The New Diaspora: The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction.
Anyone paying attention to recent American Jewish fiction knows the field is expanding. New voices have spoken, complex literary devices have been used, narratives have been drawn from the most unlikely corners of the Jewish world. But who can say what these developments mean in the larger sweep of Jewish cultural history? Who can sift through the roster of new names to get at the main questions-whether American Jewish literature remains a coherent category, how it measures up in relation to celebrated earlier periods, whom it speaks to and for, how it should be defined, and what sort of future it may have? Many thousands of pages must be read and a generous, expansive sense of "Jewish fiction" must be embraced before such questions can be responsibly addressed.
Fortunately for us, three distinguished scholars with impeccable literary taste have produced an anthology that winnows the field while remaining faithful to its variety. The volume is big in every sense of the word. Using a format almost the size of a tractate of the Vilna Shas, it contains thirty-six (double Chai!) works by some of our worthiest writers, with appendices, biographical information, and a wide-ranging introduction. But if these trappings bespeak a scholarly agenda, the works themselves are compulsively readable, emotionally gripping, often quite hilarious. The selections in the first half of the anthology come from winners of the annual Edward Lewis Wallant Award, given each year to a work of "significance for the American Jew." Our editors served for eight years on the award committee, along with others. Having survived multiple readers and stages of vetting, these selections thus represent something like a consensus view of the emerging standard in America Jewish fiction. The second half of the anthology moves farther afield, introducing some newer and relatively neglected names. Marquee figures such as Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Michael Chabon, Paul Auster, and Jonathan Lethem are justifiably excluded to make way for newcomers, including three who were born in Russia (Maxim Shrayer, Nadia Kalman, and Lara Vapnyar), one in Latvia (David Bezmozgis), one in South Africa (Tony Eprile), and two in Israel (Ehud Havazelet and Avner Mandelbaum). Such writers have been shaped by histories largely unfamiliar to native-born Americans, especially on the deepest levels of felt experience. Even as they filter these experiences through the idioms and rhythms of contemporary American fiction, they remind us of just how variable the Jewish experience is and has been across the globe.
The purpose behind the anthology is laid bare in the title and introduction: these works are collectively understood as a new moment--"new" in this case meaning primarily in relation to the postwar generation of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Roth. The impulse to announce a movement beyond this group is, in itself, not especially new. Celebrated as these writers are, some critics began to express impatience with them once their status was enshrined. Some found their Jewishness too attenuated; others dissented from their attitudes toward race, gender, and cultural politics; others simply resisted the notion that this generation had spoken once and for all for the American Jewish experience. As early as 1976, Ruth Wisse wrote in her article "American Jewish Writing, Act II" that the themes of alienation and victimization, so prevalent in previous years, had disappeared in a new kind of writing steeped in "internal Jewish life and lore" (1) In 1997, Tikkun Magazine identified similar kinds of re-commitments in a symposium on "the Jewish literary revival." (2) And numerous anthologies have appeared tracking new approaches to specific themes, ranging from Holocaust memory to coming of age in America to sex. Such revisionary efforts have been important, but they are often themselves limited by some ideological purpose, some sense of what "Jewish literature" should do.
A great virtue of The New Diaspora, by contrast, is its agnosticism toward definitional questions. The anthology celebrates multiplicity and contradiction; there are even a few stories with no "Jewish" content whatsoever. According to the editors' implicit working definition, "American Jewish fiction" turns out to be a varied, capacious realm, filled with works and figures whose family resemblances are almost as hard to detect as, well, those of any family in our postmodern age. "At no point in our considerations," the editors declare, "did [we] ever discuss a desire to shape the collection in any direction other than to show the writers through their best work" (16). A few broad pronouncements are offered in the introduction: the age of the "grandly declared and anxiously defended 'self'" has passed away, giving way to a sense of Jews as a "collective body embedded in history" (4-5); the newer writers take their Jewishness "as a given" (5); a broadly conceived tradition of Jewish storytelling has endured (16). But the overall effect of the anthology is to impress the reader with the sheer vitality of this writing. At their most effusive, the editors argue that the present moment "roughly resembles the Jewish literary diaspora of a full century ago," the period that brought us Kafka, Agnon, and Babel-and that contained multiple possibilities for fiction besides the postwar realist novel centered on the alienated subject (12).
To glimpse the new directions taken by this collection, consider how it differs from Irving Howe's 1977 anthology Jewish-American Stories, an excellent summation of the earlier generation (and the site of Howe's famously contested view that American Jewish fiction had by that point already passed its high point). (3) For one thing, of the twenty-six stories in Howe's collection, only one references modern Israel-and in a highly schematic way. That story, written by Johanna Kaplan, pits a sensitive girl from a Yiddish-speaking New York home against a domineering Sabra camp counselor in the Catskills. This familiar binary reflects a period when American Jewish writers typically viewed Israel through a haze of abstractions; even Philip Roth's Israel is often little more than a backdrop for ideological debate. By contrast, The New Diaspora features stories that depict Israel as a space of genuine lived experience, a key site on the map of modern Jewish identity-making. Israel emerges as a place where collective and personal histories overlap; no single set of meanings can be allocated to "the Jewish State."
