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The End of American Jewish Literature, Again

What role does America play in Jewish life, and by extension what kind of Jewish literature can be created here?

David Bezmozgis
September 17, 2014
(Margarita Korol)

The title of this talk is “The End of American Jewish Literature, Again.” It alludes to an oft-cited and, for some, provocative essay written by the late American Jewish scholar and critic Irving Howe. The essay was in fact his introduction to an anthology he edited, Jewish-American Stories, published in 1977. The anthology assembled stories by many of the writers responsible for what is considered to be the golden age of American Jewish writing: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud, Henry Roth, Stanley Elkin, and others. Usually when the essay is invoked it is for the lines that appear near its conclusion. I’ll quote them for you in full:

There remains the question, worth asking if impossible to answer with certainty: What is the likely future of American Jewish writing? Has it already passed its peak of achievement and influence? Can we expect a new generation of writers to appear who will contribute to American literature a distinctive sensibility and style derived from the Jewish experience in this country?

Howe continues:

My own view is that American Jewish fiction has probably moved past its high point. Insofar as this body of writing draws heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning out of materials and memories. Other than in books and sentiment, there just isn’t enough left of that experience. Even some of the writers, men and women of middle age and beyond, who have themselves lived through the immigrant experience now seem to be finding that their recollections have run dry. Or that in their stories and novels they have done as much with these recollections as they can. The sense of an overpowering subject, the sense that this subject imposes itself upon their imaginations—this grows weaker, necessarily, with the passage of the years. There remains, to be sure, the problem of “Jewishness” and the rewards and difficulties of definition it may bring us. But this problem, though experienced as an urgent one by at least some people, does not yield a thick enough sediment of felt life to enable a new outburst of writing about American Jews. It is too much a matter of will and nerves, and not enough shared experience. Besides, not everything which concerns or interests us can be transmuted into imaginative literature.

In the bulk of the essay that precedes these words, Howe had gone about anatomizing and defining American Jewish literature, identifying the features that made it distinctive. In my talk, I will address these features. But just from the lines I quoted, you can see the emphasis Howe places on the immigrant experience for American (and, because I make my home in Canada, and because I see no great distinction between the American and Canadian Jewish experience), let’s say North American Jewish literature.

If Howe’s pronouncement is provocative, it is provocative in the way any death knell is provocative. The end of something is, in its way, a sad and frightening proposition. It’s a fear we all share, a perfectly legitimate fear, and we quite naturally recoil from it. We encounter predictions of this kind all the time. We’re familiar with the predictions about the end of the novel and the variations on the theme: the end of literature; the end of reading. We hear these grim prophesies and we wring our hands with despair. The same applies, of course, to the end of American Jewish literature. It is unpleasant to contemplate that something that has been so culturally rich and meaningful should come to the end of its term. I’m not immune to the despair, but I also recognize that this kind of response is unproductive. Precisely because the subject makes people uneasy, because it elicits such a strong emotional reaction, it’s worth looking at objectively.

I was unfamiliar with Howe and his essay before I published my first book, a collection of stories. On more than one occasion, when I was invited to read from this book, my hosts introduced me by invoking Howe’s essay. The implication, and more than just implication, was that my work served to refute Howe’s dour prediction. In other words, my work offered some evidence that American Jewish literature was not past its high point. However, as I understood it, my work actually confirmed Howe’s unhappy prediction. If, as Howe says, American Jewish writing is inherently immigrant writing, and predominantly Eastern European, Yiddish inflected, immigrant writing, if it is nourished by this immigrant experience and proximity to that experience, if this is what has conferred upon American Jews their outsider status and hence their particularity, then in this sense my work does not represent an exception but rather further evidence of the rule. After all, I am a first-generation immigrant from Eastern Europe, born in Riga, Latvia in 1973 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, a country that persecuted its Jewish citizens. My mother tongue is Russian, but I also grew up hearing Yiddish, the language spoken in my grandparents’ home, and some of these Yiddish rhythms and attitudes implanted themselves somewhere, however obliquely, in my consciousness. If my work or my story can be considered anomalous it is only that Howe didn’t account for it. He, like many others, didn’t, and probably couldn’t, have anticipated that there would come another immigration from Eastern Europe in numbers sufficient enough to engender its own literature—really just a new branch sprouting from the old tree. The fact is that I have more in common with the writers Howe included in his anthology than with most of my contemporaries. For the dozen years of my professional life as a writer, I have almost exclusively taken as my subject the experiences of Russian immigrant Jews, and my conception of what can fittingly be made into art has been shaped overwhelmingly by that experience.

