The Chosen One Hundred: A Study in Jewish Elitism

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February 1, 2002
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By Mik Moore

Ours is a culture obsessed with lists. Person-ally, I blame David Letterman, although his nightly Top Ten List remains among the most entertaining two minutes on television. Ever since Letterman began his list, American popular culture has become fascinated with this particular act of numeracy. This frenzy has led to the inevitable: a television show on VH1 called The List, the sole purpose of which is to create and then refine variously categorized lists of songs.

The Academy has long favored lists, where they are referred to as canons. Unlike the lists found in popular culture, which are created for fun and are typically harmless, canons can be dangerous. During the past thirty years, the civil rights, feminist, and LGBT movements have developed a critique of canons that I find persuasive. To summarize, canons are created to provide the measure of what counts as “good” and important in a field. They have moral and ethical force. Canons are exclusive, entrenched, enduring, and self-perpetuating. And they enshrine traditional ideas about what makes for “greatness.” Almost unfailingly, “greatness” largely excludes society’s marginalized groups.

Jewish writers continue to be excluded from the traditional canon of “great” literature. Many Jews have reacted to this exclusion by developing or embracing the critique of canons. The National Yiddish Book Center has responded to Jewish exclusion by practicing Jewish exclusion. The Chosen 100 is the functional equivalent of exclusive Jewish social clubs, created to mirror their exclusive Christian counterparts. Just as these Jewish clubs are not open to all Jews, this canon is not open to all Jewish writers.

The primary goal of the Chosen 100, according to Nancy Sherman, is getting Jews to read Jewish literature. This is commendable but unexceptional. It would be great if more Jews read Jewish literature; as Ruth Wisse notes, “Jewish literature is the repository of the modern Jewish experience.” It would also be great if more non-Jews read Jewish literature. However, encouraging Jewish literacy in modern texts does not depend upon the creation of a canon. I suspect that Sherman’s laudable goal may be of lesser importance to some of the canonites who savor the permanency of placing their favorite works between hard covers.

Why should four men and two women be empowered to select our communal reading list? If the Chosen 100 were merely being published for fun, like Rob Fleming’s endless lists in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, it would be difficult to object. But to set out deliberately to create a canon of modern Jewish literature, supported by Jewish communal resources, is wrongheaded. Perhaps we can refrain – just this once – from aping our Christian neighbors in their determination to judge and then separate the elite from the chaf. Let not the excluded become the excluders.

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Mik Moore is Political Director for New York City Councilman James Sanders, Jr. From 1996 to 1998 he was Executive Director of the Jewish Student Press Service and Editor of New Voices.

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