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In this remarkably wide-ranging anthology, Ilan Stavans has collected the work of more than fifty notable Jewish writers from around the globe, weaving these diverse viewpoints and voices into a rich portrait of Jewish literary tradition.
The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories takes us from the mid-1800s right up to the present, encompassing the full spectrum of Jewish writing around the world. The variety of tales captured here is stunning. Readers will find stories such as "A Yom ...
In this remarkably wide-ranging anthology, Ilan Stavans has collected the work of more than fifty notable Jewish writers from around the globe, weaving these diverse viewpoints and voices into a rich portrait of Jewish literary tradition.
The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories takes us from the mid-1800s right up to the present, encompassing the full spectrum of Jewish writing around the world. The variety of tales captured here is stunning. Readers will find stories such as "A Yom Kippur Scandal" by Sholem Aleichem, the father of Yiddish literature; "Before the Law" by Franz Kafka; "Looking for Mr. Green" by Saul Bellow; "The Spinoza of Market Street" by Isaac Bashevis Singer; and "Midrash on Happiness" by Grace Paley. Stavans has included many pieces by Americans, including such markedly different writers as Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Moacyr Seliar, Stanley Elkin, Delmore Schwartz, Dan Jacobson, Francine Prose, Allegra Goodman, and Philip Roth. And here too are pieces from around the globe, by writers no less varied: Isaac Babel, Italo Svevo, Primo Levi, Elias Canetti, Amos Oz, and Danilo Kis. What emerges in the end is proof of an observation by Ba'al Makshoves—that the Jews may have many languages and a dozen echoes in foreign tongues, but only one literature. And it is one of the finest in the world.
The many marvelous tales that fill The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories affirm that a shared identity can exist without sterile uniformity—and that writers can engage their religious and cultural heritage without losing touch with those rich, complex ambiguities that inhabit the heart.
Language and Tradition
In a paper read in New York at the end of 1950, before the Conference of the Yiddish PEN, A. Tabachnik, a Yiddish poet and literary critic, asked: "Does [Yiddish poetry] have anything resembling a Shakespeare tradition or a Pushkin tradition?" Tabachnik was discussing continuity and revolt in modern Yiddish poetry, in particular the reverence of Yiddish poets such as Itzik Manger, Moishe Leib Halpern, and Jacob Glatstein for their predecessors in the Old World and in the United States. Each literary generation needs a patrimony to affirm and continue, and a heritage to rebel against. Tabachnik wondered if, for example, a poet like Manger, attempting to trace his roots in Yiddish playwright Abraham Goldfaden, could be equated to T. S. Eliot saying that his own tradition was derived from the English metaphysical poets. Tabachnik's conclusion was that it was the modernist Yiddish poet who was in charge of creating a sense of tradition. It might be so, but this conclusion interests me far less than a finer, deeper issue, one only marginally declared by Tabachnik: Does language alone generate tradition? Can a writer's breed be the result of verbal cross-fertilization? Coming from the Yiddish, a tongue that evolved from the thirteenth century on by absorbing influences from Hebrew, German, Slavic, Polish, Hungarian, and Russian, one would think Tabachnik's answer would be yes. But in his line of inquiry, Yiddish was to Manger what English was to Eliot: both a prison and a conduit. For him the writer is but a tenant of his language, a link in a chain of generations. His role is to build a bridge between past and future, to renew and recycle.
This is true, but only if we approach tradition in a preclusive, barring way, as a communicating vessel defined by the confinements of a single language. The approach reverberated in literary history until after World War II, and its most sounding echo was Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," an influential piece of criticism arguing, indirectly and in spite of Eliot's championing of Dante and his sprinkling of quotations from numerous languages throughout his poetry, for an intralingual view of tradition. But our global culture, where transitional marketing strategies and fast translations make a book available in various tongues and geographies almost at once, has not only taught us to see beyond the confines of a single language. It has also forced us to reevaluate our literary past. And this culture helps us understand a facet that has been present in Jewish letters for more than two centuries: the modern Jewish writer, polyglot by nature, never really lived so isolated in his own tongue as to have no intercourse with others. In fact, Jews, by virtue of their diasporic existence, have not only been among the first to promote translation as a way of renewal but have themselves functioned, in fact, as a bridge between diverse national literatures and cultures.
Antiquated as it is in our eyes, Tabachnik's paper pushes us to ask: Is there such a thing as a modern Jewish literary tradition, one navigating across linguistic and national lines? If so, how should one define it? Where does it begin and end? Is nationality the cohesive glue? Obviously not and neither is religion, for Jews, literary Jews, are mostly secular. Nor can one resort to Freud's definition of the secular Jew as "a psychological creature," for psychology is so malleable, so abstract a field, that someone with Jewish attributes might not be Jewish at all and vice versa. And what is a Jewish attribute, anyway?
The mere existence of a multilingual Jewish people today implies, by definition, a heterogeneous bookshelf — the People of the Book are really the People of the Books. Anyone aware of the multitudinous literature produced by contemporary Jews is struck by the obvious: not only do "modern" Jewish languages like Yiddish and Hebrew have their own Jewish writers, but every major Western tongue — from German and Russian to English and Portuguese — does as well; and these writers, in various degrees, are often at the crossroad between two traditions: their Jewish one and their own national one. They are at once insiders and outsiders. How deeply felt, how invigorating this cross-fertilization is varies, naturally, from one writer to another. Tabachnik's view of literature is a legacy of the nineteenth century, the era of nationalism, when language, history, geography, and a set of patriotic symbols clustered people in clearly defined throngs. Just as he suggested we approach Manger as a descendant of Goldfaden, we might better understand Philip Roth in the American tradition of Theodore Dreiser and Hart Crane, or Moacyr Scliar in the Brazilian tradition of Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector. These authors are, no doubt, an organic part of this lineage, but they also respond, often unconsciously, to a much wider spectrum of artistic stimulation. Where would Roth be without Kafka and Bruno Schulz? And what would Kafka have become without the Hasidic folktales? Or Scliar without the idiosyncratic monologues of Sholem Aleichem? Not that either Kafka or Scliar were deliberately invoking their predecessors when drafting The Castle or The Centaur in the Garden. In fact, neither of them was fluent in the ancestral tongues: Kafka didn't know either Yiddish or Hebrew, and Scliar could grasp only a few Yiddish words. Still, as we read them we cannot but be amazed at the way in which their primogenitors' voices are heard again. That's because modern Jewish literature is a kind of clandestine universal club — so clandestine, indeed, that often its members might not be aware of their own membership. Sooner or later, though, their language ends up identifying them, for what is a Jewish book if not a text that feels as if it were written originally in translation?
Jewish modernity is a fairly recent affair, and fiction as we know it today — "conventionally accepted lies," in the definition of Peruvian man of letters Marlo Vargas Llosa — only began to be frequented by Jews when the so-called Haskalah, or the age of reason and enlightenment, had already sunk in around 1860. And yet, in spite of such a short span of time, Jewish fiction is astonishingly voluminous and substantial. Its arrival, as it happened, came at the closure of the Neoclassical and Romantic periods in Germany, France, Italy, and England. The first novel in Hebrew, The Love of Zion by Abraham Mapu, Romantic in tone, was published in 1853. But it wasn't until Realism and Naturalism swept the Old Continent that modern Jewish literature began, willy-nilly, to move at the same pace as Europe's mainstream letters. And it has only been during the twentieth century, particularly after World War II, that this literature has moved to the foreground.
