Printer Friendly


When it comes to Jewish American literature, not to mention American literature in general, I confess to being a recovering snob. In graduate school my subject was Victorian fiction. With Austen, the Brontes, Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, and George Eliot in my stable, I could not see how my friends who were studying American literature could even think about getting in the horse race. When I left English for Hebrew literature, I evinced a similar hauteur regarding the worth of the cultural products of American Jewry. Yes, there may be Henry Roth, Malamud, Bellow, and Philip Roth, but if we're talking about the Jewishness of Jewish literature, there can be no reasonable comparison to Bialik, Brenner, Agnon, Uri Zvi Greenberg et al., not to mention the Hebrew language in which they wrote. My snobbishness was based on a widespread attitude at the time, which held that, despite its endearing ethnic quirks and pop-cultural appropriations, Jewish culture in America was merely a washed-out and ideologically depleted version of the European life from which it had broken away.

Later on in my career, however, I found myself willy-nilly coming back to America. I became interested in the reception of Israeli literature in America; I traced the role of popular culture in shaping Holocaust memory in America; and I invested considerable scholarly energies in uncovering the world of Hebrew literature in America. A milestone in my recovery has been Hana Wirth-Nesher's The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature. In the face of the multifarious creativity so richly documented in this expansive volume, no reasonable person could hold on to his or her skepticism. I use the term multifarious on purpose to underscore what I regard as one of the key choices in the conception of the volume: to go wide and eschew canonicity. It is not only the difference in her cultural temperament from that of Ruth Wisse's that led Wirth-Nesher to avoid attempting a canon of Jewish American literature and to present us instead with the big picture. She intuited, I think, that the case for her subject, perhaps like the case for America itself, is best made on the basis of the many rather than the few.

In looking at the Cambridge History as a whole, I want to draw a line from the beginning to the end, from Hana Wirth-Nesher's "Introduction" to Josh Lambert's "Since 2000." I hear in Wirth-Nesher's elegant essay a plaintive theme. It opines that if there still needs to be documentation of the achievement of Jewish American literature, here is ample evidence for why the subject deserves to be taught as part of the offerings of English departments rather than being propped up as a special interest by Jewish Studies programs. Fast forward to Lambert's coda to the volume, which gives substance to Wirth-Nesher's fears. The success of recent fiction on Jewish themes, in Lambert's analysis, is the result of an array of enabling institutional structures set up by the Jewish community, including book prizes, elite fellowships, and family networks. Although he is discussing publishing rather than the academy, the outcome is the same. Jewish American literature receives notice and esteem only when the Jews themselves insist upon it.

I understand Wirth-Nesher's disappointment. It is a retrospective disappointment shared by many looking over the four or five decades since Jewish Studies became established in major American universities. We knew that it would take Jewish money to create positions and get courses taught, but we hoped that once that process was underway the importance of the study of the Jews and their civilization would become self-evident and that the history of the West would be enlarged correspondingly. Although making global generalizations is enormously difficult, I would venture to say that, with the exception of the origins of Christianity, the Holocaust, and the Israeli-Arab conflict, the historical experience of the Jewish people has not made the difference that was hoped for. And this applies to Jewish American literature as well. It is neither rational nor just, but that is the way it is.

If I don't share this wistfulness, it's because I've never expected that genuine and abiding interest in Jewish culture coming from anyone other than Jews. It follows that it is our natural responsibility to sustain our culture, nurture it and study it--without the expectation that it will be taken up by the world. In the institutional supports Lambert describes I see only robust self-regard. And when it comes to the academy, it is we who should be grateful for the chance to teach Jewish Studies within the framework of the humanities. It affords us the opportunity to view the cultural objects we make from the outside through new and changing modes of knowledge. Yes, the Jews have gifts to confer on those who are interested in acknowledging and receiving them. Yet as someone for whom Jewish peoplehood is at the root of his being, I'm less interested in gifting than in enhancing our own self-understanding by access to the discourses of the university.

Surely one of the reasons to celebrate the Cambridge History is that it whets our appetite for things to come. Perhaps the bounty it sets before us is not the banquet itself but only the forshpays? The multiple narratives of acculturation and alienation described by Michael Wood have wound down, although such outliers as Russian immigrants and former haredi Jews have injected new energy into old tales. Gesturing to Morris Dickstein, Wood wonders whether a new narrative of return is taking shape. What will be the stuff of Jewish American literature in the coming decades? It's hard to see much vigor coming from the drift of millennials into the kind of hazy identity in which Jewishness is one module among many. The sensitive chapter by Naomi Sokoloff begs the question about whether the vibrant literature produced in Israel, read in America in translation, will install itself as an integral part of Jewish American literature. Not only Yehoshua, Oz, and Grossman, but the great outlier himself: S. Y. Agnon. The recent wave of translations of his work make it possible to speak meaningfully of an English Agnon, and I remain optimistic about his finding a readership here. For secular Israelis, his work is sadly seen as the poisoned fruit of established religion; and for many religious Israelis, it is tainted by the very fact of being modern literature. In America, however, these divisions have not hardened in the same way, and the genuine Jewishness of Agnon's works may still prove alluring.

Evoking Agnon makes the saving point that Jewish American fiction and poetry need not be limited to the "way we live now," to the sociology of Jewish life. There is an extraordinary reservoir of stories, ideas, and symbols lodged in the textual tradition of Judaism that has barely been tapped by serious writers. That's where I would put my money.

ALAN MINTZ was the Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A world authority on Hebrew literature, he was the author of numerous books, including Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature; Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America; and Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry. During the last years of his life he turned his attention back to one of first interests, the work of S. Y. Agnon, the greatest Hebrew fiction writer of modern times. He was working on a biography of Agnon at the time of his death. Mintz's last book, which appeared shortly after he passed away, was a study of Agnon's late-career writing, Ancestral Tales: Reading the Buczacz Stories of S. Y. Agnon. He died at the age of seventy in May of 2017.

COPYRIGHT 2018 Pennsylvania State University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Mintz, Alan
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2018

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters