Jews and Books

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November 1, 2000
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Alvin Rosenfeld

For the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a judge for the Koret Jewish Book Awards in the area of fiction. According to some, we are living in an age that soon may see the “death of the book,” but word about the coming demise evidently has not reached Jewish writers, for my fellow judges and I have been seeing nothing but books and more books. The first year, we received 50 works of fiction; this past year, the number jumped to 65. These are generous yields by any measure and suggest that the muse who inspires Jewish writers, far from departing the scene, seems to be working overtime.

While I personally think it is premature to proclaim this a time of genuine Renaissance in American Jewish creativity, it is nonetheless a good time, and there are many contemporary Jewish voices that are well worth listening to. The fiction writers among them do not constitute anything like a coherent “school” or “movement” of Jewish writing, but at their best they give us books that implicate Jewish ideas, passions, memories, conflicts, and concerns in thoughtful and often moving ways. As with everything else in American culture, what is being produced by American Jewish writers is an assorted mix of the serious and the trendy, the labor of good minds and of minds less gifted and searching. Sorting out what is most worthy from this mix is not always easy, but if one reads deeply and with a discriminating eye, wonderful things begin to appear. These include some fine novels and short story collections by our most honored and established writers-Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick-as well as books of real merit by mid-career or newly emerging writers-Rebecca Goldstein, Aryeh Lev Stollman, Ehud Havazelet, Nathan Englander, Allegra Goodman, Brian Morton, Pearl Abraham, Alan Hoffman, Steve Stern, Leslie Epstein. Others would augment this list with additional names, but even without them, the point is clear: we are getting interesting and accomplished books by American Jewish writers, and more are surely on the way.

What accounts for this impressive outpouring of books, and what role might such books be playing in American Jewish life?

If there really is such a thing as American Jewish literature, it owes its existence as much to readers as to writers. Whatever else may explain its genesis, Jewish literature is a function of our need – a need for writing that helps to fill the empty Jewish spaces inside us. In today’s America, these spaces are larger and a good deal emptier than they have been in the past, when many American Jews could still draw on the rich inheritance of Jewish immigrant culture to tell them who they were and where they came from, even if not necessarily where they were headed. Much of that is now gone. Moreover, we know, sorrowfully, where many American Jews are headed – out the door, un-selfconsciously on their way to some culturally ill-defined space that is largely divorced from the Jewish past and hardly promising of anything like a meaningful Jewish future.

While America has been extraordinarily good to the Jews, most of us do not live within a coherent Jewish culture; instead we are tugged this way and that by interests, passions, ambitions, and allegiances of all kinds. In such a condition, meaning is hard to locate, but an approximation of it can be discovered in the pages of a good book. In reading, we spot glimpses of the familiar and consequential and see ourselves as never before. Our writers, in short, often know us better than we know ourselves and help to reconnect us to those sources of meaning – personal, familial, communal, historical, and religious – without which we lead imaginatively impoverished lives. Good books rescue us from such impoverishment. Good Jewish books do so in an accent that we recognize as our own.

Writer Edmond Jbes offers this aphoristic wisdom: “If God is, it is because He is in the book. If sages, saints, and prophets exist, … it is because their names are found in the book. The world exists because the book does.” Certainly a Jewish world exists because the book does. While it would be an arrogance to say that where the Torah once was, the novel now is, it is to the novel and other forms of secular literature that the majority of literate Jews look for some of the meaning they seek. I do not want to exaggerate: Jewish novelists and short story writers are not sages, saints, and prophets, but in the absence of such figures, they may be the next best thing.

If American Jewry really is to enjoy a Renaissance, then one of its credos will have to be: “I read; therefore, I am.” So, blessings upon Ozick, Goldstein, and the others for the gift of their books. They keep us from dullness. They also keep us honest to our essence. And – who knows? All of that may even help to keep us meaningfully Jewish.

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Alvin Rosenfeld is Professor of English and Director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, author of numerous books and articles on Holocaust literature, American Jewish writing, and American poetry.

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