The Great Question (Who We Are)

THIS WEEK’S COLUMN WAS A COVER STORY IN THE JEWISH JOURNAL OF LOS ANGELES (and a pretty funny cover — so I thought I’d share it with you).

We’re almost halfway through the first decade of the 21st century. Not a bad time to assess “Who We Are.”


“Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer,” edited by Derek Rubin (Schocken Books, 2005), an Israeli-born professor who teaches in the Netherlands, collects 29 essays by Jewish American writers, some of which were previously published, others reshaped or written for this collection. The contributors span a chronological range from Saul Bellow, born in 1915, to Yael Goldstein, born in 1978, and include such familiar names as Philip Roth, E.L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Chaim Potok, Alan Lelchuk, Erica Jong, Art Spiegelman, Nessa Rapoport, Robert Cohen, Jonathan Rosen and Allegra Goodman.

Some tell the stories of how they became Jewish writers or found their Jewish voice, others argue for a world of literature independent of ethnic distinctions. Still others argue for an even more Jewish literature, one inspired by and filled with references to Jewish liturgy, history and practice.

“Who We Are” is also a story of personal struggle, of how each contributor confronts the questions: Who am I?; what story do I have to tell?; and who am I writing for?

This collection comes at an interesting time in American Jewish letters, a time of great pluralism and creativity. At the risk of rehashing some of what I wrote in a longer essay about Jewish self-image in America for the USC Casden Institute’s annual survey of the Jewish role in American life (vol. 1, USC, 2002), several points are worth repeating:

First of all: Who is a Jewish writer? Isaac Bashevis Singer once made a distinction between writers born Jewish and writers who “write Jewish” (he identified himself as the latter). By contrast, Norman Mailer, although born Jewish and a major American novelist, is rarely considered a “Jewish writer.” Nor for that matter is David Leavitt, who finds himself more often in anthologies of gay literature. Nor is Michael Chabon, whose novels are often filled with Jewish references. But is this solely a matter of content?

Consider that many novels written by non-Jewish writers are filled with Jewish protagonists, such as John Updike’s Bech novels. And non-Jewish writers have written important Holocaust-themed works, among them William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” and Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s List.”

So, if it’s not purely a matter of the author’s Jewishness or a novel’s Jewish content, what then is American Jewish Fiction anyhow? The category was coined in the 1950s and early 1960s as a way to denote a generation of children or grandchildren of immigrants (Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Melamud) raised in America and college educated, who took to the pages to riff on the yearning to be American — from their vantage point as outsiders. Their literary success was in its own way part of the American dream: The literary world was a far better, more refined place than the Jewish neighborhoods of Chicago and Newark where Bellow and Roth grew up.

The talent and energy in these writers’ novels so energized American fiction that they provoked a thousand others to pen their own works, Jewish and non-Jewish, American and foreign — some inspired, some angered by what they had written.
American Jewish fiction found many different voices: the sacred and the profane in the work of Cynthia Ozick and Erica Jong; the magical and historic in that of Max Apple and Doctorow; the political and philosophical in Grace Paley and Rebecca Goldstein. More often than not, their fiction was characterized by a desire, like Joseph and the Pharoah, to interpret the dreams of the country they lived in.

By the end of the 1980s, however, it was generally acknowledged that the original troika of Bellow, Roth and Melamud had been so successful as to become completely assimilated into the academy and the establishment. Critics began to sound the death knell of American Jewish fiction as a distinctive genre. The romance of writing the great-American novel had lost its appeal as well as its position of importance in the culture. Talented young writers were applying to business school or getting jobs at Internet start-ups. They were writing business plans, not short stories. And if the creative voice inside them spoke, it told them to write screenplays.

However, despite dire predictions of its demise, American Jewish fiction is again flourishing in the 21st century. As Morris Dickstein remarked in a 1997 essay in Tikkun: “The current resurgence of Jewish-American writing in a world rife with assimilation is as surprising as the survival of the Jews themselves.”

So what happened?

Permit me to chart this bumpy road with a quick survey of my own attitude toward this genre.

In high school, I wasn’t much interested in “Jewish American fiction” or Bellow, Melamud and Roth. Joan Didion and Thomas Pynchon were the contemporary authors that I and my friends and teachers admired in school — and outside of class, there was Jack Kerouac, Richard Farina and Ken Kesey to lead us into the American underground.

I resisted Roth et al, because — how do I put it? In a word, I was, in my fashion, an anti-Semite.

