The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Cultureby Ruth R. Wisse
What makes a great Jewish book? What makes a book "Jewish" in the first place? Ruth R. Wisse, one of the leading scholars in the field of Jewish literature, sets out to answer these questions in The Modern Jewish Canon. Wisse takes us on an exhilarating journey through language and culture, penetrating the complexities of Jewish life as they are expressed in the greatest Jewish novels of the twentieth century, from Isaac Babel to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Elie Wiesel to Cynthia Ozick. The modern Jewish canon Wisse proposes comprises those books that convey an experience of Jewish actuality, those in which "the authors or characters know and let the reader know that they are Jews," for better or worse.
Wisse is not content merely to evaluate the great books of Jewish literature; she also links the works together to present a new kind of Jewish history, as it has been told through the literature of the past hundred years. She tells the story of a multilingual, multinational people, one that has experienced an often turbulent relationship with Hebrew (the liturgical and scriptural language) and Yiddish (the commonplace vernacular tongue), as well as with the numerous languages spoken by Jews around the world. Wisse insists that language informs the essential meaning of a Jewish work, creating and ratifying political and religious alliances, historical and cultural circumstance, and methods of interpretation.
Drawing from a broad sweep of twentieth-century Jewish fiction, Wisse reintroduces us to the deeper side of much-beloved books that remain touchstones of Jewish identity. Through her eyes we reencounter old friends, including:
- Tevye the Dairyman from Sholem Aleichem's landmark Yiddish stories, the character on whom Fiddler on the Roof is based
- Joseph K. of Kafka's The Trial, who "without having done anything wrong" was famously "arrested one fine morning"
- Anne Frank, whose poignant diary has shaped the way we think about the Holocaust
- Nathan Zuckerman, the enigmatic narrator of numerous Philip Roth novels
Destined to be a classic in its own right, one that reshapes the way we think about some of the classic works of the modern age, The Modern Jewish Canon is a book for every Jewish reader and for every reader of great fiction.
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In the late 1960s, during a period of general expansion in higher education, I won permission to introduce courses on Yiddish language and literature at McGill University, where I was then teaching sections of the English literature survey. A decade earlier, when I was an undergraduate at McGill, not a single course in any department offered instruction about the Jews. McGill of the 1950s was not unusual: there were then only three full-time positions in Jewish Studies in North America -- Harry Wolfson at Harvard, Salo Baron at Columbia, and Walter Fischel at the University of California at Berkeley. In proposing to teach Jewish literature, I argued that an expanded humanities curriculum would broaden the university's coverage of Western culture, legitimating the university's claim to be teaching Western, rather than Christian, civilization. Since it may prove relevant to my discussion of the works presented in this book, I might as well relate that the only member of the English department who voted against my proposal was its only other Jew, an assistant professor of English who had recently arrived from New York City.
During my undergraduate years at McGill, I had not given much thought to the exclusion of Jewish culture from the curriculum. Nevertheless, it did seem strange to me that my introductory economics course overlooked the role of Jews in trade and talked about the Rothschilds without mentioning their Jewishness, and it was painful to read certain passages in Chaucer and Celine that libeled the Jews without being invited to discuss the authors' prejudice. Although McGill had rescinded its discriminatory admissions policy in 1950 and Jews in large numbers were to be found on campus, our presence was never acknowledged, and I was occasionally troubled that the intellectual traditions and culture of the Jews went unmentioned. "Mais sois gentille," my French teacher might have said had I raised the problem with her. Be grateful that you have been welcomed here despite your Jewishness, and don't expect to have your Jewishness included along with you. Why not take your place in this society as a Canadian and a Quebecer, speaking English and French and performing Shakespeare and Molière, to the point of becoming a teacher yourself should you be able to match your ability with your ambition? Why not, indeed?
But shortly after I graduated, I surprised myself rudely. The defining moment occurred during the first visit to Canada in 1959 of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, whose speaking tour I had helped to organize. Survivor of the Vilna ghetto and witness on behalf of Russian Jewry at the Nuremberg trials, Sutzkever had become what Yiddish literary criticism calls "more than a poet" -- he had become a symbol of the creative Jewish spirit after the devastation of the Second World War. His lyrics, which I read in private and heard in his public readings before Yiddish audiences, moved me to arrange a reading of a selection of his poetry for Folkways Records. (I had already been introduced to Yiddish literature: it was taught in the Jewish day school I had attended, and more importantly, my parents' adoration of Yiddish culture had brought many of the leading contemporary Yiddish writers and poets into our home.) One day, when Sutzkever asked me about my professional plans, I told him I was thinking of going to graduate school to take a degree in English literature. "Why don't you study Yiddish?" he asked. I laughed aloud. "And what would I do? Teach Sholem Aleichem?"
