Promised Lands, Times Literary Supplement Review by Morris Dickstein

by Morris Dickstein
Times Literary Supplement
April 13, 2016
Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt and Mark Shechner, editors
978 0 8143 4055 4
Benjamin Schreier
978 1 4798 7584 7
Hana Wirth-Nesher, editor
978 1 107 04820 1

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 during the first two or three decades after the war when these writers did their best work. Its ­oft-quoted but premature eulogy was delivered by Howe in the introduction to his anthology ­Jewish-American Stories (1977): “Insofar as it draws heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning-out of materials and memories”. “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 over the past 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 them more unambiguously comfortable in their Jewishness than were their predecessors. A few of those included are older (among them Curt Leviant, Edith Pearlman and Joseph Epstein), others (such as Steve Stern, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Ehud Havazelet) have been publishing since the 1980s, 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 here than one would have found in the post-war generation. Included are the 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 an abundance of 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 courses or advanced degrees in Jewish Studies. Bellow and his contemporaries grew 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 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 to their lives, sometimes even the foreground one, as in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). They looked to psychoanalysis for validation, for liberation, but also to fathom explosive inner tensions and contradictions. Once upon a time, say the editors of this volume, “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 Portnoyand later ones such as American Pastoral (1997) and The Plot against America (2004) – books caught up not simply in personal demons but in the convulsions of several decades of American life.

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 Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Roth’s own Sabbath’s Theater (1995) is a late example. The work of the post-war 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 more recent writers. It connected them to modernist themes of anxiety, displacement and alienation going back to Dostoevsky’sNotes 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 on sex and repression, or the toll exacted by overbearing, 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 are 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 of the more powerful Holocaust stories in The New Diaspora, “There Are Jews in My House” by the immigrant writer Lara Vapnyar, 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, this tale feels experienced, not researched.

“Minyan”, by another immigrant writer, David Bezmozgis, who was born in Latvia, looks back at the human remnants of the world of two generations past. 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, Bezmozgis 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”, a family tale in three generations and the first of a sequence of autobiographical stories from his book Like Never Before (1998). Havazelet, who died in November 2015, 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 that the son attends, and the story unfolds alternately from their different 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 the boy calls him for 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 is not hard to see why the son might become a writer, but also why he would rebel against the religion of his forebears.

Just as the post-war 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 masterly work of synthesis, The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher, and a sweeping postmodern critique, The Impossible Jew by Benjamin Schreier. It has been more than four decades since cross-disciplinary area studies such as Women’s Studies and Black Studies began to offer 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 quite fitted into 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 Jewish authors. For all its anti-Semitic threads and overtly Christian values, this was fundamentally a humanist tradition, secularized by the Enlightenment, that had helped to effect Jewish ­emancipation.

Both Wirth-Nesher and Schreier fret about the marginal position of Jewish Studies in the academy, especially in English departments, but they respond to it differently, Wirth-Nesher by compiling thirty-one long essays on every facet of American 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. Schreier admits jauntily that he is “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 the various networks of American and minority studies currently imbued with the politics of anti-Zionism, boycott and divestment? For the usual minority studies theorists Jews are no longer the designated victims but the oppressors. Besides this political mismatch there is a conflict over method. Most Jewish Studies scholars continue to work in traditional ways, empirically, connecting texts and fictional characters with historical agents and the social realities of the wider world. Up-to-date Cultural Studies theorists instead tend to be 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. In line 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.

Schreier’s book is a narrow but bracing polemic, difficult, repetitive, clotted with jargon, yet burning with a fiery sense of purpose. Like many fierce polemics, however, it 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 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 symposium from 1944 of younger intellectuals appearing in the Contemporary Jewish Record, the forerunner ofCommentary. 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 labelled or hyphenated. Trilling, though acknowledging his Jewishness as “one of the shaping conditions of my temperament”, wrote: “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”. He admitted that 1944 was an awkward moment, amid untold suffering, to distance oneself from one’s fellow Jews, but insisted 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 was this “general life”, the appeal of the Western and American mainstream, that called 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 was not a “de-stabilized”, postmodern identity. Shaking off the constraints of the ghetto and the social barriers still confronting Jews, they instead laid claim to the universal identity that Western culture, democratic freedoms and (for a time) Marxist politics seemed to promise. They were reaching for the full range of human possibility, not for self-realization as Jews; nothing could be further from the flaunting of ethnic or racial origins that came into fashion with multi­culturalism. It makes little sense to turn the New York intellectuals into postmodernists avant la lettre, simply because they found it limiting or ghettoizing to see their work described as distinctly Jewish.

Schreier finds a better match for his argument in Philip Roth’s key novelThe Counterlife (1986). 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 perform variations on 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 defence of his own creative process, conjuring up alternative plots as well as an alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Writing about Israel, Roth discovered that for him the diaspora was actually the promised land, the place where he could 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 be.

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 to Jewish American Literature, but the new volume is conceived on a grander scale. Like the editors of The New Diaspora, Wirth-Nesher 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 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 humour, 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 bore – 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 such as Abraham Cahan, a pioneer 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 accord 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 bleaching out nearly all trace of its Jewishness, indeed of ethnic origins altogether. This was assimilation with a vengeance, a faux-American dream, classless and homogeneous. As Jonathan Freedman shows here in his essay “Jews and Film”, this later lost its hold when actors and directors such as Barbra Streisand and 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 based on the understanding that no master narrative can ever be convincing: to encompass a history marked by alternative paths and serious ruptures we must move (in Dan Miron’s terms) “from continuity to contiguity”.

The contributors to the History are attuned to such dissonance and discontinuity. Anita Norich’s probing essay on the “Poetics and Politics of Translation” questions 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”. On the other hand, 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 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 has instead given impetus to new ways of being Jewish and of writing about it, yet today’s Jewish writing is also completely entwined with the main lines of American ­literature. Long ago a graduate student who had grown up a 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 because 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 burden of necessity. Time will tell whether this proves to be a source of power.