Ways of Being Jewish, Times Literary Supplement April 13, 2016

Morris Dickstein’s Review of THE NEW DIASPORA: The changing landscape of American Jewish fiction, THE IMPOSSIBLE JEW: Identity and the reconstruction of Jewish American literary history, and THE CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF JEWISH AMERICAN LITERATURE.

Listen to the TLS PODCAST: Being Jewish Being American in which Toby Lichtig talks to Morris Dickstein about the ever-evolving relationship between Judaism and American literature.

Published: 13 April 2016 in The Times Literary Supplement

Ways of Being Jewish

In 1959 a long essay appeared in the TLS (anonymously, of course) that took notice of an important new turn in American writing. It had a vague, slightly patronizing title, “A Vocal Group: The Jewish part in American letters”, as if the headline writer were not quite sure what to make of it. The author, an unknown young critic named Theodore Solotaroff, had been suggested to the paper’s Editor, Alan Pryce-Jones, by a friend from the University of Chicago, Philip Roth. Roth had recently published a handful of audaciously gifted stories that made him a controversial figure in that vocal group. The article caught the eye of Norman Podhoretz, the newly appointed Editor of Commentary, and on the strength of it he hired its author as an assistant editor. Solotaroff would eventually make a major mark as an editor and writer; Roth would go on to become, well, Philip Roth.

The essay covered considerable ground, taking in not only important post-war Jewish novelists such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud but also the acute young critics who helped to clear a space for them, especially the literary intellectuals of the Partisan Review circle – Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv and Irving Howe. In his article Solotaroff returned to Fiedler’s account – in an essay published the year before in Midstream magazine – of the “breakthrough” exemplified by Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March (1953), notably his shift from small-scale, carefully crafted fictions to messier, more ambitious works, as well as his ability to write from inside the mind and heart of his feelingful protagonists (Herzog was not yet on the horizon). In writers like the hell-raising Fiedler and the newly emboldened Bellow, Solotaroff saw “a willingness to revolt, to take chances, to trust one’s own instincts and insights and standards, to risk a crushing failure and even ridicule”. By casting Augie as a descendant of Huck Finn, Bellow had overcome the provinciality of pre-war Jewish writers to work within the American grain, filtering national motifs through an urban Jewish sensibility. A singular shift had taken place: a literary landscape previously dominated by modernists such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, and by social novelists left over from the Depression years, among them John Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, had begun to make way for new outsider groups, especially Jews and blacks.

Today that Jewish literary renaissance is sometimes said to have run its course in the first two or three decades after the war when these writers did their best work. Their oft-quoted but premature eulogy was delivered by Howe in the introduction to his 1977 anthology of Jewish-American stories: “Insofar as it draws heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning-out of materials and memories,” he said. “There just isn’t enough left of that experience.” But that “insofar” left an opening through which dozens of younger writers have since clambered, among them a new wave of young immigrants from the former USSR. Instead of dying out once those tenement memories had been washed away by suburban assimilation, Jewish American writing has unexpectedly flourished in the last two decades. The New Diaspora, edited by Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt, and Mark Shechner, is only the latest and largest of a series of anthologies that make a strong claim for these recent writers, most of more unambiguously comfortable in their Jewishness than their predecessors. A few of those included are older (among them Curt Leviant, Edith Pearlman, Joseph Epstein), others have been publishing since the 1980s (such as Steve Stern, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Ehud Havazelet), while some are already well known though a good deal younger (including Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander, and Dara Horn) along with other writers just finding their footing.

They come with a far greater variety of backgrounds and subjects than one would have found in the postwar generation: children of Holocaust survivors as well as new immigrants, a writer from South Africa, with its significant Jewish minority, stories about Sephardic Jews, stories set in Israel, and far more stories by women. Much of the writing looks less personal, more densely cultural, than the work of their predecessors. Some of it feels like the product of creative writing programs or of advanced degrees in Jewish studies. Bellow and his contemporaries had grown up in Yiddish-speaking households, often very poor, a world in which family ties were dominant and sex was unmentionable. Formed by experiences so different from those of their parents, they had crossed a deep divide which left them insecure, emotionally hungry, fickle in love, and self-obsessed. Different forms of psychoanalysis – Freudian, Reichian – served as the background music of their lives, sometimes even the foreground, as in Portnoy’s Complaint. They looked to it for validation, for liberation, but also to fathom explosive inner tensions and contradictions. Once upon a time, say the editors, “the insistent ‘me, me, me’ had a force and implacability that made the obsessional self virtually a cornerstone of Jewish writing in America.” Now, they note, “gone are the anxious, phobic, dislocated Jewish protagonists for whom America is a landscape of frustrated desire. In their place, we find history.” This more expansive cultural reach can be traced in Roth himself in the contrast between early books like Portnoy and later ones like American Pastoral and The Plot against America, books caught up in the convulsions of several decades of American life, not simply personal demons.