A slow awakening, this, due in large part to the rabbinical prohibition against idolatry. Since his emergence, though, the modern Jewish writer has seen himself as another version of the rabbi: a depository of popular memory, an elevated soul with the intellectual tools capable of analyzing all human affairs, a preacher, a counselor, a decipherer of ancient truths, and an interpreter of sacred texts — in short, a living mirror. This role is not only self-made but designed by the Jewish community, for, as orthodoxy is eclipsed, a member of the community must be anointed to the post of mediator and explicator of human affairs. He must, in this role, tackle the dilemmas of modern existence: Who are we? How are we different from the Gentiles? What are we doing on earth? What is our link to the past and future? The writer's responses to these questions are not prescriptive, as the rabbi's once were, but descriptive; they don't mandate a moral attitude but suggest various perspectives and attitudes toward Jewish existence. This explains why in the modern secular world, the Jewish writer's imaginative work — novels, poetry, short stories, theater — stand not only as a response but as a counterpart to the rabbinical literature of the postbiblical and talmudic period: his novels and poems, his essays and plays, are a present-day version of the Guemara and Shulkhan-Arukh, homiletic manuals but from a fictional viewpoint. In them the modern Jewish reader finds insight into major historical events such as the European Enlightenment, the bloody pogroms in the Pale of Settlement at the end of the nineteenth century, Communism and Nazism, the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel ... and others more theological, such as God's absence from the universe, the nature of evil, and the will to resurrect collectively from the ashes. Literature, then, as palliative to human bewilderment and suffering, much like rabbinical sermons.
It is generally agreed that the dissemination of a secular Jewish literary tradition as such evolved in Yiddish shortly before the Russian pogroms of 1881-1882, as a result of the breakup of the conservative world of Jews in Russia, Poland, Rumania, and Galicia. The Haskalah was the third of three major intellectual and spiritual revolutions undergone by the Jewish people since biblical times. Each of these revolutions was led by a man named Moses. Each of them generated a sense of fracture, of reorganization within and around the community. The first Moses, Moyshe Rabbeinu, guided his people from Egypt to Canaan, thus establishing the ground for the future kingdom of Israel. The second Moses, Moshe ben Maimon, known by his Latin appellation Maimonides, not only fought to make the Bible and Aristotelian thought compatible but also systematized the moral laws making life in the Diaspora bearable. And the third Moses, Moses Mendelssohn, a German philosopher who was a contemporary of Immanuel Kant as well as the author of the 1767 German treatise Phaedon, articulated the argument that opened the door to modernity. Mendelssohn is the one responsible for opening up Jews' minds to European trends, for bringing them out of the ghetto and into civil society. Until then, Jewish literature was made up exclusively of liturgical poetry, prayer books, and codes of daily behavior, all with the Talmud as their central inspiration. This was a comparatively compact and homogeneous writing: religion was its sole raison d'etre; and Hebrew, the holy tongue, lashon ha-kodesh, served as the primarily vehicle. This is not to say that other tongues did not exist; Diaspora Judaism is by definition a multilingual journey, and a variety of languages and dialects have flourished within and around the Jewish communities (Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, etc.), always useful in negotiating the status Jews have had as "invited guests." But Hebrew, up until the Haskalah, was the language of divine communication; all other verbal activity was deemed too mundane, too impious to articulate the plights of the human soul.
The Haskalah broke this verbal compactness forever. In 1818, Leopold Zunz, the leader of the Science of Judaism (Die Wissenschaft des Judentums), argued, in German, that Jewish literature needed to expand its horizons to include the humanities and natural sciences and not be confined to the religious tradition and to halakhah, i.e., legalistic matters. Zunz had little impact on the Eastern European Jewish masses, though. The job of spreading the word against awkwardness and in favor of modernity was left to the maskilim, proponents of the Enlightenment devoted to upgrading the intellectual and social status of their fellow Jews by means of education. It should be noted in passing, though, that the Haskalah was a strictly Ashkenazic phenomenon. Sephardic letters, before the expulsion in 1492, were mainly poems intoning sacred, strictly structured hymns. This tradition was carried along in Ladino when the Jews from Spain relocated, mainly in the Arab world but also in the Americas. They were not exposed to the Haskalah, which allowed for secular literary genres exploring deep feelings of ambiguity. Perhaps this explains why modern Jewish literature is so Eurocentric and why, up until World War II, so few Sephardic writers — novelists, in particular, but also playwrights — were known across geographic boundaries.
In any case, the maskilim not only had to fight against the disdain for fiction in Jewish religious circles. They also faced a crucial linguistic dilemma: Yiddish was the lingua franca of the Jewish masses but a tongue generally considered unworthy by the intelligentsia. To address their peers, they would need to make Hebrew a more earthly and pedestrian language or else switch and begin using the jargon themselves. This either/or had multiple ramifications and coincided with the rise of nationalism in general and Zionism in particular. The most legendary switch from Hebrew to Yiddish is the one by Mendele Mokher Sforim, ne Sholem Jacob Abramovitsh, nicknamed "the grandfather of Yiddish literature" by his successor Sholem Aleichem. Abramovitsh had been born in the small shtetl in Kapulye, Belorussia, into a middle-class Lithuanian rabbinical family. Before writing The Magic Ring in Yiddish in 1865, he had spent a decade writing in Hebrew, for Yiddish was an unworthy jargon frequented by housewives and openly ridiculed by the intellectuals. In "Mayn Lebn," an autobiographical essay anthologized in his Complete Works, he wrote: "I tried to compose a story in simple Hebrew, grounded in the spirit and life of our people at the time. At that time, then, my thinking went along these lines: Observing how my people live, I want to write stories for them in our sacred tongue, yet most do not understand the language. They speak Yiddish. What good does the writer's work and thought serve him, if they are of no use to his people? For whom was I working? The question gave me no peace but placed me in a dilemma." The switch was, clearly, an attempt at finding an audience, Abramovitsh's own readership. "Yiddish in my time," he added, "was an empty vessel, filled only with ridicule, nonsense, and the twaddle of fools who could not speak like human beings and who had no reputation at all." And the switch came in 1864, when he took an enormous risk by writing a short novel in Yiddish, The Little Man. It become a popular success.
Surely Abramovitsh was not the first to switch to the "unworthy" jargon: fewer than twenty years earlier, Israel Aksenfeld, a Russian-Jewish author, had written The First Jewish Recruit, among the first Yiddish novels; and Isaac Meir Dick, also Russian, chose Yiddish to write his satire Tractate on Poverty. Other early practitioners of Yiddish, Yosef Perl and Y. Y. Linetski, devoted their energy to writing satires of Hasidic mannerisms. But in Abramovitsh's pen, Yiddish became not only a channel for fiction but a legitimate artistic vehicle, a bridge toward modernity. While he continued writing in Hebrew (his first complete novel was Fathers and Sons , written in the holy tongue) and in his mature years returned to it fully by rewriting his Yiddish novels in the sacred tongue, he was, as scholar Dan Miron once put it, "increasingly `seduced' by his Yiddish mistress." He turned this mistress into a suitable language to produce pedagogical meditations and fictions injected with humor, designed to help educate the masses. His style and vision established the field for a type of modern novel filled with sarcasm and concerned with common folk.