To illustrate this point, I’ll share with you an anecdote taken from life.

By way of background, you need to know that I’m married with three daughters: Mae, Lena, and Eve, ages 6, 3, and 3 months. My wife is American, a convert to Judaism.

One afternoon, about a year ago, a children’s music CD was playing in our living room. I was home with my Mae, my eldest, and with my mother. For some reason, a version of “Hava Nagila,” perhaps the world’s most famous Jewish song, was included in the CD. When the song came on, for my daughter’s amusement, I did a silly Russian-type folk dance, squatting and kicking my feet. Because of the dance, my daughter announced that this was Russian music. This precipitated the following exchange.

My mother, very particular about what is and what is not Jewish, quickly corrected my daughter: “It isn’t Russian. It’s Jewish.”

To which my daughter replied, “I’m Jewish.”

“Yes, you are,” my mother said.

My daughter continued, “You’re Jewish. Papa is Jewish. Lena is Jewish. But Mama isn’t.”

“Why do you say that?” my mother asked. Since my wife’s Jewish status remains for her something of a sore subject.

“Because she doesn’t speak Russian,” my daughter declared.

Ipso facto.

Now, if we ignore for the moment that none of my daughters really speak Russian and that, over time, my wife has actually picked up some of the language, the conflation my daughter makes between Russian and Jewish is essentially the same one I make, at least in terms of my writing. It’s not that I believe that one needs to speak Russian to qualify as Jewish—naturally, I do not—but it’s that I find it hard to write about Jews who do not speak Russian. In other words, like Howe, I also believe that it’s the immigrant experience that is the lifeblood of Jewish American writing. Nothing, so far as I can see, has replaced the immigrant experience as a shared feature of Jewish particularity.

When speaking about the immigrant Jewish experience, Howe took pains to identify its distinctive features. These are features that, I should add, are common to nearly every immigrant community to America’s shores:

There is the tension between the Old World and the New. Tensions rooted in traditions that are religious or cultural or both but that are in any guise different from those of the host community.

There is the locale, which for Jews was urban, crowded, poor. The Lower East Side of Manhattan is the most famous example, but variations on the theme were to be found across North America, in Bellow’s Chicago, Roth’s Newark, Malamud’s Brooklyn, and Mordecai Richler’s Montreal. Howe quotes Eudora Welty on the importance of place in literature. “ ‘The truth is, fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of “What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?” and that is the heart’s field.’ ”

Howe also contends that the family plays a far more significant role in Jewish writing than in the literature of America’s great gentile writers. “How sharply different this seems from the attitude toward the family that prevails in large stretches of American literature!” Howe writes. “When you come to think of it, where is the family in Emerson and Thoreau, in Whitman and Melville? Where is it in Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Occasionally glimpsed, more often a constraint to be left behind, rarely a dominating and enclosing presence.”

Finally there is the role of language. “It has been upon language that the American Jewish writers have most sharply left their mark,” writes Howe. “To the language of fiction they have brought turnings of voice, feats of irony, and tempos of delivery that helped create a new American style—probably a short-lived style and one that reached its fulfillment in a mere handful of writers, but a new style nonetheless. … I think it is no exaggeration to say,” Howe continues, “that since Faulkner and Hemingway the one major innovation in American prose style has been the yoking of street raciness and high-culture mandarin that we associate with the American Jewish writers.” And this style, of course, was a product of the imported languages and sensibilities of the European Jews, Yiddish language, and sensibility in the main, but also including Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish and the other European languages that Jews were obliged to wield.

All of these things combined to distinguish American Jews from the native populace and from the other immigrant groups who also came to call America home. The chief distinction, however, was Judaism or Jewishness. The thing that had marked the Jew as outsider in the Old World continued to mark him as an outsider in the New. Judaism, the religious component of Jewish life, is easy to define. But “Jewishness,” a more plastic concept, eludes easy definition. For a long time, speaking Yiddish and participating in Yiddish cultural life—theater, literature, politics—was a fairly straightforward form of Jewishness. It was a form of Jewishness that did not necessarily depend on Jewish religious practice and could, in fact, disavow it entirely.

Howe spends some time in his essay attempting to define Jewishness. He quotes from Jewish writers, including the great Russian-Jewish poet—and convert to Christianity—Osip Mandelstam. Writes Mandelstam: “As a little bit of musk fills an entire house, so the least influence of Judaism overflows all of one’s life.”

