Post-alienation: recent directions in Jewish-American literature.
Instead of the predicted demise, however, Jewish-American writers are building on the legacies of the older generation and, as Ruth Wisse observes, "Having no longer to defend themselves from real or imagined charges of parochialism, the new Jewish writers ... are freer to explore the |tribal' and particularistic aspects of Judaism" (41). Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth in his early work employed Jewish literary influences allusively and introduced Jewish history sparingly, only occasionally placing them in the forefront of their fictional worlds. Now, Jewish thought, literary precursors, and history are often at the center of a fictional universe.
A significant portion of contemporary Jewish-American fiction is pervasively Jewish in its moral insistence and its reference to Judaic texts. Jewish religious thought and values, the trauma of the Holocaust, and the establishment of a Jewish nation in Israel are among the most significant themes of Cynthia Ozick, Arthur Cohen, and Hugh Nissenson. Even those, like Leslie Epstein and Richard Elman, whose Jewish religious values are minimal focus on recent Jewish history, positioning it centrally in their novels. Pervasive treatment of Jewish subjects and values, reference to Judaic texts, and introduction of the midrashic narrative mode, in which a familiar story or theme is given a new reading, are simultaneously making a profound mark on American thought and literature and heralding a Jewish-American literary renaissance.
. 1 .
Throughout their careers, Bellow and Malamud denied that they were "Jewish writers," as has Roth, despite the centrality of Jewish subjects to their fiction. Cynthia Ozick, the acknowledged leader of a revitalized Jewish-American literary movement, self-consciously defines herself as a Jewish writer. She writes about Judaism and Jewish history with a high level of erudition and advocates Judaic affirmation, renewal, and redemption. Sociological observation of contemporary Jewish life does not characterize the Jewish content of her fiction as it does that of many other contemporary Jewish-American writers. Instead, she infuses her narratives with the values of Judaism. Her work reflects and contributes to the Jewish textual tradition.
In "Toward a New Yiddish," Ozick advocates creation of an indigenous American Jewish literature in English, one "centrally Jewish in its concerns" and "liturgical in nature," not a "didactic or prescriptive" literature but "aggadic," in style, "utterly freed to invention, discourse, parable, experiment, enlightenment, profundity, humanity" (174-75). Invoking Yavneh, the academy of learning built to sustain Jewish civilization in the post-temple period, as a metaphor of renewal, Ozick exhorts American Jewish writers to preserve Judaic culture and to make New Yiddish, a creative union between Yiddish and English, its medium, to "pour not merely the Jewish sensibility but the Jewish vision, into the vessel of English" (176).
Among Ozick's recurrent Judaic themes are tikkun ("repair") and t'shuva ("redemption"). In the essay "Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means," Ozick argues against the theory of art for art's sake, literature that is merely self-referential, which she judges as amoral. She instead advocates a redemptive literature, writing that insists on freedom to change one's life, that celebrates creative renewal. Representative of the novelist's approach to repair and redemptive themes are her Puttermesser stories, which reverberate with these principles and simultaneously exemplify Ozick's organic integration of Jewish myth to enhance a contemporary moral quest. The first narrative, "Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife," introduces the repair theme in the lawyer's activism on behalf of Soviet Jews, her work for political reform, and her dream of bettering the world. Central to Ruth Puttermesser's character is her passion for Jewish values. She strives to enhance her knowledge of judaic civilization by studying Hebrew and reading judaic writings. In these studies she discerns a civilization, a value system, a distinctive culture and forges her link to the history of the Jews.
This redemptive theme appears again in "Bloodshed." In the narrative's climactic scene, set in a prayer and study session, Ozick explores a lapsed Jew's spiritual return, invoking Yom Kippur atonement through biblical allusion to sacrifice symbolic of self-surrender and devotion to the will of God. The narrative's Hasidic leader, a Buchenwald survivor, counters the nihilism of the apostate, Bleilip, by making him the subject of a Hasidic exemplum revealing the theological and human implications of the Holocaust. The spiritual guide leads the skeptic to redemption by helping him understand that often the believer and doubter are one. Bleilip's redemption is intimated as he discovers the values of collective memory, tradition, and communal responsibility. Acknowledging his belief in God despite Holocaust history, the suicidal skeptic has metamorphosed into the identity he had earlier misappropriated, "A Jew. Like yourselves. One of you" (67). Arriving at the Hasidic colony in scorn, Bleilip concludes his visit in praise, recognizing that he had unconsciously come "for a glimpse of the effect of the rebbe [the Hasidic spiritual leader]. Of influences" and sensing that "The day . . . felt full of miracles" (72). Ozick's redemptive theme also intersects with her treatment of the Holocaust in Trust. A recorder of Holocaust history, her American protagonist, Enoch Vand, adopts the Lurianic Hasidic belief in man's restorative task in history. Beyond his compulsion to bear witness to the Holocaust, Vand seeks to reinvigorate the Jewish people and to rebuild judaism. He commits himself to the traditional Jewish life of prayer and study. Under the guidance of a Holocaust survivor, he learns Hebrew and studies the Bible, the Talmud, and Ethics of the Fathers. Vand's motivation for the study of Jewish texts is comparable to Ozick's, to know "what it is to think as a Jew" ("Toward a New Yiddish" 157). By insisting on bearing witness to the Holocaust and affirming his commitment to judaism, Vand, like Ozick, embraces the task of finding meaning and purpose through the historic event.