This beginning reveals a poignant fact: polyglotism is a permanent birthmark in the modern Jewish literary tradition, an unequivocal sign of the times. As Jews began to articulate their plight in novels and stories, the issue of language became central: In which tongue to write? How to make this facet of Jewish life, the need and ability to acquire a whole gamut of tongues, a core theme? Language, and not place, is what Abramovitsh and his peers deal with — or better, language as place. Dan Jacobson, the South African writer, has convincingly considered the absence of a tellurian ethos in Yiddish literature. "Theirs is the literature of a people without power (and all its accompanying evils and guilts)," Jacobson writes, "without the possession of a land, without statehood or political organization, without the freedom to pursue a wide variety of occupations — the literature of a society that was in many immensely important aspects maimed and deprived." Absence of loci but not of verbal stamina. And indeed, for all the displacement of Jewish society, Yiddish letters are astonishingly successful in creating a new land, a territory where words and sentences acquire a geographical feel, a tangibility that turns them into a homeland of sorts. Abramovitsh and many of his contemporaries were fluent in many tongues, and they used their multilingualism not only intrinsically in their oeuvre but as a channel to become acquainted with European letters. Add to it the fact that Yiddish, in and of itself, was already a composite, a hybrid mixture of German grammar and vocabulary with elements from Hebrew, Aramaic, and some Slavic and Romance languages. Not surprisingly, a self-consciousness about language, a thirst for verbal ambiguity and double entendres, a passion for irony and parody, a love for metaphors, similes, and analogies, and a desire to turn words into protagonists are at the core of the tradition.
This verbal virtuosity is taken to a masterly extreme by Abramovitsh's immediate successor, Sholem Aleichem, ne Sholem Rabinovitch, the so-called father of Yiddish literature. Less brainy and arguably the most popular and beloved of all modern Jewish writers, he also switched from Hebrew to Yiddish. But his influence is considerably more far-reaching by virtue of his overall artistic goal: to make his audience laugh. The Yiddish critic Ba'al Makhshoves understood this strategy perfectly well: he once described Sholem Aleichem's appeal as similar to the feeling we have when we think we've committed a terrible sin, or experienced catastrophe, and wished it were all just a dream. This was Aleichem's incomparable achievement: conjuring up collective anxiety and then dispelling it magically, "laughing the danger away." Humor was not an escape, though. It allowed Sholem Aleichem to delve into the main problems of shtetl Jews in Eastern Europe in an unremitting manner. His greatest strength was in his language: he turned Yiddish into a malleable yet controlled tongue, full of verbal play, of labyrinthine twists, a perfect mirror of the street language used by Jews at the turn of the century. He infused it with a tragic sense of life so heartbreaking that readers are forced to laugh in sadness.
He is the author of the most beloved of Jewish novels, published in installments between 1894 and 1914, entitled Teyve the Dairyman. It is about a poor man in his shtetl Kasrilevka — or better, about his many daughters. Tevye's gifts are, in truth, what make him come alive. As they grow up, each of them is attracted to a man representing a particular challenge to Eastern European Jewry: poverty, Communism, conversion. With each of them, Tevye, a modern Job, faces another existential crisis, putting into question his religion, his traditional values, his fatherhood. On the surface, his language is chaotic, a fool's verbiage. But as one considers it more deeply, it becomes obvious that language is Tevye's dominion, his own empire, where he can rule unchallenged, capriciously conceiving, like Don Quixote, whatever fantasy he pleases. Through language he reaches out to God and the world, and through it he makes sense of his many misfortunes.
Yiddish, the mamme-loshen, the mother tongue, is Tevye's only capital, as it will be for the whole modern Jewish literary tradition. And yet, at the turn of the nineteenth century, Yiddish was only one aspect, albeit a crucial one, the source of sources of a modern Jewish literary tradition. Yiddish writers sought to match the standards of European letters and gained momentum thanks to wider newspaper printing and distribution and to efforts in mass publishing. Finally, Yiddish literature coincided with the migration by Jews from shtetls to urban centers, the very topic it sought to address. Although a bit older, Isaac Leib Peretz, the third member of the classic Yiddish trio, is a master modernist ultimately known for inserting Yiddish letters into the shelves of European literature. A heartfelt humanist, a lawyer and rationalist with a magisterial talent for languages (Peretz knew half a dozen), he is removed in perspective from those of the other two trio members: unlike them, he focused on the individual, not on the collective; he used psychology as a device to explore the minds of his characters; and he brought uncertainty and inner doubts to the table. The florid language of Sholem Aleichem becomes precise, detached, scientific, almost perfunctory in Peretz. He attacked Jewish passivity while demystifying European rationalism and putting into question, as his predecessors did, the reaches of the Haskalah. In his pioneering reportage, Impressions of a Journey through the Tomaszow Region in 1890, he used the skills of a scientist to gather data about Jewish life in Polish towns. As the narrative progresses, his own method is put into question, though, and Peretz ends up wondering if reason is actually superior to faith. This incertitude paved the road to Kafka, as does Peretz's effort to recover old Hasidic tales, either adapting them into modern parables or simply using them as inspiration, a custom many in the Jewish literary tradition would pursue as a means to reconnect with the religious past ... to return, through fiction, to the roots.
This reconnection is crucial. While the Haskalah, in all its utopianism, strove to bring Jewish people to the banquet of European modernity, the nostalgia for a cohesive religious past increased as time went by, and literature was often the window through which to yearn, to look back in remorse. What makes Peretz a fascinating figure is his double vision, his endorsement of modernity and his nostalgia for a Jewish past rapidly receding. Many of his allegorical stories and essays, with themes taken up by successors, long to refocus on Hasidic life but from a rationalist perspective. And here it is worth considering Hasidism, a mystical movement shaped to a large extent by Israel Ba'al Shem Tov, known by the acronym Besht, in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine in the mid-eighteenth century, as a counterpoint to the Haskalah. For while the Jewish Enlightenment was pushing Jews to become active members of secular European societies, Hasidism evolved as a kind of Lutheran revolution, struggling to revamp Jewish religion, to make it come alive, to force it away from the dogmatism of talmudic rabbis and into the hands of joyful mystics ready to pray to God not only with their souls but with their entire bodies. And literature, particularly the art of storytelling, was at its core. The pious Hasidim, believers in the supernatural, gathered around a leader, a master, a shaman, a zaddik — the mediator between God and humankind. Through storytelling, the master delivered his teachings. His tales, a worthy pastime, proved not only that God is present in the world but also that he is present even in a seemingly idle story. Most of the Hasidic tales are mere vignettes and anecdotes, which, when recovered by modernists like Peretz and his peers, have the taste of wisdom delivered in allegorical terms, indirectly.
It is indeed striking how the modern Jewish literary tradition is born divided: one side pulls toward faith, the other toward rationality. The dialectic between the two cannot be resolved, of course, and one Jewish writer after another uses his craft to explore the abyss between the desire to emancipate, free of the weight of religion, and the need to keep faith intact, to go on believing in a lively yet mysterious God. And if the emergence of the modern Jewish writer occurred in Yiddish and Hebrew, this other dialectical struggle is also at the heart of the Hasidic tradition. For the Hasidim understood that Hebrew might be the lashon ha-kodesh, but Yiddish is the language of dialogue and storytelling.
