Jewish Writing: A Renaissance Awaits

What is Jewish writing, and what is a Jewish writer? The question has so many answers that it has almost become tedious.

Those who have ventured into the literary world know that if even a page of their work touches upon anything remotely Jewish, they will be sentenced to a lifetime of sitting on panels during which they will be asked the question, "Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?"

In fact, it could be said that in America today, we have a new definition of a Jewish writer: A Jewish writer is one who is asked to participate in a panel during which she will be asked the question, "Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?"

It may be a joke, but this reality reflects a certain consensus about what Jewish literature in America has become. The truth is that "Jewish writing" now refers to any work in which either the writer or the characters are Jewish or both. That’s pretty much it. You can write a story that has no connection whatsoever to Judaism or anything in Jewish culture, but if it’s about someone named Goldberg who once ate a bagel — poof, you have become a Jewish writer.

But today, as we mark 350 years of Jewish life in America, and as we celebrate the 100th birthday of Isaac Bashevis Singer, it is worth taking a look behind us to see what Jewish writing used to be, and what it might still become.

A century ago, Jewish writers didn’t go around wondering whether they were Jewish writers, not because they were more "traditional" — far from it. But even with all of their doubts about their heritage, the vast majority of these writers were Jewish writers for one very specific reason: They were writing in a Jewish language — Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic or any number of others.

In fact, the only way to say "Jewish writer" in Yiddish is to say "Yiddish writer." The word for the language and the identity is the same, and the intentional confusion between them reveals the enormity of what language once meant to a Jewish writer’s identity.

It wasn’t just that these writers’ words were written in Hebrew letters. It was that everything about the way the words were used was somehow layered upon 4,000 years’ worth of stories that were also written in Hebrew letters.

When you know that your audience is familiar with the Torah, metaphors and references from the Torah are the ones you use, just as English-language writers today might make references to movies or TV.

A Yiddish writer like Sholem Aleichem could describe an insurance fire by saying a character was "lighting Sabbath candles in the middle of the week" and could be confident that all of his readers would get the joke. Isaac Bashevis Singer could title a novel "Der Baal-Teshuvah" (literally "the Master of Return") and be certain that all of his readers knew exactly the sort of religious conversion he was talking about — a very particular "return" to Jewish life that the "translated" English title, "The Penitent," simply cannot capture.

That is what Jewish writing was: not a subject but a language. Specifically, it was a language built on the foundations of a world where writing was a sacred act, where the easy diluting of the profane with the sacred was not an act of rebellion but a side effect of a deep intimacy with holiness.

Today in America, virtually none of our Jewish writers are writing in Jewish languages. They are writing in English. And they are writing for an audience whose familiarity with Jewish culture can no longer be assumed.

So are we doomed to 350 more years of writing about people named Goldberg eating bagels? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Jewish writers today have the power to change the way their audiences read — and when I say writers, I don’t mean just big-name novelists, but everyone, including writers for local Jewish newspapers.

If it sounds impossible, it has happened before. In 1897, journalist Abraham Cahan founded a Yiddish newspaper in New York City, The Forward, with a very specific goal: to turn the thousands of Jewish immigrants descending upon New York into Americans. Everything about the newspaper served this purpose. The advice column, A Bintl Briv (A Bundle of Letters), for instance, with the alluring melodrama of readers’ letters, was largely aimed at tutoring clueless immigrants in the American way of life. But the real way Cahan transformed his Jewish readers into Americans was more subtle: by changing the language of the paper itself. English words and syntax were mixed into the text at every opportunity.

Of course, American Jews’ Yiddish, including that of the reporters, was naturally influenced by English at the time. But the editors, ostensibly running a Yiddish publication, clearly made no effort to apply copy editing standards when thousands of Englishisms appeared in print. The heavy dose of English served the paper’s goal of converting Yiddish speakers into English speakers. It succeeded all too well. Within a generation, readership evaporated.

Is it possible to reverse the work of Cahan? That is, to turn English into a Jewish language, to invert the attempt to turn Jews into Americans into a new process — to turn Americans into Jews?

I think the possibility is there. But how?

Jewish languages always incorporate Hebrew. By that I don’t only mean the Hebrew alphabet or even just Hebrew words, but rather references to Hebrew literature and particularly, the vast legacy of the Hebrew Bible and the commentaries built upon it. Imagine if Jewish literature in English could bring back to life the Jewish linguistic tradition of the prooftext — the endless echo chamber of ideas that allows even a simple idea to reverberate with centuries of meaning.