Those words changed the course of my life. The insult to Sutzkever was not as great as the shock to myself: how could I have voiced such contempt for the tradition of literature in which I had been raised? Why mock the prospect of teaching Sholem Aleichem, one of my favorite writers? Along with the education I had received at college, the eclipse of Jewish subjects in the curriculum had apparently persuaded me that Jews had no viable culture -- and this in violation of the culture that had produced me! A few days later I applied to the graduate program in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, the only place on the continent where Yiddish then formed part of a graduate degree program. And it was after I returned to McGill to complete my graduate education and had already begun teaching there that I petitioned for and received permission to add Yiddish language and literature to that university's offerings. I hoped that the inclusion of Jewish studies in the university curriculum would allow Jews like me to do advanced study in their own sources and to invite everyone else to share in them, too.
The kind of inferiority consciousness I discovered in myself seems fairly typical of members of ethnic and religious minorities who begin to make their way into the mainstream of society. As long as we are fighting discrimination, our goal is to be treated fairly, but once we are treated fairly, we want the further respect that comes with being both tolerated and known. Once minority members feel sufficiently comfortable in the university, they want to incorporate their particular culture within the mainstream culture. At least, that is how it happens in democratic America, where immigrants are encouraged to become citizens, not squatters. When I tried to gain the right to include Jewish studies in the university curriculum, it never occurred to me that I might be challenging the notion of Western civilization: my conscious purpose was to strengthen that civilization by reincorporating the Jews into a framework from which they had been artificially excluded.
I even came to see the task as urgent. By the latter part of the twentieth century, no one could honestly study European philosophy or history, much less theology or politics, without tripping over the bones of the Jews. But North American society was different. It was not only an extension of Europe but also a reaction against Europe. I believed that an integrated American curriculum would reinforce an integrated society. This was more than a decade before Holocaust studies were offered at universities, and I believed then, as I still do, that it is important to teach Jewish civilization for its own sake and as a counterforce to antisemitism and that, as a matter of priority, learning about the Jews is more important for the future of humankind than learning about their extinction.
Yiddish literature seemed the perfect vehicle for this intellectual reconciliation. The vernacular language of European Jewry, Yiddish probably developed about nine hundred years ago in the small Jewish communities along the banks of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers. It then matured as it spread with its speakers throughout the continent, from Amsterdam to Omsk, arriving eventually, with their descendants, in all the other continents. By 1939 there were about ten million Yiddish speakers in the world, more Jews than had ever simultaneously known a Jewish language at any time in history. Inspired by hopes of emancipation and challenged by the ideas of the Enlightenment, modern Jews had created a dynamic literature in Yiddish on a par with their European counterparts. Through the study of Yiddish poetry, fiction, and drama, I believed, students could absorb the nuanced inner experience of their writers, as opposed to the antisemitic stereotypes found in much European writing. Given how much pleasure I had derived from learning about the British, the French, the Germans, and the Russians by reading some of their best-known authors, I wanted to provide the same experience for Jewish and non-Jewish students through the reading of Yiddish works, preferably in the original but also in translation. What especially appealed to me was the normalcy of this academic arrangement: other European nations had their vernaculars, the Jews had theirs; other European nations had their literatures, the Jews had theirs. I was intent on establishing an academic symmetry so that one could study in tandem what politics had forcibly kept apart. To this end, I patterned my Yiddish courses -- the Yiddish short story, the Yiddish novel in interwar Poland -- on courses I had taken in other departments, making due modifications for the special properties of the literature I was teaching.
The experiment proved successful. It is exhilarating to study the coherent development of a literature with its own geneology and generative powers. Take Mendele Moykher-Sforim's The Travels of Benjamin III(1878), the mock adventure of a small-town Jew who sets out with his sidekick, Senderl "the housewife," to find the ten lost tribes of Israel but loses his way the minute he leaves town and ends up forcibly conscripted into the tsarist army. The book's debt to Cervantes was so obvious that his Polish translator called it The Jewish Don Quixote, providing name recognition for a Christian readership. But in his original Yiddish and Hebrew incarnations, Benjamin was dubbed "the Third," because he followed two earlier, historically credible, Jewish travelers (of the twelfth and the nineteenth century). Benjamin III spoofed not only the substitution of messianism for real knowledge of the world but also the attendant follies of Russian Jewry under the tsars. When Sholem Aleichem adopted the model of Benjamin for his Menakhem-Mendl(1892), he turned the mockery of messianism up a notch: by making Menakhem Mendl a speculator on the newly opened stock exchange, he exposed the underlying psychology of the luftmentsh, the Jew who begins to dream like an urban capitalist before the tsar has even granted him a residence permit. In 1924, following World War I and the Russian Revolution, Moyshe Kulbak remodeled the original pair of travelers in a rollicking narrative poem about Bunye and Bere, a couple of would-be Jewish revolutionaries who try to function like Bolshevik heroes. Thus, studying a national literature makes it possible to trace patterns of influence, the evolution of its humor, changes in its language, and the modifications that politics brings to its art.
