In 1977 Irving Howe predicted the ebbing of the flood tide of great postwar Jewish-American novelists. He wrote, “There just isn’t enough left of [the immigrant] experience” to provide impetus for another generation to follow in their wake. And a splendid wake it was, churning behind Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, but also including such unfairly neglected names as Edward Wallant (“The Pawnbroker”) and Hugh Nissenson (“The Tree of Life”), as well as the more commercial but not unworthy Herman Wouk.
In a recent issue of London’s Times Literary Supplement, Morris Dickstein reflected on this apparent shift in the cultural waters while reviewing three new books on and of Jewish-American fiction. As he duly noted in the essay, “Ways of Being Jewish,” the Bellow-Malamud-Roth cohort also included excellent literary critics/scholars like Howe, Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv and Lionel Trilling. (Regrettably, he neglected to mention female Jewish novelists, led by Cynthia Ozick.)
The upshot of Dickstein’s excellent rumination on the generational change was that there has been an unexpected but entirely welcome infusion of fresh streams from the newest waves of Jewish immigrants, primarily from the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, including David Bezmozgis (who is actually Jewish-Canadian), Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar. Needless to say, that was a development that Howe couldn’t have foreseen.
Nor would he have predicted what I like to call the “internal migration” of Orthodox Jewish-Americans like Shalom Auslander, Nathan Englander, Tova Mirvis and Pearl Abraham. The ranks of Jewish-American novelists have always included refugees from the self-enclosed communities of chasidim and mitnagdim, but what once was a trickle has become a freshet. (If you factor in all the “leaving-the-fold” memoirs of the new millennium, it’s nearly a trout stream.)
The point is that there are new Jewish immigrants still arriving with stories to tell, even if they are only coming from as far away as a bus ride from Monsey or a subway from Borough Park.
After reading Dickstein’s TLS essay, I found myself wondering what had happened to my own contemporaries, not to mention the next couple of generations, writers who had grown up in the relative comfort of the suburbs and who were fortunate to miss out on the quotas and other manifestations of anti-Semitism in the mainstream culture.
One answer came a couple of weeks later in the pages of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of the May 1 New York Times, in the extensive list of summer movie releases. Among the films of obvious artistic appeal and, more dubiously, among the super-hero movies, the totally unnecessary remakes, the unasked-for sequels and much other instantly disposable cinematic detritus, were five or six American independents with Jewish themes and subjects.
The surprise wasn’t that there are a number of Jewish filmmakers. If you factor in Yiddish cinema and then Israeli cinema, there have always been Jewish filmmakers who make movies about Jews.
But mostly not here. Until pretty recently, Jewish-American artists with statements to make about Jewish life became novelists (and stand-up comics, playwrights, painters and arts critics).
Of course, nonfiction filmmakers tend to be the exception to that statement. To pick a handful whose careers more or less coincide with my tenure at The Jewish Week, you need look no farther than Erik Greenberg Anjou, Alan Berliner, Joseph Dorman, Roberta Grossman and Oren Rudavsky. I suspect that none of that variegated group saw themselves as incipient Malamuds or Ozicks, or, for that matter, as novelists at all.
But what about, say, feature filmmaker Noah Baumbach? It’s not as hard to imagine him laboring on the next Great Jewish-American Novel. Baumbach’s recent diptych of films starring Ben Stiller — “Greenberg” and “While We’re Young” — could have begun life as novelistic saunters among the terminally hip. Heck, Baumbach’s father Jonathan is a distinguished purveyor of experimental prose fiction; it might run in the family.
Compare his films to those of the poster boy for Jewish-American big-bang-for-the-buck cinema, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s most personal films, I suspect, are works like “E.T.” that reflect his childhood in the suburbs where, if he grew up anything like me, one’s Jewish identity might have been a given but was infrequently a source of drama. Jean-Luc Godard may have characterized his cohort as “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola,” but Spielberg could more accurately be called a “son of Roy Rogers and the bar mitzvah circuit.” Frankly, he’s not word-drunk enough to be a novelist, just as that other box-office Jew, Norman Mailer, was too word-drunk to ever make good movies. Go figure.
George Robinson covers film and music for the paper.