Writing, Religion, Nationality: A Close Look in the Mirror

Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer, edited by Derek Rubin. Schocken Books, 348 pages, $25.

When I entered college, in the mid-1960’s, my freshman class was asked to read two books over the summer: Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King was one of them. In freshman English, along with Joyce and Kafka and Alain-Fournier, we were assigned Bellow’s The Victim. In freshman philosophy, we read The Ethics of Spinoza. In later poetry courses, we read the work of Denise Levertov and Muriel Rukeyser. Not one of my English teachers in all four years was Jewish, and, with the exception of Levertov’s poems about her family, I don’t remember that the subject of whether the assigned writers were Jewish, Jewish-Dutch or Jewish-American was ever discussed. (Indeed, in Levertov’s case, the discussion hardly rivaled those in senior year about the significance of Judaism to Leopold Bloom, who was neither a writer nor even a real person.) We were simply reading literature, good literature, which stood up well next to James and Chekhov and William Carlos Williams; that was why it was being taught.

You may notice that I haven’t mentioned Philip Roth, who, when I was in college, was creating a stir in American letters with his short-story collection Goodbye, Columbus and, more sensationally, his novel Portnoy’s Complaint. That’s because no one mentioned him, at least in class. Indeed, the first book I acquired with his name on it was a copy of Tadeusz Borowski’s permanently searing collection of short stories about Auschwitz, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, whose English translation was published by Penguin as part of a series of Eastern European writers for which Mr. Roth served as the overall editor. It would be 20 years before I discovered Mr. Roth’s own brilliant fiction-and when I did, I simply classified it for myself as world literature, like that of the writers he served with such sobriety of purpose as an editor. Mr. Roth, like Bellow and Spinoza, writes for the world.

I happen to be the granddaughter of a rabbi and of a carpenter whose reading consisted almost entirely of Hebrew prayers in the synagogue, but my own identity isn’t really germane to my reading. Isn’t that what reading is all about-to transcend one’s identity, to learn what one doesn’t already know? This comes directly from my rabbi grandfather, born in Katzenellenbogen-by-the-Sea, whose favorite authors were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Browning.

So you can appreciate what a simple-minded soul-what a “Western secular humanist,” as Chaim Potok might put it-your reviewer is. And how old.

Time to unscroll the 30 personal essays that comprise Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer. “Unscroll” is the operative word. Of course, this adventuresome collection could be plundered arbitrarily, to find, for instance, which books have meant the most to Grace Paley, or what Art Spiegelman thinks his Jewish-American (or American-Jewish) identity is and how he’s passing it along to his kids, or whom Allegra Goodman believes is her core audience, or how Leslie Epstein views his father’s screenplays in light of the anti-Semitism underlying the HUAC investigations, or what Erica Jong thinks a Jew is. (“A Jew is a person who is safe nowhere.”)

You can dip into this collection according to byline, but it isn’t meant to be read that way. Its editor, Derek Rubin-a native of South Africa who grew up in Israel and now teaches American studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands-has carefully chosen his roster of contributors (all living at the time the book was put together, approximately half of them women) and then arranged their contributions in chronological order of their birth years. None are survivors of the Holocaust; all but three were born in the United States. However, several are children of survivors, including Melvin Jules Bukiet and Thane Rosenbaum, to whom Mr. Rubin offers special thanks for help.

The first half of the collection is overshadowed by Irving Howe’s prediction that, as Steve Stern puts it, “with greater distance from the immigrant experience and without some authentic connection to community, so-called Jewish American fiction would become attenuated … in short, dry up.” The second half is overshadowed by the concerns of the postwar generation, who feel the need to rebuild a sense of Jewish identity in a country that turned away many of the Jews fleeing the Nazis.

Who We Are is intended to be perused in sequence, as a symposium, and if you submit to that didactic process, the book suggests-with astonishing force-that the currently young generation of Jewish fiction writers, such as Ms. Goodman and Dara Horn, have rejected the austere distinction between Judaism as a faith and a tradition and writing as a universal activity unbounded by considerations of origin-the view articulated by Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Mr. Roth, E.L. Doctorow and, perhaps most persuasively, Alan Lelchuk.

Mr. Lelchuk writes: “Literature is a force for disturbing the complacencies of our reason, the prejudices of our emotion, the formulas of our language. In other words, it is a force for restabilization-at times revaluation-all in the interest of removing our bondage to the received wisdom of family, country, religion, whatever tyrannizes us in the helpless years of childhood and youth.”

This is passionate, heady stuff, and Who We Are is richly endowed with it. The singular virtue of the collection, apart from the connoisseur’s charm it offers of comparing the writing styles of 30 authors from four or five generations, is that the writers care about the issues they argue, and they make the reader care, too. Many readers will respond to Ms. Jong’s anxiety about what it means to be Jewish; however, if there’s one sentence to carry away, it’s Philip Roth’s: “The solution is not to convince people to like Jews so as not to want to kill them; it is to let them know that they cannot kill them even if they despise them.” Whatever it means to be a Jewish writer, in America or elsewhere, below that statement one cannot go. Everything else is commentary.

Mindy Aloff, whose book reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Forward and The Threepenny Review, teaches a course in the personal essay to freshmen at Barnard College.