The question, the one that concerned Howe and that I believe continues to concern Jewish writers and readers, is: Is there still enough of this musk to sustain a distinctive Jewish literature in America?

It’s a question that is not incidental to me. In fact, I feel I’ve reached a stage in my own work when the question is absolutely pressing.

Looking back on what can be described as my professional life as a writer, it seems that my work has followed a fairly established pattern. My first book, Natasha and Other Stories, is essentially a bildungsroman. It is told in the first person by Mark Berman, a boy—later a young man—whose biography superficially resembles my own. He is the only son of a Latvian-Jewish immigrant parents who leave Latvia and settle in Toronto, Canada, in 1980. They reside in a neighborhood of new Jewish immigrants like themselves. The stories chronicle the particular hardships they face, hardships that involve the usual financial and cultural struggles, as well as struggles unique to Soviet Jews, not least of which was the confounding gulf between them and the Canadian Jewish community that received them. The seven stories span about 20 years in the life of this family, and they chart their rising fortunes. They also witness certain decisive incidents in the life of the narrator: a first experience of guilt; a first experience of love, forbidden love at that; the first experience of death, et cetera. The young man grows up and watches his world change. All of the stories are rooted in something specific to Soviet Jews, they carry vestiges of Soviet or Russian-Jewish influence. These things would not happen in quite the same way to anyone else. What prompted me to write the stories was a recognition, in part visceral, in part informed by reading some of the writers Howe includes in his anthology, that the immigration of the Soviet Jews was the most recent installment in a venerable history, a history that had provided the material for some of the literature I admired most. Quite simply, I wanted to try to do for my wave of immigration what my literary antecedents had done for theirs. At the time I started writing my stories, in the late 1990s, I’d seen almost nothing written about this community of people. So, my ambition was to try to put them on the literary map and thereby also to make my contribution to the Jewish American canon, so to speak.

That was Natasha. If we dissect it, we will see that it possesses all the features Howe identifies in Jewish American writing. There is the tension between the Old World and the New. Tensions of a cultural and religious nature. There is a specific location, “the heart’s field” of a north Toronto neighborhood known to locals as Bathurst and Steeles. There are the powerful and pervasive bonds of family. And there is also the element of a foreign language, namely Russian, with undertones of Yiddish, that resides in the properties of my English prose. There are, of course, other elements in the stories born of my own personal and aesthetic sensibilities—since no two writers, even of identical background, are identical—but in general terms, I think the work conforms to a recognizable scheme.

“A subculture,” writes Howe, “finds its voice and its passion at exactly the moment it approaches disintegration. Such a moment of high self-consciousness offers writers the advantages of an inescapable subject: the judgment, affection and hatred they bring to bear upon the remembered world of their youth, and the costs exacted by their struggle to tear themselves away.”

Some of this holds true for the stories in Natasha. They did reflect back on an immigrant life that neither my parents nor I lived anymore. There was the apprehension that the particular world of my childhood was in the process of disappearing. But there was something else too. Howe speaks about “the world of [one’s] youth,” which is a retrospective thing, but I also wanted to write about something that seemed to me alive and up-to-date. It was important to me to write about a contemporary reality, and the last few stories in Natasha attested to this immigrant community not in the past but in the present. Because, as we all understand, for there to be something that we can acknowledge as American Jewish literature, it cannot be a retrospective thing, but it must engage with life as it is being lived right now.

Compared to Natasha, my next book, a novel called The Free World, retreated somewhat from this injunction to be current. The novel takes place in 1978 and it is set, not in Canada or America, but in Rome and parts of the former Soviet Union. The book also harks back as many as 60 years. In aggregate, it tells the story of a family of Soviet Jews, different from the Bermans of Natasha, but also hailing from Riga. They have departed the Soviet Union and are en route to some still-to-be-determined destination in the West—America or Canada. The events in the novel describe everything that I could not address in the stories in Natasha, namely what it was like to be a Jew in the Soviet Union beginning from the Bolshevik Revolution, to Stalinism, the Second World War, through to the wrenching experiences of the emigration. My objective, as with Natasha, was to set down in narrative form something I felt I hadn’t quite seen anyone else do in the English language. It was to attest to a dramatic episode in the history of the Jewish nation, a history that I had experienced, if only as a child. In that sense, I still considered the project to be of a contemporary nature rather than purely historical. Most of the people who had undertaken the journey were still alive.

