Who We Are

June 1, 2005
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Michal Lemberger

Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer. Ed. Derek Rubin (Schoken Books, 2005) $25, 368 pp.

IN 1963, PHILIP ROTH took on his critics with a scathing essay responding to attacks that he had supposedly portrayed Jews in a negative light. He accused them of many things: timidity, paranoia, self-pity, but most of all, lack of imagination. People who cannot understand that to write about flawed Jews is not tantamount to betraying the tribe, he asserted, simply misunderstand the role of fiction, whose goals are not religious or anthropological. Responding to one vocal critic, he wrote, “What fiction does and what the rabbi would like it to do are two entirely different things. The concerns of fiction are not those of a statistician — or of a public-relations firm. The novelist asks himself, ‘What do people think?’ The PR man asks, ‘What will people think?’”

When Roth wrote that essay, Jews were in the strange position of being a visible minority while at the same time producing novelists — Bellow, Roth, Ozick, and Malamud — who were (more or less) defining American literature as Jewish American literature. They were infusing an ethnic, post-immigration ethos into the larger literary scene. The degree to which they succeeded is acknowledged in the proliferation of ethnic literatures and the ongoing debate concerning the character of the American literary canon. While some assert that few non-white, non-male writers should be admitted to that canon, few would argue that members of the “greatest generation” of Jewish American writers do belong, and that all subsequent Jewish American writers live and produce in the shadows of their forebears.

This is nothing new, of course. All of Jewish literature, from Deuteronomy on, is a response to what has been written earlier. The Medieval commentators — Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides — were all conscious of the fact that they were part of an expanding tradition whose vitality depended upon the infusion of new interpretive gestures applied to ancient, even intrinsic, human situations.

So how are succeeding generations to define themselves? Should they, like Cynthia Ozick, reject the term “Jewish American writer” altogether as too parochial? Or should they embrace it, as Erica Jong does, as a uniquely American way to define class? These are some of the questions posed in Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer, a new collection of essays by writers spanning three generations.

The collection showcases a generational shift that could not have been predicted in the 1960s. While the essays written by older writers — like Roth — wrestle with the implications of assimilation, the youngest artists have built a literary philosophy upon the notion of responding to Jewish religious and textual tradition. While older writers came into their own in the shadow of the Holocaust or an American atmosphere tinged by antisemitism, those born later in the century — especially after 1970 — no longer understand themselves in relation to these phenomena. In large part, that shift stands as proof of how far Jews, and America, have traveled.

While individually these essays are charming, astute, and often witty, certain motifs become tedious: I lost count of how many times I. B. Singer’s dictum, “every writer must have an address,” came up. And the notion of the Jew as outsider, while historically true, was mentioned too often, making some of the entries feel redundant.

As Derek Rubin points out in his introduction, scholars and critics have long tried to define the “Jewish American writer,” and they have often roped the writers themselves into the debate, convening panels and readings, and soliciting essays. But the question they want answered is not: Who are these writers? It is: Who are we?

That writers themselves tend to be pulled into this more existential reckoning somewhat ambivalently shows just how torn they are: Jews, yes, but they each try to do what all writers do — write about the human condition. After almost half a century, we still ask our fiction writers to define us to ourselves. It is to our credit that we understand, to one degree or another, how powerful the written word is, but what we desire of our “Jewish American writers” is a heavy burden, one too heavy for any of them to carry.

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Michal Lemberger received her PhD in English from UCLA. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches literature and works as a freelance writer and editor.

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