Of all the Hasidic masters, the one who has continually been a magnetic source of inspiration to modern Jewish writers is Rabbi Nakhman, a great-grandchild of the Ba'al Shem Tov and a contemporary of Moses Mendelssohn, who emerged from the small Polish town of Bratzlav. His tales have been integrated readily into the literary canon, in spite of the fact that Rabbi Nakhman himself did not write them; he simply told them and retold them in Yiddish to his attentive disciples. One, Nathan Sternhartz, recorded them and brought them to print — in Hebrew, though, so as to turn them into holy scripture. This happened posthumously, in 1815-1816, several decades before the German brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm began the publication of their Grimm's Fairy Tales. Literary historians don't generally place Rabbi Nakhman's tales in the chronology of Hebrew letters. In Yiddish, on the other hand, they have exerted a very strong influence. Martin Buber, Joseph Patai, Meyer Levin, and Elie Wiesel have made them accessible, through rewritings and adaptations, to Western audiences; Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg include one of them, "A Tale of a Candelabrum," in their groundbreaking 1954 anthology, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories; and one writer after another has turned to these stories as a source of inspiration. As such, Rabbi Nakhman is thus crucial to a branch of the tradition where the how of literature is far less important than the what. His tales are never autobiographical: they are simple, straightforward, never addressing institutionalized religion. But they are as attractive as the teller, the rabbi himself, which explains why the number of modern stories where a zaddik is a repository of ancient truths, a mystic with supernatural powers, is immense.
The dialectical tension between religion and emancipation, between Hebrew and Yiddish, is the engine keeping the modern Jewish literary tradition in constant movement. Wherever a Jewish writer is active, a battle of opposites is always at work: for every shade of light, there is a counterpart of darkness, for every yes a no. As time goes by, this tension acquires different shades: assimilation versus continuity, Israel versus the Diaspora.... But the tension is always there, essential for literature to function as a mirror of reality. Abramovitsh's prominence in the tradition, in truth, is not accidental: he was, no doubt, a unique talent, but his novels were embraced because readers were seeking to see their existential dilemmas vocalized, reflected upon.
Since my focus is language, let me center a bit more, albeit briefly, on the tension between Hebrew and Yiddish. It is through this opposition that the tradition, in my view, acquires its coherence. The expansion of Yiddish, as it happened, was only one facet of the Haskalah. Its maturation into a modern European literary vehicle ran parallel to that of Hebrew, even though Yiddish was spoken by many millions more. Abraham Mapu's biblical novel in Hebrew sold twelve hundred copies in five years, and this success was contemporaneous with a best-selling adaptation of Eugène Sue's Mystères de Paris into Hebrew. Abramovitsh's early artistic efforts, and especially his own translations from his Yiddish work, legitimized the sacred tongue as a vehicle for modern literature. Hayyim Nakhman Bialik and Saul Tchernichovsky, poets of the Hebrew renaissance, turned that language into a lyrical, evocative contemporary tongue, and Mikha Yosef Berdichevsky, a contemporary of Sholem Aleichem, used it to fight Yiddish oversentimentality. Yiddish and Hebrew — which of the two was "the authentic national language"? Yiddishists claimed their tongue was universal. They argued that since the masses used it in their everyday life, and because it was inhabited by the collective soul and was the tongue conducive to Socialism, it needed to be accepted as the Jewish tongue. (This in spite of the fact that only Ashkenazim used it.) Hebraists, on the other hand, turned to history for their language: Hebrew is the biblical tongue; the one in which God communicated with humankind. To shape a Jewish nation, Hebrew, the tongue of the Torah, of the Shulkhan-Arukh, and of rabbinic debates, needed to be reinvented, to be turned into the tongue of political redemption. This tension runs through almost every public debate of the time and was at the center of the Czernowitz Conference, an important international conference in Bukovina designed as a platform to elevate Yiddish to preeminent status. The consensus was clear, except for a few voices crying in the wilderness, including that of Ba'al Makhshoves, who, in a conciliatory note, argued in favor of bilingualism. Not unexpectedly, he failed to ease the tension, but his was a most prophetic view. "Some among us," Ba'al Makhshoves stated, "will not admit that our one and only literature has a double language." Does one really need to make a choice between Hebrew and Yiddish? he wondered. How is one to define a Jewish language? Through political manifestos? He then asked the most germane of all questions pertaining to modern Jewish literature: "Does the [Jewish] writer live and breathe between two languages only? Don't our critics carry within them the spirit of the German language? And in our younger writers, who were educated in the Russian language, can't we discern the spirit of Russian? And don't we hear echoes of French among our colleagues, the Palestinian writers (Ben-Ami, Hermoni)?" Ba'al Makhshoves concluded by saying that Jews might have two languages and a dozen echoes from other foreign tongues ... but only one literature.
One literature, many tongues — bright, decisive, a man of immense wisdom and le mot juste, Ba'al Makhshoves, in a single statement, established the parameters helping us to define and appreciate the modern Jewish literary tradition: open parameters, for sure, open and transcendental. The tension between Yiddishists and Hebraists was of course a purely internal Jewish affair, internal in the sense of Jewish seclusion: it affected only those Jews living daily in a Jewish tongue but not those already at home in European languages. The Bukovina conference took place in 1908, five years after the traumatic Kishinev pogrom. In truth, by then modern Jewish letters were not only alive and well in two languages but in many more, from German to English. And they would soon flourish in many more — Russian, Czech, Polish, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian — for Jews, taking advantage of European liberalism, had left the self-contained universes of the shtetl and ghetto and inserted themselves into secular European culture, as far away from their coreligionists as possible, among Gentiles, dreaming of total immersion. This, clearly, is where modern Jewish letters become not only uncircumscribed but uncircumcised. In 1840, for instance, German poet Heinrich Heine, the author of "Die Lorelei," indisputably his country's most popular poet since Goethe, wrote The Rabbi of Bacherach, a historical novel in which he defended the cause of Jewish emancipation. Emancipation for him meant total assimilation into the Gentile milieu. Strictly speaking, Heine by then was no longer Jewish, for some fifteen years prior, while finishing his law studies, he had converted to Christianity, "for practical reasons," he argued, in an act meant as "an entrance ticket [into European society]." Within two generations, his entire family, one sibling after the next, one nephew after another, would follow the same path, becoming thoroughly de-Judaized. But in Heine's case the maneuver backfired. How could it not? A writer, after all, uses words to reflect on his identity and experience, and his Jewish background was deeply resented in German literary circles. He was forced, as a result, to spend the last twenty-five years of his life in exile, his books banned and the Prussian government even calling for his death. The Rabbi of Bacherach was a response to his critics, both a protest and a lamentation, but it didn't save him from expatriation. As biographer Ernst Pawel wrote, "[Heine] lacked piety, observed no traditions, and would probably have been hard put to define his Judaism, yet his German critics were dead right when they read it into almost everything he ever wrote. The greatest German poet of his time was a Jew looking at the Germans from the outside, one reason why he saw them as clearly as he did."
Ambivalence soon became a pattern. Should Jews convert to Christianity to be fully accepted? Should they instead remain loyal to Judaism, writing their fiction for only a small audience of fellow Jews? Describing Judaism as "revealed legislation" and not, like Christianity, "a revealed religion," Moses Mendelssohn himself had anticipated this question: "Integration [to European society] means renunciation," he once wrote. "I'm first a German citizen and then a Jew.... "A century later, Peretz, the quintessential Yiddish modernist, had foreshadowed the question by assuming that sooner or later all Jews would have to take advantage of political emancipation and scientific progress, and replace God with human reason as the determinant of their fate. The real question, obviously, is not why ambivalence was felt but how it was transformed into art — Jewish art, literary art. What else are Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Isaac Babel all about if not ambivalence? These three, indeed, stand at the apex of modern Jewish literature in the first half of the twentieth century — the other Jewish trio. A dramatically different trio than their Yiddish forefathers, I hasten to add, for if Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz were "internal writers" and shtetl Jews, i.e., literati addressing a strictly Jewish audience, the others were an "external trio," urban in their upbringing, alienated from Jewish sources, and with Gentiles as their target audience.