This isn’t nearly as difficult or obscure as it sounds. I was once asked to write an article for a Jewish magazine about Jewish teenagers in public high schools and their connection to Jewish life. After some investigation, I determined that most didn’t have one. But they were intrigued whenever the subject came up; many wanted to know more but had no clue where to look. Stuck with what seemed to be a nonstory (and a deadline), I considered that these teenagers were mostly fourth-generation Americans — and then I thought of the four sons of the haggadah.

These teenagers’ great-grandparents had come to America with a knowledge of Judaism, which their grandparents, the second sons, had consciously rejected. Their parents, the third sons, had a simple awareness of the potential of Jewish life, but these teenagers had become the sons who did not even know how to ask. Suddenly, the story made sense, and the article appeared with the title, "The Fourth Son."

That’s a recognizable enough reference; probably even the most secular Jewish reader has been to a seder once or twice. But what about all of the writers who don’t have the background to dig deeper?

For those with passion, I will make a recommendation that has probably never been made in an English-language Jewish paper before: Read the Torah. I say this not to impose religion on Jewish writers but rather to alert them to the enormous cultural resources awaiting them. There are stories, characters and turns of phrase in the vast gold mine we have inherited that resonate with almost any situation a writer could possibly invent.

Unfortunately, Jewish history tends to repeat. As each generation passes, another new one is born in the wilderness, standing at Sinai whether they like it or not. We’ve seen many Pharaohs, many Hamans and we have thousands of years of writing to draw from whenever we find ourselves needing to write about them again. And when we include the vast resources of post-biblical works like the Talmud, the riches only expand.

Rabbi Tarfon’s description of the world could apply to any writer, Jewish or otherwise: "The day is short and the task is huge and the workers are lazy and the reward is great and the boss is insistent."

The reward is indeed great. Imagine if this connection to the past really was a part of secular American Jewish writing. The writing would deepen but so would the audience, as each echo of language became gradually more familiar until a common cultural vocabulary was restored. Writing that draws on such a legacy has the potential not only to inform but to enrich, to enliven, to nourish, to revive the dead.

In recent years, I and many others have come to rely more on Jewish writing in all its forms — novels, newspapers, Internet, everything — to discover what our community is thinking and caring about, especially today, when Jewish communities around the world have fallen under siege.

But at 350 years old, ours is one of the few that hasn’t. And if one looks at the enormous revival of interest and passion among young people today, it becomes clear that we are sitting on the edge of an American Jewish renaissance.

All of us, writers and readers, have the power to make it happen. As a famous Jewish writer once wrote: "If not now, when?"

Dara Horn’s first novel, "In the Image" (W.W. Norton), received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award. She lives in New York City.

The Nachas of Books

Until recently, it seemed you could find Yiddish books only in obscure libraries or in the attic of the house of someone’s grandparents. But recently, the National Yiddish Book Center launched the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, an online bookstore that makes more than 12,000 out-of-print titles available for purchase over the Internet.

Each order is routed to a production facility in Pennsylvania, where a digital printer accesses the previously scanned pages and generates a new paperback copy within minutes. The price is $29 per book (center members pay less).

Offering 12,000 of the 18,000 to 20,000 titles that compose modern Yiddish literature, the digital library has turned Yiddish into the most in-print literature available, said Aaron Lansky, the center’s founder and president. Popular writers include I.L. Peretz and Sholem Asch.

When Lansky was a Jewish studies graduate student around 1980, most Yiddish books were out-of-print. Fearing that surviving tomes would soon be thrown out by a younger generation, he says he set out "to save the world’s Yiddish books before it was too late." Working from an unheated factory in Northhampton, Mass., Lansky made a public appeal for unwanted books and sent volunteers to collect them from abandoned buildings and old synagogues across the country. The center, which now has some 30,000 members, has since recovered more than 1.5 million books.

Its birth coincided with a trend to study Yiddish language and literature, which meant that by 1998, students and scholars were buying up the most important titles. Worse, nearly all the books had been printed on inexpensive paper and were physically deteriorating. The solution was digitizing the collection, a $3.5 million project that’s been funded in part by a $500,000 grant from Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation. It’s the only major publisher of Yiddish books today. "We’ve shown how new technology can be used to save an endangered literature and bring it back into print," Lansky said.

Access the library at