Such a wider historical purview is less of an advantage to the writer than it might appear. Titanic self-absorption and obsession are woven into the fabric of American literature, going back to Whitman and Melville. Roth’s own Sabbath’s Theater is a late example. The work of the postwar writers was often deployed around a loosely autobiographical protagonist – a Herzog, a Portnoy, suffering in extremis, wallowing in self-pity, oscillating between accusation and anguish – that gave the novels an incandescent intensity rarely found among the recent writers. It connected them to modernist themes of anxiety, displacement, and alienation going back to Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Kafka’s stories. In its place the younger Jewish writers, feeling far more secure, bring a deeper knowledge of Judaism, especially the Orthodox Judaism in which some of them were raised. (The background of the earlier generation was more likely to be in secular Yiddish culture and working-class socialism.) The traumas of the new writers rarely pivot around sex and repression or the toll exacted by devouring, uncomprehending parents or lovers. Their lives have been more free and open, more privileged. Many of them have lived in Israel, know Hebrew, and find more drama in the Jewish past than in their own middle-class upbringing. They feel equally comfortable as Jews and Americans, and this loss of urgency or tension can leave their stories feeling more anecdotal. When drawn to extreme situations, they’re more likely to focus on the aftershocks of the Holocaust, taking stock of the damaged lives of survivors and the “second hand smoke” breathed in by their children. One powerful Holocaust story by an immigrant writer, Lara Vapnyar’s “There Are Jews in My House,” is about a woman who takes in a Jewish family under the Nazi occupation, at the risk of her life, only to report them, with a seemingly irrational compulsion, when their presence becomes a burden to her. Though the writer was born in the Soviet Union long after the war, it feels experienced, not researched.

One of the best stories here, “Minyan,” by another immigrant writer, David Bezmozgis, looks back at the human remnants of the world of his grandfathers. It turns on the difficulty of finding a quorum of ten men, a minyan, to keep an Orthodox service going, but it’s really about the bonds of unconventional love, the weight of the past, and the shipwreck of old age. Speaking of traditional prayers and rituals, he writes, “most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences. I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case the motivation was not tradition but history.” This is a story about survivors, alone and vulnerable, as observed, with rare empathy, by someone much younger; its nostalgia is hard-edged. Another deftly atmospheric offering is Ehud Havazelet’s “Six Days,” the first of a sequence of autobiographical stories in his book Like Never Before (1998). This is a family story in three generations. Havazelet, who died in November, grew up in an Orthodox family, his grandfather an eminent Brooklyn rabbi, his father a Yeshiva University professor. Here the dreamy father teaches in the Hebrew day school the son attends, and the story unfolds alternately from their points of view. “The impression he always got approaching his father’s classroom was of books as an ocean, his father adrift among them, possibly going down.” At home, when he comes to call his father to a meal, “his father would look up from his books every time like a man shocked from dreaming, alarmed, happy, smiling to see him.” It’s not hard to see why the son might become a writer, but also why he would rebel against the religion of his forbears.

Just as the postwar novelists were in step with a fractious group of remarkable critics, the current surge arrived in tandem with the expanding academic field of Jewish studies. This has now produced both a masterful work of synthesis, The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana With-Nesher, and a sweeping postmodern critique, The Impossible Jew, by Benjamin Schreier. It’s been more than four decades since cross-disciplinary area studies such as women’s studies and black studies began offering alternatives to traditional university departments. As offshoots of the politics of the 1960s and the ethnic pride movements of the early 70s, they provided some redress for past exclusions. Often they were politically motivated ways of meeting the demands of minorities and integrating them into the curriculum. Developing later, Jewish studies never fit this political pattern, since Jews had already gained acceptance as academic insiders, not rebellious outsiders. Jewish-oriented scholarship had attracted little general attention, but blatant discrimination, still rampant after the war, had long since ebbed. Moreover, no one loved the Western canon, from the Greeks to the modernists, more than the newly fledged Jews. For all its anti-Semitic threads and overtly Christian values, it was fundamentally a humanist tradition, secularized by the Enlightenment, that had helped effect their emancipation.

