Asked to name a significant or best-selling Jewish memoir, chances are good that you’d come up with an author like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi or Victor Frankl. Books by all three show up in a list of Amazon’s best-selling Jewish memoirs. Not incidentally, all three write about the same subject — the Holocaust — which makes sense when you consider that, after the Torah, the most widely read Jewish book in the world is probably Anne Frank’s “Diary of A Young Girl.”
What is surprising about this list, other than reaffirming the obvious (and troubling) centrality of the Holocaust to contemporary Jewish identity, is the fact that these books were first published several decades ago. Since then, but especially over the past decade, there’s been an unprecedented explosion in the publication of memoirs.
Driven in equal parts by the enormous success in the 1990s of literary memoir (Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” and Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club”), as well as by a relentless confessional culture spurred on by reality TV and most especially the Internet, you can find every sort of memoir burning up best-seller lists and publisher catalogues alike.
In “Memoir,” a witty history of the genre, Ben Yagoda points out that in addition to misery (as in childhood) and addiction memoirs, there are rock star memoirs, canine memoirs, redemption, eccentric mother and outlaw memoirs, spiritual quest memoirs and what is dubbed “shtick lit” (writers undertaking “unusual projects with the express purpose of writing about it”). It speaks to the memoir’s enormous appeal and scope that literally dozens of these subgenres are less than a decade old.
But what of recent Jewish lives?
To be sure, Jews are writing memoirs, tons of them. Indeed, in one single area alone — the Shoah — the tidal wave of books sometimes threatens to obscure every other sort of story. Then, too, with their powerful imperative on setting down stories for future generations, the majority of Holocaust memoirs join projects such as Steven Spielberg’s archive of 50,000-plus taped interviews, better understood as testimony than memoir.
Instead, you might look back to the 1990s, when a number of literary writers (nearly all women) published some exquisite memoirs exploring the intersection of personal, cultural and political identities: as with Hettie Jones, Anne Roiphe and most especially Vivian Gornick. More recently, you could point to Shalom Auslander’s “Foreskin’s Lament,” a wry, pained look at the author’s fervently Orthodox upbringing, or coming-of-age-in-the-goyish-hinterland stories by writers like Rachel Shukert.
For a time, the trend in memoirs included ones that explored the author’s discovery (or rediscovery) of Jewish roots, such as Paul Cowan’s “An Orphan in History,” or Stephen Dubner’s “Turbulent Souls.” Some were best sellers — take James McBride’s “The Color of Water” — though, arguably, McBride’s book was part of a wave of memoirs that explored the complexities of multiracial identity.
Most recently, Jewish memoirists tend to be moving in a new direction, with popular books being ones that explore a lost community in some far-flung place — Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Chile and Shanghai have all been on the itinerary. Examples include Ariel Sabar’s “My Father’s Paradise,” about his family’s Jewish past in Kurdish Iraq, and Lucette Lagnado’s “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” centered around her father’s life in Cairo and the challenges he faced upon immigration to this country.
The very existence of so many types of Jewish memoirs makes sense. The twin impulses at work in any good memoir — the act of remembering your own past, as well as the act of making sense of your recollections — would seem to have particular resonance for Jews. So it’s especially striking the degree to which Jewish memoirs, especially more recent ones, have moved beyond explorations of the self, toward quests of discovery — lost places, lost people, lost beliefs.
You might even say the Jewish memoir is becoming the anti-memoir. Why this should be so says as much about Jewish views of memory (even for these largely non-religious writers) as it does about the memoir genre.
In his groundbreaking 1982 work, “Zakhor,” the historian Yosef Yerushalmi argued that for millennia, Jews had used their sacred texts and rituals as a means to forge their memories. This communal memory was not simply curiosity about the past but a commandment found right in Torah: “Remember!” God exhorts the Israelites (hence the title of Yerushalmi’s book). Take Passover, with the Haggadah demanding of each participant that we imagine ourselves as personally coming out of Egypt.
In this way, our collective memory became our record of the past. Memory was history. The rise of secularism in the 19th century, which brought with it real historians writing Jewish history, changed all of this. For Yerushalmi, this change cut off the Jewish people from a holy reverence for memory, for their past. History thus became the “faith of the fallen,” in his famous formulation.
Furthermore, with the rise of modern historiography, the story of the past (and our collective memory) exerted a much more limited power over Jews. Instead, post-Holocaust, Jews “await a new, metahistorical myth, for which the novel provides at least a temporary modern surrogate,” wrote Yerushalmi.
And not just the novel. Seen in this light, perhaps the new wave of discovery or quest memoirs, which often begin from a place of absence, of longing for a past that’s been severed, can be viewed as an attempt to close the gap between a “just the facts” history and a more spiritual need to achieve understanding, meaning, unity.
But if the Passover ritual is a prime example of the way Jewish memory is formed, it also points to a more unsettling aspect of memory: How exactly are we supposed to imagine ourselves in Egypt when, in reality, the events of Moses and the Israelites are not part of our lived experience? Or, in the case of contemporary memoirists, what does it mean to turn a genre that is supposed to be about one’s own experience into a quest for someone else’s?
This desire to inhabit a memory not physically our own is sometimes called “postmemory” or “postness” or “vicarious witnessing” in a burgeoning field known as Memory Studies. And while it most often applies to Holocaust art of the “second generation” — in large part because of the way works like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” explore the transfer of traumatic memory between generations — I think it’s worth considering the term more loosely.
Certainly, in the hands of a few, such “postmemory” might lead to fakery and usurpation — consider Benjamin Wilkomirski and a handful of other Holocaust fakes — but when considered alongside the works of Spiegelman, or Eva Hoffman, it suggests an opportunity for memoirists who seek to commune with a deeper self.
Here I’m thinking of Daniel Mendelsohn’s magisterial “The Lost.” On the one hand, Mendelsohn’s quest to uncover the fates of six relatives lost in the Holocaust, filled as it is with empathic and imaginative flights of inquiry, is very much a “postmemoir.” On the other, by committing himself so wholly to his investigation, Mendelsohn places himself at the center of the action, permitting what he learns to change and deepen him. In this way, the memories he creates are very much his own.
I mention this book because it shares with Proust and Nabokov — two of the greatest memoirists — a haunting ability to account for lost time. So perhaps the best “quest” stories are real memoirs after all: with an act of empathetic imagination, the quest to find another becomes a way to discover one’s deepest self.
Paul Zakrzewski is the editor of “Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge” (Perennial), and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe and New York Jewish Week. Currently, he runs scholarship and literary grant programs for the Foundation for Jewish Culture.