My students took the subject of Yiddish literature in their own directions. A French Canadian anthropology student told me how frustrated he had been in his attempt to penetrate the culture of Canada's Jewish community until he progressed from a study of Bible and Jewish religion to the study of Yiddish literature, which brought to life what he had almost despaired of comprehending; he has since taught comparative courses on Yiddish and French Canadian culture. Aaron Lansky, who came to McGill as a graduate student, became so concerned about the shrinking readership of Yiddish literature that he conceived and founded the National Yiddish Book Center to protect Yiddish books and to promote Yiddish creativity. Nowadays, no one has to make a case for the inclusion of Yiddish literature in the college curriculum, for it is taught in major universities across the continent.
You might say that by integrating Yiddish literature into the curriculum, I had been obeying a version of the Zionist impulse to put Jews on an equal footing with the nations whose history they share. But then, like many Zionists, I realized that normalcy does not betoken uniformity. The symmetry I had tried to establish between Yiddish and other national literatures went only so far. Though one can hardly know the modern Jew without knowing Yiddish literature, Yiddish is not and never has been the only literature of modern Jews. Whereas Russian literature is written in Russian and includes what is written by Russian émigrées in Paris and Vermont, Jewish writing was never equivalent to writing in Yiddish. As Sholem Aleichem might have put it, all carpenters may be human but not all humans are carpenters. Hebrew had always remained the language of Jewish study, prayer, and legal correspondence, playing a far more active role in Jewish affairs than did the analogous Latin in Christian cultures. Thus, when modern Jews began to compare themselves to their European counterparts, many assumed that Hebrew, not Yiddish, was their national language, and they reclaimed it for contemporary use. The Zionist movement in particular, because it conceived of the ingathering of Jews within their ancient biblical homeland, eventually designated Hebrew as the national language of the Jewish people instead of Yiddish, the vernacular tongue of only the Ashkenazic part of the Jewish people. Most Yiddish writers born in the nineteenth century wrote in both Jewish languages before settling on one or the other, leading some critics to speak of a single literature in two languages. Indeed, my colleague Gershon Shaked was quick to point out that since Mendele Moykher-Sforim had rewritten The Travels of Benjamin III in Hebrew, a parallel trail of that book's influence could be traced through the Hebrew works of S. Y. Agnon and Haim Hazaz. The literature I taught had emerged out of the cultural synthesis of Yiddish and Hebrew, and doing justice to the one required studying its interaction with the other. In recognition of this interconnection, many graduate programs in modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature now require mastery of both languages and encourage comparative study of the two literatures in tandem.
But this is still only a minor part of the problem. Once, as I was reading about Franz Kafka, my eye was caught by a reproduction of a letter he had written to his Hebrew teacher Puah Bentovim. The intense effort he clearly exerted on his Hebrew penmanship touched me and reminded me that modern Jewish writers did not always have the option of writing in Jewish languages. Kafka was already a formed German writer by the time he began to hunger for Jewish language, which was too late for him to adopt one even had he wanted to. Yet surely modern Jewish literature has to include Franz Kafka. And what of Ze'ev Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist movement of Zionism, whose name is synonymous with Jewish nationalism? An amazing linguist, Jabotinsky wrote his novels in his native Russian, not in his later acquired Hebrew or Yiddish. And the most famous Jewish book of the twentieth century, The Diary of Anne Frank, was written in Dutch. Indeed, since the tradition of writing in the language of the land goes back to Jewish writers like Philo and Maimonides, there is no necessary correlation in ancient or modern Jewish literature between language and national consciousness. Defining Jewish literature with maximal inclusiveness, the first professor of Yiddish at the Hebrew University, Dov Sadan, noted that the modern Jewish writer had three choices: to address Jewish readers in one of their languages, to speak to them in a non-Jewish language, or to not write for them as Jews at all. But Kafka's belated attempts to learn Hebrew is a reminder that some modern Jewish writers can choose only between the latter two.
If I had originally intended to help integrate Jewish writers into the study of Western civilization through the "traditional" avenues of Jewish national literatures in Yiddish and Hebrew, the logic of my inquiry soon led me to the opposite conclusion, namely, that modern Jewish literature cannot be circumscribed by what Hana Wirth-Nesher calls the "altogether too tidy" criterion of language alone. Having wanted to normalize Jews in the curriculum by introducing courses in Yiddish literature, I realized that my approach pointed up the anomalous, not the typical, Jewish attitude toward national language and that an adequate study of modern Jewish literature would have to be as polyglot as the people who wrote it. In tandem with courses on Yiddish literature, I also began experimenting with courses on multilingual Jewish literature, analyzing how the language in which Jewishness is conceived affects the nature of the literary work.