Both Wirth-Nesher and Schreier fret about the marginal position of Jewish studies within the academy, especially in English departments, but they respond to it differently, Wirth-Nesher by mapping out thirty-one long essays on every facet of the Jewish literary achievement, Schreier by indicting work in the field itself as backward and unadventurous: in his words, “undertheorized,” “nationalistic,” and “identitarian” in its methods, politics, and ideology. He admits jauntily that he’s “criticizing the people I want to convince,” writing “a polemic, full of vitriol and bile” but his goal is elusive if not misguided. Was there ever a chance that Jewish studies would be warmly welcomed into networks of American and minority studies currently imbued with the politics of anti-Zionism, boycott, and divestment? For them Jews are no longer the designated victims but the oppressors. Besides this political mismatch there’s a conflict over method. Most Jewish studies scholars continue to work in traditional ways, empirically, connecting texts and fictional characters with historical agents and social facts of the larger world. Up-to-date cultural studies theorists instead are text-oriented, politically driven critics of ideology. For them identity is socially or linguistically constructed. By this light the Jew cannot be defined ethnically or genetically. While it strikes a radical pose, this anti-essentialism, grounded in the postmodern critique of the unified subject, is today’s academic orthodoxy, at least in the humanities if not in Jewish studies. Lining up with the theorists, Schreier describes identity as inherently problematic, always in formation, and enlists writing and scholarship as vehicles for “de-stabilizing” and reconstructing it rather than representing that which is already known. He questions the historicism that connects the text to the world and resists reading literature for what it is “about,” a word he likes to put between scare quotes.

Like many fierce polemics, Schreier’s is directed at something of a straw man. After all, no literature worth its salt treats its characters as unproblematic representatives of an abstract, self-evident biological category or social type. Few literary works actually figure in The Impossible Jew and the handful brought forth tend to stack the deck. One of them is not literature at all but “Under Forty,” a 1944 symposium of younger intellectuals in the Contemporary Jewish Record, the forerunner of Commentary. Asked to identify specifically Jewish elements in their work, critics like Kazin and Trilling demurred, recoiling from the organized Jewish community, affirming their own Jewish roots but refusing to be labeled or hyphenated. Trilling, though acknowledging his Jewishness as “one of the shaping conditions of my temperament,” writes: “I do not think of myself as a ‘Jewish writer.’ I do not have it in mind to serve by my writing any Jewish purpose. I should resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either faults or virtues which he called Jewish.” Trilling admits that 1944 was an awkward moment, amid untold suffering, to distance oneself from one’s fellow Jews, but insists that “the great fact for American Jews is their exclusion from certain parts of the general life,” fostering “a willingness to be “provincial and parochial.” It is this “general life,” the appeal of the Western and American mainstream, that calls out to him.

Schreier ingeniously mobilizes such refusals to explore the gap between merely biological origins and more complex identities forged in the work of cultural production, the space, as he puts it, “between genealogy and vocation, between group and action, between text and archive.” But the goal for Trilling and his contemporaries is not a “de-stabilized,” postmodern identity. Shaking off the constraints of the ghetto and the social barriers still confronting Jews, they lay claim to the universal identity that Western culture, democratic freedoms, and (for a time) Marxist politics seemed to promise them. They were reaching for the full range of human possibility, not for self-realization as Jews. Nothing could be further from flaunting of ethnic or racial origins that came into fashion with multiculturalism. This minority stance provided the impetus for early area studies programs that have since been “theorized,” not universalized. It makes little sense to turn the New York intellectuals into postmodernists avant la lettre, simply because they found it limiting, ghettoizing, to see their work described as distinctly Jewish.

Schreier finds a better match for his argument in Philip Roth’s key novel The Counterlife. Roth’s typical identity-games, his refusal of any ethnic claims on him, whether from American Jews or from zealots in Israel, do suggest that identity is fluid and malleable, in formation, not merely given, especially in the ways that writers channel their own experience. Accused of being simply an autobiographical writer, little able to make anything up, he evolved his own form of postmodern invention, not as theory but in defense of his own creative process. Writing about Israel, he discovers that for him the diaspora is actually the promised land, the place where he can forge his own loyalties. But it’s hard to see how his late work could be any kind of model for Jewish studies, as Schreier argues it should. Schreier’s book is a narrow but bracing polemic, difficult, repetitive, clotted with jargon, yet burning with a fiery sense of purpose.

