Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Fiction?
By Moment Staff
Let us start by asking: Is there such a creature as a Jewish writer? Jewish mothers gave birth to Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, but these idiosyncratic giants of mid-20th-century American fiction consistently suggested that they were not Jewish writers but rather Jews who wrote about American life in its many incarnations, sometimes focusing on Jewish characters and themes and motifs, sometimes not. Is Bellow’s fabulous seeker of a character Henderson the Rain King a Jew because his creator was born Jewish? Or is he a Gentile character invented by a Jewish-born writer who finds in him a universal quality of cosmic questing? We don’t have to look at Henderson’s matrilineal connections to find him fascinating and important, do we?
And Malamud? Is he a Brooklyn writer? And when he writes a comic masterpiece about identity in the contemporary American West—A New Life—does he thus become a Western writer, or does he remain a Jewish-American Brooklynite writing about the West? This is all sociological fine-tuning and interesting to consider. But does it get us to the heart of a writer’s work or merely keep our eyes on the surfaces? Malamud’s finest work suggests that all of his characters are Jewish, even the Gentiles. If all Gentiles are Jews, does that make all Gentile writers Jewish writers? Does this play out for black American writers? Are James Baldwin’s white characters in Giovanni’s Room and Another Country actually black characters under the skin?
The argument gets murky. Maybe Malamud is right. All men are Jews and all Gentiles are Jews, so all writers are Jewish writers. But I stand with Bellow’s extraordinary character Augie March. To paraphrase the first line of that grand novel in which Augie appears, I am an American, Perth Amboy born…
Yet if you look to the inventor of modern(ist) aesthetics in our language, she turns out to have been born Jewish. Gertrude Stein, that is. Her forceful surmise that all language is a plastic medium, to be shaped by the writer in the same way that a sculptor shapes materials, in the same way that a painter shapes light and form, deeply influenced Hemingway, for one, whose own influence on the future of American prose cannot be underestimated.
Hemingway a Jew?
Maybe logic doesn’t have an important place in a discussion such as this. But as you’ll read in these responses, history does, and so do geographical ties, family ties, soul and taste. I urge you to read the fascinating contributions to our symposium.
—Alan Cheuse, Fiction Editor
If there’s no such thing as Jewish fiction, then what do you call Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Nathan Englander, Howard Jacobson and the others in an almost endless list of circumcised guys for whom Jewish identity, experience and often a certain insouciant style of Jewish humor are central? I’m thinking of the particular kind of novel where if you removed all the Jewish themes, references and preoccupations, you’d be left with a short story or maybe in some cases just a title page.
And isn’t it arresting to consider that so few Jewish women novelists have picked over the same kind of material—the rich fruit of first- and second-generation Jewish immigrant life—in such an obsessive way? Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls and Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love are the closest things I can come up with without Googling, but neither writer seems as bound by or to a Jewish mise en scène as their male counterparts. Goodman’s next novel Intuition, for example, though informed by what I would recognize as a Jewish moral sensibility as it probes the ethical limits of scientific research and includes a pretty funny seder scene, is not about Jewish life. Other Jewish women writers go outside the contemporary, domestic Jewish experience to write novels of the Holocaust or of biblical times.
And speaking of biblical: I do not think it is merely tendentious to advance the Bible as the ne plus ultra of Jewish fiction; perhaps, indeed, it is the finest early example of historical fiction, where an author has taken intriguing elements of the historical record and used imaginative literary devices to bring the stories alive. Problem with that? May I refer you to Parshat Balak, where I will rest my case.
Geraldine Brooks is a journalist and author whose novel March won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She is also the author of The New York Times bestseller People of the Book.
Since the first great Jewish hero of the modern novel—Leopold Bloom—was conceived by a non-Jew, where does that leave the question of what is or isn’t Jewish fiction? One answer is that there’s no such thing; the other is that there’s no other sort. I veer toward the second answer myself. A rabbi whose name escapes me once said all Western literature was commentary on the Torah. I’ll buy that exaggeration, bearing in mind that exaggeration is both the breath of Jewish prayer and the bone and sinew of the novel when it remembers what it’s for.