As in the work of Cynthia Ozick, Jewish religious values are intrinsic to and permeate Hugh Nissenson's fictional universe. Ozick has observed, in her review of In the Reign of Peace, that Nissenson's stories are essentially midrashim, revelatory commentaries, fictional commentaries on religious texts. His first collection of short stories, A Pile of Stones, explores the problem of religious belief in modernity Nissenson demonstrates how the forces of secularism and external oppression have made it hard for modern Jews to remain faithful to their religious heritage, to obey God's commandments and thereby to sanctify themselves. Illustrative of the Jew persecuted for religious adherence is the hero of "The Groom of Zlota Street." An observant Jew who wears the obligatory beard is plagued by a Gentile with whom he has a standing agreement: the Gentile will purchase the Jew's wares on the condition that he may pull his beard. To demonstrate the significance of free choice, a central principle of Jewish ethical teaching, the impoverished Jew forgoes a sale and willingly endures a vicious beating for refusing the Gentile his customary pleasure.
The influence of secular movements that have usurped the loyalty Jews had historically reserved for religious piety is Nissenson's subject in "The Prisoner." Nissenson recounts the career of a religious Jew who abandons judaism because he is unable to reconcile the horror of a pogrom with the holiness of God. Convinced that God and religion are ineffectual in the face of such violence, the apostate transfers his hopes for universal peace and an end to human suffering from God and Judaism to political revolution. Finally, as a political prisoner of the czar's regime, he exchanges the ritual garb of striped prayer shawl and phylacteries for the prisoner's striped vest and wrist chains bound to a leather waist strap. When his deportation is imminent, the prisoner has a vision of a world order that includes human suffering. He now understands that man alone cannot end human suffering, that although people are morally obligated, according to Jewish law, to help improve the world, their efficacy is limited. Bringing about the end of human suffering is reserved for God.
Whereas Jewish culture has often been the subject matter of fiction by Jewish writers, seldom have Jewish religious values been as fundamental and intrinsic to a literary work by an American Jew as they are in Nissenson's short story "The Law." Covenantal affirmation is at the heart of the story. This narrative fuses two central subjects of Nissenson's fiction, the foremost tragedy of Jewish history in the modern era, the Holocaust, and Judaic religious belief and practice. Nissenson affirms the validity of adherence to the ancient edict that Jews should consider themselves symbolically present at Sinai to receive the Law. Dramatic tension emerges in a family's deliberation on whether the son, a severe stutterer, ought to undertake the rigors of public recitation of the traditional bar mitzvah service, the occasion when the observant accepts the obligations of Jewish law. Nissenson complicates and heightens the drama by juxtaposing the memory of the father's youthful indifference to Jewish law and ritual with his son's voluntary assumption of responsibility. The significance of the youth's insistence is heightened by family history Assimilated German Jews, they had abandoned Judaism but had Jewish identity thrust upon them by Nazi racial decree. Post-Holocaust consciousness motivates the father to reject his own father's assimilationist agenda in order to pass on the Judaic legacy to his willing son. The lesson the survivor took from his Holocaust experience--the futile nature of assimilation gained at the expense of repudiation of one's own heritage--is the author's lesson to contemporary Jews and a principal theme in the writings of self-affirming Jewish-American writers.
In contrast to immigrant Jewish-American writers like Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska, whose protagonists' goals were assimilation at any cost, the moral heroes of Ozick and Nissenson assert the worth of life lived according to Jewish values and religious law. Unlike those writers whose Jewish material enriched only their novels' sociological texture, Ozick and Nissenson imbue their work with Judaic religious, textual, and historic content. They often replace the secular Jews of Bellow and Roth and the Jewishly uneducated figures in Malamud with characters steeped in Jewish learning. The resulting literature captures the essence of Jewish experience as deeply and intricately as Christian sensibility is conveyed in the York of James Joyce and Flannery O'Connor.
. 2 .
Beyond the Judaic thought that characterizes contemporary Jewish-American writing is its distinctive memory of the two critical events of twentieth-century Jewish history, the Holocaust and the establishment of the Israeli State. The 1963 trial of Adolf Eichmann and the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War are the most probable twin stimuli for revived American literary interest in the Holocaust and engagement with Israel. The intellectual debate aroused by Hannah Arendt's assessment of the Eichmann trial and Jewish leadership during the Holocaust again brought Holocaust crimes to the forefront of American Jewish thought. The 1967 Arab attack on Israel, accompanied by Nazi-like threats to annihilate the Jewish state, elevated Jewish concerns about Israel's survival and security and affected the Jewish-American literary imagination. In contrast to earlier Jewish-American fiction, whose characters were minimally shaped by ethnic history, new works often include characters molded by Holocaust experience or Holocaust knowledge.
American Jews have adapted documentary materials to the fictional universe, incorporating historic figures and relying heavily on evidentiary matter to create a fictional Holocaust universe. Among the writers who have embraced this strategy are Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, who conducted many interviews with survivors for her presentation of the Vilna ghetto and Kaiserwald labor camp in Anya; Norma Rosen, who incorporated documentary materials from the Eichmann trial in Touching Evil; Cynthia Ozick, whose description of the roundup of Parisian Jews in The Cannibal Galaxy owes much to Vichy France and the Jews by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton; Richard Elman, whose treatment of the Hungarian Jewish catastrophe in The 28th Day of Elul and The Reckoning reflects close reading of Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews; Marge Piercy, whose epic war novel Gone to Soldiers is a superb example of the research novel that covers multiple civilian and military fronts; and Leslie Epstein, whose King of the Jews is based on historic documents of the Lodz ghetto. In these works, primary loyalty is to fact presented through the prism of fiction.
