Born 18 January 1936, Far Rockaway, New York
Daughter of Jacob and Gertrude Sniderman; married Robert Lerman, 1956; children: Jill, Julie, Matthew
One of twin sisters, Rhoda Lerman spent her childhood in the midst of a large, extended family, all of whom shared the family mansion. She received a B.A. in English from the University of Miami at Coral Gables, and has both studied and taught at Syracuse University. She is married and the mother of three.
Lerman's first novel, Call Me Ishtar (1973), is erudite, complex, and comic. The great mother goddess, Ishtar, once worshipped for her immense powers of creation and feared for her volatile moods, has been neglected because of the newer religions of Moses and Jesus. Ishtar is tired of males (destructive mutants of females, results of a minor chemical error) enviously claiming they created the world, eliminating evidence of matriarchy, and usurping the rightful functions of women. Disillusioned with patriarchal 20th-century America, which separates love from religion, and herself capable of various manifestations, Ishtar directs her energies into a Syracuse, New York, housewife of the same name. The new Ishtar is thus not only a mother, wife, and part-time manager of a rock band called the Demons, but also a powerful goddess capable of animating banal products (Hostess cupcakes) and transforming communal events (a rock concert, a bar mitzvah) into occasions for experiencing female divinity.
Two major narrative strains enrich each other. In one, details and dialogue of suburban housewifery are both symbolic and ludicrously mundane. ("Scram, I'm dead," Ishtar whispers from her coffin to her son who keeps bothering her about a lost toothbrush.) The second major narrative thread emerges in brief set pieces. These ingeniously rewritten fairy tales, classical and Middle Eastern myths, biblical stories, etymologies, and interviews with pop stars develop the cosmically significant actions of the ancient goddess Ishtar in several of her many incarnations. The theme of past and present female power—divine, creative, sexual, passionate, and intelligent—is developed throughout.
Call Me Ishtar is notable for the verbal energy of its allusions, alliterations, metaphors, puns, daring juxtapositions, and unexpected continuities. The varied rhythms reveal Lerman's sensitivity to the cadences of various literary materials and of everyday speech. The skillful blend of realistic and mythical materials places Call Me Ishtar in one of the major contemporary novelistic traditions—fabulation.
The Girl That He Marries (1976) is the first-person narrative of Stephanie, a sophisticated New Yorker, who is also almost 30 and unmarried. In spite of knowing about the darker side of marriage and not being "in love," Stephanie sets out to trap eligible, politically ambitious, Jewish Richard Slenz with such obvious manipulative ploys as making him feel insecure by insulting his tie or enlisting his family on the side of purity outraged and WASP connections spurned. She has to suppress her sympathy, sexuality, and integrity to take him from Innocent Marie, who, unlike her, does love him. When Stephanie wins him, she no longer even likes him.
The Girl That He Marries is verbally less dazzling, but more unified than Call Me Ishtar. Mythic dimensions are integrated naturally. As an employee of the Cloisters, Stephanie can see ironic parallels to her own situation in the legends of the unicorn or the Cornish men with heart-shaped tails. She knows the Broadway show tunes that have perpetuated silly concepts of romantic love. The dialogue and details are exceptionally vivid; the comic scenes sustained; the plot suspenseful.
God's Ear (1989) is a story in which a rich, successful Jewish insurance salesman is influenced by the will of God to become rabbi to his father's congregation deep in the American West. Kirkus Reviews reported, "Lerman effortlessly works an immense amount of Jewish learning and Hasidic lore into a novel that's moving, wise, and very, very funny."
Lerman's novel Animal Acts (1994) follows another theme, exploring the relationship between a woman who has left both her husband and lover and a trained gorilla. Revealing the differences between men and women in their mental and cognitive processes, Lerman uses satire and suspense to contrast the sexes' distinctions. Publishers Weekly noted her strategy: "Lerman's writing has a sweetness and a desperation that sharpen her piquant questions about human existence, the ways she delineates the stresses of contemporary marriage and the workings of a woman's heart."
Having shared her estate with as many as eight large Newfoundland dogs, Lerman was driven to write her first nonfiction book, In the Company of Newfies: A Shared Life (1996). The story is about a year of living with a new litter and six adult Newfoundland dogs. She reveals her connection with the animals and tells of their strong regard to themselves as human, offering instances in which her communication with them seems remarkable.
Lerman's major strengths include an exuberant, playful praise of sexuality; a vivid female view of suburban Jewish life; a talent for parody and satire; a richly poetic use of language; and a daring mixture of realism and myth. As a funny feminist and a female fabulator, Lerman deserves continued attention.
Eleanor, A Novel (1979). Book of the Night (1984).
CA (1975, 1999).
KR (15 Feb. 1989). PW (2 May 1994, 8 Apr. 1996). Ms. (Jan. 1974). Newsweek (5 May 1975). NYTBR (25 Nov. 1973, 8 Aug. 1976). PR (1974).
—AGATE NESAULE KROUSE,
UPDATED BY ALLISON A. JONES