Rabelais, the father of the novel, was steeped in Judeo-Christian cosmogony and argument, his work blasphemous in just the way Yahweh feared art would be. Hence the Fourth Commandment. Write the world anew and no matter how reverential your intentions, you are parodying God’s creation. But by setting up in competition with the Torah, not only does literature proclaim its Jewishness, it also learns the power of story—story as explanation, story as warning, story as revolt, story told for the sheer joy of telling it. Even Nietzsche acknowledged a narrative grandeur in the Old Testament that neither Greek nor Latin literature could rival. Without Job’s complaint there would not be Portnoy’s. Abraham contesting with God as to how many good men it will take to save Sodom—swapping numbers to avert annihilation—introduces the comedy of existentialism and dialectic into literature. God’s testing of Abraham teaches how to marshal terror to moral thought and confounds the expectation (still to be found in poor and therefore un-Jewish fiction) that goodness is sympathetic and life reasonable. Central to all these stories is dispute—a deep mistrust lodged in the very throat of belief—from which Jews derive that passion for disputatiousness that distinguishes their art.
To argue that comedy is the lifeblood of the novel and that its origins are divine is not contradictory. What animates Jewish comedy, in all its forms, is the conviction that life itself is anything but funny. Jews are funny because experience for them—both what they have lived through and what their literature teaches them—isn’t. In the same way, whether or not God exists for them, argument with the divine, or some entity that serves as the divine (a psychoanalyst, a wife, the state) is inescapable. No Torah, no Kafka, no novel.
Howard Jacobson is a journalist and author who lives in England. In 2010 he was awarded the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question.
When we define a national literature like German literature or English literature or French literature, we are basing our classification on language. Other people write in French and others write in English, and for those we add the ethnicity, but I would say that language is more important than ethnicity. Carver and Melville are both American writers, regardless of immense difference in their content or aesthetic—it is all American. Saul Bellow told me many times that first and foremost he was an American writer.
In terms of Jewish literature, it is also about language. Jewish languages, such as Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino, for me are the most important when defining Jewish literature. This may be provocative, but when an Arab writes in Hebrew, like Sayeed Kashua, he is participating in Jewish writing through the language. Kashua is part of Jewish literature because, by writing in Hebrew, he is utilizing the context of classical Jewish writing.
Can we define the writings of Jews in a European language as Jewish? Jews who write about Jewish matters or have Jewish protagonists can be classified as Jewish writing. However, when non-Jews write about the same Jewish themes, I would not consider the result Jewish literature. Jews writing about non-Jewish topics is not classified as Jewish—but it would be Jewish if it were written in a Jewish language. If a writer is Jewish but not writing on Jewish subjects, the work is not Jewish literature. With all our desire to include Kafka as a writer of Jewish literature, in my mind he is not, although in his world there are symbols and metaphors that are taken from the Jewish heritage. Of course all these definitions are narrow and stupid, as there are many writers who are on the borders or margins of these worlds. But you asked for a definition, and this is my answer.
Jewish literature has traditionally been a commentary on the Torah, an ongoing dialogue or argument with the idea of an authority or a heritage that expects something specific of us. It’s basically asking a question about the presence or absence of God, even in non-religious texts where this isn’t the primary concern. Literature is always concerned with who’s being judged and why; there’s a moral impetus for every story. So to me it’s not that interesting to talk about Jewish literature as a category where this book is in or that book is out. To me, what’s more interesting is the language the writers are using, and what they’re using the language for. Writers all draw on the archaeology of the language they are using, whether consciously or not.
It’s only in non-Jewish languages that we’re afraid of the Jewish label. In English, you’re writing for a broad audience, and for that reason many authors are concerned with the label. But for hundreds of years, Jewish authors wrote in Jewish languages and could access certain assumptions about what their audiences knew and what phrases meant. I try to write in English as if English were a Jewish language. When I write novels in which the language is drawn from ancient Jewish texts, in the course of the story the references are subtly introduced.
I think that Jews like to think there is such a thing as Jewish fiction. And perhaps some Jews are happy to be writing Jewish fiction. I think it is all the same thing; it seems to be like a big “Now what?” Fiction is all about how can we get through this bullshit to laughter or understanding, and that to me is more important than the religion of the characters or whether it takes place in Monsey or Africa.