These two books, Natasha and The Free World, I viewed as complementary. In combination, they were to account for the peculiar and, it seemed to me, still little-understood saga of the Soviet Jews.

I’ve now written a third book and second novel. It is called The Betrayers, and it is intended to be resolutely contemporary, the action taking place as close as possible to the present day—even speculating about events that haven’t yet transpired. Once again its protagonists are Russian Jews, but, whereas in my previous books parallels could be drawn between the characters and myself or my family, that isn’t the case with this book. In this novel, I depart farther from my own biography and experience because, to a great degree, I feel I have exhausted it. And while I conceive of this book as a departure, I also see it as a continuation. It is the natural continuation of a project that I have been engaged in for the past dozen years. The question this book treats, different from the question the previous books treated, is: What more needs to be said about this group of people, these former Soviet Jews? What is the influence of this community, this cohort, on Jewish life? Where has this influence and impact been felt most strongly? And what will be the greatest legacy of this wave of Jewish immigration? The answer, to my mind, is not to be found in North America as was true of the previous waves of immigration, but in Israel. This is where, by function of their presence, they have had the greatest transformative effect. Correspondingly, by the function of their absence, they have also had a transformative effect on the places of their departure, the lands of the former Soviet Union. Because, for all practical purposes, this last wave of Russian emigration has spelled the end of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, bringing to a dreary close a long and illustrious epoch in Jewish history, the epoch of the Ashkenazi Jew, a Jewish variant that, to a great degree, has been preeminent in the Jewish world for a millennium.

So, this is the subject of my current book, the point on the historical grid where the future intersects most dramatically with the past. It is happening now. And the main players in this story are Russian Jews, the people who, for lack of a better term, I feel I understand best and identify with most closely.

And, implicitly, the novel advances this particular formulation: The Jewish future is to be found in Israel. The Jewish past in Europe. Where in this equation is North America? Neither the future nor the past. Which begs the question: What kind of literature can be made of a place that, for Jews, represents neither the future nor the past? What role does America play in Jewish life, and by extension what kind of Jewish literature can be created here?

The Jewish future is to be found in Israel. The Jewish past in Europe. Where in this equation is North America?

For me, this comes down to the material question of identity. It is secular Jewish life that fed American Jewish literature, a secular life that was still harnessed to the immigrant experience, a secular Jewish life that was still at the fringes of the host society, subject to suspicion and exclusion. But, to America’s great credit, this is no longer so. Jews now openly inhabit every walk of American life—in the arts, in industry, and in politics. They are certainly far more included than excluded. There is little in Jewish secular life to distinguish it from American secular life at large. Yes, there are still observant Jews who abide by the ancient laws and are made distinct by them, but they are a minority and, besides, practicing Orthodox Jews have made little to no contribution to American Jewish literature. Their interests lie decidedly elsewhere. They, in fact, hold an antagonistic attitude toward the kind of profane literature we are talking about.

So, where does that leave secular American Jewish culture, the wellspring of American Jewish literature? With the passing of Yiddish, it no longer has a distinct language of its own. In the open, assimilationist society that is today’s America, Jews no longer suffer the pain of discrimination or exclusion. By comparison, Soviet Jews, overwhelmingly secular, divorced from their rites and traditions and denied the Yiddish language, retained their identity because of systemic racism. Now Russian Jews like me and my family, comfortably naturalized in North America, face the same identity concerns as our American Jewish cousins.