Leslie Epstein combines invention and fidelity to the accounts of historians Gerald Reitlinger, Leonard Tushnet, Isaiah Trunk, and Hannah Arendt to re-create the Lodz ghetto and explore the motivations of its Jewish elder, Chaim Rumkowski, in King of the Jews. Close reading of Tushnet's Pavement of Hell and Trunk's Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation suggests that Epstein draws heavily on these sources for his delineations of the ghetto elder, I. C. Trumpelman, and the Lodz ghetto. Furthermore, I would argue that these texts are the source of Epstein's collage or composite approach to character and ghetto construction. While primarily based on Lodz, elements of the Warsaw and Vilna ghettos, derived from these same sources, emerge in Epstein's Baluty suburb. Aside from embellishments of the megalomaniacal aspects of his character and a few details from the biographies of Warsaw and Vilna leaders, Epstein's Trumpelman closely resembles Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the most enigmatic of Jewish leaders among the judenrat. Like many diarists, scholars, and novelists who try to comprehend and delineate the Rumkowski figure, Epstein is caught between sharply polarized feelings. Acknowledging the unprecedented evil under which judenrat leaders functioned, he dramatizes Trumpelman's moral dilemma: balancing loyalty to his own people with obedience to the enemy that sustains his authority as long as he satisfies its demands.
Although Epstein's work began with an interest in the most eccentric and controversial of the elders, the novel's dimensions are substantially extended by ample attention to the vicissitudes of a slave labor ghetto, its overlords, police, victims, heroes, and rebels. Epstein depicts the insidious manipulation of the Jewish Council forced to accede to Nazi demands and implement orders ranging from mundane administrative detail to selections for labor and death deportations. The novel's breadth is achieved through the choral and primary voices of characters in the Holocaust trauma: administrative voices of Germans, Council members, and police officials carrying out the Hitlerian program and voices of Jews (the Bundists, the Communists, and the Orthodox) oppressed, resisting, suffering starvation, slave labor, and deportation. The novel welds history and art to evoke a grotesque kingdom, a macabre landscape revealing the essential villainy of the Nazi system.
Marge Piercy's extraordinary World War II novel, Gone to Soldiers, is a vast compilation of wartime experiences of civilian and military history. The segment charting the tragedy and resistance of the native-born and foreign Jews of France is faithful to survivor testimony and diaries as well as to a huge body of Holocaust and World War II scholarship, including Amy Latour's The Jewish Resistance in France, Vera Laska's Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust, and Serge Klarsfeld's Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, 1942-1944. Incremental development of the ominous fate of French Jewry under the Germans, paralleled by French anti-Semitism, is the focus of the novel's early sections. Piercy is particularly strong on the theme of Jewish resistance, a topic generally ignored in American Holocaust literature. Her resisters are modeled on Jewish forces drawn from the ranks of the Jewish Scout Movement, Zionist organizations, and French Jewish immigrant communities. Debunking the myth that Jews capitulated to slaughter without protest, Piercy incorporates historical data, specific operations of French Jews active in underground groups that disrupted German projects and assisted the Allies.
Among the most prevalent themes of American Holocaust literature is examination of covenantal theodicy and the viability of Judaism in the post-Holocaust age. Called into question are the three pillars of historic Judaism: God, Torah, and the Jewish people. The Holocaust, more than any other event in Jewish history taxes the Jew's faith in a just and merciful God and provokes questions about the nature of God, the covenant between God and Israel, and the nature of human beings. Important among the theological and philosophical responses to the Holocaust are questioning and protest of God's inaction in the face of Holocaust injustice by observant and apostate Jews and an oppositional affirmative model based on rededication to God and Judaic principles.
Richard Elman fictionalizes the plight of Hungarian Jewry in his Holocaust trilogy, concentrating on the nonobservant Jew's theological quandary in the first volume. His characters rage against society and God for grave crimes against humanity and the covenant. Elman asks whether we need to revise our ideas about human nature in light of Holocaust truth, and whether the covenantal relation of the divine and human continues in the post-Holocaust era. Elman's survivor probes the meaning of God's Holocaust absence and asks whether a God of mercy and love would countenance extermination of the innocent, and whether conventional wisdom about human nature requires re-examination. His questions reflect the crises of faith and human understanding in the post-Holocaust era.
To pursue these theological and philosophical concerns, the trilogy's first volume, The 28th Day of Elul, is structured as the response of Alex Yagodah, a Holocaust survivor, now an Israeli citizen, to an American lawyer questioning his allegiance to Judaism. Lacking a Jewish education, Yagodah is an acculturated Jew who nevertheless raises theological questions of import. He puts man and God on trial. Denying neither the authenticity of rebellion nor the authenticity of faith, he begins his struggle in denunciation and ends in acceptance. Like the protester believers of I. B. Singer and Elie Wiesel, Yagodah simultaneously accepts God yet protests His neglect of suffering and holds Him accountable for Holocaust injustice. Yagodah wrestles with the terrifying realization of the coexistence of a just and merciful God and an evil creation. Confronting the inexplicable, he concludes, "I believe" (24), echoing the traditional affirmation of faith many victims recited as they entered the gas chambers: "Ani Ma'amim."