The most scholarly answer to the question, “Is there such a thing as Jewish fiction?” is, “Yes, of course.” It’s in the Tanach, in the narrative portions of what Gentiles call “the Old Testament,” though religious Jews will balk at hearing the noun “fiction” refer to God’s word. More than half a century ago, Erich Auerbach pinpointed what distinguishes this kind of narrative by explaining that Bible stories—like all fiction that interests academics—demand to be interpreted. But these same academics, present company included, mean something entirely different when we teach novels and stories by Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick, Nathan Englander, or even by the novelist who most famously rejected the label “Jewish writer,” Saul Bellow. The quintessential Jewish fiction is Grace Paley’s deceptively slight story, “The Loudest Voice,” the tale of a would-be writer named Shirley Abramowitz (surely a child of Abraham, as Paley’s bilingual wordplay intimates).
What academia and the literary marketplace mean by “Jewish fiction” is subject to the identity politics that have proven irresistibly convenient to professors as well as to booksellers. Under these constraints Jewish fiction refers to works by writers whose narratives expressly call attention to their Jewish antecedents. This working definition often leads us to exclude works by writers such as Paul Auster and James Salter and sentences by some of the past century’s most influential Jewish novelists—Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer—who, unlike Esau, didn’t even bother to price their birthrights—leaving them to a kind of mischling limbo.
Jim Bloom is a professor of English and director of American Studies at Muhlenberg College. He is the author of Gravity Fails: The Comic Jewish Shaping of Modern America.
There’s the old point of view most popularly represented by Shalom Aleichem telling stories that bind together a historical concept of culture and humor and suffering through time. I think that never goes away, that there are always the old ways when the Jews lived in poverty and grace. And then you have the 20th-century American point of view, from people like Bernard Malamud and later, Philip Roth. Roth brings up an interesting notion, because while he maintains a sense of being Jewish, it is very much a cultural identity in a secular world. Even though this notion in itself might not be a rendition of assimilation, you can see through his work the powerful draw of the Other in transient Jewish life. Assimilation is almost like becoming the Other. And then it isn’t. For one reason, the Other culture is never completely accepting. There’s always a sense of the world which is so dominating—you can even go back to Shalom Aleichem for that—that there has to be a different point of view and a different way of thinking. And that different way of thinking makes Jewish literature world literature. As world literature it’s sort of indomitable. It’s also unique. So there’s a way of seeing the world as a traveler of sorts—not as a king, not as a vassal to the king, not as somebody who’s anchored in one place—either a geographical place or a cultural place.
I’m part of that vast traveling notion. I’m certainly an African-American; there’s no question about that. That’s how the country I was born in defines me. Whether I accept that or not really doesn’t matter; it’s like being in prison—the door is locked and you can’t get out. But at the same time, I have this extraordinary experience of being Jewish from my Eastern European relations, and that experience is like a second limb.
Some years ago, I heard Chinua Achebe tell a story that somewhere in Africa they have potters, and these potters make pots that you can use to cook over a flame with. These pots are usually used for inside cooking, but there’s also cooking that’s done outside. And for that outside cooking, the potters put the regular handle on the pot, but they also put one on the front because you have to be able to hold the pot steady. And that’s what we do—we put a second handle on reality. It’s true for Jews and for a lot of other people as well.
Walter Mosley is a novelist best known for his crime fiction, such as Devil in a Blue Dress. His pair of novellas, The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin, will be published this May.
Halfway through the semester in my Women in Literature course, we pause to ask whether only work written by women qualifies as women’s literature. We read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a rural Southern story in which the dead mother continues to control her family from her coffin. In other words, she drives the novel, she’s its main character, even speaks for one chapter. The category of Jewish fiction raises similar questions: Does it have to be by a Jewish writer? And does fiction written with a Jewish sensibility, though not necessarily peopled by Jewish characters, qualify? I can think of Jewish writers who were scorned because they didn’t write what Jewish readers considered Jewish enough, who were later embraced when they did.
