Authors Divided Over Identity, Issues
What do four Jewish American writers talk about when they
sit down together to discuss their craft? If the program, “The Next Generation
of Jewish American Writing,” held at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this
month is any indication, the answer is that they try as hard as they can to
talk past their differences but don’t quite manage to do so.
As soon as featured novelists Rebecca Goldstein (“Mazel”),
Thane Rosenbaum (“The Golems of Gotham”), Gary Shteyngart (“The Russian
Debutante’s Handbook”) and Dara Horn (“In the Image”), as well as the evening’s
moderator, David Ulin, himself a writer, took their seats onstage, the
limitations of the forum — presented by The UCLA Center for Jewish Studies and
The University of California Humanities Research Institute — became clear.
These writers have very little in common outside of their Jewishness, and even
then they had diverging definitions of that identity, from cultural affiliation
to history to the importance of ritual observance.
The question that hovered over the discussion that followed
each author’s short presentation was as simple as it is hard to answer: Is
Jewishness enough to hold them together as a unit any more than linking them by
some other part of their identities?
For starters, their themes and concerns could not be more
different. In her six works of fiction, Goldstein has focused primarily on
dramas of the mind, plumbing philosophy and theoretical mathematics and
sometimes — 5/9ths of the time in her calculation — Jewish identity.
Rosenbaum, the child of survivors, has written a trilogy of
post-Holocaust books, the most recent a fable, complete with the ghosts of
writers past, set in 1990s Manhattan.
Shteyngart, who moved from Leningrad to New York as a child,
has written a novel that tells an immigrant’s story, updating a classic
American narrative for the 21st century.
Finally, Horn, who consciously draws on the long and rich
history of literature written in what she terms the “Jewish languages” of
Hebrew, Yiddish and Ladino, weaves the biblical tale of Job into the structure
of her debut work.
Even the Judaism that emerges in their works barely
overlaps. While Goldstein has repeatedly wrestled with the intersection of
traditional Jewish Orthodoxy on the one hand, and the rigors of rational
philosophy on the other, Rosenbaum’s fictive world has been shaped by that
20th-century Jewish preoccupation, the Shoah. Shteygart views himself, and his
protagonist, as more immigrant than Jew (although he wisely understands the
marketing strategy of labeling his novel “Jewish”) and Horn’s stated intention
in writing her book was to produce a work of fiction that is not “about
anti-Semitism” as so much Jewish American literature of the past century has
Then there’s the problem of “generation.” Shteyngart and
Horn were both born in the 1970s. They were in grade school when Goldstein
first began publishing her novels. Even she acknowledged that the “young” label
(as in “young Jewish American writer”) doesn’t quite fit her any longer. But
the difference goes beyond chronology. Goldstein’s writing itself is of a
different generation. Her cultural influences — yes, philosophy, but also the
attitudes toward gender equality, religious affiliation and other social
questions — were shaped at the same time as they took form in the larger
American context. Her younger colleagues were born into a world that was
already grappling with these and other knotty dilemmas.
But all that is almost beside the point, because when
talking about Jewish American literature, any generation seems to be put into
relation with those luminaries who defined Jewish American fiction after World
War II: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Cynthia Ozick. They are held
up as the founding generation, as if nothing was put down on paper before them,
and no distinction is made among those who have followed.
This is a mistake. While programs such as the one at the
Skirball are wonderful arenas in which to showcase current and up-and-coming
talent, they often end up circling around the rather uncomfortable question of
defining what a “Jewish writer” actually is.
Not surprisingly, that happened on Sunday, when Horn herself
brought up what she called the “squirm factor.” Why, she asked “do we feel more
uncomfortable with the label ‘Jewish writer’ than any of the other labels that
can equally be applied to us?”
My guess is that the answer lies precisely in the balancing
act that these writers have to perform: Jews buy books. Jews read books. Jews
are a good audience for books, so any claim to Jewishness helps an author sell
books. The more books he or she sells, the more chances that writer will be
able to publish the next one.
But any author is so much more than just Jewish. She is a
woman, a philosopher, a mother, a sister, a convert from the closed world of
Beis Yaacov to the equally cloistered universe of academia, and that’s just
Goldstein. We, the public, seem to insist that writers pigeonhole themselves
for our benefit, and they — no fools — oblige us. We are, after all, their paths
to literary immortality.