Illustrative of contemporary writers' sensitive incorporation of the Judaic textual tradition is Elman's turn to traditional thematic and stylistic Jewish literary responses to catastrophe: providential interpretation of history, acceptance of a silent, hidden God who remains aloof from human evil to honor the principle of free will, biblical allusion and countercommentary. Elman appropriates the psalmist's construction of God's hiddenness in Psalm 44 to account for divine inaction and to distinguish between human evil and divine responsibility. Although Elman's prose echoes biblical cadence and parallelism, Yagodah's rebuke of God for crimes against the covenant parodies and reformulates the psalmist's mournful, supplicating tone: "Only He betrayed us. He profaned us. He took our prayers in vain. He mocked us. He rewarded us with cruelty. He listened but did not hear. He was there and He was not there when we needed Him. He led us into injustice" (24). The survivor's protest subverts the original text and radically reinterprets it by articulating faith despite the terror of separation from God. In protest, the text is put to irreverent use. David Roskies accounts for classical Yiddish writers' use of liturgical parody as "their desire to imitate the, sacrilege, to disrupt the received order of the text in the same way as the enemy, ...disrupted the order of the world" (20). Roskies' description of this traditionalist tendency "to mimic the sacrilege [thereby allowing] the individual to keep faith even as the promise is subverted" (20) may be applied to Yagodah's reformulation of the traditional celebration of divine attributes.
Whereas Elman explores the response of an alienated Jew to the theological impact of the Holocaust, theologian Arthur Cohen joins Cynthia Ozick and Hugh Nissenson in creating a centrally Jewish literature to examine post-Holocaust theodicy. His novel in the Days of Simon Stern is a rich, culturally textured, complex philosophical novel dealing with the response to the Holocaust of the religiously observant. It incorporates biblical legend, theological, talmudic, and kabbalistic discourse, and dramatic enactment of the messianic redemptive theory to wrest instruction from the Holocaust. Praised by Ozick in the New York Times Book Review for "a brilliance, of Jewish insight and erudition to be found in no other novelist" (6), Cohen masters the sacred, theological, and mystical texts of Judaism to present a mythic odyssey of a messianic figure in the Holocaust era. Significant among the novel's contributions to American Holocaust literature is its unique exploration of the bearing of the Holocaust upon the ancient Jewish idea that messianic redemption will follow historical catastrophe.
The novel's story line chronicles the efforts of Simon Stern, a Jew informed of a prophecy proclaiming him Messiah, to rescue and rehabilitate a group of death camp survivors. As in the days after the destruction of the Holy Temple, Stern envisions and builds a fortress to house the remnant, to provide them safety from threats of assimilation and anti-Semitism, and to bear testament to the endurance of Judaism and Jewry Parodying the Nazi death selections, Stern travels to Europe to make regenerative selections. He takes Jews--of all classes and backgrounds, all professions, all capacities-united by a passion for renewal "to . . . rebuild each other's flesh and spirit" (252-53).
Affirming the restorative and regenerative approaches to Holocaust tragedy espoused by theologian Emil Fackenheiin, Cohen's Jews, like Chaim Potok's survivor-scholars and rabbis, respond to Holocaust loss by undertaking a major project of repair to strengthen Judaism and Jewry. Their model is Rabbi Akiva's historic rebuilding of the remnant within the traditional Judaic system, as a distinctive and separate religious entity. Unlike I. B. Singer's apostate, socialist, and communist protesters and Elman's secularist, Cohen's Jews adhere to the tradition of the ancients who refrained from rebuking God for the destruction of the Temples, for Exile, and for the Diaspora. To blame or try God for Holocaust crimes is, for them, a futile gesture: "No need for a trial. If that were all, He'd be condemned in a trice" (255). Rabbi Steinmann sheds no tears for humanity, but for God, because "He wants so much and can affect us so little" (255). Steinmann has arrived at a position which marks the Holocaust as an event so different from the previous Jewish disasters that it must change our theological perceptions. To try God is to expect a participatory covenant, to expect God to respond to human petition. This judgment anticipates the theological argument of Cohen's The Tremendum in calling for a break from past theology Cohen contends that "the traditional God has no connection with the Holocaust despite the palpable fact that the immensity of the tremendum implies a judgment upon God" (81). Simon Stern heralds Cohen's later insistence that Jewish reality must account for the Holocaust in its view of God, the world, and man.
Spared direct experience and knowledge of the Holocaust, Jewish-American writers nevertheless bear witness articillating their recognition of the Holocaust as a turning point in history, as a catastrophe that altered the way we perceive God and humanity. These writers have addressed the Holocaust as a central reference point in their fiction and have established the Holocaust survivor as a recognizable persona in our literature. By adding their voices to Holocaust testimony, these Americans join their European and Israeli colleagues to commemorate the dead, to preserve the collective memory, and to offer warnings for the future.
Israel has been of considerably less interest to the Jewish-American literary imagination than has the Holocaust or than might have been anticipated given the increasingly overt treatment of Jewish themes. It has, however, periodically emerged in connection with Holocaust themes and in regard to Jewish characters' exploration of personal identity and their attachment to the spiritual center of Judaism. Examples of the first theme include Bellow's Mr. Sammer's Planet and To Jerusalem and Back, Potok's scenes of Americans working on behalf of Israeli independence in The Chosen, and Piercy's Holocaust-wrought transformation of a French assimilationist to staunch Zionist in Gone to Soldiers. Illustrative of the latter are Anne Roiphe's Lovingkindness and Philip Roth's Counterlife delineating characters on a redemptive search to Israel where they seek, to the dismay of relatives, a religiously disciplined life to counteract the self-indulgence and self-destruction of their American existence.