In our century, Jewish culture is largely a Jewish concern. Asian, Indian and, more recently, Arab literatures have displaced mainstream interest in Jewish fiction. Returning to the question of category, then: It only really matters if it matters to you. In other words, this is an individual decision that you answer for yourself. Is it important to you that the story be a Jewish one, or that the writer is Jewish? These are extra- or sub-literary concerns that have nothing to do with the quality of the work, the originality of the voice, the lyricism of its prose, whether the novel engages with the world and does something new with form, the values by which fine literature is measured.
The early-20th-century noir stories, featuring the character Benya Krik and his coterie of thugs, smugglers and shakedown artists working the streets of Odessa, were written by Isaac Babel. (Was Babel murdered for being a Jew or a writer? Both; to Stalin he was a double anathema.) I love these stories for their inventiveness of criminal incident and for the poetic compression of Babel’s prose. Such a beautiful writer. The tales of Benya Krik were written by one of the greatest of Jewish writers about a Jewish gangster, and to my mind every one of their vivid dialogues, ethical conundrums, the uncanny humor throughout, and even the pervasive sense of what Chekhov called “abject melancholy,” seems verifiably born of Jewish experience, Jewish sensibility, Jewish suffering, Jewish soul—in other words, Babel’s is Jewish fiction.
As vigilant as I remain toward literary categorization, I am still quite aware that certain writers have passionately felt the need to offer a strict definition of Jewish fiction—or what makes a Jewish writer—even going so far as to list criteria that would qualify a story or novel as such. My concern is that such a manifesto might stifle a kind of Talmudic open-mindedness in the dialogue about the ways in which the ancient tradition of Jews writing books continues to evolve. I would be loath to embrace any line of thought that draws precariously near to suggesting that a Jewish writer feel obligated to tailor his or her narrative to antecedent plot lines, for instance, or feel that it is mandatory to write about iconic events on the Jewish historical calendar that have, through the ages, become justifiably indispensable in partly defining Jewish identity.
On the most personal level, I would have to say that Jewish fiction is fiction written by Jews, and that is it. You open a book and begin to read. And in reading, you should perhaps first and foremost exactingly judge the quality of the fiction—whether it has music, knowledge, originality and gravitas—and not subscribe to its importance or even its basic vitality based solely on the fact that the story it is telling illustrates cultural or theosophical provenance, but rather to what extent it dignifies those two things. To quote the Jewish-Russian poet Joseph Brodsky: “My only responsibility is to write well.”
It’s not like everybody who was circumcised necessarily writes Jewish fiction, but there are some elements that you can often find in Jewish writing but that are rare when it comes to Israeli writing. What I feel is very deeply Jewish is reflexiveness. Traditionally, the diaspora Jew always carries two identities: his national identity and his Jewish identity. This has allowed him always to be both an insider and an outsider; if he was American he could live his life as an American but could always use the other Jewish tier to look at his actions and the people around him from the outside. In that sense, I think the most “Jewish writer” active now in Israel is Sayeed Kashua, who is an Israeli Arab, because as an Israeli Arab he keeps this kind of two-tier thinking tradition, having both the Israeli national identity and this other identity of being an Arab.
A lot of Jewish writing has to do with searching for your own identity or naming your identity. The biggest influence on my writing is from diaspora American writers, and it’s really difficult to talk about the work of most of them without coming to deal with identity issues. There is something very elusive in the Jewish identity, especially if you’re a secular Jew. The question, “What does it mean to be Jewish if you are not a believer?” seems to be in the background of many Jewish writers. As somebody who’s very much obsessed with issues of identity, I feel in that sense much closer to the Jewish tradition than to the Israeli one.
A third element that I associate with Jewish thinking and writing is doubt. If you look at the heroes of the New Testament, the most dominant trait is submission, while with the Jewish biblical heroes the most dominant trait is always doubting. Our heroes have always argued with anybody and challenged views, even if the argument had to be carried out with God. It could be Abraham trying to build an argument to save Sodom and Gomorrah, or Jonah trying to escape his fate as a prophet. Our legacy is never to take anything for granted. If you just look at the way of Jewish studying, which is hevruta—in a couple—it’s basically studying through arguing about the text, not by memorizing it or automatically accepting an existing interpretation. I think that this kind of doubting is something that’s in the cultural Jewish DNA.