This book tries to explain the phenomenon of a multilingual Jewish literature through a discussion of some of its greatest works of the twentieth century. There will obviously be some tension between classifying a given piece of writing as an example of Jewish literature and designating it as a work in a non-Jewish language that has a strong national tradition of its own. A multilingual Jewish literature violates, on the one hand, the concept of a national literature in a national language and, on the other, the traditional Jewish concept of a received literature that alone requires ongoing interpretation. It will satisfy neither the traditionalist who likes clean boundaries nor the postmodernist who doesn't believe in boundaries. Modern literature reflects the decline of religious faith, the disintegration of cohesive communities, the weakening of ethnic ties -- a centrifugal process that is reflected most obviously in the many languages that Jews have come to speak. Yet just as there exists a modern Jewish people, so too does a modern Jewish literature exist, and I hope to show that the difficulty of defining them does not lessen their actuality.
Copyright © 2000 by Ruth R. Wisse
More than the Torah itself, the written and the oral law that derives from Moses, Jewish civilization seems to depend on the relation of the Jewish people to its sacred teachings. The biblical canon could have vanished within a generation had it not been kept perpetually alive through habits of study. Indeed, traditional Jews refer to the calendar by the weekly portion of the Pentateuch that is read aloud in the synagogue over the course of each year. The exceptional emphasis on repetition is enshrined in the confession of faith, the Shema, which is from the Book of Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them serve as frontlets on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Is this not a remarkable ratio between the content and the forms of remembrance? Begin with a declaration of the heart, by all means, because the relation to God is based on love, but then ensure that His words are engraved on the soul through every habit and limb. The human being is not a diamond that can be carved once and for all. Jewish civilization understands that words only acquire significance through constant rehearsal within a social framework that encourages -- nay, that demands -- repetition.
A very different approach to literary tradition is presented by Harold Bloom in The Western Canon, a book that appeared as I was writing this one. An ardent reader who deplores the decline of "the art and passion of reading well and deeply," Bloom defends the idea of schooling in great books that acquire their natural authority over time, and he issues his own list of favorites to whet our appetites. He turns all barrels on members of what he calls the "School of Resentment," journalists and teachers who want to overthrow the canon in order to advance their program of social change. Yet he distances himself equally from "right-wing defenders of the canon, who wish to preserve it for its supposed (and non-existent) moral values":
Reading the very best writers -- let us say, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy -- is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of this insight.
The italics are mine, of course, to indicate that Bloom is enlisting Deuteronomy to move us from the religious domain to the secular in order to warn against the Bible's moral conception of words. (The quips are Esau's, but the voice is Jacob's.) Throughout his book on the Western canon, Bloom is intent on getting the lesson across that the individual self is the "only method and the whole standard for apprehending aesthetic value." He upholds the autonomous authority of aesthetic value, "free of history and ideology and available to whoever can be educated to read and view it." He wants us to distinguish "the aesthetic power and authority of the Western Canon from whatever spiritual, political, or even moral consequences it may have fostered." Whereas the rabbis inveighed against belles lettres because they were not grounded in religious truth, Bloom cautions against its opposite, against mistaking literature for an alternative form of moral education. Without wishing to be mischievous, I think that Bloom's unwillingness to see literature used for any extra-literary purpose betrays an anxiety of Jewish influence, echoing as it does the Jewish prohibition against misuse of God's name and against "ploughing" with the Torah to achieve pragmatic ends. He guards the "autonomy of the aesthetic" as jealously as the rabbis guard the sanctity of the Torah. Using methods of inquiry that Bloom pioneered, one could demonstrate that his kind of emphasis on reading derives from his own Jewish tradition, though he now applies it to the opposite goal of reading for individual pleasure.
Were we to accept this dichotomy at face value, we would have to abandon the identification of a Jewish canon, since both the rabbis and Harold Bloom would oppose the project on the grounds that it mixes categories they insist on keeping apart. The modern Jewish canon is not theologically reliable: literature in the secular sense of the term is, as Bloom argues, aesthetically autonomous, and may treat the sanguinary Cossacks as favorably as their Jewish victims. Of course, no book is ever going to portray the Jews in a worse light than the Bible, but modern literature does not stand in awe of God, either. From the narrowest perspective, traditionalists may well wonder in what sense modern literature can be Jewish. And from his narrowest perspective, Harold Bloom would agree. Literature is to him a relief from the lesser claims of society, not the collective anchor of any particular culture. Although he divides his reading list according to countries and languages, he does not consider the works in their national context. He consistently defends writers from the labeling umpires by refusing to apply any extra-aesthetic categories. "Proust," he writes, against those who protest that he did not make his narrator either a Jew or a homosexual, "is so great an artist that his aesthetic dignity deserves our seeking aesthetic motives for what were essentially aesthetic decisions." I heartily concur with this statement, and on the basis of some of the very same considerations, I will presently explain why I do not include Proust in the Jewish canon. Modern literature cannot be prescriptive in dictating its terms, and literary analysis betrays only its crudeness when it judges a work by standards other than its own. The motives of a writer are in any case irrelevant to the finished work, which may not agree with his intentions. Yet coming upon the finished work, readers have every right to classify works according to diverse criteria, and finding a usable tradition for their own group or polity is one of the highest critical functions they can undertake. Oscar Wilde's admonition against the sincerity of bad poetry sheds no light on the Book of Isaiah, from which Jews and Christians drew their models of citizenship before the concept had even been defined.
