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.

An Army of One

All things pass in Hollywood, but for Army Archerd. For 50years, while great stars faded and powerful studio chiefs sank into obscurity,Archerd has written his daily column for Variety, the entertainment industry’smust-read, and he can count the times he’s missed a deadline on the fingers ofone hand.

“Army is a legend in Hollywood and his column is read likethe Bible,” said Rabbi David Baron, Archerd’s spiritual leader at Temple Shalomfor the Arts.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the American Friends of the Hebrew Universitywill recognize Archerd’s “dedication, generosity and deep commitment to hiscommunity” by presenting him with the Scopus Award.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center,lauds Archerd’s “love for the Jewish people, and especially Israel.”

“Anytime something terrible happens to Jews around theworld, we talk about it. The Holocaust has had a tremendous impact on him andhe has never forgotten his Jewish roots.”

Born 81 years ago in the Bronx as Armand Archerd — “Army” isa boyhood nickname that hung on — he sits quietly for an interview in thekitchen of his art-filled Westwood home, facing the UCLA campus — but the daily4:30 p.m. deadline is never far from his mind.

He excuses himself for a phone chat with actors MichaelDouglas and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of 40-50 such calls that providethe material for his next day’s Just for Variety column.

Archerd can justifiably claim that he writes for thebrightest, most talented and creative, and wealthiest readership of anycolumnist.

Starting with legendary moguls Louis B. Mayer, SamuelGoldwyn, Harry Cohn and the Warner brothers, he has interviewed just abouteveryone who matters in Hollywood and his only regret is that he never got totalk to the reclusive Greta Garbo.

Archerd culls the names of show biz’s great and near-greatfrom an unmatched contact list, stashed in three drawers of his desk, thatwould make any other reporter, or agent, “plotz” with envy, he said.

But after a newspaper career that began in 1945, andincluded early stints with the Associated Press and the L.A. Herald-Express,filling the 83 lines of his column each day is still hard work.

“It’s a daily challenge that hasn’t gotten easier withtime,” he said. “I keep a pad on my nightstand and when I wake up during thenight, I jot down some little shtiklech or who I should call tomorrow.”

Archerd grew up in what he calls a “very Jewish home,” witha French-born mother and Romanian-born father, and he has on hand the tallitand tefillin from his bar mitzvah.

Always a precocious student, he graduated from high schoolat age 15, besides having a slew of extracurricular activities and an eveningushering job at the Criterion Theatre on Broadway.

His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 17 and in 1941,at age 19, he graduated from UCLA. At a party hosted by his Jewish fraternity,Zeta Beta Tau, Army met Selma, an attractive Fairfax High student. Both went onto marry other partners but reunited 33 years ago.

Selma Archerd, an actress, describes her marriage as”blissful” and her husband as “an ethical, wonderful person, clean in soul anddeed.”

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Archerd enlisted in the Navyand, commissioned an ensign, served in the Pacific as deck officer on adestroyer.

As he goes about his work, Archerd says, “I have an antennafor any indications of prejudice in the industry, including, but not only,anti-Semitism.”

He has taken on such icons as Michael Jackson, when thelyrics of one of his songs insulted Jews, and Marlon Brando, when he tossed offan anti-Semitic quip during an interview. Both the singer and the actor apologizedfor their trespasses.

Lately, it seems to some of his readers, Archerd hasratcheted up his denunciations of terrorist attacks in Israel and his praisefor supporters of the Jewish state.

For instance, in a column last August, he expressed deep shockat the suicide bombing at the Hebrew University’s Frank Sinatra Student Centercafeteria.

In typical fashion, he called on his memory and past columnsto resurrect Sinatra’s original 1978 visit for the dedication of the center inJerusalem, the members of his party and the fact that the crooner cooked up anItalian dinner in the butler’s pantry of the presidential suite of the localHilton Hotel.

Archerd’s activities include founding the Hollywood PressClub, launching TV’s “Entertainment Tonight” and regular host stints for theRetinitis Pigmentosa International award dinner. He has appeared as himself inover 100 movies and TV shows.

Archerd has no thought of retiring. “You see,” he saysbefore hurrying off to his office, “I’m not such an A.K. [alter-kacker] afterall.”

The Scopus Award dinner honoring Army Archerd will be heldTuesday, Jan. 28, at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel. For information, phone(310) 843-3100.