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Saturday, December 5, 2020

On Jewish writing

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I’m noticing a trend among my coreligionists-who-write: arguing against being “labeled” as Jewish writers — especially when they are simultaneously speaking in Jewish-sponsored lecture/reading series, blogging for the Jewish Book Council, and/or benefiting from awards given specifically for works deemed to have Jewish significance. These writers protest too much as they engage in a variation of that proverbial activity: biting a hand that feeds them.

Before proceeding, let’s distinguish “Jewish writers” from “Jewish writing.” Being a “Jewish writer,” by circumstance of birth or conversion, does not automatically make the writing that one produces “Jewish.” Moreover, non-Jewish writers are perfectly capable of producing “Jewish” writing worth reading.

I’m not the only one to discern these distinctions. Commenting last spring in “Moment” magazine, Allegra Goodman said: “I define Jewish fiction as fiction about Jewish people or ideas. I don’t define Jewish fiction by the author. Therefore, one of my favorite works of Jewish fiction is George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda.” In the same feature, Marge Piercy elaborated: “Not all fiction written by Jewish writers should be called Jewish fiction. I myself write novels, such as the one I just finished, in which there are no Jewish characters or people identified as such. The novels that I would consider Jewish fiction are those that have Jewish content—novels that deal with the lives of Jews as Jews, whether cultural or religious, and matters that pertain to that, or that have themes that pertain to the Jewish religion….”

But some writers associated with “Jewish” material rebel against the identification. Nathan Englander, for one, has made no secret of unhappiness. One recent protest appeared courtesy of “The Chicago Tribune” while the author was in the Windy City as the inaugural Crown Speaker Series lecturer at Northwestern University’s Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies.

“Judaism is not my subject at all,” Englander said in that interview. “When I write a story like ‘Sister Hills’ [in his collection ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank’], that’s not a story about Jews. It’s about the ideas of ownership of property and ancient contracts and what it means to live by the word of the Bible. ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ is a story about history and borders and vengeance. Who cares if the characters are Jewish?”

I care. It matters that the characters in “Sister Hills” are Jewish settlers in Samaria and that they bring their contract dispute before the beit din. It matters that ‘Free Fruit for Young Widows’ is set in Israel and that the tale recounted within the story harks back to the Holocaust. Moreover, I suspect that the Jewishness of the book’s characters and content influenced my editor at The Jewish Journal when he assigned the book to me for review. It likely also informed similar assigning decisions by many other editors in the Jewish press (print and virtual).

In the same Chicago interview, Englander explained: “I grew up in a world where there were only Jews, and only religious Jews. For adventure, I went to Jerusalem, which has no shortage of Jews, and then to New York, where we’ve got a kind of a Jewish town going here. For me, if a man walks into a room, Jewish is the way to be, the universal way to be. That’s my world.”

Let’s leave aside, momentarily, the idea that most readers may have experienced quite a different world. Elsewhere in the interview, Englander noted that all of his grandparents and even some of his great-grandparents were born in this country. In other words, Englander possesses “good long American roots,” and focusing on his work through the prism of Jewish identity is somehow “not the idea of this country.”

He’s free to believe this, of course. But readers, including those of us whose great-grandparents (and grandparents) were not born in this country, and fled their homes because of a Czar or a Führer, are equally free not to buy in quite so readily to these universalist ideals. Some of us may have grown up in neighborhoods quite unlike Englander’s, where ours may have been the only house on the block without Christmas decorations. We may have been excluded from “restricted” country clubs. Our life experiences may have led us to find the metaphor of the “salad bowl” far more resonant than that of the “melting pot.”

Then there’s the value of fiction’s power to illuminate varieties of human experience. Take one recent example: Ayana Mathis’s debut novel “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” was on my to-read list even before Oprah Winfrey endorsed it; my interest was heightened, rather than discouraged, by Winfrey’s comment: “My grandmother’s name was Hattie Mae Lee … and so I picked [this novel] up because of the title, and opened to the first page. I saw Philadelphia and Jubilee. You know that’s some black people … So, I thought, let me get in here, see if I know these people, and in five pages, I did.” Notably, Winfrey added: “Obviously, it’s a story about black folks, but if you are living in a world where you want to know what other people’s lives are like, and what they experience, it’s a way of seeing that, and showing that, in a manner that I haven’t encountered in quite some time in a novel.”

Even if many readers flock to his writing in part for its Jewish content, Englander can’t complain that the work hasn’t been acknowledged beyond a Jewish readership. There’s something odd about a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy in Berlin, the New York Public Library—and the winner, most recently, of the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award—so persistently denying the Jewish nature of his work. Especially when he does so during a trip undertaken to deliver a Jewish-studies lecture. (Or to attend a Jewish Book Festival. In an interview published a few weeks earlier, in conjunction with his visit to St. Louis, where his book was the selected title for the local festival’s “Big Jewish Community Read,” Englander expressed similar sentiments.)

Englander may be one of the most well-known writers to be taking these positions, but he isn’t alone. Nor is he unique in using Jewish “pulpits” to argue his case.

It is dispiriting to find in so many magazines, websites, and panels ostensibly dedicated to advancing Jewish ideas and culture so many disavowals. Last spring, writing as the “Visiting Scribe” for the Jewish Book Council’s blog (which is republished on MyJewishLearning.com and on The Forward’s Arty Semite blog; this particular post was later adapted for “CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism”), Joshua Henkin suggested that “these kinds of questions serve to ghettoize a writer when good fiction is good fiction and should reach as broad an audience as possible. No one asked Cheever whether he considered himself a male writer. No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.” (Henkin, by the way, has since announced that his latest book has won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, which “is presented annually to an American writer whose published creative work of fiction is considered to have significance for the American Jew.” Henkin’s new novel was also a finalist for the most recent National Jewish Book Award in fiction.)

Then, there’s Tablet, the Web site, which launched a new fiction series this fall. I’m not sure which troubled me more—the suggestion that, in its lack of identifiably Jewish content, much of the fiction that this self-described “magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture” has been publishing is “representative of a current youthful American Jewish aesthetic,” or the distancing remark attributed to one of the youthful writers whose work Tablet has featured in explaining why he resists the “Jewish” label (a remark that once again conflates writer and writing): “’Jewish writer’ sounds like ‘sci-fi writer’ or ‘Y.A. novelist’—like it’s a niche commercial genre.” But if the niche fits….

Maybe some of my preoccupation with these issues is due to the personal reality that my “good American roots” don’t run as deep as Englander’s. Three of my four grandparents, and all of my great-grandparents, were born elsewhere; I remain keenly interested in contemporary Jewish-American writing that updates a canon depicting immigrant and refugee experience, whether the home countries in question are European, Russian/ex-Soviet, or Middle Eastern.

Maybe some if it stems from the fact that I’ve spent more time in environments where, far from New York or Jerusalem, Jews are an exception rather than a rule. More than once, I’ve been told that I’m the first Jewish person someone has met or welcomed to a home. And, just maybe, despite the fact that I don’t often immerse myself in the quarrels and quandaries that surround the circumstances of women in contemporary writing and publishing, I follow them sufficiently to realize that ours is not an idealized, universalist literary culture, that categories and labels exist.

Whatever the reason, I can’t understand why some writers seem so intent on distancing their work from being identified as “Jewish.” That they do so while simultaneously benefiting from the “label” and showing no evidence of suffering from any career-stultifying “ghettoization” only adds salt to the wound.


Erika Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans” (Last Light Studio), an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title (for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature). Web: www.erikadreifus.com

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