There is a stereotypical, almost clichéd vision of American Jewish fiction. It’s a Woody Allen neurotic, jittery, obsessive type of writing, usually from the male perspective. In American Jewish fiction, masculinity is always desired but called into question; the mother is always worshipped but just as frequently resented. Self-parody and armchair psychology go hand in hand, and the wistful longing to be anything but Jewish usually ends up finding comfort in age-old pieties about Jewishness. Outside of America, Jewish writers are different. Primo Levi spoke not of Jewish books but of Dante. The Triestine author Italo Svevo, a friend of James Joyce, was fundamentally Italian, but like Woody Allen, he was heavily interested in Freud and yet clearly was writing under the influence of modern French novelists. You would never know that his principal characters were Jewish. Marcel Proust is simply not a Jewish writer, even if he had a Jewish mother. I may not be writing in a Jewish-American tradition, but I do play with identity, and playing with identities and double allegiance is, in my view, the fundamentally Jewish obsession, because it raises the one question that inhabits all Jewish writing: the question not of masculinity or of neurosis, but of loyalty. If I am not loyal to my own people, whom will I be loyal to? If I am not honest with myself, whom am I honest with? Try answering this without jitters.
Irving Howe once said there could be no Jewish fiction in America because the cultural conditions that made American Jews distinctive were disappearing. Jews were becoming like everyone else. His prophecy was wrong. As each new generation of American Jewish writers comes to the fore, Jewish themes and questions change, but they emerge and are connected. Immigrant authors like Anzia Yezierska and Henry Roth were concerned with the breakdown of traditional life and how to become Americans in a new land. They knew firsthand what it meant to live in the old country, and their fiction attested to the strains of bridging both worlds. Next came Roth, Bellow, Malamud, whose struggles were to live in an America where Jews were doing well enough—but what did it mean to be part of a newly modern, well-off mainstream? Ozick and Paley offered fresh takes on living in an American diaspora as they probed Judaic and Yiddishkeit inheritances. Now you have a whole set of new questions focusing on memory, legacy and belonging (with special attention to gender and sexuality as well as religious issues).
Looking at the contemporary landscape, I conclude that Jewish fiction in America is alive and well—indeed, quite robust. Although Jews into the fourth generation are now fully embedded in American culture, politics and society, they have never been more diverse in terms of their own ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds. I’d predict that into the future, with Israel standing as a deeply divisive issue and with questions of Jewish belonging in a multicultural, intra-ethnic society remaining acute, American Jewish writers will continue to struggle with the legacy of who they are and how they relate to each other and the larger world. They will continue to question, and to offer us new, vibrant perspectives that grow out of their own divergent experiences.
Joyce Antler is professor of Jewish history and culture at Brandeis University and author of You Never Call! You Never Write!: A History of the Jewish Mother.
Not all fiction written by Jewish writers should be called Jewish fiction. I myself write novels, such as the one I just finished, in which there are no Jewish characters or people identified as such. The novels that I would consider Jewish fiction are those that have Jewish content—novels that deal with the lives of Jews as Jews, whether cultural or religious, and matters that pertain to that, or that have themes that pertain to the Jewish religion, such as the Golem novels or the dybbuk which deal with folklore. My own work, Gone to Soldiers, which deals with the Jewish resistance during World War II, is a Jewish novel.
Something that can be called Jewish fiction exists as a particular constellation, although the defining elements can be found in the work of other ethnic or regional writers—that is, all writers. A wary kvelling (a word William Faulkner would not employ), a suspicious celebration, a defensive assertiveness are the particulars that, for me, make the writers who deal with Jewish themes worth putting in a somewhat special category for readers. (Let’s leave out of consideration the chicken soup romantics.)