I propose that between Bloom and the rabbis a modern Jewish canon has come into being and that in trying to describe it I am merely highlighting the line that culture has taken on its own. This modern list will probably never be as firmly redacted as the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible, because no contemporary community is as confident as its ancestors, and because moderns are generally warier of any process that smacks of authority. Yet should the members of any community, be it religious or ethnic, want to share in a common future, they will recognize the works that embody their collective experience and seek to ensure that they are known and transmitted. Writing may be a solitary act, and our appreciation of it may be aesthetic in the main, but reading in the Jewish tradition has always merged into a communal discipline. And that, to my mind, remains one of the greatest contributions of the Jewish people to the history of civilization. It would be odd to the point of perversity if the people best known for its preservation of the biblical canon would become so distracted or dispirited in the modern period as to ignore its newer literary harvest. A people that intends to participate meaningfully in the world would first have to know itself and be able to represent itself through a creative cultural continuum. Modern Jewish literature is the repository of modern Jewish experience. It is the most complete way of knowing the inner life of the Jews.
I see no necessary conflict between respect for the aesthetic autonomy of a work and the wish to learn from it. In the Jewish day school where I learned to read, debates over literature took up most of our class time. Once the plain meaning of the Hebrew was explained (or so we thought), we tried to figure out, for example, why Cain killed Abel and what it meant to become "a wanderer on earth." The habit of close reading was cultivated in those classes, as was the wonder at the magic that words can convey. Of course, some of our arguments and teachers may have been parochial. I was stunned to discover when I reread it as an adult that the school text of a Yiddish story about an American lynching in the South had removed the scene in which the Jewish storekeeper's son defies his father by joining the lynch mob to show solidarity with his neighbors. Our good teachers had obviously balked, like the parent in the story, at the sight of a Jewish boy harming a Black man, and they had violated the story in order to hone what they were certain was its moral point. The teachers shared the story's point of view, but whereas the author heightened the evil frenzy by showing that even a Jew could get caught up in it, the teachers could not bear to see the Jews implicated in a process that they abhorred. Still, those classes were my first introduction to textual analysis, to the prolonged excitement of reading when you discuss literature with others, and to the way that modern literature extends and complicates biblical plots. Even considering the dangers to the text that may accompany a moral education, I would argue that the importance it ascribes to words more than compensates for the occasional violence it does to them. Those classes made me want to study literature as an adult. This book is, in part, a wish to perpetuate the best of the education I received.
Literature may be crudely misused, turned into a gavel or a measuring stick or a ledger or even a bludgeon, and one is grateful to those, like Harold Bloom, who warn against such corruption. But the neglect of literature is more serious than its tendentious application, and it is bound to be neglected if people do not feel it belongs to them. In this book I set out some of my favorite Jewish works as a way of inviting others to continue the discussion over them. Although my criteria are largely aesthetic and personal, the works I feature derive so powerfully from a particular cultural community that they make a special claim on the members of that community to be reabsorbed by them in a cycle of creative renewal. As a start, I have limited myself to works of Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants that appeared in whole or in part in the twentieth century and, except for the years of World War II, to books of prose fiction, which more than poetry pronounces its social context and cultural affinity.
The most complicating feature of modern Jewish literature as I conceive it is its relation to language. Theorists of modern nationalism, from Johann Gottfried von Herder to Benedict Anderson, place a heavy emphasis on the role of language as the basic form and medium of national consciousness. They explain how many Europeans came to regard their language and literature as guarantors of their national integrity, to the point of establishing protective language academies and sometimes even waging wars to safeguard their linguistic boundaries. Colonialism complicated these national boundaries by bringing the colonial power's language to other countries; for example, because of British rule in India much of the finest contemporary English literature is written by Indians and much of the finest Indian literature is written in English. But Jews, whose sojourn abroad endured for longer than their sovereign residence in the Land of Israel, habitually absorbed the language of their host countries, especially where they were offered civic rights and a chance for personal advancement. The Jewish religion, whose tribal nature is often maligned for its exclusivity, actually takes the international arena for granted, since Jews regard themselves as a minority by definition and can therefore never be discomfited by the presence of other peoples per se. Unlike Christianity, whose claims of universal salvation cannot comfortably coexist with competing religious traditions, Judaism is the way of life of a self-disciplining minority that knows it will remain a minority among the goyim, people of other religions and nationalities, until the end of days. As a function of living so long outside their national homeland, Jews made a virtue of adaptation, which included learning other languages and creating new Jewish languages, while perpetuating their own religious civilization. The minoritarian consciousness of Jews was reinforced by centuries in the Diaspora, and since the Jewish religious way of life can be maintained in any language (as long as one can read the Torah in Hebrew and study the Talmud in Hebrew-Aramaic), Jews routinely adapted to other tongues. Indeed, Yiddish and Ladino and Judaeo-Persian are the products of such adaptation, the unself-conscious fusion of coterritorial and older Jewish languages into new vernaculars.
