Jacobson’s family struggles with a past too long to understand and too enduring to escape. While her grandfather makes a career of “forever pointing his household upward, uprooting his wife to keep pace with Chicago’s rising skyline,” her grandmother “reads only the Yiddish newspaper.” One running from the past, the other from the future, neither seems capable of being present. At dinner, Jacobson shares her Hebrew school project, a family tree that goes all the way back to the Bible. Her mother’s maiden name Levin, she was told, meant that her family had been Temple priests. “But now, over dessert,” she discovers that the name was a shortcut given by a rushed official at Ellis Island—the real name was Hershkovitz.

                  And the myths keep cracking. There is a car accident, there is a rape, there is a divorce, and there is death. The end of the book is almost suffocating in its longing and confusion. The nostalgia of youth replaced by the agony of adult realization. What went wrong her prose seem to ask? Was it the false promise of 1950s America, the happenstance of a flawed marriage or was it the dwindling attachment to a religious past?

                  The final part of the book returns, in a different way, to magical descriptions. In lieu of the objects that marked her beginning, Jacobson brings forth the story of Isaac. In two short chapters, The Sacrifice and The Unbinding, she first describes her own father’s religious trajectory and then embodies the voice of Isaac. She opens, “In the small Michigan town where he slaughtered animals, my father’s grandfather kept his knife sharp as a razor, as smooth as silk, as unblemished as a stone worked for centuries by water.” In contrast to this image of her grandfather who worked to provide kosher food to new immigrants, her father died without religious courtesy, his body burned rather than buried and the mourning prayer recited by a stranger rather than a relative.

                  The word skittish connects these two chapters. The reader has entered a world where the ground is unsteady and volatile. Jacobson responds to this fraught state by turning to the story of Abraham’s sacrifice and crafting it into Isaac’s self-actualization. She writes, “You were not here, Abba, when I unbound myself… When I come down the mountain I will learn how to hold back, how not to need you, how not to let you hurt me.”           

                  This moment of magical individuation might function more fruitfully for Jacobson than her reader. While the national drama that unfolds in this autobiography lends substance and gravitas to her narrative the jump to Isaac strikes me as misdirection. She closes her book with what I think is her real goal: to demonstrate her love and respect for her parents, particularly her mother. The last chapters, Garden Days and Natural History look back at what her parents did best: garden. Describing a plot of land outside her mother’s new home she writes, “Shards of broken glass and soft booby traps of leavings from neighborhood dogs made it difficult to cut across to the street… But my mother saw something there, disorder waiting for repair—life to be restored.” Her received tradition is not religious or national, it is a skill: the ability to start over.

                  The book closes with this homage to her parents: “you sought out the sweet, unblemished flowers, feeding deeply as though in a dream, brief as this season’s garden. Long as night, bright as day, these things I will remember.” Looking back on a childhood tarnished by the perverse imperfection of excess and choice, Hunger Artist is Jacobson’s way of making peace through the salvaging act of remembrance.

                  This is a book where order and plot seem designed to help the author more than the reader. Thankfully, Jacobson’s tender and careful prose bridges the gap, making Hunger Artist a touching and haunting read.


Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Winter 2011 Volume 8 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2011 Women in Judaism, Inc.


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