November 15, 2001
Man of the Book
"People betray you; books never."
Steve Wasserman is the literary editor of the Los Angeles Times. A former Berkeley political activist, Wasserman became deputy editor of the Times' Op-Ed page in 1978, at the age of 26. He went on to become editorial director of Times Books, a Random House imprint in New York. In 1996, Wasserman returned to California to take over the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The Journal spoke with Wasserman before his speech this week at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles on the topic "People of the Book: Jewish Citizenship in the Republic of Letters."
Jewish Journal: What is your Jewish background?
Steve Wasserman: I have the dubious distinction of having never been bar mitzvahed, and come from a long line of atheists, who were nevertheless fiercely Jewish. We could say that they honored the notion of menschlekeit. My parents grew up speaking Yiddish in the Bronx. My grandfather worked in the garment trade in New York, but by night he wrote short stories in Yiddish and wrote a column for The Morning Freiheit. The same meticulousness and care that he put into a stitch, he lavished on a sentence. I'm very much his grandson. My parents moved to Berkeley in 1963; I was 11 years old. So I came of age in the '60s in Berkeley, and that, too, had a profound effect on me. While it's true I didn't grow up religious, I did grow up understanding who the Maccabees were.
JJ: What makes Jewish literature distinctive?
SW: If we speak only about American literature for a moment, rather than world literature, there are probably some aspects to the Jewish American experience which have some identifiable characteristics.
I would say that if we were to trace the Jewish novel and memoir over the course of the 20th century, broadly speaking, we could say that these are works that struggle with assimilation and its discontents; the struggle to question or preserve or relinquish the hold of the old world, in collision or collaboration with the new ways; the beckoning of a secular society whose political promise privileges no one group over the other. Or, to put it another way, to trace that very rapid trajectory that went from the Lower East Side to Levittown. Or Boyle Heights to Encino. That migration, which was not only a Jewish migration, nevertheless had a rather profound effect on a couple of generations of American Jews.
JJ: More broadly, what is required for a book to be a Jewish book?
SW: Well, was Daniel Bell's "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" a Jewish book? Was David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd" a Jewish book? I'm going to duck the question here by saying on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I lean to saying yes; on Tuesdays and Thursdays I lean to saying no, and on the weekends I'm tortured by doubts, and that's how I know I'm a Jewish intellectual.
I'm trying to have it both ways. I would say that there is, in a secular Jewish tradition -- which is in itself derived in however attenuated a form from a Talmudic tradition of questing -- that there is a questing spirit, which is animated by the profound conviction that has influenced several generations of Jewish writers and intellectuals, that we are a people on the margin. And however fully we may have felt ourselves to be embraced by the American project, and however prosperous we may feel ourselves to have become in the bountiful home that America has provided, we nonetheless carry about a kind of Jewish DNA of anxiety, of pathological neuroses. We wake up at night worried that somehow it will all be taken away from us, it will all vanish. People betray you; books, never.
JJ: How do you feel about the quality of Jewish literature recently?
SW: There's a crop of younger Jewish writers -- Leah Cohn, Allegra Goodman, or any number of writers, but there so far haven't emerged people who are of the stature of Philip Roth, who I think continues to be an astonishing and deeply productive writer. I would even go out on a limb and say, sentence by sentence Philip Roth is one of our very best, if not the very best American writer now working.
JJ: Do you want to clarify or explain that?
SW: No, I'll just say that, and if people disagree, all the better, we can have a fun conversation about it.
JJ: What is the obligation of readers in the "republic of letters"?
SW: A writer's work is only half done. It's completed with the reader; without readers, writers don't really exist.
I think one of the things that are important is to maintain a certain kind of tradition; reading is a part of that. It is itself inherent in the tradition. Though it's true that I was never bar mitzvahed, I have been to a few in my life. And the idea of reading the Torah -- the very act of pointing to words and enunciating them, as itself inherent in a rite of passage to adulthood -- seems to me to be very significant.