Although I had never read any of these famous American Jewish authors, I had already judged them as “not interesting” — they wrote about a species that I called the “New American Jew” — today we might call them the Jewish American Prince and Jewish American Princess. I could not relate to these confections — they seemed inauthentic — neither American nor Jewish. The prince, I imagined to be a deracinated ubermensch, assimilated into nothing; the princess a creature too fantastical to be believed. In truth had I read the books then, I would have found a more complex portrayal of American Jews, but just a glimpse of Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss in the movie version of “Goodbye Columbus” put me off reading Roth for another decade.

I had no idea of what Jewish fiction should be, or even if it should be. Hemingway (with his fondness for the word “kike”) and Fitzgerald (also not above the occasional slur, despite occasional bouts of semitophilia) were my idea of American fiction writers. To the extent that an American author of Jewish birth could match their achievements, fine.

But as the Bobster said, “I was so much older then.”

Then a funny thing happened to me at Andy Warhol’s Factory (not the original factory but the Union Square incarnation).

Gael Love, my editor at Interview magazine, appointed me her court Jew — and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Whenever there was an aged child of Abraham to interview she assigned him to me (Jerzy Kosinski, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Baron Guy de Rothschild, rock impresario Bill Graham). In order to keep up with my subjects, I began to read Jewish fiction.

I put aside my preconceptions and prejudices and experienced the exhilaration of reading “Augie March,” the splendor of Bellow’s achievement standing as it does as a bridge between the 19th century novel with its echoes of Dickens and the 20th century, speaking in a voice and language completely American yet completely his own. In Roth, I found an heir to Franz Kafka, Isaak Babel, Nikolai Gogol and Lenny Bruce. I reveled in the humor, wit and prodigious talent manifest in his novels, continuing to this day, a run without parallel in American literature.

But more remarkable than Roth and Bellow — who, let’s face it, are remarkable by any standard in any category — are all their contemporaries and all the American Jewish writers who have followed them. Jerzy Kosinski, Cynthia Ozick, Singer, to name but a few whose books have given me many pleasurable hours.

As the 1980s came to an end — Tom Wolfe’s “The Me Decade,” seemed as if it was never-ending — American Jewish writers found themselves secure in their identity as Americans with little personal experience of classical anti-Semitism. Whether learned or ignorant of Jewish texts and ritual, myriad new Jewish voices were unleashed, as diverse and colorful as Joseph’s coat: female (Anita Diamant, Nomi Eve, Myla Goldberg), gay (Lev Raphael, Arye Lev Stollman), the formerly observant and the newly Orthodox (Pearl Abraham, Tova Mirvis, Dara Horn), the child survivor and the children of survivors (Louis Begley, Thane Rosenbaum), those looking forward and those looking back (Steve Stern), new immigrants from the Soviet Union (Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar) and every combination of the above.

At the same time, the generation of their elders (and their slightly elders), were still hard at work, many producing the best work of their careers, others still hoping that their best work would be yet to come.

Has there ever been a time like today, when American Jewish fiction writers have written on so many diverse subjects — while still writing “Jewish” fiction? One can read novel after novel and continually be surprised by the freshness of the individual visions.

That said, “Who we are” at times feels like it is little more than those essays at the front of classics that you know you should read, but never do. Some fiction writers are not well suited to essay. Not all the essays in the collection are equally good, but surprises abound from writers who seem known, but really aren’t, like Chaim Potok. And from writers that I know hardly at all, such as Johanna Kaplan, Steve Stern or Lara Vapnyar, but am now anxious to read.

Perhaps all this discussion of American Jewish Fiction begs the question: Who cares?
How is it that these stories and novels appeal not only to Jewish readers, but also to readers of all faiths and all nationalities? Why does the Jewish experience in America, now 350 years old, continue to fascinate, to compel? And, equally, what compels these writers to set their visions down on paper?

Perhaps it is because we are the People of the Book. Perhaps it is our DNA, our fate, our curse, our story, to be witnesses, to document, to hear the stories and to tell the tales. Perhaps it is no coincidence that just as Joseph interpreted the dreams of the Pharaoh, Sigmund Freud decided truths could be found in the stories his patients told him of their dreams. Perhaps standing on a dais and, at age 13, reading in a foreign tongue and giving a little talk for one’s bar or bat mitzvah can lead to a life of performing riffs. Perhaps the revenge of the child whose nose is stuck in a book, or excluded from some part of society, is to write stories, and seek approval in the form of publication.

“Who We Are” gives no definite answer. But whether one accepts or rejects the notion of being an American Jewish writer, what resonates is Singer’s oft-quoted dictum that “Every writer must have an address.”

What you do with who you are is, in the end, what it’s all about.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.