November 8, 2001
Anxiety about Jewish Literature
Books reflect culture of the time.
As long as the Jewish people lives, it will generate a living culture, and as long as that culture values the written word, Jews will write books.
Individual genius notwithstanding, these books will reflect the Jewish culture of their time. The Talmud was argued and codified when the Jewish elites concentrated on interpreting Jewish law, and the New York intellectuals generated Commentary and Partisan Review when American Jewish elites began "arguing the world." In between, Jews of Spain took up poetry, and Jews of Poland created hagiography about their rebbes, each in creative response to their religious communities. The diarists of the ghettos during World War II raised the pen against the swastika in an appeal to history that was as absolute and passionate as their forefathers' appeals to God.
Our present anxiety about Jewish literature derives not from a slump in contemporary Jewish writing, but from the insufficiencies of American Jewish life. An ignorant Jewry inhibits even the knowledgeable Jewish writer.
Sholom Aleichem, at the turn of the 20th century, assumed that his main readers would be familiar with the Jewish prayers, though they might no longer be observing the commandments. Thus, when he wanted to create an "ordinary Jew," he imagined a dairyman so saturated with liturgy and Bible that he could improvise riffs on the psalms as he guided his horse over a country road.
But when Tova Mirvis writes in the first-person plural about "the ladies auxiliary" of an Orthodox synagogue, she feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted -- intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life -- saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block. Some Yiddish words used to draw a laugh in the general culture as reminders of the immigrant condition that American Jews had outgrown. Nowadays, every manifestation of Jewish observance is played for comedy.
Add indifference to the ignorance, and Jewishness becomes silly putty. Say what you will about the Jews who wrote in German, even Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus -- who accepted baptism as their passport to European civilization -- but they never lost their awe or dread of the religion they no longer practiced.
Judaism throbs in their works as pulsating conscience and threat. They registered the high cost of being a Jew. There is no such tension in authors such as E.L. Doctorow or Grace Paley, who treat Jewishness as whatever they wish it to be. Because of the benignity of American democracy, conversion to American liberalism requires no ceremony. Modern Jews don't have to acknowledge that they are switching allegiances as they substitute leftist pieties for the tough Jewish discipline: They can pretend that they have never defected at all. If American Jews judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times rather than judging The Times by the standards of Judaism, those writers who dream of being reviewed by The Times will reflect its values instead of God's.
Cowardice is the third and most serious hindrance to the quality of the Jewish book in America. I wonder whether there has ever been in the history of the Jewish people a generation as craven as the one in whose midst we live. The single Columbia University professor Edward Said -- who falsified his biography so that he could blame the Jews for losses inflicted on him by the Egyptians -- managed to cow thousands of his Jewish fellow academics into apologizing for the existence of the Jewish State. In the 53 years since the Arab countries launched against Israel the longest and most protean war in modern history, the Jews of America have been beating a steady retreat from defense of the Jewish homeland. Most American Jews don't even have the grit to speak out for what other Jews daily defend with their lives. No wonder Mark Helprin looks for heroes in World War I, and Michael Chabon in the comic book supermen of World War II. They would be hard put to find models of heroism among the Jewish elites of Los Angeles or New York.
The Jewish book reflects this moral collapse, and our best books are those that tell of it most honestly. Saul Bellow's "Bellarosa Connection" registers the consequence of forgetting and neglecting what is sacred and significant. Midge Decter wrote "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," and Philip Roth adapted it as the superb novel "American Pastoral." Cynthia Ozick is our toughest naysayer, refusing the placebos of a homogenized culture. Those books are the truest that expose the ignorance, the indifference and the cowardice, reminding us through negative, if not yet positive, representation of what the Jewish people could yet become.