Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion: A JPS Guide

  • Review
By – November 10, 2011

Map­ping out a field is an ambi­tious, risky, and demand­ing endeav­or. It is also a valu­able achieve­ment when it is car­ried out with the self-aware­ness, thor­ough­ness, and verve that char­ac­ter­ize Josh Lambert’s guide to Amer­i­can Jew­ish fic­tion. For each of the 125 entries arranged chrono­log­i­cal­ly from 1867, Lam­bert pro­vides just enough infor­ma­tion about the plot, theme, style, his­to­ry of pub­li­ca­tion, and sug­gest­ed fur­ther read­ings to be both infor­ma­tive and evoca­tive about each of the works. The author strikes a bal­ance between canon­i­cal writ­ers, such as Bel­low, Ozick, and Roth, and less­er known writ­ers who deserve atten­tion, among them Del­more Schwartz, Jo Sinclar, Johan­na Kaplan, and Ray­mond Fed­er­man. By employ­ing theme rather than biog­ra­phy as his guid­ing prin­ci­ple, he includes sig­nif­i­cant works by non-Jew­ish authors such as Gish Jen, Hen­ry Har­land, and John Updike. The vol­ume also includes use­ful appen­dices of untrans­lat­ed Yid­dish and Hebrew nov­els, antholo­gies, and bib­li­o­graph­ic sources. With­out the pre­tense of com­pre­hen­sive­ness, this guide is a plea­sure to read, the result of Lambert’s wry and breezy style. Appen­dices, index.

The Cho­sen Books: What Makes a Book Jewish?

By Josh Lambert

Since you’re read­ing Jew­ish Book World, this is prob­a­bly a ques­tion you’ve asked your­self, at least briefly, at one point or anoth­er. If you’re a librar­i­an or book­store own­er, edi­tor or review­er, lit­er­ary schol­ar, or book group leader, you may even have decid­ed which books count as Jew­ish and which books don’t for a par­tic­u­lar project, issue, dis­play, or col­lec­tion. I had to think about this all the time while writ­ing my book, Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion: A JPS Guide, which explores the field through short reviews of 125 clas­sic nov­els and short sto­ry col­lec­tions pub­lished between 1867 and 2007. What books would I include, and which ones would I leave out? 

Many of these deci­sions are easy enough to make. Every­one agrees that a book writ­ten in a Jew­ish lan­guage like Hebrew, Yid­dish, or Ladi­no, can be count­ed as a Jew­ish book. Even when they have noth­ing to do with Jews or Judaism, it would be hard to deny that such books main­tain some rela­tion to Jew­ish writ­ers and read­ers. Sure, the Yid­dish trans­la­tion of the New Tes­ta­ment was pro­duced to help Chris­tians con­vert Jews, but the book remains Jew­ish in a sense because of its lan­guage and its intend­ed audi­ence. 

Since my focus was on Amer­i­can fic­tion, I could imme­di­ate­ly and enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly add to my list many nov­els writ­ten in Yid­dish, includ­ing works by David Pin­s­ki, I. J. Singer, I. B. Singer, and Chaim Grade; my pub­lish­ers request­ed that I steer clear of any books that have not been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, which meant pick­ing Isaac Raboy’s Der yid­dish­er kauboy (Jew­ish Cow­boy, 1942), rather than his ear­li­er and some­what sim­i­lar nov­el Herr Gold­en­barg (1913), and leav­ing out books like David Ignatov’s In keslgrub (1918) that have not yet been trans­lat­ed. Sad­ly, this require­ment meant exclud­ing many nov­els and short sto­ry col­lec­tions writ­ten in Hebrew about life in Amer­i­ca by writ­ers includ­ing Simon Halkin, Reuben Wal­len­rod, Razia Ben-Guri­on, and Maya Arad (though I men­tion sev­er­al of these in an appen­dix for those able to read them in the orig­i­nal). But I nev­er had to think too deeply about whether these Yid­dish and Hebrew books should be con­sid­ered Jew­ish. 

Even when deal­ing with non-Jew­ish lan­guages— in the case of my own book, par­tic­u­lar­ly with nov­els writ­ten in Eng­lish — some deci­sions pose no great dif­fi­cul­ty. Who would deny that Mil­ton Steinberg’s As a Dri­ven Leaf (1939), which dra­ma­tizes a set of sto­ries from the Tal­mud, is a Jew­ish book sim­ply because Stein­berg, a con­gre­ga­tion­al rab­bi, chose to write it in Eng­lish? The real com­pli­ca­tions begin with writ­ers who were not rab­bis and with sto­ries drawn not from cen­tral and tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish texts, like the Tal­mud, but from mod­ern expe­ri­ence in all of its ambi­gu­i­ty and dynamism. 

A few bor­der­line cas­es will help to demon­strate the prob­lems that tend to crop up. Nathanael West (né Wein­stein) wrote extra­or­di­nar­i­ly dark and res­o­nant satires of Amer­i­can cul­ture in which Jews do not fig­ure as pri­ma­ry char­ac­ters, and while J. D. Salinger was a rabbi’s grand­son, his sto­ries of alien­at­ed young genius­es and dys­func­tion­al urban fam­i­lies, includ­ing Catch­er in the Rye (1951), bare­ly men­tion Jew­ish­ness. An even more res­o­nant case is that of the famed Czech writer Franz Kaf­ka, whose diaries and let­ters reveal an intense fas­ci­na­tion with and atten­tion to Jew­ish life and his­to­ry, but who nev­er men­tions the word Jew” or Jew­ish” in a sin­gle one of his nov­els or sto­ries. 