If Solotaroff’s essay was a moment of recognition for Jewish American writing, the Cambridge History marks a milestone in its institutionalization. In 2003 Wirth-Nesher and Michael Kramer edited a Cambridge Companion on the same subject but the new volume is conceived on a grander scale. Like the editors of The New Diaspora, she affirms the multiplicity of Jewish writing – and the fluidity of Jewish identity – by spreading her net as widely as possible. The book includes essays on historical periods, on major genres, on American writing in different languages – Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino – on Canadian and on Latin American Jewish writers. There are thematic essays on literature set in Israel, on New York as a location and subject, on the black-Jewish dialogue, on the treatment of the Holocaust, on translation, anthologies, intellectuals, popular culture, film, Jewish humor, and graphic novels. The book is as catholic in style as in its profusion of topics. Some chapters cover many works, though never in the numbing catalogue style that once made most literary histories seem such a snore – hopelessly superficial. Others build an argument on a handful of exemplary works. The editor has clearly given free rein to her contributors, holding them only to an intelligent standard and a welcome clarity of style. Only a reviewer would read the book straight through but in fact it reads particularly well. Even the overlaps make good sense. Some writers like Abraham Cahan, the founder of both Jewish journalism (in Yiddish) and American Jewish fiction (in English), or the poet and early Zionist Emma Lazarus, reappear in several chapters since their protean careers can be usefully grasped from different angles.

Such prismatic viewpoints mesh well with a more mobile and contingent sense of identity. Leaving aside the Orthodox establishment, today only stand-up comedians and die-hard racists cling to the usual stereotypes about Jewish identity. Repeated efforts to define who was a Jew and what constituted Jewish literature have now given way to an emphasis on hybridity and complexity. The range of the Cambridge History reflects a refusal to close down the subject and police its borders. In another era, the Jewish moguls set out to create Hollywood as an American industry by washing out nearly all trace of Jewishness, indeed of ethnic origins altogether. This was assimilation with a vengeance, a faux-American dream, classless and homogeneous. In Jonathan Freedman’s key essay on “Jews and Film” he shows how this lost its hold, how later Jews like Barbra Streisand or the Coen brothers came to “use the film industry to carve out new (and not unproblematic) itineraries for themselves in eras of ethnic revival, gender revolution, and postmodern hybrid identity formations challenging the very category ‘Jew’ itself.” The same shift can be mapped in literary history. Allen Guttmann’s pioneering work of 1971, The Jewish Writer in America, tried to tell the whole story as a single narrative, focused on individual authors and on the transition from immigration to assimilation. Wirth-Nesher’s book is premised on the sense that no master narrative can be convincing: to encompass a history marked by alternate paths and serious ruptures we must move (in Dan Miron’s terms) “from continuity to contiguity”.

The contributors to this History are attuned to such dissonance and discontinuity. Anita Norich’s probing essay on the “Poetics and Politics of Translation” questions of whether translations from the Yiddish somehow betray the language, not out of inaccuracy but by suggesting “that Yiddish has no audience or future. . . . Translation becomes, potentially, a form of obliteration.” Might translation be said to usher the language into oblivion? On the other hand, she says, it can also be seen as “an act of resistance to history,” a “defiant gesture aimed at preserving the traces of a culture that underwent dreadful transformations.” This may be especially true now that “translation has increasingly been understood as serving the original text and not the innocent reader. The reader is made to work harder, to perceive his or her own language as strange. Translators are now more likely to foreignize the target language rather than obscure the differences between source and target.” Like such translations, the new Cambridge History is all about difference. In her excellent piece about Jewish literary anthologies, Wendy I. Zierler resurrects the work of Leo Schwarz in the 1930s, books like The Jewish Caravan (1935) and A Golden Treasury of Jewish Literature (1937), works of serious ethnic pride that were once ubiquitous gifts for every bar-mitzvah boy. From there she traces a path to rigorously critical anthologies like Irving Howe’s and Eliezer Greenberg’s influential collections of Yiddish poetry and prose and the comprehensive Norton anthology of 2001, the first that laid out this literature as canonical work for classroom use.

The vigorous renewal of Jewish American writing today remains a genuine surprise. The very assimilation that was thought to have thinned out its material and toned down its voice instead gave impetus to new ways of being Jewish and of writing about it, yet it is also completely entwined with the main lines of American literature. Long ago a graduate student who had grown up Catholic told me how much she envied Jews. When she stopped believing, stopped taking communion, she said, she became an ex-Catholic, but secularism, even atheism, were simply alternative ways of being Jewish. This was partly since Jews, confusingly, were an ethnic or national as well as a religious group, but also because even then, in America at least, Judaism, free of any central authority, had a much greater tolerance for diversity. In subsequent decades, younger Jews, in line with the American belief in self-making, took up that freedom wholeheartedly. Religious rituals like the Passover seder, which once brooked little variation, are now tailored to every taste and spiritual need, from the most traditional to the most individual, from strictly Orthodox to feminist, gay, or vegan. The same can be said about the new writers. Finding their own way, they work out of an embarrassment of choice, not the press of necessity. Time will tell whether this proves to be a source of power.