Among the many turns and topics of Roth's Counterlife are Jewish and Israeli identity When Nathan Zuckerman travels to Israel to retrieve his brother from a West Bank settlement where he is a follower of a zealot rabbi, he encounters a lengthy debate on the nature of Jewishness and Israeli statehood. Nathan asks, "What is a Jew?" and learns the Israeli perspective, the Jew of the Diaspora superseded by the Israeli who can live "free of Jewish cringing, deference, diplomacy, apprehension, alienation, self-pity, self-satire, self-mistrust, depression, clowning, bitterness, nervousness, inwardness, hypercriticalness, hypertouchiness, social anxiety, social assimilation--a way of life absolved, in short, of all the Jewish |abnormalities,' those peculiarities of self-division" (120). In his brief visit he sees in Israel "every Jewish dilemma there ever was" (64) and hears a chorus of voices, including a liberal Tel Aviv journalist f earful that Israel is becoming an "American-Jewish Australia" (77), a West Bank promoter of Jewish might, and an El Al security agent lecturing on Jewish history and anti-semitism. Always the adversary, Nathan looks at the psychosocial dynamics of Zionism as "The construction of a counterlife that is one's own anti-myth ... All over the world people were rooting for the Jews to go ahead and un-Jew themselves in their own little homeland.... that's why the place was once universally so popular--no more Jewy Jews, great!" (147). Nathan's brother, Henry, has an equally convincing argument. He rejects Nathan's psychological profundities to advocate "a larger world, a world of ideology, of politics, of history" (140). Compelling arguments are voiced on both sides, but the Israeli debate remains unresolved by the Zuckerman brothers.
Unlike Roth's American quester seeking personal fulfillment in the Israeli setting, Hugh Nissenson's characters are Israeli citizens bound to the collective history of the Jewish people. Nissenson's work (concordant with Bellow's To Jerusalem and Back in its historic perspective and with the Six-day War segment of Mr. Sammler's Planet in its connecting links between Holocaust tragedy and Israeli security) emphasizes the political and spiritual dimensions of its Israeli characters. Less concerned with the individual psyche than Roth, Nissenson exhibits an interest in the individual that is deeply bound to his primary regard for Jewish political and spiritual community, the national polity.
In the Reign of Peace reinforces Nissenson's Judaic theme of humanity's need for redemption initially established in A Pile of Stones. Six of its eight tales employ Israeli settings in dramatizing the tensions of the religious/secular dichotomy in the modern state. Central in this collection is the paradox of exile from God and the quest for redemption. Several stories focus on the establishment and security of Israel and address issues of peace and justice in a land surrounded by militant enemies dedicated to its destruction. "The Throne of Good," set in the period prior to statehood, relates the story of a young Stern Gang member who employs the military, training he received as a Holocaust era partisan to fight against the British for Israeli independence. Like other Holocaust survivors, the boy believes that he was saved for a purpose. Whereas for many survivors that purpose is manifested in bearing witness to the Holocaust, for this survivor the belief is embodied in his militant contribution to the birth and security of a modern state in the ancient Jewish homeland. During an interview with Harold Ribalow, Nissenson asserted that he had erred in narrating the story from the perspective of a Stern Gang critic (153). The decision to employ that point of view, however, allowed Nissenson to explore difficult questions about protecting Jewish life in the post-Holocaust period. His tale turns on the moral dilemma of whether ends can justify means, whether committing acts of terror against the British rulers to achieve the good of Jewish statehood and security is morally defensible.
Themes of messianic redemption and Israeli survival, dismissed as too parochial by many Jewish writers, are at the center of Nissenson's vision and illustrative of new directions Jewish-American writers are taking to explore Judaic content. The title story "In the Reign of Peace," set on an Israeli kibbutz, involves an argument between the narrator, a secular member, and an observant immigrant from Morocco, who works on the kibbutz. The observant Mid- the Eastern Jew is astonished by kibbutzniks who believe neither in God nor the redemptive Messiah and fail to revere the commandments governing Sabbath celebration and the dietary laws. Rejecting the traditional Jewish messianic view, the secularist embraces an alternative redemptive vision, one that affirms the socialist ideal of members sharing the labor and benefits of the community This claim is insufficient for the religious Jew. He believes even the achievement of a just society is not redemption; redemption is not realized until the universe is just.
The extensive body of American Holocaust literature and the emerging fiction exploring Israeli themes signify the end of a period when American writers of Jewish extraction feared that focus on Jewish interests would hinder their acceptance with publishers and readers and signal another component in the reaffirmation of Jewish values in American literature.
. 3 .
Intertextuality in Jewish-American fiction has often gone unnoticed, for it has been presented in a manner that discourages recognition. A case in point is Saul Bellow's appropriation of an anti-Hasidic text to inform the character of his holy conman, Tamkin, in Seize the Day (Kremer 46-56). Although derivative aspects play a major role in Tamkin's character construct, Bellow's allusions to and appropriations from an obscure anti-Hasidic satire remain virtually, unrecognized by the critics. In an America that increasingly values cultural diversity, writers are now freer than Bellow was to celebrate their cultural heritage overtly. Jewish intertextuality and the midrashic mode are sources of intellectual, moral, and aesthetic delight for readers and heighten the vibrancy of Jewish-American literature.