To jus­ti­fy includ­ing works by these writ­ers in the cat­e­go­ry of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, crit­ics often argue that their books sub­tly sym­bol­ize some­thing fun­da­men­tal about the mod­ern Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, even if they don’t explic­it­ly men­tion Jews. Saul Bel­low, for exam­ple, char­ac­ter­ized a Jew­ish book as one in which laugh­ter and trem­bling” are curi­ous­ly mixed,” and by this stan­dard, West and Kaf­ka would be shoo-ins, while Salinger would have a fair shot. Cyn­thia Ozick, mean­while, has called for a litur­gi­cal lit­er­a­ture,” and depend­ing on how one defines that pur­pose­ly vague term, West, Salinger, and Kaf­ka could all be in, or out. Ruth Wisse, pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard, pro­pos­es that in Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture the authors or char­ac­ters know and let the read­er know that they are Jews,” under which cri­te­ri­on West, Salinger, and Kaf­ka would all be sum­mar­i­ly exclud­ed; nev­er­the­less, Wisse insists on includ­ing Kaf­ka in her Mod­ern Jew­ish Canon (2000), as she per­ceives the per­ma­nent anx­i­ety of a Jew writ­ing in Ger­man” in The Tri­al (1925). Not­ing the long his­to­ry of such dis­agree­ments and con­fu­sions, Hana Wirth-Nesh­er remarks, in an anthol­o­gy of essays on this top­ic, titled What Is Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture? (1994), that there is no con­sen­sus nor is it like­ly that there will ever be one.” 

Why not say, then, as Michael Kramer, a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty, does, that Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture is sim­ply lit­er­a­ture writ­ten by Jews”? Kramer means this lit­er­al­ly and absolute­ly: he includes any books writ­ten by any Jew regard­less of any rela­tion­ship to Judaism or yid­dishkayt or any of the many ver­sions of Jew­ish­ness that have strut­ted across the stage of mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry.” For Kramer, if it turns out that a Jew­ish per­son wrote Pow­er­Point for Dum­mies, well, then that’s a Jew­ish book. 

For many read­ers, Kramer’s approach will seem need­less­ly broad — does he real­ly imag­ine that the Jew­ish sec­tion at Barnes and Noble could include every book writ­ten by a Jew­ish author? And who exact­ly is sup­posed to check to see whether the author of The Bacon Cook­book had a bat mitz­vah? — but even this inclu­sive approach is also not near­ly broad enough. Plen­ty of books writ­ten by proud and unam­bigu­ous­ly iden­ti­fied non-Jews sure­ly deserve men­tion in any dis­cus­sion of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture, from George Eliot’s influ­en­tial pro­to-Zion­ist nov­el Daniel Deron­da (1876) to the most recent win­ner of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for fic­tion, Peter Manseau’s Songs for the Butch­ers Daugh­ter (2008). Manseau’s book appeared too late for me to include it in Amer­i­can Jew­ish Fic­tion, but I did include works by non-Jew­ish authors includ­ing Hen­ry Har­land, Edward King, and John Updike. I par­tic­u­lar­ly rec­om­mend Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land (1996), which fea­tures a young Chi­nese-Amer­i­can con­vert to Judaism. 

It seems to me, final­ly, that the way to answer the ques­tion about what makes a book Jew­ish is to decide why you think any­one should read such books. Are these books meant to bring Jews clos­er to God? To explain Jew­ish life to non-Jews? To edu­cate, to enter­tain, to per­plex, to enlight­en? Per­son­al­ly, I hope Jew­ish books can do all of these things, and that helped me to make my choic­es. After con­sult­ing with experts, lit­er­ary schol­ars, and many vora­cious read­ers, I even­tu­al­ly chose nov­els about reli­gious and sec­u­lar Jews, about the Holo­caust and Israel, about con­ver­sion and inter­mar­riage, about Jews who are proud to be Jew­ish and about Jews who aren’t exact­ly sure what being Jew­ish means. And, for the record, I includ­ed nov­els by West and Kaf­ka, but not Salinger. I imag­ine that not every­one will agree with these choic­es. In fact, I hope they won’t. That’s why I cre­at­ed a com­pan­ion web­site, www​.Amer​i​can​Jew​ish​Fic​tion​.com, where read­ers can let me know what books and authors I neglect­ed and help me to build a more com­plete list. 

We may nev­er be able to agree, as Wirth- Nesh­er sug­gests, on what exact­ly makes a book Jew­ish. But by stak­ing out posi­tions and argu­ing about them, we’ll devel­op rich­er and more com­plex ideas about our lit­er­a­ture, and even, per­haps, about what Jew­ish” means.

Hana Wirth-Nesh­er is Samuel L. and Per­ry Haber Chair on the Study of the Jew­ish Expe­ri­ence in the Unit­ed States at Tel Aviv Uni­ver­si­ty, where she is also pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can stud­ies, and direc­tor of the Gol­dre­ich Insti­tute for Yid­dish Lan­guage, Lit­er­a­ture, and Cul­ture. She is the author of City Codes: Read­ing the Mod­ern Urban Nov­el and most recent­ly Call It Eng­lish: the Lan­guages of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture (Prince­ton). She has also pub­lished arti­cles on Amer­i­can, Jew­ish, and Yid­dish literature.

Discussion Questions