November 8, 2007
On the tricky question of ‘who is a Jew[ish writer]?’
(Page 2 - Previous Page)There are writers who, usually through life circumstance, find that their material chooses them. Today, many writers who are Jewish in different but strongly identified ways must find their subject: Jewish communities in other countries and times such as Englander, Steve Stern and Chabon; gay themes as with Lev Raphael and Tony Kushner; Hollywood done to the nines by Michael Tolkin and Bruce Wagner; changing rabbinic life as with Jonathan Rosen; the Persian community real and imagined by Gina Nahai; the serio-comic flight from Orthodoxy such as Shalom Auslander; meticulous, magical fantasies as with Mark Helprin. We have writers who concoct novels about Israel, women, art, music, the Holocaust, a vast pageant of possible themes. There are microtrends, but no single overarching linkage.
One is permitted to ask of even inevitable developments whether they are salutary for the artist or the reader. Once the generation of immigrants, the initial shock of the Shoah and the founding of Israel ceased to be the dominant experience of American Jews, all bets were off. It was inevitable that the dominant experiences of the 20th century would lose their immediacy, but in doing so we have lost our common historical thread. If there remains something tying all these disparate talents together, it is the modern project of refashioning the fragments so that they can yield a story that makes sense.
Modernity is no longer a portrait but a collage. All of the bits shine and can be assembled in endless ways. Permutations are limited by the gifts of the artist, but not imposed by the nature of the material. Extravagance of imagination and verbal inventiveness remain the Jewish mode, but in service of a thousand themes.
So we return, with the inevitability of quarrels in a shul, to the question posed at the outset: what makes a Jewish writer? I promised to avoid it, but there is a Wittgensteinian way out (and by the way, was he a Jewish philosopher?) A Jewish writer is someone whom we choose to call a "Jewish" writer. Would we rather have a clear category or fecundity and individuality of expression? Uniformity of commitment or divergence? The dilemma of modern Jewish writing is the same as that which bedevils modern Judaism: Where one can be everything, how likely is it that in the end, bristling with talent and showered with opportunity, one will come to nothing?
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.
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