I am consciously using the term "trio" in a rather loose way, for while the Yiddish forefathers saw one another as part of a compact Yiddish elite, there is little evidence that Kafka, Schulz, and Babel even knew one another. And yet, their legacy, when approached in the context of the Jewish literary tradition, does offer us astonishing compactness, a sense of unity none of them could ever have envisioned. Nor did anyone in this "external trio" ever write in Yiddish, but their fascination with it — clearly Kafka's and Babel's — is transparent: Kafka was seduced by Yiddish theater and felt a deep attraction to this language of "raggedy and makeshift character" at a time, in Prague, when the "internal trio" was being read in German translation; and, throughout his adult life, Babel longed for the Yiddish of his upbringing. As his second wife, A. N. Pirozhkova, states in her memoir, Babel befriended Shlomo Mikhoels, the Soviet Jewish actor whose performances in stage adaptations of Abramovitsh's The Travels of Benjamin III and Sholem Aleichem's Teyve the Dairyman at the Jewish State Theater in the USSR mesmerized him. He was said to be translating Sholem Aleichem's work into Russian when the NKVSD, Stalin's secret police, came to arrest him in 1939. Still, none of the three — Babel, Kafka, or Schulz — considered himself a "Jewish writer," which of course doesn't mean they were not. Their languages were secular — Russian, German, and Polish, respectively — but each Judaized it by filtering a Jewish weltanschauung in its texture: Babel's Russian was painstakingly economical, brief, unobtrusive, fastidious in its concision; Kafka, as Sander L. Gilman puts it, pushed German to become less naturalistic and more "universal, transnational, and infinitely interpretable"; and Schulz's Polish was elastic, suitable to accommodate his mythology. In these writers the florid excesses of Yiddish gave place to a Flaubertian dexterity, a sober finesse in which silence plays a prominent role. Intriguingly, none of this "external" three, unlike their Yiddish counterparts, is a prolific writer; instead, their books are infrequent, sparse, as if stillness had been forced upon them — a painful, agonizing stillness.
Silence, indeed, is what Franz Kafka is about. While nowhere in his creative oeuvre does the word "Jew" appear, it is, in fact, present everywhere, in spirit at least. (His diaries and correspondence, on the other hand, are filled with reflections about his religion and family traditions.) Kafka was born in Prague into a middle-class Jewish family. His father's figure looms large and monstrous in his upbringing and is metamorphosed by Kafka into a phantom generating fear and anxiety. In Hermann Kafka's eyes (as seen through Franz's anxious perspective), his son was always unqualified, undeserving, unworthy. This sense of doom, intertwined with an impossible search for worthiness, permeates all of Kafka's oeuvre. The Castle is often read as a religious allegory, a man's search for a reclusive, abstract God; and The Trial is about supernatural justice and unworthiness. This vision was clear in Kafka's approach to his fellow Jews. In 1923, already fatally ill with tuberculosis, he spent time in the town of Müritz, at the side of a group of Eastern European Jews whom Berlin's Jews were recruiting. "Half the days and nights the house, the woods, and the beach are filled with singing," wrote Kafka. "I'm not happy when I'm among them, but on the threshold of happiness." While these Jews represented his past, his present is symbolized by Gentile European society. But Kafka's view is that he belongs to neither of them. In a famous parable with obvious Jewish overtones, he states: "We are expelled from Paradise, but Paradise was not destroyed. In a sense our expulsion was a stroke of luck, for had we not been expelled, Paradise would have had to be destroyed."
The loss of Paradise is at the center of Bruno Schulz's oeuvre. In the town of Dragobicz, in central Poland, where he was born and where he died at the age of fifty, he was a schoolteacher and an amateur draftsman. But more than anything, he was a silent, introspective man, utterly lacking in self-esteem. Schulz kept his literary endeavors private, never showing them to those around him. He had difficulty finding the right literary tone, mainly because he could not conceive of an audience for whom to write — an essential dilemma of the modern Jewish writer. The novel The Street of Crocodiles, in fact, was sent to a distant addressee, a woman poet and doctor of philosophy who lived in Lvov, in letters Schulz wrote to her. When the book was eventually published in 1934, Schulz was overwhelmed by the positive response. Rather than relieve him, though, this response caused Schulz to feel invaded by the outside world and pressured to continue writing. This pressure frightened him. Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass followed three years later, but by then Schulz was terrified and had fallen back into silence and depression. Both volumes display a unique mythical vision: they are autobiographical but without revealing much about the author's life. They give the impression of escapades within self-enclosed ivory towers where Schulz endeavors by himself, alone, away from society. One reads them as a kind of variation of biblical narrative: they are ahistorical; childhood, in them, is Paradise Lost. In fact, at the time of his death Schulz was purportedly writing a novel, The Messiah, in which, in the words of critic Jerzy Ficowski, "the myth of the coming of the Messiah would symbolize a return to the happy perfection that existed at the beginning — in Schulzian terms, the return to childhood." When the Nazis took over Dragobicz, he was living, like most Jews, in the town's ghetto. This period was short, though: he was killed on Black Thursday by a Nazi soldier.
Schulz was ambiguous about his Jewishness: the Jews around him made him anxious, yet he felt close to his biblical ancestors, at least to those he had invented for himself. Ambiguity is also Isaac Babel's cri de coeur. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, as cosmopolitan a Jewish center as any other at the turn of the century, he had a Jewish upbringing, the topic of about a third of his stories. Inspired by Maksim Gorky, Babel joined the Red Army so as "to experience real life in full," and was among Cossacks in the battalion led by the infamous Comrade S. M. Budyonny, commander of the First Cavalry Army in Poland. The stories published in Red Cavalry were written around 1923. They exemplify, in astonishing fashion, the tension between "brainy" Jews and "physical" Cossacks. In his other masterpiece, Odessa Stories, Babel writes of Benya Krik, a Jewish gangster in the days before the Soviet Revolution. Here, again, is the tension between action and inaction. In other stories, all filled with a tacit violence and the pain of difference, he retrieved his childhood milieu by dealing with issues of Jewish identity. One of them, "Karl-Yankl," is about a family feud that results from a baby born out of a mixed marriage, part Russian, part Jewish. The baby, Karl-Yankel, will grow up to be divided, ambivalent: half Karl (after Karl Marx), half Yankel (his Yiddish name). Will he ever be happy? The question is left open by Babel. Indeed, he ends the story with this line whispered by the narrator to himself: "It's not possible that you won't be happy, Karl-Yankel. It's not possible that you won't be happier than I."
