What Do Jewish-American Writers Need (and I Mean Really Need)?


Answer: They need great readers, in the way Walt Whitman meant when he pointed out that “to have great poets, there must be great audiences.” Granted, Whitman was talking about poetry, and more important, about himself, but his idea applies to our Chosen scribblers as well.

Now, I can hear some of you whispering that non-Jewish authors also need intelligent, sensitive readers. True enough, but I would argue that serious Jewish-American fiction writers need them more because the audience that made the Jewish-American renaissance possible—and that were informed readers of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and the early Philip Roth—has largely disappeared. The late Irving Howe would chalk this up to the fact that Jewish-American fiction has one subject: the journey from immigration adjustment to mainstream acceptance. And once this subject had been fully explored, Howe argued, serious Jewish-American writers would have no more to say, or to write.

Dozens of writers have tried to prove Howe wrong, and some have succeeded—I think of Steve Stern’s The Angel of Forgetfulness or Dara Horn’s The World to Come—though dozens more suggest that finding a new source of authentically Jewish material has not been easy. A handful of novels by sons and daughters of Holocaust survivors were promising, although it's hard to see how they can sustain themselves, especially since publishers are increasingly reluctant to publish anything about the Holocaust. Their attitude is not quite “been there, done that,” but, rather, one that gives a close read of the bottom line.

I knew that serious Jewish-American writers were in trouble several decades ago when I began giving my classes in “Jewish-American Fiction” a chance to vote on their favorite text in a survey course that included a catholic variety of Jewish authors, from Abraham Cahan to Pearl Abraham. The novel that won, hands down, every semester, every year, was Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, a perfectly good novel for junior high school readers but not especially challenging, I thought, for college students. Why, I kept wondering, didn’t they choose Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep or Saul Bellow’s Herzog? After mulling this question over for a couple of years, I decided (a) that estimations about art should never be put to a democratic vote; and (b) that I had to discontinue my end-of-semester questionnaire.

Curiously, I experienced something of the same disappointment when, as one of the judges nominating books for a prestigious Koret prize, I watched as Jonathan Safran Foer mowed down competition that included Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, and Steve Stern. A friend of mine tried to console me that pointing out that Foer’s post-modernism appealed to contemporary readers as Bellow and Ozick’s old-fashioned modernism did not. Perhaps, but I think the explanation is simpler: the bulk of those who sent in email votes had read Everything is Illuminated but not Ravelstein.

Ruminating about Jewish-American novelists I am reminded of the story that a colleague of Alfred Kazin liked to tell. Judah Stampfer was a scholar of the English renaissance and something of a “renaissance man” himself. A published poet and novelist, he gave Kazin a typescript of a just-completed novel and awaited for any impressions or suggestions Kazin might care to make. He returned the manuscript with a terse note scrawled on the cover page: “Too Jewish.” That was decades ago but the problem of novels about spiritual hunger and protagonists returning to (or discovering for the first time) a life of religious observance has continued. Most suffer from the same condition that T. S. Eliot once argued doomed the bulk of religious poetry: such poets, he pointed out, describe feelings they would like to have but, alas, do not. Moreover, such poets are conscious where they ought to be unconscious, and unconscious where they need to be conscious.

A few years ago I noticed what seemed to me very close to a trend—Jewish-American novelists writing about Israel and the way it turned their protagonists back to a life of Jewish observance. I was thinking about novels such as as Risa Miller’s Welcome to Heavenly Heights (2003), Ruhama King’s Seven Blessings (2003), and Naama Goldstein’s The Place Will Comfort You (2004). Their respective protagonists become religiously observant only after they spend considerable time in Israel. Moreover—and why am I not surprised?—any narrative tensions they may have experienced before their respective “returns” simply disappears in the ritual and prayer that now surrounds them.

Two new books about Jewish-Americans and Israel radically change this dynamic, and in the process, reveal a new configuration for the old formula of Jewish protagonists caught between two worlds and uncomfortable with each In both Margot Singer’s The Pale of Settlement (2008) and Danit Brown’s Ask for a Convertible (2008), the “two worlds” are now America and Israel.

What the Israeli-born characters discover is that America has “stuff”—big screen TVs, enormous SUVs, and supersized fast food—but little soul; what the American-born discover is that Israel is noisy and not at all the bucolic paradise they had imagined. Both writers are clear-eyed and both eschew the sentimentality that spoils novels too dependent on lushly describing Jerusalem sunsets and the exoticism of the ultra-Orthodox.

I do not mean to suggest that Brown and Singer are the only bright spots to be found. Senior Jewish-American novelists such as Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick continue to write, and a slightly younger Steve Stern (now in his early 60’s) doesn’t give a fig when editors suggest ways that his forthcoming novel might sell more copies. If he is destined to be our most underappreciated Jewish-American fictionist, so be it. But he can take some small measure of comfort knowing that if the grumpy Irving Howe were still alive, he would have loved The Angel of Forgetfulness a great deal and North of God ever more.

Even better news attaches to much younger writers who are two to three books away from excellence: Keith Gessen (All the Sad Young Literary Men), Adam Mansbach (The End of the Jews), and Ehud Havazelet (Bearing the Body). Taken together, they all have talent and ambition. What they need are readers, and that depends, among other things, on a more enlightened cultural climate. Saul Bellow once wrote about the “distractions” that plague fiction writers; he did not mention the distractions that afflict readers: a shoddy cultural moment, the failures of high school and college educations, the banality of television, and the information overload of the Internet.

What, if anything, can be done? Literary prizes designed to encourage young Jewish-American writers have probably helped, as have the various Jewish book clubs that attach themselves to synagogues and Jewish community centers. But taste is akin to a gossamer wing; you can see it flitter by but you cannot catch it, much less reduce it to a formula. My hunch—and I say this with little pleasure—is that The Chosen would prevail in any literary poll I can imagine, just as Leon Uris’s Exodus remains the Jewish-American novel about Israel.

As a conservative guess, I figure it will take another 500 years to produce a literary giant such as Saul Bellow, and it will take at least that long to create a readership that recognizes, and enjoys, novels with complexity and texture. I used to take heart when I saw the lines, in the early afternoon, when I wasn't teaching, at my town’s Barnes & Noble. How bad could things be? I asked myself. It’s always a good thing when people in large numbers buy books, right? But then I noticed the rather lousy volumes that people in the line were clutching, and my heart sank. Later, I remembered the old law about bad money driving out good and I realized how hard a time high standards have. That doesn’t keep me from hoping that things on the literary front will improve or from opening a new Jewish-American novel with great expectations.