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Jewish Journal

An armchair journey to promised lands

By Erika Dreifus

December 17, 2010 | 12:39 pm

In many ways, “Promised Lands: New Jewish American Fiction on Longing and Belonging” (Brandeis University Press/University Press of New England, $26.00), edited by Derek Rubin, had me at hello. I gravitate toward writing that self-describes as “Jewish American fiction”; I have long admired the work of many of the volume’s contributors, some of whom I’ve been lucky to meet in person or via online communities; and, not incidentally, I brought my review copy along to read on a recent voyage to the Promised Land that we call Israel.

Why the “Promised Lands” theme for these commissioned stories? Because, as editor Rubin explains in the preface (which is separate from the introduction, for reasons that remain unclear to me), the topic “is both narrow enough to lend the book coherence and yet wide enough to guarantee a rich and diverse collection of stories. As a concept, it is quintessentially Jewish and American and therefore enabled the contributing authors to direct their gaze toward either Israel or America, or to negotiate imaginatively between the two. Furthermore, as perhaps the key metaphor of longing in Jewish experience, the Promised Land has a specific referent and it can be applied more generally to any place at which one directs one’s hopes and longing….Finally, given its multivalence, the Promised Land can be perceived either in concrete or in abstract terms, either as a physical space or as a metaphorical space of great promise.”

True enough. True, too, that the stories here span an array of settings in time and place, and would fall at various points on any Promised-Land-in-concrete-or-abstract-terms continuum. Moreover—and this is important, especially considering all that I’m going to say below—any anthology featuring this contributor roster (the first three bylines in the table of contents belong to Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, and Steve Stern) will contain some excellent work and will be well worth reading. Go buy it.

That said, I’m left with some stubborn questions. Is this book indeed intended, as the back cover states, to showcase work by a “rapidly growing crop of highly talented young Jewish American fiction writers”? What, then, are we to make of the fact that of the 23 contributors, 12 were born before Richard Nixon was elected president? (Let’s hold off on any ageist accusations: I was born during Nixon’s first year in office, and no one’s calling me a “young writer” these days, either.) Actually, this is a multigenerational collection, with two sets of parent-offspring contributors: Jonathan Wilson/Adam Wilson, and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein/Yael Goldstein Love. “Promised Lands” also features the married duo of Elisa Albert and Edward Schwarzchild, both of whom have contributed excellent stories.)

Which perhaps edges us close to something that is also uncomfortable to broach, and it’s an issue that isn’t limited to “Promised Lands”: How do anthologists create their books, and is there something to be said for casting a wider net? It does happen that calls for manuscripts are widely circulated and open to all. Other times, virtually all the content—or at least, most of the contributor list—has been predetermined before the book has a publisher.

Is it significant that 14 of the 23 writers included in “Promised Lands” also contributed to the earlier (nonfiction) anthology of Jewish-Americans writers that Rubin edited? Or that Rubin, who was born in South Africa, raised in Israel and currently teaches in the Netherlands, credits one of these double contributors for “bringing to my attention some very fine writers who…I was able to include in ‘Promised Lands’”? Is it a coincidence that two of the contributors whose work was new to me—the only contributors who do not yet appear to have published books of their own—are recent graduates of the same writing program that Rubin’s contributor-source chairs? And what of Rubin’s expressed gratitude to someone else whose contributions appear in both anthologies, for “shar[ing] the contents of his voluminous address book when I wanted to contact writers he knew personally.” Is anything lost when an editor relies heavily and repeatedly on the same safe bets, even if they may be strong ones?

Again, I’ll anticipate a charge: sour grapes. Sure, I’d have been happy to be asked to write a story for “Promised Lands.” But I’m thinking more of already-published novelists and short-story writers who also write skillfully and importantly on Jewish-American topics—and whose bylines appear in neither of Rubin’s anthologies. I’m thinking of the writer (no book yet) whose short story I read today in an online Jewish literary magazine and an image from that story that won’t leave me. I’m thinking of recent graduates whose names other writing program directors might have suggested. I can’t help wondering if Rubin even considered commissioning work from any of them, and what their Promised Lands might have added to this armchair itinerary.

Erika Dreifus is the author of a short-story collection, “Quiet Americans,” which will be published in January 2011. www.erikadreifus.com.

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