Four of these works hone in on a new motif we might call "the ambivalent Israel pilgrimage." In Joshua Henkin's "Sex on the Brain," an American woman returns to the kibbutz that shaped her early Zionist outlook. In Joan Leegant's "The Baghdadi," a woman takes a temporary academic post in Tel Aviv to flee a breakup. In Scott Nadelson's "Oslo," a boy's grandparents give him a bar mitzvah trip to Israel that turns nightmarish. In Margot Singer's "Deir Yassin," a woman travels to Jerusalem to obey her uncle's wish to have his ashes scattered there. To name a story "Oslo" or "Deir Yassin" would seemingly foreground the vicissitudes of public history, but in these works the personal trumps the political; ideology dissolves amidst the vagaries of desire and emotion. In each story, some significant meeting heralds a transformative insight, though the conclusions reached remain ambiguous. Indeed, the American Jew's ambiguous relationship to Israel seems inevitable in these stories-especially since the Israel we encounter is thoroughly implicated in networks of global exchange and conflicting narratives. We find Ben and Jerry's and Arab Bazaars selling Grateful Dead tee shirts; we find a Baghdadi immigrant who sees Israel as a place of exile. Zionist grand narratives are hinted at, but they remain a distant backdrop to personal dramas, lives in transition. There are moments of insight, but they have an improvised, provisional quality. Just before leaving Israel, Henkin's protagonist hungrily devours a falafel given to her by a kindly man during a chance encounter on the street. This is hardly the grand ingathering of exiles imagined by idealistic Zionist thinkers, but it does point to new forms of sustenance, a possible turning point in a troubled life.
Another new story type here focuses around the theme of embracing Jewish religious practice. Julie Orringer's "The Smoothest Way is Full of Stones" and Francine Prose's "Electricity" provide sympathetic, though not uncritical portraits of the Ba'al Teshuvah. The path of mitzvoth offers guidance to characters in extremis, though the choice seems overly willed, and the narratives are anything but preachy. Eileen Pollack's "The Bris" and Tova Reich's "Dedicated to the Dead" offer deviously comical glosses to the conversion theme. Reversing the traditional Jewish assimilation story, they track the machinations of goyim trying to blend in with Jews. Pollack's protagonist has lived his life as an orthodox Jew, but to make it official before dying, he must inveigle his son into arranging a bris. Reich's protagonist realizes that "in his previous life, he had been the Jew Yankel Galitzianer, murdered during the war in one of the death camps in Poland"--and the narrative itself does nothing to dispel his conviction (261).
Then there are several stories woven around key figures from Jewish history. Melvin Jules Bukiet brings us Franz Kafka as an impressionable boy in "The Two Franzes"; Joseph Skibell tracks down Ludwig Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto, in a central European resort (excerpt from An Incurable Romantic); Dara Horn imagines Marc Chagall as an art teacher near Moscow, goading his students to paint with conviction (excerpt from The World to Come); Joseph Epstein gives us a biting, thinly-disguised portrait of Saul Bellow in "My Brother, Eli"; and Jonathan Rosen gives us the actual Saul Bellow, though we meet him in the afterlife, located just beyond Ellis Island, in "The True World". These works all affirm the importance of landmark figures from Jewish cultural history, though the impulse to pay obeisance is leavened by postmodern playfulness. In Howe's anthology, the writers seem unaware of participating in a specific tradition of Jewish writers and thinkers. There, it was up to the editor to make these connections for the reader. Here, such connections have already been made--and at least partly unmade--by the writers themselves. Precursors are ubiquitous; the question is how to refashion them, to draw on their strength without surrendering to them.
But for all of these innovations and bold new directions, many of these stories return to certain themes that feel quite familiar. An underlying weight of concern pulls them back towards the very postwar tradition they were supposed to have transcended. In Howe's collection two of the most powerful works are Bellow's "The Old System" and Tillie Olsen's "Tell Me a Riddle." Both are meditations on the immigrant generation, specifically on old Jews from the old country who wither away before our eyes and die before the stories are over. These works sound elegiac tones for characters with outsized personalities. We admire them, but with wistfulness, because we know their habits of mind, mood, and behavior have no place in America. It is surprising how many stories in The New Diaspora similarly linger over intractable old Jews in their dying moments. In addition to Pollack's "The Bris," we can include in this category Harvey Grossinger's "Dinosaurs," Gerald Shapiro's "Mandelbaum, the Criminal," Bezmozgis' "Minyan," and Radish's "The Argument." Each is in its own way a meditation on senescence and death, on endings that do not necessarily augur new beginnings. At the end of Grossinger's story, for instance, after burying his grandfather Zolly in a Bronx cemetery, the narrator returns to the old man's former house and changes into a full suit of his clothing, unable suddenly to shake the knowledge that "Zolly's life had been somehow superior to mine" (194). In the other stories there are last minute reconciliations among ancient Jews who seem to possess a special resilience and capacity for forgiveness. The common effect of this group of stories is to sustain the longing among American Jews for earlier ways of life, for old Jews who may be foolish and pigheaded in their own ways--and yet who embody styles of fellowship and feeling that call out for commemoration, perhaps imitation. To discover this familiar fascination with old Jews among works from a purportedly "new diaspora" is not to question the editors' claims for their quality and significance; but it might make us pause before declaring--or even claiming to desire-some wholly new direction in American Jewish fiction.
University of Michigan
(1.) Ruth Wisse. "American Jewish Writing, Act II." Commentary 61 (June, 1976): 41.
(2.) Tikkun Magazine 12 (November-December, 1997): 33-76.
(3.) Irving Howe, ed. Jewish-American Stories (New York: Mentor-New American Library, 1977)
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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