Happiness: the impossible challenge. In his adult life, Babel endorsed the aesthetics proposed by the Soviet regime, but socialist realism intimidated him. (Although, when the police came, he was said to be putting the final touches on a new volume of short fiction.) Happiness, the one deeply felt, eluded him, but it was thanks to that feeling of unhappiness, of homelessness, of being a pariah, that Babel, in his earlier period, wrote what he did. And pariahs are what the members of this "external trio" are. This doesn't mean they reject Jewishness altogether; they simply go beyond a superficial understanding of it. Kafka's theological views, negative, despairing, and fatalistic as they are, are a reformulation of rabbinical Judaism. They offer him a home alone, a self-enclosed universe. Language, for him, is not a locus but a credo: Jews as nomadic, uncentered, mutable ... but in language they find belief. Similarly, Schulz uses language as a retreat. His phantasmagories are nightmarish visions of escape and transmutation. This nightmarish quality, which contains a sense of dislocation and confused identity, is in fact what characterizes the "external trio."
Does the Jewish writer, to be part of the literary tradition, need to include Jewish symbols and motifs in his oeuvre? The question sounds prescriptive, as if one could generate literature upon request. But it has another facet to it: Is Jewish literature recognizable by its content? Other literary traditions, based on national and nationalist definitions, group their members by geography and language: a Norwegian writer is part of the canon by virtue of his birth and tongue, even if his work is written outside Norway. But Jewish literature, yet again, is altogether different. This difference brings to mind an argument by Jorge Luis Borges, delivered in an inspiring essay called "The Argentine Writer and Tradition," included in his book Labyrinths (an essay that, by the way, was, like Tabachnik's PEN paper, influenced by T. S. Eliot). In it Borges observes that the Koran, the Arabian book par excellence, contains no references to camels. He writes: "I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of the Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work. It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page." No camels, then — no Jewish symbols — but Jewish nonetheless. Modern Jewish literature, hence, is less about content than about a sensibility expressed through language.
The oeuvre of the "external trio" is often read as a prophesy of doom. And indeed, the Holocaust flashes through their pages like a thunder announcing a tempest — an event of cosmic proportions establishing, in sharp lines, a before and an after: before is the vanished world of Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe; after is the awareness of universal evil, the realization that man is indeed the sole ruler of God's creation and his force is easily mishandled. In Yiddish, the Holocaust is addressed as Dem Dritn Khurbn, the third destruction, after the first two that befell the Holy Temple in Jerusalem; but Yiddish will cease to be the verbal mode of addressing Jewish issues, for the Holocaust brought about its death as a living tongue. It also forced upon the Jewish writer a less dilettantish, more responsible role: he could not longer perceive himself as an imaginer and impersonator; instead, he was suddenly called to be a witness and an archivist. Surely I don't mean to imply that every post-Holocaust Jewish writer is a survivor. But the annihilation of six million Jews, a third of the world's Jewish population, by midcentury, forced on Jewish letters a different mission: to become a record, to be turned into living memory. Shtetl life suddenly needed to be romanticized: the vanished world of Sholem Aleichem was more than a work of literature; it was memory come alive. From the ashes of the Holocaust emerged not only extraordinary novels, stories, and autobiographies — Danilo Kis's Garden, Ashes, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, and Elie Wiesel's Night among them — but also a rereading of the overall Jewish literary tradition, for the event forced readers to take a different stand: to judge literature not merely for its aesthetic value but for its moral stand as well. These conflicting elements — aesthetics and morality — always went hand in hand within the tradition, establishing a balance of sorts, but after 1945 the balance shifted in one direction. Suddenly, Jewish testimonial literature became ubiquitous, as if fiction needed to make room for remembrance.
The Holocaust also shifted the literary centers of Jewish culture dramatically. Europe had been the nucleus before World War II, even though massive migrations began carrying immigrants across the Atlantic and to Palestine; but the Nazis managed — inadvertently, of course — to open new homes for the Jews, including the establishment, in 1948, of the state of Israel; to expand the verbal possibilities, turning English and modern Hebrew into major literary vehicles; and, ultimately, to shift the tension at the core of the Jewish tradition, no longer between maskilim and Hasidim, or between Yiddishists and Hebraists, but between Zionists and Diasporists, and between secularists and the religious in contemporary Israel and the United States. The nineteenth century is about the rise of nationalist movements; and Zionism, in the hands of fin de siecle political leaders (like Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha-Am, among others) and visionaries like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, allowed for a reevaluation of Hebrew, not as a religious tongue but as a spoken language and a national vehicle. Language had to become an ideological artifact, a weapon to achieve normalcy; Jews had to be like all other nations of the world, and Hebrew would be their national tongue. Not surprisingly, Tabachnik's view of tradition at the PEN conference applies to Israeli letters: they are, for the most part, national and nationalistic; and the question of place has moved to centerstage; not language alone, but language and place, are at the heart of Israel's literature. A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and Yaakov Shabtai, among others, modeled a collective analysis of the country's soul.
Their stand is in contrast to the more ethereal, less political oeuvre of Shmuel Yosef Agnon, indisputably the most eminent of all foundational Hebrew writers, and a master of twentieth-century literature. A Galician who also flirted with Yiddish at the outset, Agnon embraced Hebrew wholeheartedly, transforming it into a sophisticated medium for expressing modern Jewish angst. While a contemporary of Kafka, Schulz, and Babel, he is close in spirit to the "internal trio," at least in his approach to theme and audience: he writes for Jews about Jews. But his books, most illustriously Guest of the Night and The Bridal Canopy, pertain to the vanished world of Eastern European shtetls from a more pious, less secular viewpoint than those of Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz. As Israeli critic Gershon Shaked once put it, "Agnon never sang a song of praise of ignorance." He highlighted, in a Joycean fashion, the tension between religion and assimilation, between the authentic and the false. For that he was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with Nelly Sachs, in 1966, which, unfortunately, did not make his oeuvre more popular. Agnon, after all, is as arcane and inaccessible a modern Jewish writer as there has ever been, a kind of rabbinical sage for a small initiated elite. And he also came to symbolize the safekeeper of the Hebrew language. His Hebrew is tortuous, labyrinthine — anything but mundane. In Agnon's pen, the holiness of Hebrew, centuries after the Haskalah opened up the door to emancipation, comes alive in literature.
This brings to mind the famous anecdote Saul Bellow tells in his introduction to Great Jewish Short Stories about meeting Agnon in Jerusalem. "While we were drinking tea," Bellow writes, "he asked me if any of my books had been translated into Hebrew. If they had not been, I had better see to it immediately, because, he said, they would survive only in the Holy Tongue. His advice I assume was only half serious. This was his witty way of calling my attention to a curious situation. I cited Heinrich Heine as an example of a poet who has done rather well in German. `Ah,' said Mr. Agnon, `we have him beautifully translated into Hebrew. He is safe.'" "Security," of course, is a favorite Zionist word. Symptomatically, Bellow concludes the anecdote as follows: "Mr. Agnon feels secure in his ancient tradition. But Jews have written in languages other than Hebrew for more than two thousand years. The New Testament scholar Hugh J. Schonfield asserts that parts of the Gospels were composed in a sort of Yiddish Greek, `as colorful in imagery and metaphor as it is often careless in grammatical construction.'" This tension between Agnon and Bellow, between the Zionist tongue and the languages of the Diaspora, often results in Israelis suggesting that their literature is not really a part of the modern Jewish literary tradition but, instead, a continuation of biblical narrative. Almost since the days of the Hebrew renaissance poets Bialik and Tchernichovsky, Hebrew has been conceived of as a self-sufficient entity, a refutation of exile. This results in paternalism and condescension. In an interview, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz once argued: "In terms of collective Jewish creativity, the post-Holocaust Diaspora has been barren. So, when you think of it, must it be. Of course, individual Jewish creativity in many places still flourishes, sometimes, in fact, on an impressive scale, but individual creativity must always depend upon previous collective creativity. In this respect, individual Jewish creators in the Diaspora — to the extent that they remain Jewish, that is — are still spending the collective creativity of the nonexistent Jewish centers of Eastern and Central Europe. They are living in an overdraft.... It can only be a matter of time before individual Jewish creativity there also fades away. Jews may either come to Israel for inspiration, or else they may lose either their individual creativity or their Jewishness — or both." Oz's position, of course, is myopic, not to say complacent. For one thing, it negates the extraordinary outpouring of creativity from European writers such as Elias Canetti, a Sephardic Bulgarian whose own version of German in Auto-da-Fe not only reinvented Goethe's language but, in the words of Susan Sontag, "turned the word into a world"; or the crystalline, ethereal French of Albert Cohen, another Sephardic Jew, born on the Greek island of Corfu and author of the masterpiece Belle du Seigneur. Worse, it minimizes the extraordinary Jewish artistry crafted in English since World War II.