No doubt many modern Jews who adopted one or more of the local languages ended by severing themselves from the Jewish people. The political liability of the Jewish condition in Europe propelled many Jews into Christianity or assimilation outright. Alternately, there were ideological Yiddishists and Hebraists from the end of the nineteenth century to the outbreak of World War II who adopted the model of other national movements and insisted that a unifying national language is the basis of modern nationhood. But these complementary forms of imitation -- the non-Jewish Jew wishing to be like the Gentiles and the Jewish political nationalist wishing to be like other nationalists -- did not reflect the way the Jews typically regarded themselves or the languages they spoke. Jewish language was sometimes an instrument, but never the guarantor, of Jewish nationality. Adoption of a local language could inhibit, but never determine, the development of Jewish life and culture.
The process of linguistic acculturation quickened wherever Jews assumed that Jewishness could be compatible with local civic duty. In America, for example, Anglicization was so rapid that no more than a handful of native-born children of the millions of Yiddish-speaking immigrants ever became Yiddish writers. Acculturation and linguistic adaptiveness was so energetic that Jews began to figure prominently among the writers in Gentile languages, though their writing often remained subtly -- or sometimes decidedly -- Jewish. In sum, the politically anomalous Jews generated a multilingual literature unlike that of any other modern nation, and in order to represent it adequately one has to span as many languages as Jews mastered -- Yiddish and Hebrew, of course, but also the German of Franz Kafka and Joseph Roth, the Russian of Isaac Babel and Vasily Grossman, the French of Albert Memmi and Elie Wiesel, the English of Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick, and so forth.
During the course of this book, we may have occasion to wonder whether the refusal of Jews to make language synonymous with national identity and their corresponding eagerness to master coterritorial cultures constitutes an admirable or a debilitating feature of their existence. At best, the refusal to be defined by language is an act of iconoclasm in obedience to the prohibition against idolatry; by and large, Jews have not substituted fealty to language for a faltering religious cohesion, as, for example, French Canadians have tried to do in the once heavily Catholic province of Quebec. On the debit side, as one consequence of their reckless disregard for national language, American Jews dropped Yiddish so precipitously that they lost the whole record of their encounter with modernity that had been forged in that language. A disturbing by-product of the Jews' attitude toward language has been the antipathy of some of its speakers, and even some of its writers, to what they considered their "inferior" tongue. The social philosopher Chaim Zhitlowsky (1865-1943) noted sardonically, "The Jewish people and the Yiddish language share almost the same fate. Both are first required to prove their legitimacy: the Jewish people, that it really is a people, and the Yiddish language, that it really is a language....They must always show their passports, evincing the evidence that they are authentic, and if a single point of evidence is lacking, they are declared invalid."
Jews transferred the insecurity bred by antisemitism to their mother tongue, calling into doubt their own cultural achievement. This made contacts between the German and the Yiddish language particularly thorny, since the discovery of the Enlightenment through German texts and German thinkers convinced many Yiddish speakers that theirs was the garbled version of the sublime language. Many mistook the vitality of the Jewish language -- its fearless borrowings, creative fusions, and irrepressible inventiveness -- for manifestations of sloppiness. One of the most tragic ironies of European history is that while Jews forged the Yiddish language as a moral alternative to German civilization, to protect their self-disciplining way of life, their modern descendants concluded that Jewish culture was inferior because their parents spoke Yiddish, not German.
Whatever the reasons, it is simply a fact that by the twentieth century ambitious Jews were raising and educating their young in local Gentile languages and keeping them ignorant of their own, thus preventing them from becoming writers in a Jewish language. Accidents of birth and upbringing proved decisive. Whereas Micah Yosef Berdichevsky (1865-1921) could write comfortably in Yiddish and Hebrew before he also began writing in German, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was raised in German, with no access to any Jewish language until he was old enough to educate himself; that German was not wholly his language he knew from the moment he took up writing, and this awareness of adoption created the ontology of displacement that the name Kafka came to represent in literature. Every Jew felt some self-consciousness in becoming a writer in a Gentile language, each according to his situation. Nevertheless, Isaac Babel thrilled to the timing that placed him, a Russian Jew, in the eye of the Revolution, and Saul Bellow, more fortunate in his place of birth, was inspired by the opportunity afforded to the children of Jewish immigrants to make the American language their own. The examples of Babel and Bellow, each of whom was convinced that he could become the quintessential writer of his time, should disabuse us once and for all of the notion that Jewish creativity in non-Jewish languages necessarily gives rise to discomfort or a feeling of marginality. I hope this book will demonstrate that certain writers considered their Jewishness an advantage that placed them not at the edges but at the center of the universe.
