Posted by Rebecca Spence
For decades, Philip Roth, who turned eighty a couple months back, has famously bristled at the term “Jewish writer.” In the early 1960s, he told an audience in Israel: “I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew.”
Fine. Okay. But let’s be real: it’s a bit ridiculous.
Roth – who happens to be my literary hero – is perhaps the 20th century’s most prolific Jewish writer. In the same way that Woody Allen can’t seem to make a movie without his Jewish mother or his insatiable lust for shiksas underpinning the entire narrative, Roth can’t seem to write a sentence without his Jewishness factoring in. The Jewish-American story is as inseparable from Roth’s novels as the African-American story is from James Baldwin’s. Roth writes what he knows, and what he knows is Yiddishkeit.
But whether or not Roth – or even his predecessors Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud – were comfortable with their ethnic identities factoring into their literary identities, is not the question. The real question is: Can the Jewish writer survive in the twenty-first century?
Could another Roth, or another Bellow, or even another Nathan Englander or Nicole Krauss, come into being in a culture where the value of the written word has fallen as precipitously as the price of gold? Or could someone like my great-great grandfather, the Yiddish writer B. Kovner, whose “Yente Telebende” column in the Jewish Daily Forward spawned the term yente, still manage to support a family on his writer’s salary?
Writing in The New Yorker on the occasion of Roth’s 80th birthday, Adam Gopnik summed it up best: “Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer.”
So what then happens to our beloved Jewish writers? Had Roth been starting out in 2009, rather than 1959, when he first published Goodbye, Columbus to critical acclaim – and before he’d angered the rabbis with that subsequent tale of pleasuring himself with a piece of liver known as Portnoy’s Complaint – would he have made it?
I would love to say, Yes. Yes, Roth’s talent would have risen to the fore regardless of the time period in which he was writing, and yes, while his books may not have sold the millions of copies they have to date, he would still have managed to eke out a living.
But I can’t be sure.
And here is where the role of community comes in. I’d propose that in order to keep the Jewish writerly tradition alive, in order to ensure that the next generation of Roths and Ozicks and Englanders can tell the Jewish story in all of its hysterical and heartbreaking iterations, that we, as a people – the people of the book, after all – must come together to support our prose writers.
In fact, I recently launched my own communal experiment of sorts to find out if what I propose is possible. Last month I started a crowd-sourced fundraiser through USA Projects, an LA-based arts non-profit, to see if I can’t drum up the financial backing to help me finish my Israel-themed novel, The Color of Brass.
In two weeks, I’ll know the answer. I’m hoping that what I find out is this: that there is enough philanthropic capital at the Jewish communal level to support our cultural capital at the individual level. That the future of the Jewish writer isn’t at stake; that thanks to the value our tradition places on culture, and literature in particular, Philip Roth would have made it in the twenty-first century hands down.
If you’d like to learn more about my novel-in-progress, please click here.
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May 17, 2013 | 11:06 am
Posted by Rebecca Spence
When I hear about the latest events in Israel – the air strikes on weapons facilities in Syria, the flare-ups over women donning prayer shawls at the Western Wall – I can’t help but wonder: What would my Israeli grandmother think?
After all, she spent her young life fighting for the dream of an independent Jewish state.
She was born in Jerusalem, lived in Jaffa for a time, and as a teenager, she joined the Jerusalem Biblical and Folk Ballet, the first ostensibly Zionist dance company. By the time she met my American grandfather and became pregnant with my mother in 1947, the Arab armies had besieged Jerusalem. While my grandfather fought with the Haganah, my grandmother subsisted on food rations.
She was no stranger to hunger. Having grown up in a poor Sephardic family, she didn’t always have dinner on the table. Her father – born in Hebron to a family that could trace its roots in the ancient city back to 1492, when his ancestors first arrived from Spain – had died upon release from a British prison, leaving her mother to feed seven hungry mouths. But my grandmother survived, and at the age of 19, she gave birth to my mother. It was 1948, the same year that the State of Israel was born.
In so many ways, the story of Israel is literally the story of my family. That is why I studied the Arab-Israel conflict as a college student, spent a semester at Tel Aviv University, and went on to become a Jewish journalist, writing for the Forward, the JTA, and yes, the Jewish Journal. It is also why I have spent the last four years and counting writing a novel inspired by my family’s stories.
While I could write a non-fiction account, or even produce a documentary about my family history in Israel – after all, there are few American or Israeli Jews who can trace their lineage in the Land of Israel back to 1492 – I have chosen fiction as my medium because it provides for the most imagination and possibility.
In real life, while my Israeli grandmother had a fascinating and in some ways, heroic, life, she also shunned my mother from birth. I grew up hearing horror stories of her abuse and neglect, and as a result, I had little contact with her, and little contact with the Jewish State. It wasn’t until my mother took me to Israel when I was 16, and I met my Sephardic family, the Turgemans, for the first time, that the flood gates opened. Not only had I found a home and a family, I felt as if I had found myself.
That feeling stayed with me for years, and like so many young American Jews, I thought about making aliyah. In fact, when I was in Israel last spring for book research, my great-aunt Ilana turned to me on the way to Ben Gurion airport, and asked, “So when are you moving here?”
I couldn’t give her an answer, because as Israeli as I feel on the inside, I feel that much more American. But by writing about Israel, by telling its stories – both good and bad – and by bringing to light the story of a family whose life is so inextricably intertwined with that of the State of Israel, I am living there every day, if not in person, then in spirit.
I am also providing a space for my mother and grandmother, who are estranged to this day, to come in contact with one another as characters in the fictional world. That is the beauty of fiction; it allows for new beginnings and new endings. It allows for me to pick up the threads of the past and spin a new tale – one far more forgiving and compassionate than the one I was told.
In order to finish my novel, I have launched a fundraiser through USA Projects. Donations are tax-deductible and will allow me to complete my historical research and finish the manuscript in the next six months. If you’d like to learn more about the book and the fundraiser, please click here.