All writers of whatever origins must both deeply love and deeply fret about their lives. Jewish writers have a singular history to explore, rich in different ways from the singular history of others—a history and presence that inevitably alters and requires new stories as time moves forward, and then new stories again. Jewish writers seem to know, even if they don’t know that they know, that the only heaven is on earth. This goes for hell, too. Whether or not they are pious, it’s an understanding inherited from Jewish belief. It offers a special desperation and comedy, and it requires its special acuteness concerning the pangs of love and foreknowledge of mortality.
Okay, “Jewish fiction” doesn’t exist in a privileged ghetto. An argument might be made that all good writers are Jewish, even without the particulars of religion, prejudice, history and the need to present our presence. And not-good Jewish writers, what are they? They are in the generous category of not-good along with all the other not-goods.
That’s always a huge question, and I think I have finally figured out the answer or at least a less complicated than the usual nine-hour answer that sounds semi-defensive but is just passionate about the whole idea. It’s a complicated thing; it’s not genre fiction, it’s not “other” in any way. The idea that someone else would read it and that it would be incomprehensible or inaccessible or even less valid is the problem.
It’s the way fiction works. I grew up in this Jewish world; I knew only Jews. I live in New York. When I didn’t live in New York, I lived in Jerusalem. So of course when I look out of my eyes at my own world, this is what emerges. I love the Russians, I love British authors, I love dead authors. I’m not dead. How do I somehow connect with so many dead authors? Well, it’s that their books work across time and space, and that for me is the qualifying factor. The Jewish part is central to the stories, and I expect and hope that for Jewish readers there will be these special things they recognize.
The idea behind the question is in the element of otherness and people taking ownership of what the idea is to be American. I am 100 percent American and 100 percent an American author. I also happen to be a Jewish author, a male author; I turned 42 this week, so last week I was a 41-year-old author—meaning these things can be fluid. If I convert next week and tell you I’m Bahai, then I’m a Bahai author. Everyone’s world is specific to their experience, and I think the question they are asking really is how has living in the world influenced and sparked your creativity. But when you are Jewish it ends up being, “You ate more bagels than me, how did that make you a writer?” The reality is you could replace Jewish with East Coast or New York—my friends in New York who aren’t Jewish are way more “Jewish” than a lot of people who identify as Jews in other places that I’ve been. Because to me it is deeply cultural. It is as much eating dim sum as matzoh brei.
I define Jewish fiction as fiction about Jewish people or ideas. I don’t define Jewish fiction by the author. Therefore, one of my favorite works of Jewish fiction is George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Because I don’t define Jewish fiction by the author, I think that Jewish authors are free to write any kind of fiction they like. In other words, I don’t think that fiction by a Jewish author is necessarily Jewish. Artists should feel free to work with the material that inspires them. I’ve been inspired by the American Jewish community in all of its diversity. I’ve also been inspired by rare-book dealers, young entrepreneurs, scientists working in laboratories, environmental activists. Like many Jewish writers, I read widely, observe, question, experiment and enjoy more than one muse.
The first answer that comes to mind is, “Ever heard of the Bible?” but that’s just facetious. There are two kinds of fiction written by people who find themselves oppressed or outside of the mainstream culture. One has to do with an empathic attempt to reach out, imaginatively, to other groups that are oppressed. In Judaism we have the injunction, “Remember, you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” I can think of a couple of examples: Abel Meeropol writing Strange Fruit, Osip Mandelshtam writing about the oppression of peasants, Alexander Galich writing about women in labor camps. The second kind of Jewish fiction is more analytical and related to survival. It has to do with trying to understand whoever’s oppressing us, and it ranges from all the different stories that Jewish men in Russia told in order to get out of being conscripted into the army to the Communist Manifesto. Jews in America today aren’t an oppressed group, and instead of reaching out to oppressed people, writers are now reaching back to times when Jews were suffering more. This may speak to a crisis in Jewish American fiction, or maybe it just represents a different direction in which we’re figuring out how to tell stories now that we’re in a position of relative equality.
Nadia Kalman’s debut novel is The Cosmopolitans, which won Moment’s emerging writer award in 2010 and was a finalist for the Rohr Prize in Jewish literature.
Interviews by Sarah Breger, Alan Cheuse, Nadine Epstein, Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil and Sala Levin
Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases.