November 8, 2007
On the tricky question of ‘who is a Jew[ish writer]?’
I do not know who qualifies as a Jewish writer.
If you wish to count the non-Jewish John Updike because he created a Jewish protagonist (Henry Bech) or if you include genetically Jewish Muriel Spark (who converted to Catholicism and wouldn't know a box of tefillin or a bag of knishes if it bit her on her now late, lamented nose) it is OK with me.
You may choose to call William Styron a Jewish writer for penning "Sophie's Choice," and not Harold Pinter, because his Judaism consists in reviling anything Jewish.
There are some clear cases -- I. B. Singer in, David Foster Wallace out -- but otherwise, I'm going to leave canonization to the anthologists.
Having avoided writing an essay that has been written too many times, I am free to create my own categories. I hope I can convince you that if Judaism and literature are close to your heart, you should engage in the same exercise.
First category, hosannas for a new and wonderful group: Jewishly literate women. They are very different in feel, but writers like Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Allegra Goodman, Nicole Krauss, Ruchama King, Rebecca Goldstein and many others share a knowledge of Judaism without an apparent resentment of it. They are not uncritical, but they are also not beleaguered. This is a relatively new combination in most American Jewish literature, excepting the wondrous Cynthia Ozick. These women are not pushing against the tradition because they do not live in a society where the tradition is pushing against them. Their prose can be coolly witty (Goodman), mystically charged (Horn), elegantly cerebral (Goldstein), and all the while their stories weave in and out of Jewish contexts. I note the parallel, more finicky and double-edged development in England of whom Naomi Alderman and Charlotte Mendelson are the outstanding examples.
Not only are the books unangry (why is that not a word?) but the Judaism in them points beyond itself. Myla Goldberg's popular "Bee Season" used kabbalah to suggest something that would not be easily earned without the propulsion of tradition. Here is a phenomenon that the Chaim Potok generation never knew -- Judaism as liberation. Danny Saunders, the haunted Chasidic progeny of "The Chosen," had to see a sculpture to know rapture. Today his sister would get an aliyah.
There is a certain liberation in writing as a Jewish woman because the tradition is not so imposing. When you read a modern male counterpart, gesturing rudely behind his back are Saul Bellow, the Roths (Philip and Henry), Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and on and on. Augie March, Bellow's wide-eyed lover of the close and far, explorer of his fresh-faced country, is a marvelous creation, but you cannot recreate him. March's eagle's feathers have long since molted and turned into Art Speigelman's "Maus." Too much pain, too much historical experience and too little societal friction against the artist. The novelist with an immigrant voice, like Gary Shteyngart, can also use the excess of wonderment that Bellow shares with earlier Jewish writers like Stanley Elkin and Mordecai Richler and, for that matter, S.J. Perelman. But that is the prose of exhalation, hard to create if your breathing was never confined in the first place.
A lot of writing has turned intensely personal and memoiristic because with such an open country, the only unfair chafing that the artist receives is at the hands of parents when young. Tales of abuse have little larger message. What constrains the Jew in America? During the Cold War, Philip Roth quipped that in the West everything goes and nothing matters, while in the East nothing goes and everything matters. Perhaps the intense solipsism of much of Roth's writing is explicable not as a character defect, or not that alone, but also as a reaction to a world in which he cannot struggle against the bonds that would limit him as an artist.
A result of this damnable freedom, some major Jewish writers, as Sylvia Barack Fishman has pointed out, choose other settings to create the story. Michael Chabon creates a fictional Alaska where constraints still apply. Nathan Englander goes to Argentina, where threats are still real. Jonathan Safran Foer goes to an Eastern Europe where the ghosts still reign. For many writers, perhaps for all, the Houdini principle applies: In order for one's art to reach maximum potency, it has to begin in chains.
So modern Jewish literature is afflicted by category confusion, following the pattern of Ring Lardner's horseman, who jumped on his steed and rode off in all directions. Much of it draws on the power of the past; Nicole Krauss' "History of Love" is a palmipsest, where the modern love story is charged with the electricity of what came before. Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" uses the immigrant experience and so does Ozick's "Heir to the Glimmering World." The writing of Thane Rosenbaum and Melvin Bukiet reprises Holocaust themes, often to powerful effect. But who brings news of today? Is there news to bring? Sept. 11 looms increasingly as a modern catastrophe with ever unfolding consequences, and the turn to Sept. 11 novels is an indication of how powerful the need for a scaffolding of historical consequence to build an enduring novel.
When Allegra Goodman writes about scientific fraud in "Intuition" we witness a talented novelist writing a competent novel about material she has mastered but which is not her own. (To see an instructive contrast, read C.P. Snow's "The Affair" on the same question a generation before. Snow was a scientist, but paradoxically, although there is less science in the novel, the psychology is more subtle and acute.) When Goodman writes "Kaaterskill Falls" there is something at stake and the result is incrementally more moving. Goodman's passion for things Jewish lights up her characters and enlivens the story. The question is: Where and when does the Jewish novelist still have something at stake?
Long ago, the doyenne of American Jewish letters, Ozick, issued a call for a "new Yiddish." There is still a playful, buoyant and exuberant strain in many Jewish writers that recalls a sort of highbrow Borsht Belt. Safran Foer's Alex would sneer at a sentence by Raymond Carver or Anne Beattie if it tiptoed up to him all well-behaved and full of WASP-like angst; the result would be like having Mork visit Walton's Mountain. Still, style is not enough. And with the prosperity of American Jews, the post-idealized age of Israel and the ironic flippancy that rides sidesaddle on any statement of commitment, what is an American Jewish writer supposed to love? 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.