The most radical description I know of the Jew's cultural dilemma occurs in the latter part of the French novel Le sang du ciel [Blood from the Sky], written by the Polish Jewish refugee Piotr Rawicz in Paris between 1949 and 1953. Rawicz had grown up with Yiddish and the three coterritorial languages of his native Lvov and had studied German, English, French, Sanskrit, and Hindi. In the closing pages of the novel, the autobiographical hero Boris, trying to pass himself off as a Pole, has been captured by the Gestapo and is being tortured in an attempt to establish that he is a Jew. To throw his captors off the scent he confesses that, indeed, he is not a Pole but a Ukrainian, and he challenges his captor to prove him otherwise. The Gestapo lieutenant invites the Ukrainian intellectual and collaborationist Vassili Humeniuk to help him break down the imposter, and Humeniuk begins his interrogation by asking the prisoner to name the greatest Ukrainian poet:
It was then that the game began to amuse Boris. His brain was working as it hadn't worked for a long time. He thought: If a man wishes to prove he is an Englishman, and a well-educated Englishman, he will prove nothing by answering "Shakespeare" or "Byron" to such a question. Of course not, for everyone has heard of Shakespeare and Byron, whether English or not. On the contrary, what he must do is imply, and get his interrogator to acknowledge the implication, that it is unthinkable he should be asked such a question. He must immediately mention some such figure as Eliot or Edith Sitwell. [...] Well now, in asking me who is the greatest Ukrainian poet, our friend is expecting me to voice one name and one name only: that of their bard, Tarass Shevchenko....But everybody here -- not just the Ukrainians, but the Russians, Poles, and Jews living in the Ukraine -- knows that this singer of the serfs' hardships and of Cossack pride is the glory of your nation. That's stale. If I were to cite Shevchenko, I'd please you, my good Humeniuk, but I wouldn't appeal to your imagination and, most important, I wouldn't prove anything to you. [...] And Boris named an avant-garde poet who had died not long before, at the age of twenty-nine, an old friend of his, known and loved by perhaps two hundred readers.
The character's predicament is grotesque: were he not a Jew he would not have to prove himself a Ukrainian. But were he not a Jew trying to pass as a Pole, he probably could not have demonstrated that he was a Ukrainian. Only Boris's acquired mastery of Ukrainian culture eventually convinces Humeniuk that he is one of them. Speaking in a language their common oppressor does not understand, Boris not only bests Humeniuk in arguments over Ukrainian culture but castigates him for betraying Ukrainian national pride by collaborating with the enemy and taunts him for his scant familiarity with the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. In order to save his life, Boris is forced to prove just what these Ukrainian and German nationalists fear, namely, that the Jew can infiltrate their culture so successfully he will usurp their very identity. Modern Jewish literature is the result of this paradox, among others: if others did not fear and hate Jews so powerfully, Jews would not have to turn cultural acquisition into a matter of life or death. Rawicz's hero is the end point, the outrageously cruel culmination of the process the Enlightenment first set into motion when it encouraged Jews to believe that rational common education would gain them admittance to society on equal terms.
Rawicz's book alone is enough to justify the concept of a multilingual Jewish literature rather than an essentialist definition based strictly on Jewish language (Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino). But if Boris's desperate performance foils the Ukrainians and the Nazis, it also implicitly challenges our attempt to define a meaningful Jewishness in literature. For if one were to include all the Jewish writers who succeeded in passing themselves off as Gentiles, one could easily water down the integrity of a modern Jewish canon to the point of drowning it. The sticking point of the Jews, after all, is that despite their adaptability they refuse as a people to be dissolved into Gentiles. This tends to be misunderstood nowadays in America, where the struggle against discrimination has produced an antipathy for all distinctions. We have seen called into question the very impulse to discriminate between an inferior and superior work of art, as though aesthetic worth were somehow aligned with prejudice against persons of a certain skin color or gender. Yet modern Jews have suffered from exactly the opposite kind of discrimination, from the inability of universalists to accept their choice to remain distinct. Judaism is the particularism that has been most singled out for opprobrium, precisely for the crime of wanting to remain true to itself. The concept of modern Jewish literature would have no value whatsoever if one were not prepared to respect the autonomy of Jewishness, and respect for that autonomy would have to be implicit in any work of Jewish literature. But how does one establish criteria for Jewishness in the arts when the Jews have changed so much in the twentieth century and the arts continually reinvent themselves?