Which means that any hope of a continuation of a meaningful secular American Jewish life, one that offers, in Howe’s words, “a thick enough sediment of felt life to enable a new outburst of writing about American Jews,” is dependent, in my view, on Israel. It seems to me that the time has passed when Israel needed the Diaspora—America for money and Russia for souls. Now, with the absorption of 1 million Russian immigrants, Israel has been reinvigorated demographically and economically. These Russian Jews provided a numerical bulwark against the Israeli Arab population and against those Orthodox Jews who did not serve in the army or otherwise participate in the civic life of the country. These same Russian Jews, many of them highly educated, played no small role in the development of Israel’s lucrative high-tech industry. Thus now Israel doesn’t need the Diaspora so much as the Diaspora needs Israel. Which is what the Zionists originally contended, that Israel represented the only viable future for the Jewish people, a place where they would be protected from the double threats of persecution and annihilation in some countries and total assimilation and deracination in others. Israel is the last remaining place where a vibrant secular Jewish life still exists. It is a place where an identifiable Jewish life can exist, as it did once in Europe and America, without any reliance on religious observance. In Israel, Jews have their own language and culture, a language and culture that marks them as distinct. And so long as Israel exists as a secular and democratic country, the Jews of the Diaspora, including the Jews of North America, will retain a cultural option that will be distinctly their own—the Hebrew language and some manifestation of Israeli culture, adapted and alloyed to American reality. In this regard, American Jews will resemble other Diasporic communities on American shores, like the Irish or the Italians, members of an ethnic group that can continue to identify with and refer back to an ancestral homeland and, according to their inclinations, can draw as close to that homeland as they wish—by embracing its language and culture. However, should Israel become a theocratic and/or totalitarian state, as some people increasingly fear, it would be just as catastrophic for secular American Jews as for their Israeli counterparts. Because, at that point, for a secular humanist Jew, it would be impossible to identify with such a country. What affinity would remain with such a place? Were this to happen, it seems to me the only choice for American Jews would be total assimilation into American society or a turn toward a rigid form of Judaism and Jewish nationalism. Now, this dilemma might provide a compelling and weighty source of material for literature, but, to be sure, one that is short-lived.

Anyway, this, in part, is what my current novel grapples with, it anticipates this coming crisis—a crisis which, I should be quick to add, is conceivable but not inevitable.

All of this, I realize, sounds rather grim and pessimistic. It also approaches the matter from a very specific perspective, my perspective as a Soviet Jewish immigrant, a perspective that, I concede, is a minority perspective among American Jewish writers and American Jews in general. Most American Jews and American Jewish writers are not Soviet immigrants but people born in America, descendants of at least one or two generations of native-born Americans. I would not be surprised if they disagreed with me. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt strongly entitled to disagree with me, for the simple and incontestable reason that they continue to feel inspired by the American Jewish life they participate in and observe.

Irving Howe conceded a similar point at the end of his essay. He writes: “Younger Jewish writers grow impatient with the view I have expressed. … They suspect that people like me are trying to monopolize American Jewish writing for the experience of my generation and the one just before it. They would argue that there is a post-immigrant Jewish experience in America which can be located in its own milieu, usually suburbs or middle-class urban neighborhoods; that it has virtues and vices uniquely its own; and that it offers a body of experience which a serious writer can draw upon in creating fictions. Is not their phase of Jewish life in America as authentic and interesting as that of the earlier immigrants? Do they not have a right, also, to make of their involvements and confusions with Jewishness the foundation for stories and novels?”

He continues:

Perhaps these younger writers are in the right. I hope so, though I doubt it, since what seems to me at issue is not so much the intrinsic importance of the post-immigrant Jewish experience as its usability for the making of fictions. Does that experience go deep enough into the lives of the younger, “Americanized” Jews? Does it form the very marrow of their being? Does it provide images of conflict, memories if exaltation and suffering, such as enable the creating of stories?

To this I would add: Even if it does provide such images and memories for the writers, are these images and memories striking and substantial enough to move a wide and heterogeneous community of readers, Jews and non-Jews alike, as have been moved by the works of the previous generation of Jewish American writers? Or are the stories of assimilated American Jews effectively indistinguishable from non-Jewish American writers or—if they insist on more esoteric Jewish concerns—accessible only to a narrower segment of like-minded Jewish readers?

Make no mistake, I am thoroughly sympathetic to this dilemma. Since, as I said earlier, I find myself very much at a crossroads as a writer. If, after three books, I feel that I have strip-mined the material of my immigrant experience, what should I turn my hand to next? In fact, am I even capable of feeling strongly enough about another subject to be able to write about it to my satisfaction? This is no trifling question. I am 41 years old and by essentially unfit for any other kind of work. I’ve also got a wife and three daughters to support. But my problem is that, against my own interests, I agree with Irving Howe. And if I agree with him I have to admit that I’m faced with a perplexing problem. How I shall go about solving it I don’t really know. And since I have no satisfactory answer of my own, I’ll end by quoting one last time from Howe’s essay.

“About all this we need not be dogmatic,” Howe writes. “Far better to be open and tentative (even if also skeptical).”

A very Jewish sentiment.

This lecture was originally presented at the Robert A and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University in February 2013


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David Bezmozgis is the author of The Betrayers and the collection Natasha and Other Stories.

David Bezmozgis is the author of The Betrayers and the collection Natasha and Other Stories.

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