Grousing About Our Jewish Book Fair

I am probably being unfair, but I will say right off that I am unhappy with Los Angeles’ Jewish book fair, which starts Nov. 14. Partly, my grousing is about those writers who are absent; and, partly, it is a response to the fair’s theme — or, should I say, lack of theme.

Mostly, though, I harbor strong doubts about lumping together all books by Jewish writers, or on Jewish subjects, and simply paying homage to them.

It is important to recognize that some of the most significant American Jewish fiction writers, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and J.D. Salinger have thought of themselves as American, not as Jewish, writers, as do I. Their novels to be sure are about the American-Jewish experience, but in ways that are not much different from Eudora Welty or William Faulkner writing about the South; or Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison giving us a portrait of black life in America; or John Cheever and Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver setting off grace note portraits of the America that they knew.

The prose is English, albeit American English, but more to the point the rhythms, the style, the experiences, and most important of all, the literary traditions trace back to Mark Twain and/or Henry James. Faulkner, Bellow and Morrison were all recipients of the Nobel Prize, as American writers — not Southern or Jewish or black. And the characters and society they created so imaginatively are indelibly American.

To see the work as Jewish (or black or Southern) is to distort it and, in some ways, to parochialize the writer’s achievement. It is probably why Bellow, Roth and Salinger all bridle at attempts by some of us to cast them as Jewish authors. They are not struggling with denial or with a desire to assimilate; rather, they are buoyed up by a loftier (and more accurate) sense of who they are, and what it is they are about.

If you disagree with me, I hope you have been scrambling for exceptions. Obviously, there is Isaac Bashevis Singer, a great Jewish writer and a Nobel Prize winner himself. And, yes, he is primarily a Jewish novelist — in large measure because he wrote in Yiddish and always about Jews. And though he spent most of his adult life in this country, the Nobel Prize awarded him went actually to a Yiddish writer from Eastern Europe who lived in the United States. He always seemed to be the personification of “the world’s Jewish writer,” carting his bags, his imagination and his wonderful stories wherever he lighted.

Then, most certainly a Jewish writer, there is Henry Roth, famous for his novel “Call It Sleep,” published in 1934. He and some of his predecessors, going back to Abraham Cahan (“The Rise of David Levinsky”) at the turn of the century, all wrote about the experience they knew firsthand: the world of the immigrant in America. Their fiction is not unlike Mario Puzo’s “The Fortunate Pilgrim” or James T. Farrell’s “Studs Lonigan” series, all giving us intense micro-portraits of Jewish, Italian and Irish struggles to move out of the ghetto world and become Americans. So Jewish, but with a twist.

Or course most Jewish writing can be classified as nonfiction. We all know of books on the Holocaust, on Jewish history and culture, on Judaica, or on what the trade refers to as Jewish “self help.” Some of these are featured in next week’s Jewish book fair, People of the Book: Jonathan Kirsch’s “Moses: A Life,” Thomas Cahill’s “The Gifts of the Jews,” Rich Cohen’s “Tough Jews” and Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s “The Ten Commandments” to name just a few. While interesting and intelligent books, none would be described as a work of the imagination, or what we call “literature.”

The important American Jewish story, the profound one, lies elsewhere.

What is that profound story? It is that our major American Jewish writers have done nothing less than shaped the identity and the culture of America this past half century. Faulkner helped usher the South into America. Not by leading Southerners anywhere, but by ennobling parts of the Southern experience so that the rest of us could come to know it, albeit secondhand. The same is true for Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. They offered whites a way to empathize with blacks, whom the authors humanized for us.

Our American Jewish literary men and women of this last half century have played (for us) an even more important role. Particularly Bellow, Malamud, Salinger and Philip Roth. Each created characters, in their novels and stories, instantly recognizable as modern, urban Americans. That they were also Jewish was a detail, sometimes significant and sometimes not. More important was the humor and the sensibility of the author.

In this way, many characters in the fiction of American-Jewish writers were seen to be a part of American life — at times viewed with hilarity (e.g. Alex Portnoy) but always with a sort of over-the-top intensity (e.g. Augie March and Herzog in Bellow’s work, and Mickey Sabbath and, most recently, Ira Ringold in Philip Roth’s “I Married a Communist.”)

I think it is not too much to say that these literary writers helped forge the integration of Jews into American society during the past 30 to 40 years. By creating characters to stand alongside Huck Finn and Jake Barnes, Isabel Archer and Jay Gatsby, they gave birth to an identity and culture in America that today is distinctively (though not entirely) Jewish. We are all now familiar with Jewish voices, references, speech rhythms and sensibility. In its way, this has been truly revolutionary; and, in its way, truly Jewish.

All of which leads me to grouse about what is missing from our Jewish book fair: namely, our older literary men and women, those makers of our contemporary culture; and the newer generation of novelists — Rebecca Goldstein, Allegra Goodman, Ethan Canin, Jonathan Rosen — who may be taking us in still another American Jewish direction.

The men and women who worked hard to bring this fair to life will tell us, correctly, that there was no budget for the writers I have mentioned (one could have been found, I say); that most of the writers in our fair are home-grown Jewish authors of books (not literature) about Jews and/or Jewish themes; that we have non-fiction authors, mystery writers and local poets. The result, I believe, is too parochial a Fair for a city our size, with L.A.’s relatively sophisticated readers. Indeed it only serves to turn us away from the contribution of our major writers, thus turning our back on precisely the revolution that American Jewish novelists helped spearhead for you and me, and for the children and grandchildren yet to come. — Gene Lichtenstein