Can American Jews Understand the Holocaust? Adam Kirsch Reviews Edward Lewis Wallant's 'The Pawnbroker'.
It's been less than a year since Fig Tree Books was launched as a publisher of books on "the American Jewish Experience," but it is already performing invaluable work. In addition to bringing out new fiction on Jewish themes, the publisher has committed to republishing lost classics, and these books have turned out to be especially eye-opening. The canon of American Jewish literature has settled into a fixed, syllabus-ready form, revolving around the big names of Bellow, Roth, and Malamud. But in any period, more people are reading non- and sub-canonical writers than the big names; and so it is often these forgotten books that do the best job of conjuring the real texture and atmosphere of their period. Earlier this year, for instance, Fig Tree republished Meyer Levin's Compulsion, a mid-century retelling of the Leopold and Loeb case that spoke volumes about American Jewish attitudes toward deviance, sexuality, and public image.
Now comes The Pawnbroker, a once-celebrated novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, which must be one of the earliest American Jewish stories to address the experience of the Holocaust survivor. The Pawnbroker was originally published in 1961; the following year, Wallant died at the age of 36, having produced just two books. (Today his name may be best known for the literary prize named after him, which is given annually for a work of American Jewish fiction.) The year of publication is significant, because a kind of historical consensus has arisen that the Holocaust was a taboo subject for postwar American Jews. Not until 1967, this story goes, with the inspiring Israeli victory in the Six Day War, did Jews become confident enough to start reckoning with the immense trauma of their recent past.
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