AMERICAN JEWISH LITERATURE: DEAD OR ALIVE?

Author:Cooper, Marilyn
Position:A MOMENT SYMPOSIUM
 
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As Moment's culture editor, whether I am speaking with publishers, authors, scholars or people I meet during Shabbat morning kiddush, sooner or later I am inevitably asked the same question: Are great American Jewish books still being written? Despite the popularity of the question, it is out of date. In just the last decade, there has been a revolution in what constitutes a Jewish text. Many of the best and most powerful Jewish "books" now come in the form of films, TV shows, pod-casts, graphic novels and, some might even argue, tweets. Absent the constraints of the bound written page, these Jewish "books" allow previously unheard voices to emerge. For instance, virtually no mainstream novels have been written from the African American Jewish perspective, but the 2014 documentary film Little White Lie focuses a compelling lens on the experiences of a biracial Jew. Similarly, podcasts such as "Really Interesting Jews" introduce us to new voices discussing topics as wide ranging as the Hogwarts Haggadah and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. From zombies to incest to martial arts and meditation, for today's American Jewish authors, everything is on the table and open for discussion.

Traditional books persist as a popular and important genre. Jews remain the people of the book; we still read and love them. But even here, there have been significant changes: New, often small, Jewish publishing houses are printing books that formerly would have been overlooked by mainstream publishers--Jews Versus Aliens from Ben Yehuda Press was one of 2017's most delightful surprises. Self-published books have become a rich source of Jewish writing with creative approaches to traditional topics and tropes: Most importantly, self-publishing represents the true democratization of Jewish literature.

As much as I believe that this is a time of great vitality and exciting transformation in American Jewish literature, I am concerned by who and what we are not reading. Powerful gatekeepers narrow the scope of what we read. Now, more than ever before, book publishing is big business. As a result, fewer books and still fewer authors garner a disproportionate share of critical attention and financial gain. Relatively few people are aware of, let alone reading, myriad other offerings. Sadly it's entirely possible that the best American Jewish books of 2018 may go unnoticed and unread.

However uncertain the future of the traditional book itself--it's not clear that the book as we know it will exist in 50 years--the American Jewish literary voice remains vital, uniquely (and distinctively) both particular and universalistic and, most of all, ever changing. In the following symposium, Moment asks some of the noted writers of our time to weigh in on the evolution and well-being of American Jewish literature.

DARA HORN

DARA HORN IS THE AUTHOR OF FIVE NOVELS AND A TWO-TIME WINNER OF THE NATIONAL JEWISH BOOK AWARD IN 2003 AND 2006. HER MOST RECENT NOVEL IS ETERNAL LIFE.

There are so many ways in which American Jewish literature has evolved in recentyears; the most obvious one is that "being a Jewish writer" has gone from a career-killer to a marketing hook. Decades ago, it was de rigueur for writers to avoid this label; today, hundreds of writers compete for coveted slots in the country's many robust Jewish book fairs.

But even that is old news by now. What I find intriguing about current American Jewish literature is a new and varied engagement with Israel--not only American writers who take their characters to Tel Aviv, but Israeli writers who are changing the American Jewish landscape. Two completely unrelated novels come to mind: Shani Boianjiu's The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (2012) and Ruby Namdar's The Ruined House (2017). The first is a novel about female Israeli army veterans, set entirely in Israel--but written in English by its native Israeli author. The second is a novel about a secular American Jewish professor in New York whose strange visions of the ancient Temple slowly consume his life--written in Hebrew by an Israeli who resides permanently in New York and only newly translated into English.

Beyond fiction, we also now have phenomenal memoirs bridging the diaspora-Israeli experience from so many angles, from Matti Friedman's Pumpkinflowers (2016), about a Canadian immigrant's experience defending Israel's northern border in the 1990s, to Hana Kurshan's If All the Seas Were Ink (2017), about an American in Jerusalem whose personal struggles lead her to undertake daf yomi, a seven-year study of the entire Talmud page by page. We hear a lot these days about how Israel and the American Jewish community are drifting apart, but literature tells a different story--a new and thrilling story that will reshape the future.

NATHAN ENGLANDER

NATHAN ENGLANDER IS AN AUTHOR WHOSE SHORT STORY COLLECTION WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK WAS A FINALIST FOR THE 2013 PULITZER PRIZE. HIS MOST RECENT NOVEL IS DINNER AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

I am here because of the writers that came before me. There was a huge moment in American literature in which Jewish American writers were suddenly on everyone's nightstand. Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Grace Paley changed the landscape for how people read. Their stories were universal. They broke ground in America.

Now you hear more voices and different kinds of voices. We have voices from every front, whether that's sexual orientation or religious identity. There was a time when Jewish writers were really swimming upstream. Now we are able to be out there in a different way from those who came before us. The definition of what's "other" or "outside" has changed. Jews as a subject matter should not now be seen as an "other" or as a "type" of writer.

Despite lots of Jews and Jewish content in my novels, I feel like Jewish literature is just part of American literature. I am uncomfortable with the idea that there currently is a genre of American Jewish literature. I don't write about Jews; I write about people. That said, I think it's a great time for literature, and there are a great bunch of Jewish writers doing amazing work.

There are themes that are outside of time and that run across the generations in Jewish literature--anti-Semitism or Israel, for instance. I can step back and look at Jewish literature as a category over time, but I do not usually frame things that way. My recent book is about my personal heartbreak about seeing the peace process come apart. You can make that into an "Israel" book or one about right and wrong or about empathy. At its core, I am concerned with justice and injustice.

I read a ton of American Jewish literature. I was shaped by it. The fact that my world ends up being a Jewish world or that my metaphors are Jewish metaphors or that my logic is Talmudic is because that is a complete and whole universe to me.

ALLEGRA GOODMAN

ALLEGRA GOODMAN IS THE AUTHOR OF EIGHT BOOKS, INCLUDING KAATERSKILL FALLS, A FINALIST FOR THE 1998 NATIONAL BOOK...

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