To be sure, English had been used in the late nineteenth century by figures Bejamin Disraeli and Israel Zangwill. But it is in America where, after a battle against Yiddish, it would become an inspired platform. The United States had been a magnet and safe haven for European immigrants for many years — at least since around 1880 — and American Yiddish was considered promiscuous and second-rate when compared to Yiddish spoken on the Old Continent. American Yiddish did acquire literary stamina and moral standing with Abraham Cahan, editor of the important newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward and author of the classic The Rise of David Levinsky. This ascendance was strengthened by Yiddish theater and vaudeville troupes, by popular music and film, and by intellectuals like those known as Di Yunge, an artistic group in New York in the twenties and thirties led by poets Mani Leib and Moishe Leib Halpern. By the time Isaac Bashevis Singer, eventually a Nobel Prize recipient, arrived in Coney Island in 1935, a milieu conducive to Yiddish literature was well established. But it took the Holocaust on the one hand and the rapid assimilation of Jews into American society on the other to decimate the possibilities of Yiddish as a language of literature.
Singer, even in spite of himself, is the transitional figure that cuts Jewish literature into pre-and post-Holocaust. Without a massive population of Yiddish readers, he became, in the eyes of second- and third-generation American Jews, yiddishkeit ("Yiddishness") incarnated. American essayist Joseph Epstein, born in 1937 to Yiddish-speaking parents but whose upbringing managed to delete all traces of yiddishkeit, put it bluntly: "One of the things I owed him was — and remains — the important debt of helping to put me in touch with my own almost entirely lost historical past. My guess is that many of his readers were in the same condition as I, and that this was at least part of the profit we all derived from him and part, too, of the explanation for his popularity among American Jewish readers." Not that Singer was unprepared for the challenge. Since early on, he had perceived himself as belonging to the Western tradition of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. Born in a small Polish town, he had begun writing well before emigrating to America, but his emigration forced him to cease writing — a result, apparently, of the magisterial presence of his older brother Israel Joshua Singer, an epic novelist responsible for the classic The Brothers Ashkenazi. Isaac Bashevis Singer's rebirth, ironically, came from "the other side": from English-speaking Jewish intellectuals with a Yiddish background (Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, and others), who translated his work into English, and from Irving Howe, who championed his talents. Singer authored many dozens of novels and stories for children and adults. From 1953, when "Gimpel the Fool" was published in Partisan Review, his work began to be displayed in mainstream American publications such as Playboy, The New Yorker, and Esquire, most unlikely forums, needless to say, for a Yiddish writer. But then again, Singer is an unlikely Yiddish writer, and there is no doubt that this accounts for the deep resentment the Yiddish literary community felt toward him. His favorite topics — eroticism, demons and chimeras, polygamy — made him a modernist with an obscure, even obscene side to him. His critics branded him as a traitor to the Yiddish tradition, a storyteller nurturing the thirst for sexuality and sensationalism in American readers. What is striking is how unconcerned Singer was by these accusations. Most of his adult work, while written in Yiddish, was first published in English translation. This makes him, I suspect, an American writer, albeit one in a class of his own. Still, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1978, he made it clear he considered the award a tribute not to him but to the language in which he wrote, a language of much suffering, homeless and without a future.
In its distrust toward intellectuals, America is not a land where serious literature is appreciated. In America the writer is a performer, a con man: his use of the word is evasive, deceitful, and Singer's talent as an entertainer suited him well. And so, as Yiddish was eclipsed, English moved to the foreground as America's "Jewish" tongue. This verbal shift is useful to contrast the author of "Gimpel the Fool" to Saul Bellow, among the most renowned of English-speaking writers in the United States (even though he was born in Canada) and a Nobel laureate as well. In a 1976 interview during his Nobel Prize trip to Stockholm, Bellow claimed he was first an American and then Jewish, and that English was his true home. That the Nobel Prize committee decided to make the award almost consecutively to two writers living in America is in some way puzzling, since its tactics have been to be balanced and to distribute the laurel around the globe. Yet, one can explain this easily: Singer was a Jewish writer, Bellow an American one. Most Jewish-American writers of Bellow's generation and after are Americans to the core, closer to Poe, Hawthorne, James, and Hemingway than to the "internal trio." Prior to Bellow, a set of Jewish writers (among them Emma Lazarus, Ludwig Lewisohn, and Henry Roth) had pondered in a forceful manner issues of immigration and assimilation into the melting pot. But Bellow stands as the colossus, an intellectual writer in whose hands the Jewish-American novel becomes a laboratory of ideas and whose language — cosmopolitan, filled with modern angst — seems the perfect conduit for post-Holocaust Jewishness.
And an expansive conduit, to judge by its artistic outpouring. Cynthia Ozick, a translator from the Yiddish and a Jewish-American novelist and critic responsible for Memory and Metaphor and other provocative volumes, once argued that there "are no major works of Jewish imaginative genius written in any Gentile language, sprung of any Gentile culture." English, Ozick's language, she called a pagan tongue; but she also argues that America can become a site ad hoc for Jewish cultural rebirth. It has, no doubt: American-Jewish literature has moved from looking at the immigrant experience to approaching the whole world as its stage. And in this expanded compass is Philip Roth, a "noise maker" born in New Jersey and, for his ambitious scope, a totemic figure moving the modern Jewish literary tradition into different territory. He absorbed the revolution of the "internal trio" while, at the same time, revising the work of Kafka and Schulz. (The Breast is actually more Kafkaesque than Kafka himself.) Roth's debut volume of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, announced the central theme of his entire writing career: self-hatred. From his pen self-hatred will not only be an attack against Jewish parochialism, but most intriguingly, it will strive to create translingual, transcultural connections within Jewish letters. In Zuckerman Unbound, particularly in the epilogue "The Prague Orgy," Eastern European letters find a home in the Jewish-American novel as the protagonist, Zuckerman, travels to Czechoslovakia in search of a lost manuscript. Roth's sensibility and his interest in doppelgangers always had a European flavor and found expression in his role as editor of the important Penguin Books series Writers from the Other Europe. The series introduced to an English-speaking readership a wide range of Eastern European writers, many of them of Jewish descent, including Bruno Schulz and Danilo Kis.
Then came The Counterlife in 1986, an experimental, almost Eastern European novel, partly set in Israel. And almost a decade later came Roth's masterpiece, Operation Shylock, which in many ways revises the whole modern Jewish literary tradition. Set in America, the Middle East, and, indirectly, in Poland, this work is about the circuitous paths of modern Jewish history — about the Holocaust and its aftermath, about Zionism, about American Judaism looking to understand its place in a global world. Roth's English is agile, harmonic; it isn't a language of silence, like Kafka's German or Schulz's Polish; instead, it is a compendium, a synthesis, a lingua franca; Jewish themes and motifs are perfectly at home in it, and the novel seems written for both a Jewish and a n on-Jewish audience. Its story line unravels in unpredictable fashion, but its messages — or at least two of them, for that matter — are unambiguous: Jewish letters are no longer local, and English is the new Yiddish, a universal Jewish language for the world to savor.
Actually, this double message found in Roth's oeuvre is widespread in Jewish letters as we enter the twenty-first century. More than two centuries after the Haskalah, novels, stories, poems, and plays in English with Jewish themes appear regularly in Canada, Australia, and even South Africa; and in Israel's Hebrew they are, of course, astonishingly vigorous. But Jewish literature is fertile in many other corners of the globe and in at least a dozen other major languages: in Brazil, tales about circumcised centaurs and lost kibbutzim in the Amazon jungle enchant large audiences; an awakening of Sephardic voices — in Ladino and Spanish — is felt in Mexico, Guatemala, Argentina, and the United States; in Holland, Jewish fiction written in Dutch about the Holocaust and its aftermath is popular; and short and long fiction by Jews in European tongues continues to explore the ambiguity of modern Jewish identity. The echoes of these multifaceted voices are disseminated through translation, especially into English. Many of these writers look at the "external trio" for inspiration, but others feel little connection with the Jewish literary tradition, even while their work is filled with Jewish motifs. Add to this the attempt by secular Jews in America to revive Yiddish from the ashes of Nazism and the relevance that Yiddish has in Hasidic circles. One literature, many tongues — Ba'al Makhshoves's dictum is as pertinent today as ever.
I thus return to Tabachnik's paper on Yiddish poetry, which he concluded with the following remark: "And when, as we never cease to hope, new Yiddish poets arrive who feel the need to return to a sober and critical consideration of things, they — weary of hidden complexities — will be able to turn back to the unambiguous clarity of our older poets." Each Jewish generation thus embodies its own precursors: the precursors of yesterday keep on changing position, some gaining respect, others falling into obscurity. What we've learned, though, what Tabachnik and his generation forced us to contemplate, is that, because Jewish literature has never been a monolingual affair, Jews continue to act as conduits — a bridge between cultures — as English becomes the world's dominant language and translations make literature readily accessible to all. One tradition moving in multiple directions.
An ever-changing tradition, though: English might be the Yiddish of today, but judging from the lessons of history, this equation is likely to change time and again. What will the future bring? Calls for the demise of the Jewish writer have abounded almost since Abramovitsh switched from Hebrew to Yiddish. Aharon Appelfeld, as recently as 1997, argued: "The Jewish author as a model of the priest, the preacher, the jester and the Hasidic rabbi bearing the Jewish tradition on his back and trying to pass it on to coming generations — that model of the Jewish author has passed from the world. With S. Y. Agnon's death in Israel and that of Isaac Bashevis Singer in America, the last two figures who embodied the Jewish author in his essence have passed away." But Appelfeld only focuses on internal Jewish writers. And even then, his pessimism is unfounded, for the Jewish literary tradition has seen talent emerge in the most unexpected places, being reborn from the ashes, renewing itself even when it appeared the last breath of hope was gone. And we are far, indeed, from such an extreme situation. The Holocaust dealt a blow to Yiddish, but a generation later Yiddish — the mamme-loshen — is alive in America and Israel, even though it is not, and will never be, the popular language, the "living Jewish tongue," that it once was. Most important, the concept of a Jewish tongue has itself undergone a dramatic transformation. Hebrew is the language of the nation, but in the Diaspora, as assimilation becomes more real and as Jews become active members in Western societies, they appropriate their respective languages, Judaizing them. By doing so, they disseminate Jewish symbols and motifs, thus erasing the thin line between "external" and "internal" audiences. Simultaneously, Hasidism, both in Israel and the United States, endures, retaining its space — in Yiddish and Hebrew — for folklore and storytelling. And in distant corners of the globe, such as Latin America, new life has sprung forth within Jewish letters, an extraordinary fact when one considers that not since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 were languages like Spanish and Portuguese receptacles of Jewish sensibility. Surely the Jewish literary tradition has a future, and will continue to have one as long as there is Jewish life somewhere on earth, regardless of what language it is expressed in.
The Jewish writer's only objective is to be truthful to his artistic spirit — to reflect, through words, the ambiguities that inhabit his heart. In Abramovitsh this meant reflecting the worldview of the Jewish masses in the tongue he lived in. He wrote in "Mayn Lebn": "My admirers, lovers of Hebrew, warned me I would dishonor my name among Jews, if I dedicated myself to this outcast. But my concern for utility conquered my vanity and I decided, come what may, I would have pity for Yiddish, that rejected daughter, for it was time to do something for our people." To Cynthia Ozick, in English — in her pagan English — it means "to distinguish one life from another; to illuminate diversity; to light up the least grain of being, to show how it is concretely individual, particularized from any other; to tell, in all the marvel of its singularity, the separate holiness of the least grain." Escape and return — the dialectic between these two forces is not likely to disappear, and neither is the act — and art — of language switching, so essential to a fractured world like ours and one in which Jews have excelled as writers since time immemorial. The literary modes, of course, are transient: Will the book perish in the age of the information superhighway? Is the experience of reading as we know it about to disappear? Perhaps ... but the written word will surely survive, and with it the Jewish imagination, with its laborious questions of identity, its passion for books filled with truths and lies, its search for happiness, its comfort and anguish, verbosity and silence — books serving as maps across linguistic and geographical spheres.
|Introduction: Language and Tradition||3|
|The Rabbi's Son||27|
|If Not Higher ...||44|
|A Yom Kippur Scandal||48|
|Tug of Love||58|
|America and I||68|
|Before the Law||86|
|The Fool and the Forest Demon||92|
|Camacho's Wedding Feast||97|
|A Whole Loaf||105|
|The Street of Crocodiles||117|
|The Story of My Dovecot||125|
|The Spinoza of Market Street||135|
|The Sacrifice of the Prisoner||150|
|Prophet in Our Midst: A Story for Passover||154|
|In Dreams Begin Responsibilities||158|
|Looking for Mr. Green||176|
|House at the Sea||194|
|The Hand That Fed Me||200|
|The Mirror Maker||213|
|The Key Game||217|
|Midrash on Happiness||220|
|Letter from His Father||223|
|The True Waiting||250|
|The Zulu and the Zeide||252|
|Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers||264|
|Playing Ball on Hampstead Heath||289|
|The Conversion of the Jews||312|
|Dogs and Books||325|
|The Yatir Evening Express||336|
|In the Name of His Name||355|
|The Ballad of the False Messiah||358|
|Nomad and Viper||364|
|Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven||397|
|The Legacy of Raizel Kaidish: A Story||407|
|Postscript to a Dead Language||415|
|Elvis, Axl, and Me||432|
|Cherries in the Icebox||438|
|The Art Biz||459|
|Contents by Theme||483|