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Big Jewish Novels

Jewcy ranks the most ‘essential’ Jewish fiction of the last 100 years

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Franz Kafka.(Random House)

Jewcy’s Jason Diamond counts down “The 50 Most Essential Works of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years,” and, like any list of this type, it is designed more to start conversations than to end them.

What is most interesting to me about it, for example, is that (to my reading, anyway) Jason places a premium on how essential a work was to literature and culture at large rather than specifically to Jewish culture. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (number two), for example, is undoubtedly one of the five most essential works of all fiction over the last 100 years, but while Jason is certainly not wrong to classify it as “Jewish”—Proust’s mother was Jewish and he identified with Jews greatly; and besides, Charles Swann, the protagonist of the first volume, is a Jew—there is more than one book that was more essential specifically to Jewish fiction than this one (like, for example, the one ranked just below it, Portnoy’s Complaint). Ditto The Catcher in the Rye, which is indeed authored by a Jew and is indeed every bookish eighth-grade boy’s favorite book, but whose influence on Jewish literature pales even against Bellow’s less-good works.

Also, let’s hear it for 2010: Both The Instructions and Witz made Jason’s list.

One other note: I guess he technically can’t count as “fiction” (although I am giving his detractors room for a great punch-line), but I would love to have seen something by Freud make it onto the list (I know he explicitly called his Moses and Monotheism an “historical novel”). I don’t even think Kafka is more Jewish than Freud. Big Jew!

Anyway, go debate!

The 50 Most Essential Works of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years [Jewcy]

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Marcia Almey says:

What? No Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Chabon) or St. Urbain’s Horsemen (Richler)?

Dan Klein says:

@Marcia, nah Kavalier and Clay is way better. What’s missing is Paley, A.M. Klein’s The Second Scroll, Schnitzler’s The Road into the Open–and if you want to stretch definitions a little bit, Stan Lee and Borges.

Lots of Jewish women writers missing in action (Paley most obvious to me); hardly any of the many great Israelis, notably, if you want to talk about “post-Holocaust”, David Grossman’s See Under: Love; and in the case of Malamud, aren’t his short stories like Jewbird and Magic Barrel where his lasting greatness resides? He taught the world’s writers more about the short story than anyone since De Maupassant!

I’m not going to quibble about the individual choices, although there are certainly quite a few that I’d disagree with. But there also seems to be an entire country missing–one with a fair number of rather well-known Jewish novelists…

I wonder why “The Chosen” wasn’t chosen, let alone anything by Chaim Potok?

Marcia Almey says:

Dan, as a Canadian, I can only agree about A. M. Klein. And then there’s Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers. And I do love Grace Paley. And just about anything by Philip Roth.

Most of that stuff is post WWII. Where’s Der Nister? Sholem Ash? Chaim Grade? SHOLEM ALEICHEM? MENDELE?

They forgot the books from the Jewish country–Israel. Even if the author of this list can’t read Hebrew there’s plenty of good translations out there. And some of them aren’t even about Neurotic Ashkenazim such as Mr. Manni.

If the list isn’t emphasizing how fiction has impacted us as Jews in the past century and rather as humans in general, then what makes it Jewish fiction? I think the list would have to be greatly altered to include the works that other comments have felt missing from this list. Otherwise, a good starting point.

JCarpenter says:

Seriously, no Chaim Potok? The Chosen, The Promise, My Name is Asher Lev . . . .

Chaim Greyde wrote a short story, dramatized by Joseph Telushkin, made into a film in 1991 “The Quarrel”—an astounding piece in my opinion.

I have used Potok’s works and the film “The Quarrel” along with stories by Malamud and prose of Elie Wiesel in h.s. literature classes.

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Big Jewish Novels

Jewcy ranks the most ‘essential’ Jewish fiction of the last 100 years

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