June 21, 2001
Literary Jewish Girls
Philip Roth, move over. You too, Saul Bellow. It's time to make room for a newer generation of American Jewish writers, many of whom are young women who have not even hit 30. Their debut novels on Jewish themes are earning large advances, garnering stellar reviews and reaching best-seller lists. As the literary world looks to crown fresh young talent, readers are reaping the benefits.
Take, for example, Nomi Eve's novel, "The Family Orchard" (Knopf), which chronicles the six-generation saga of a Jewish family in Eastern Europe, Israel and America. The manuscript, which took seven years to write, earned the now-32-year-old writer a six-figure advance and a hefty first printing of 75,000.
Or take 28-year-old Myla Goldberg's coming-of-age novel about an 11-year-old spelling genius coached by her father, a mystical-minded Reconstructionist cantor: "Bee Season" (Doubleday).
And don't miss Anita Diamant's reinvented version of the biblical story of Dinah, "The Red Tent, " (Picador), which has sold 350,000 copies. It has been near the top of Book Sense's best-seller list (based on sales from independent bookstores across America) for more than 10 months, and has been translated into 14 languages.
"Jewish women are writing music and novels and theology, sculpting and painting and doing calligraphy," Diamant says. "There's a flowering of the arts across the board, and we are a part of that cultural ferment. We are the most educated generation of Jewish women in history. We are the readers and the writers."
It's not news that Jewish women are writing fiction. They have been doing so for decades. Erica Jong, Anne Roiphe, Sue Kaufman and others have won solid places in the annals of contemporary fiction. What is different, says novelist Susan Isaacs, is: "In the past, Jewish women have been represented by angry Jewish women or angry Jewish men. That was a very limited picture. Writers today are much more at home, both in America and in their religious identity, or even their lack thereof. They are taking their work beyond chicken-soup sentimentality or 'I have kinky hair, and I'm angry.'"
Isaacs, who is at work on her ninth novel (a sequel to "Compromising Positions"), says Judaism, as it reverberates through today's fiction, has "more to do with theological and philosophical questions than ethnicity. That's part of the movement back to religion and study."
Daisy Maryles, executive editor at Publishers Weekly, the news magazine of publishing and bookselling, agrees: "Writers are a lot less self-conscious of their Judaism," she says. "They are using their own experiences to illustrate their relationship to the world at large and to their tradition. They offer innovative portrayals of communities and lifestyles."
So, we meet Batsheva, the colorful, free-spirited convert to Judaism who turns the insular world of Orthodox Memphis upside down in Tova Mirvis' "The Ladies Auxiliary" (Ballantine). And we meet Miranda Woke, Molly Jong-Fast's "Normal Girl" (Villard), who describes herself as "a crazy cocaine addict with a hankering for heroin ... just a nice Jewish girl from the Upper East Side with Prada shoes." (Yes, Molly is the 21-year-old daughter of Erica Jong and Howard Fast.) We meet mothers and daughters, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, whose multigenerational relationships create the texture of plot and narrative.
The new crop of writers continues to offer an insider's peek into the worlds they know intimately but that are foreign to most readers. That stage has been set in the past five years by writers like Pearl Abraham, who examined the Chassidic world of women in "The Romance Reader" (Riverhead); Allegra Goodman, who explored the Orthodox bungalow colonies of the Catskills in "Kaaterskill Falls" (Dell), and Rebecca Goldstein, who traced three generations of women from shtetl to Princeton professor in "Mazel" (Viking Penguin). Goldstein and Goodman have completed new novels; Abraham is working on her third.
The interest in Jewish themes may be part
of the wave of multiculturalism -- from African American to Asian American -- that has captured public imagination, says Gail Hochman, an agent with Brandt and Brandt Literary Agents. But, says Hochman, who represents several Jewish women authors, "Nobody promotes someone just because they are Jewish. They have to have real talent."
Three themes predominate in contemporary Jewish fiction, says Hochman: the legacy of the Holocaust, survival in Israel or living in the secular world as a practicing Jew. One of her clients, Cheryl Sucher, spent 18 years crafting "The Rescue of Memory" (Berkley). The child of Holocaust survivors, Sucher was "haunted by the family heritage entrusted to her: Thou Shalt Not Forget." Katie Singer's first novel, "The Wholeness of a Broken Heart" (Riverhead), is the product of a nine-year odyssey. Singer left her job as writer-in-residence at South Boston High School and headed to the West to write, using her own family stories as inspiration. Her cast of strong female characters probe the complexities of mother-daughter relationships over four generations.
"Many women are focusing on their heritage and their link to the past," says Cindy Spiegel, co-editorial director at Riverhead Books, who publishes both Singer and Abraham. "Through our stories we know ourselves. There's an oral, Old-World quality to their writing. They are letting previous generations speak for themselves." But their stories transcend the conventional. They are about transgressions and superstitions, laced with a mystical element. "They address questions of meaning and faith," says Spiegel. "It's a way to talk about all the old questions."
Laura Mathews, senior editor at Putnam, calls it "curious but coincidental" that she has just published two books with Jewish subthemes: "Louisa," by Simone Zelitch, a reinterpretation of the story of Ruth and Naomi, and "Saving Elijah," by Fran Dorf, based on the devastating experience of losing her son in 1994. Though these books have strong appeal for Jewish readers, Mathews emphasizes that she falls in love with the stories first -- then thinks about their marketability.
While most of today's writers are of Ashkenazic heritage, a few Sephardic women are transplanting their roots into novelistic soil. For example, Ruth Knafo Setton, a Moroccan-born writer, explores the legend of Suleika, a 17-year-old Jewish martyr, in "The Road to Fez," a novel of love and self-discovery (Counterpoint).
The 200-plus Jewish book fairs held during November and December capitalize on the demand for Jewish writers. Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, which created the Jewish Book Fair network to promote the reading of Jewish books, says the book fair industry can make or break a book, generating sales of $3 million during the two-month period.
But, notes Hessel, the audience for these books reaches beyond the Jewish market. "Society has become more open. What Jewish women have to say is of interest to the American public." Isaacs agrees. "If we're willing to read novels about medieval monks a la 'The Name of the Rose' or Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series, about a little Anglican lady in a small town in England, then why shouldn't we read about American Jews?"