One Hundred Great Works of Modern Jewish Literature

February 1, 2002
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By Nancy Sherman

Jews have been known throughout history as Am Ha Sefer, the People of the Book. Yet the remarkable body of modern Jewish literature produced since the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, is today largely untaught and unread. Even those familiar with classical Jewish sources and first-rate Jewish nonfiction have read few works of the modern Jewish imagination – our great fiction, poetry, drama, and memoir.

The challenge is to reintegrate this powerful literature into daily Jewish life and draw out its relevance. Our own books can provide answers to the passionate questions that lie at the heart of all great literature: Who am I? Where did I come from? How shall I live? In the words of Ruth Wisse, “Modern Jewish literature is the repository of modern Jewish experience. It is the most complete way of knowing the inner life of the Jews.”

The list of 100 Great Modern Jewish Books recently compiled by the National Yiddish Book Center is, unabashedly, a program intended to attract attention – not to the Center, nor to the list’s eminent panel of judges (Glenda Abramson, Robert Alter, Gershon Shaked, Ilan Stavans, Kenneth Turan, and Ruth Wisse) – but to the power of Jewish literature and its potential to change our lives. It is intended to entice Jews into reading their own story as told by them and for them. By identifying these 100 great books, the judges set forth a discrete body of work, a modern canon, that will serve as both a record and a resource. The goal of the list? To arouse interest and debate within the Jewish community, and to re-direct Jewish readers to their own literary heritage and thence to new sources of creativity and self-understanding.

The books on the list are in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Italian. These works depict Jews confronting modernity at every possible juncture: in peace, war, poverty, wealth, love, and death. What unites them imaginatively is their deliberate, explicit depiction of Jewish experience or Jewish sensibility.

The Great Jewish Books list is just a beginning. The program also intends to help teachers bring these modern literary marvels into the classroom accompanied by curricular materials. The list will serve as the basis for the Center’s on-demand publishing program, which will reissue selected out-of-print titles. Readings, conferences, teacher training programs, book clubs, and other initiatives are being planned, all using the 100 titles as the starting point.

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Nancy Sherman is vice president of the National Yiddish Book Center and editor of Pakn Treger, the Center's English-language magazine.

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