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Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation.

Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation, by Emily Miller Budick. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 252 PP. $54.95.

In this richly textured scholarly work, Emily Miller Budick probes the relations between Jewish- and African-Americans as expressed in modem literature. As a former American, a religious Jew living in Israel, Budick believes she stands outside of the conundrum ofthe African-American-Jewish-American relationship at an "ideologically informed critical distance" (p.6) and, therefore, can tease out aspects of the relationship that are taken for granted by the engaged participants. Her work is particularly plangent because she implies that much of Jewish-American ethnic writing reveals a "failure to consolidate ethnic identity within the Jewish community itself' (p. 12), a fact that is in dramatic contrast to the African-American community whose "careful course of cultural preservation and separateness... succeeded in transforming our idea of America" (p. 6).

Budick's intention is to illuminate the ethnic identities of African- and Jewish-Americans by examining their "mutual construction" of identity in literature. However, what lifts Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation from a merely literary discussion is her insistence on an implicit comparison between Jewish-American identity and "that other national identity that proved for many Jews (the writer of this study included) irresistible ... the state of Israel" (p. 150).

For Budick, the difficulties Jewish-Americans face in constructing an identity in this pluralist society are epitomized by Bernard Malamud's The Tenants, the novel that provides the paradigm for Budick's literary critique. Malamud's novel ends with two tenants of the same house, both writers (one black and one Jewish), killing each other in a violent and horrible way. Unlike most other critics who explicate the obvious confrontation, Budick chooses to examine Malamud's treatment of Jewish material in the novel to illustrate "the failure of American Jews to consolidate an American identity that preserves Jewish content" (p. 13). The "most Christian" of the major modern Jewish-American writers, Malamud, Budick argues, not only "resisted being labeled a Jewish American writer" (p. 13) but in his use of the universalizing metaphor of the Jew as sufferer, subordinates Jewish identity to Christian theological tradition. This metaphor, "all men as Jews and all Jews as Christs" (p. 15), underpins the inability of Ma lamud's Jewish character, writer Harry Lesser, to move out of the building in which he is a tenant and to finish the book on which Lesser has been working for many years. In Budick's reading, Lesser faces a sterile future because of his identity confusion: "the problem that Malamud' s Tenants and the other texts that stand behind it raise is whether universalism includes or excludes, expresses or denies, the different ethnic groups it would subsume" (p. 52).

Lurking behind this novel, Budick claims, is the socio-cultural dialogue between Jewish-and African-Americans about who should have cultural dominance in America, a debate that informed both Malamud's authorial intentions and the critical reaction to the novel. The history of the exchange begins in media res with the angry response of Ralph Ellison and other African-American intellectuals to the assumption of cultural hegemony by Jewish-American critics, a response triggered by Irving Howe's declaration that Richard Wright was the "quintessential black writer" (p. 21). Ellison argued that Howe, although claiming the position of outsider, ultimately supported the existing white power structure and that, while Jewish-Americans identified with the oppression of blacks, the Jewish relationship to white American culture was substantially different from that of African-Americans. Ultimately the dialogue became fiercer (Norman Podhoretz and Stanley Edgar Hyman became entangled) because, as Ellison and others felt, white Americans (which included Jewish-Americans) do not have problems with African-Americans speaking "on the margins" but with AfricanAmericans "as central players in the American culture game" (p. 35), and with the fact that "American culture is African American culture" (p. 36).

Because she considers its intellectual and cultural backdrop tremendously important to understanding literature, Budick also investigates what she calls the non-literary conversation: the post-war attempt by Jewish scholars to shed light on AfricanAmerican culture using Holocaust metaphors (Stanley Elkin's Slavery; Hannah Arendt's essays); the blurring of assimilation ("cultural nationalism" for Jews is assimilation, but it is also the pluralism that "failed the black community" [p. 96]) and integration; the effects of the Commentary roundtable on "Liberalism and the Negro," whose participants included James Baldwin, Sidney Hook, Nathan Glazer, and Gunnar Myrdal, among others; and the radicals' (Leslie Fiedler, Norman Mailer, and James Baldwin) responses to the question of race relations.

Having given the reader sufficient cultural history to appreciate her thesis, Budick analyzes the construction of ethnic identity in Jewish- and African-American texts, reading the dialogue between the two ethnic groups in Jewish texts as a gloss on internal conversations among Jews. For Lionel Trilling and H. J. Kaplan, the African-American "becomes a metaphor for their own eternal, internal strangeness" (pp. 121-22). Tantalized by what he sees as African-Americans' vitality and naturalness, Philip Roth recasts Jewish identity as a form of racial identity (p. 139). Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's ultimate resistance to all "religious, ethnic, cultural, and racial identity" causes Budick to describe Sammler as a Jewish "Uncle Tom who has reassured the dominant culture that it was right all along" (p. 160). Because all of these texts actively develop their representations of Jewish identity through an African-American analogue, this explication of Jewish-American literature is more convincing than her subsequent explication of African-American literature.

Her study of African-American texts is attenuated by two factors: Budick's desire to look at works which "lift Jewish-black relations off the social axis into the realm of myth and psychohistory" (p. 169) (thus she includes the less familiar novel Lonely Crusade by Chester Himes [1947]); and the fact that two of the major texts she discusses, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Alice Walker's Meridian, carve out African American space that is intended to be "independent and autonomous of the white world" (p. 161). While offering many critical insights into these texts, Budick has a simple thesis: all of these writers create a Black scripture, a working through of AfricanAmerican identity, intended to replace white Christian scripture and ultimately, therefore, displacing Judaic texts. One of the ironies of modern African-American literature for Budick is that the Holocaust metaphor initially rejected by the AfricanAmerican community when employed by Jewish-American scholars (see Budick's section called "Plantations and Pogroms, Slavery and the Holocaust: Disentangling Black and Jewish History") has now been taken up and refigured by minority writers like Morrison and Walker. Because these texts do not acknowledge the "intertextuality of the Jewish-minority experience" (p. 166), Budick finds this adaptation problematic. However, it is this "bitter struggle over the trope of the Holocaust" that Budick believes "leads back again into the possibility of meaningful interethnic exchange" (p. 199).

It remains to be seen if Budick's hopefulness about meaningful interethnic exchange is really justified. In her concluding chapter, after musing about the problematics of response to a text like Philip Roth's The Counterlife, Budick takes up the case of William Styron. Styron, a white Southerner, appropriated the stories of both Africanand Jewish-Americans (black slaves in The Confessions of Nat Turner and Holocaust victims in Sophie's Choice) and was roundly criticized for both. As Styron's case indicates, and as Budick concludes, the question remains: "How do we understand, acknowledge, permit, the stories other people tell, even or especially, when they violate or conflict with our own narratives?" (p. 216). No matter how we, as readers, answer this question, we will find it worthwhile and illuminating to consider Budick's study.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Saar, Doreen Alvarez
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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