A significant mark of the revitalization of Jewish-American writing is its incorporation of and play on classical Jewish sources. Text-centeredness, as Harold Bloom makes evident in Agon, is the essence of Jewish learning. One might add that it is the essence of the best of contemporary Jewish-American literature. Writing infused with precursor literary and ideational concepts reveals the contemporary pertinence of those influences and heightens the cultural breadth of American literature.
In "Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom," Ozick argues that the critic treats the poem as literary idol. She faults Bloom for contributing to "discontinuity of tradition" (187), for an interpretive system founded on breaking with the literary precursor in its suggestion that the new poet treat the old as sacrificial victim, in its insistence that "a poem comes into being out of its reading of an earlier poem, i.e., out of its own |swerving' from the influence of a powerful precursor-poem" (183). Ozick identifies this approach as un-Jewish and advocates instead the validity of the midrashic textual approach because it is "set against the idea of displacing the precursor.... [Jewish] interpretation never came to stand for disjunction, displacement, ...revisionism. Transmittal signifies the carrying-over of the original strength" (194). In the classic midrashic mode of the later text adding an interpretive gloss to earlier ones, Ozick affirms and contributes to the Judaic legacy. Throughout her work, she draws on the rich store of historic Jewish texts and memory to celebrate the continuity of Judaic civilization. She honors the culture and contributes to its vibrancy by creating literature exhibiting the attributes she advocates in "Toward a New Yiddish," writing that is "centrally Jewish in its concerns," "liturgical in nature," and distinguished by a "sacral imagination" (175). By so doing, Ozick enriches both Jewish writing and American literature.
Text-centeredness, a hallmark of the midrashic mode, appears in Ozick's supernatural fantasy "The Pagan Rabbi." This narrative elaborates an epigraph from Pirke Aboth: The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers advocating concentration on and dedication to religious study to explore the conflicting lures of Hellenism and Hebraism, one of Ozick's recurrent themes. In this instance, Ozick pits monotheistic Judaism against the temptations of nature in the conflict of a rabbi so enamored of the beauties of nature that he is distracted from sacred study and worship. The rabbi's soul takes the shape of a studious old Jew indifferent to the glories of nature to denounce his excursion into paganism. Whereas the midrashic mode is somewhat limited to a fantastical elaboration of an epigraph in this early story, Ozick advances the method for the second Puttermesser story and achieves a thematically and structurally integrated midrashic tale.
"Puttermesser and Xanthippe," derived from the folktale of the golem (a figure constructed in human form and endowed with life), owes its twelve-part structure to the pattern of construction and destruction employed in Gershom Scholem's essay "The Idea of the Golem," which Ruth has been studying. Reacting to the corruption and mediocrity of city government, Puttermesser performs the rituals described in Scholem's essays and breathes life into a creature fashioned from earth to do her bidding and repair a flawed world. Following the commandment of Deuteronomy, "Justice, justice shalt thou pursue," Puttermesser's golem implements an urban reform plan and assists her master's ascent to the mayoralty Indicative of the contemporary writer's appropriation of and contribution to the literary heritage is Ozick's extension of the golem's beneficence to a nonsectarian population and her endowment of the creature with female gender and sexual and procreative desires. Characteristic of the legendary golem that becomes a destructive agent despite its creator's intent, Xanthippe eventually rejects her role as an instrument of reform. She destroys Puttermesser's political career and the municipal reforms she instituted. Compounding the legendary disorder associated with the golem, Ozick adds the sin of idolatry to enlarge the legend's moral and aesthetic dimensions. Sarah Blacher Cohen contends that Ruth "is guilty not only of usurping God's role as a lifegiver, but she also unlawfully appropriates God's function of creating a paradise on earth"(108). Puttermesser invokes the ritual of reversal to destroy the golem. Xanthippe fails to achieve permanent reform, yet she and the mayor amply demonstrate the need and potential for improvement and repair.
Just as T. S. Eliot's work is enriched by the texts and texture of Christianity, Ozick's writing is enhanced by her counterpoint of contemporary Jewish history and ancient Judaic text in The Cannibal Galaxy. Her juxtaposition of the roundup of Parisian Jews, their inhumane incarceration, and their eventual deportation to Auschwitz with references from the Mishnah that focus on communal fasts commemorating deliverance from destruction broadens reader perspective in a way that nontextually or historically referential Holocaust fiction does not. Paralleling the fury and tumult of Nazi Europe with allusion to a text recounting themes of national destruction and redemption and legends of divine and human response to tragedy effectively connects the present to other periods of persecution and intimates the eventual analogous deliverance of the Jewish remnant. Ozick extends this textual construct in Hester Lilt's story of Rabbi Akiva's commentary on biblical prophecies of Zion's destruction and restoration. The redemptive legends in conjunction with Ozick's reference to later texts affirming post-Holocaust Jewish regeneration in Israel should be interpreted as celebration of Jewish survival and renewal in a Jewish homeland. Furthermore, the concurrence of the Akiva narrative with advice to read Andre Neher on Edmond Fleg is wholly consistent with midrashic methodology The dense Judaic intertextual connections that characterize Ozick's midrashic mode add a level of intellectual rigor that carries the narrative to aesthetic and moral heights surpassing the Jewish novel of alienation and sociological insight that earned popular and critical acclaim in recent decades.
