Two pronouncements about literature, made some 30 years ago, have had an enormous influence on my view of how American Jewish literature is evolving. The first is by Irving Howe, who famously said that without the dynamic of immigration and assimilation, of Jews struggling to tell the story of their transformation into Americans, Jewish literature in this country would quickly lose its energy, even its raison d’être.
Despite his fondness for the world of his fathers on the Lower East Side, Howe seemed to believe that the Jewish contribution to literature was universalistic, and reflected a people’s situation as outsider, an avant-garde in the struggle to create a better world.
The second pronouncement is by Cynthia Ozick, who in an essay titled “America: Toward Yavneh” said that American Jewish literature would thrive only if it resisted the impulse to be quintessentially American, to be assimilated. For her, American Jewish writers would survive in the Jewish canon only if they attended to what she called the “liturgical” — the classic religious, spiritual and moral concerns of Jewish life. Her rather hopeful outlook for America is that it might become a new Yavneh, a revolutionary new center of Jewish learning and literature like the first-century academy that ushered Jews into the rabbinic period. But only if Jews learned to speak what she calls a New Yiddish, an English “attentive to the implications of covenant and commandment.”
In other words, what Howe saw as the end of American Jewish literature, Ozick saw as the beginning, or at least an opportunity to create a new kind of Jewish literature that would not be dependent on the socio-economics of its writers and readers. The old Yiddish of the Lower East Side would give way to the new Yiddish of the Upper West Side, of Westchester and, once again, of the Lower East Side.
When I look at the collective work of American Jewish writers in their 20s and 30s, it seems that Ozick’s vision of the Jewish literary future was more prescient than Howe’s. What we have today among Jewish writers of original talent is a move away from social and political critique, and toward an exploration of biblical themes; a refashioning of midrash, or imaginative biblical commentary; a focus on language and memory; and a study of the spiritually and ritually observant life.
Examples of this include Dara Horn’s rewriting of the Book of Job (among other things) in “In the Image”; Simone Zelitch’s retelling of biblical stories in “Louisa” and “Moses in Sinai”; and Myla Goldberg’s kabbalistic spelling bee in “Bea Season.”
Ozick’s view is based on the enduring, positive qualities of Jewish civilization. Of a hope and expectation that as Jews grew deeper roots in America, their sense of themselves as a people in exile would disappear, and would be replaced with a less conflicted, less neurotic sense of their place at the table — even as they became more and more consciously Jewish.
Yet despite the glimmerings of a new Yiddish on the horizon, this supposed confidence is sometimes markedly absent. For underneath the material comfort and first-class citizenship of American Jews — the situation Howe predicted would weaken the creative impulse — there seems to be a churning desire for Jewish authenticity, a yearning for a kind of primary connection to the core of Jewish history and peoplehood that has induced its own creative response. The best examples of this are the two breakout Jewish novels of the past several years — Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything is Illuminated” and Gary Shteyngart’s “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.”
But it also includes “War Story,” Gwen Edelman’s wonderful short novel about a young American woman seduced by a Holocaust survivor and the Jewish “authenticity” of his stories, and Aaron Hamburger’s new collection of stories, “The View from Stalin’s Head,” about young American Jews trying to find themselves in Prague. These books are reverse immigrations into Europe, into the story of the European Jew, and point to a desire to reclaim a Jewish identity that America does its best to erase.
Shteyngart’s first novel is exceptional because it places him in another category as well — that of a small group of extremely accomplished young Russian-Jewish writers now taking the literary world by storm. “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” along with Lara Vapnyar’s story collection “There are Jews in My House” and the David Bezmozgis collection “Natasha and Other Stories” (due out in a few weeks) are among the most exciting works of American literature to appear in recent years and force the question: Is there something to Jewish wandering, to the exchanging of cultures and languages, and to the perspective of the outsider, that is just as “essentially” Jewish as midrash?
Is Howe’s insight connecting the vitality of literature and the energy of immigrant assimilation less shallow than we thought?
Perhaps what we can take from this imaginary debate between Ozick and Howe is the fact that American Jewish literature is so rich and promising that there is a place for visions of both the wandering Jew, the conscience of the world, and the liturgical Jew, at home in the intense particularity of memory, prayer and laws.