Ozick's fascination with incorporation of the Jewish heritage in American fiction is paralleled by Curt Leviant's. At the heart of Jewish religious experience as expressed liturgically and textually, from the ancient world to the contemporary, has been the longing for the Messiah and interest in the conditions for his arrival. Leviant's novel The Man Who Thought He Was Messiah is a modern midrash on this subject, a fantasy based on Nachman of Bratslav, Hasidic leader and devotee of prayer and music, believed by his disciples to have had the soul of the Messiah. In a tale Elie Wiesel characterizes as "an enchanting spiritual universe--filled with imagination, humor, and warmth," Leviant presents a year in Nachman's life, a year of self-exile and spiritual quest. He juxtaposes Nachman's subjective view of an illicit sexual encounter, his subsequent loss of the Hebrew alphabet (to which he compared the woman's beauty,), and his redemptive goals with the objective diary reports of his scribal assistant, Nathan.
Traditional themes of aspiration to messianic ascension and false messiahs are employed by Leviant to fabricate a stirring tale of spiritual longing, a metafiction in the midrashic mode that introduces one tale to interpret another. While Leviant read extensively in the biographical and historical accounts of this charismatic leader and familiarized himself with the tales that are attributed to him, he discards much biography in favor of invention based on the authentic life. Although the historic Nachman was a famous storyteller whose narratives were transcribed and remain readily available, Leviant noted in his acceptance speech for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize for the novel that he composed his own stories for the Hasid.
Increased attention to Jewish tradition and liturgy is also evident in the work of Jewish feminists who are composing new texts to articulate their claim for a place in what has been a patriarchal tradition. Cathy Davidson lauds E. M. Broner for "finding new forms for fiction ... [that) encompass a radical feminist reordering of social and fictional hierarchies[,] ... [for] the way in which she, employs an inheritance of Yiddish and Hebrew themes and tones in an experimental fictional mode that celebrates the female hero"(26). Broner has not rejected Judaism for the humiliation she feels the patriarchy has visited upon women but has decided, instead, to refashion Judaism in a feminist mode. Echoing the rebellious voice of Anzia Yezierska, who found the patriarchal hierarchy oppressive and exclusive, but reaching beyond her to constructive and creative confrontation and engagement, Broner's novels Her Mothers and A Weave of Women move from secular feminism to feminist Judaism. A Weave of Women is a Jewish feminist declaration of independence from the constraints of Jewish patriarchy Broner's multinational women, living together in Israel, create a feminist Jewish ritual, resulting in an articulate, active role for women where they had been silent and passive. Their rituals parallel, but are distinguished from, Jewish male rituals in order to demonstrate women's Jewish cultural identity and authenticity The new liturgy is a celebration of women's lives and a contribution to a dynamic and vibrant Judaism. Broner's work has encouraged other Jewish women to appropriate their rightful place in synagogues and libraries and to begin to write on subjects long considered the male province.
A generation of Jewish-American writers has emerged that is freer than Saul Bellow initially thought he was to explore the particularity of Jewish literature, religious experience, and history. This is a self-emancipated generation, liberated to express its artistic visions in Jewish terms--a generation unwilling to accept either the constraints of the immigration/assimilation theme or the popular Roth school of social satire with its cast of stereotypical suburban Jews composed of domineering mothers, ineffectual fathers, pampered daughters, and whining sons. On the contrary, the literary school Bellow initiated and Cynthia Ozick brings to fruition illuminates Jewish themes and judiciously appropriates precursors to extend the significant contribution of Jewish writers to American letters.
No, in thunder, Mr. Fiedler. Jewish-American fiction is not dying; it is enjoying a renaissance. Jewish-American literature is a vibrant, flourishing literature, more assertive than it was in the fifties and sixties, more essentially Jewish. Literary critics will need to broaden and extend their knowledge of Judaic thought if they are to explicate this new Jewish-American fiction with the discernment it merits. Kansas State University
Bellow, Saul. Mr Sammler's Planet. New York: Viking, 1970. --. Seize the Day. New York: Viking, 1956. --. To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account. New York: Viking, 1976. Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York: Oxford UP 1982. Broner, E. M. Her Mothers. New York: Holt, 1975. --. A Weave of Women, New York: Holt, 1978. Cohen, Arthur A. In the Days of Simon Stern. New York: Random, 1972. --. The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust. New York: Crossroad, 1981. Cohen, Sarah Blacher. "Cynthia Ozick and Her New Yiddish Golem." Studies in American Jewish Literature 6 (1987): 105 10. Davidson, Cathy N. "E. M. Broner." Dictionary of Literary Biography Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers. Ed. Daniel Walden. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. 28: 26-28. Elman, Richard. Lilo's Diary. New York: Scribner's, 1968. --. The Reckoning. New York: Scribner's, 1969. --. The 28th Day of Elul. New York: Scribner's, 1967 Epstein, Leslie. King of the Jews. New York: Avon, 1979. Fiedler, Leslie. "Growing Up Post-Jewish." Fiedler on the Roof. Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity. Boston: Godine, 1991. 117-22. Herford, R. Travers, ed. and trans. Pirke Aboth: The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers. New York: Schocken, 1962. Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1961. Howe, Irving. Jewish American Stories. New York: New American Library, 1977 Klarsfeld, Serge. Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, 1942-1944. Paris: Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, 1978. Laska, Vera, ed. Women in the Resistance and in the Holocaust: The Voices of Eyewitnesses. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983. Latour, Amy. The Jewish Resistance in France: 1940-1944. Trans. Irene R. Ilton. New York: Holocaust Library, 1970. Leviant, Curt. Edward Lewis Wallant Prize Lecture. University of Hartford. West Hartford, CT, 30 Nov. 1991. --. The Man Who Thought He Was Messiah. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990. Marrus, Michael R., and Robert O. Paxton. Vichy France and the Jews. New York: Basic, 1981. Nissenson, Hugh. "The Groom of Zlota Street." Pile 15-39. --. "Hugh Nissenson." Interview. With Harold Ribalow. The Tie That Binds: Conversations with Jewish Writers. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1980. 139-63. --. In the Reign of Peace. New York: Farrar, 1972. --. "In the Reign of Peace." Reign 93-106. --. "The Law." Pile 130-62. --. A Pile of Stones. New York: Scribner's, 1965. --. "The Prisoner." Pile 40-63. --. "The Throne of Good." Reign 3-29. Ozick, Cynthia. Art & Ardor. New York: Knopf, 1983. --. "Bloodshed." Bloodshed and Three Novellas. New York: Knopf, 1976. 53-72. --. The Cannibal Galaxy. New York: Knopf, 1983. --. "Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means." Art & Ardor 238-48. --. "Literature as Idol: Haro]d Bloom." Art & Ardor 178-99. --. "The Pagan Rabbi." The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories. New York:Knopf, 1971. 1-38. --. "Puttermesser and Xanthippe." Levitation: Five Fictions. New York: Knopf, 1982. 75-158. --. "Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife." Levitation: Five Fictions. New York: Knopf, 1982. 21-38. --. Rev. of In the Days of Simon Stern, by Arthur A. Cohen. New York Times Book Review 3 June 1973: 6. --. Rev. of In the Reign of Peace, by Hugh Nissenson. New York Times Book Review 19 Mar. 1972: 4, 22. --. "Toward a New Yiddish." Art & Ardor 154-77 Rpt. from "America Toward Yavneh." Judaism 19.3 (1970): 264-82. --. Trust. New York: New American Library, 1966. Piercy, Marge. Gone to Soldiers. New York: Summit, 1987 Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. New York: Simon, 1967 Roiphe, Anne. Lovingkindness. New York: Warner, 1987 Rosen, Norma. Touching Evil. New York: Harcourt, 1969. Roskies, David. Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture. Cambridge: Harvard UP 1984. Roth, Philip. The Counterlife. New York: Farrar, 1984. Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg. Anya. New York: Macmillan, 1974. Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation. New York: Macmillan, 1972. Tushnet, Leonard. The Pavement of Hell. New York: St. Martin's, 1972. Wiesel, Elie. Jacket endorsement. The Man Who Thought He Was Messiah, by Curt Leviant. Wisse, Ruth. "American Jewish Writing, Act II." Commentary June 1976: 40-45.
Elaine M. Kauvar is associate professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York. The author of Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention (Indiana, 1993), and of articles on Ozick, William Blake, Jane Austen, and James Joyce, she is at work on a critical edition of Ozick's letters.
Murray Baumgarten, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is the author of City Scriptures: Modern Jewish Writing (Harvard, 1982) and, with Barbara Gottfried, Understanding Philip Roth (South Carolina, 1990), as well as several articles on Victorian literature. His essay here is part of a book-length study titled "The Jewish Street: Intersections and Urban Identities in Modern Jewish Writing."
Elisa New is the Esther K. and M. Mark Watkins Assistant Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Regenerate Lyric: Theology and Innovation in American Poetry (Cambridge, 1993) and of articles on Anne Bradstreet, Delmore Schwartz, Cynthia Ozick, and deconstruction and midrash.
Mark Krupnick, professor in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, is the author of Lionel Trilling and the Fate of Cultural Criticism (Northwestern, 1986) and the editor of Displacement: Derrida and After (Indiana, 1983). He has also published articles on American literature and criticism and on Jewish topics. His work in progress includes a collection of essays on the relations between religion and literature and a book on America in the 1950s.
Philip G. Cavanaugh teaches English at the Parsons School of Design and the New School for Social Research in New York. He has written essays on T. S. Eliot and the critical disintegration of Shakespeare's texts and on Faulkner's Go Down, Moses.
Marshall Bruce Gentry, associate professor of English at the University of Indianapolis, is the author of Flannery O'Connor's Religion of the Grotesque (Mississippi, 1986) and co-editor, with William L. Stull, of Conversations with Raymond Carver (Mississippi, 1990). He is writing a book on women's voices in E. L. Doctorow.
Susanne Klingenstein is assistant professor of writing and humanistic studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The author of Jews in the American Academy, 1900-1940: The Dynamics of Intellectual Assimilation (Yale, 1991), she is at work on a book manuscript titled "Rethinking Home: The Cultural Work of Jews in Literary Academe, 1930-1990." Topics of her articles include Jewish-American literature and culture, the Bible as literature, and Holocaust literature. She is a 1993 recipient of an academic research grant from Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft.
S. Lillian Kremer, assistant professor of English at Kansas State University, is at author of Witness through the Imagination: Jewish American Holocaust Literature (Wayne State, 1989) and of several essays on Jewish-American writers. She is at work on a book on women's Holocaust narrative.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Contemporary American Jewish Literature|
|Author:||Kremer, S. Lillian|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1993|
|Previous Article:||Visits to Germany in recent Jewish-American writing.|
|Next Article:||An interview with Michelle Cliff.|