With the boldness that has become her trademark, the American Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick addressed just this issue in the summer of 1970, when she called on a gathering of her literary colleagues to help bring into being a literature that was "centrally Jewish." Ozick was clearly fed up with assimilationists who wanted Judaism to stand for everything or (what amounts to the same thing) to count for nothing. She was reacting not only to the opacity of the critic George Steiner, who offered exile, geographic displacement, as a metaphor for the Jew at the very moment that the Jews had reclaimed their historic homeland, but also to the self-description of her fellow American Philip Roth: "I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew." The first claim was hyperbolic, the second reductionist. "Imaginative writers are compelled to swim in the medium of culture; literature is an instrument of culture, not a summary of it," said Ozick. "Consequently there are no major works of Jewish imaginative genius written in any Gentile language, sprung out of any Gentile culture." Speaking English, itself a Gentile language, Ozick seemed to be contradicting the evidence of her own writing, or else condemning her own potential to write "major works of Jewish imaginative genius." In fact, what Ozick required of herself and her fellow Jews was an imagination so suffused by Jewishness that the voice of the writer would emerge within the adopted language as "a choral voice, a communal voice, the echo of the voice of the Lord of History." She was prophesying the rise of what some have called "a minority literature," the literature of a cultural minority within a host language, except that for Ozick it was English that was to occupy the minority position within the great tradition of Jewish literature. She used Jewish religious imagery to make the point that as the Jewish religion retained its autonomous strength in many different languages, Jewish literature in Gentile languages could also include "whatever touched on the liturgical": "A liturgical literature has the configuration of the ram's horn: you give your strength to the inch-hole and the splendor spreads wide. A Jewish liturgical literature gives its strength to its peoplehood and the whole human note is heard everywhere, enlarged." Everyone who has heard the struggle of the Jew who blows the shofar on the High Holidays in synagogue knows how difficult it is to get pure sound from that narrow mouth of the ram's horn and how satisfyingly awesome is the resonance when the job is done well. The imprecision of this metaphor was part of its power, for it invoked the concept of cultural specificity without attempting to define it. Ozick herself always strenuously resisted any attempts to constrain the literary imagination through restrictions or requirements of the kind that Judaism imposes. Here, issuing a creative manifesto rather than a set of critical guidelines, she left the "inch-hole" and the "splendor" to define themselves.
Quite the opposite approach to defining the Jewishness of culture was taken by the scholar Dov Sadan, who, in an essay on humor begins his inquiry into the cultural specificity of the Jewish joke with an example from his own university (the Hebrew University in Jerusalem) about the professor of philosophy Yehuda Leon Roth: The professor was in the habit of punctuating his lectures with ironic and sarcastic remarks, and this offended a student in his class on ethics, who wanted to know how a teacher of ethics could be so cynical. Roth asked the student, "Who else are you studying with?" The student replied, "I'm studying mathematics with Professor Abraham Halevi Fraenkel." Said Roth, "Then why don't you ask Professor Fraenkel why he is not a triangle or a trapezoid?"
Sadan sets out to show that although this anecdote is about two Jews in a Jewish institution in Jerusalem, it is not a Jewish joke. Analyzing its form, he shows that the joke itself is constructed around the formal exchange of spheres, around the notion that what holds in one situation should hold for the other: if ethics obliges the ethicist to be an ethical person, mathematics should oblige the mathematician to be a geometric figure. That the mathematician could not do so, even with the utmost exertion, explodes the fallacy of the equivalence, incidentally reinforcing the cynicism of the lecturer, which was the original target of attack. Sadan then proceeds to show that even the philosophic language of the joke puts it outside the Jewish tradition:
Nor is it hard to show that according to tradition (mesorah) it may not even come under consideration as a Jewish joke, since the school of Cynics, from kynikos, or dog-like, is Greek, and it is possible that those who interpret the saying from the Sages, Haokhel bashuk domeh lekelev, He who eats in the market is likened to a dog, are correct when they say that this actually refers to that species of philosopher.
Is the reader still with me? Sadan is as dense as the Talmud and twice as mischievous, so we should not be surprised by the quick turns of his logic, but the gist of his comment is that even the content of the anecdote may be essentially non-Jewish, since it derives from Greek culture and turns on a Greek personality type, that of the cynic. The presence of such a type at the Hebrew University does not qualify his wit to be considered Jewish. What Sadan then does is to pursue an alternate trail of anecdotes involving dogs that becomes more and more irreducibly Jewish. It is worth trying to render his final example, to see Sadan's point:
This anecdote involves Joshua Heschel Schorr, the maskil of Brody who was known for his radicalism as the Jewish Voltaire. The cultivated Jew hearing this joke would know that a maskil, or exponent of the Jewish Enlightenment, is a sworn enemy of the Hasidim, enthusiasts of the religious revivalist movement that arose in the eighteenth century, about the same time as the Jewish Enlightenment. Schorr's son, appointed professor at the Sorbonne, had died an hour before his investiture. The disconsolate father used to comfort himself with a dog that he kept curled in his lap. Once he asked a visiting Hasid, pointing to his dog, "So what do you think of my Kaddish?"(The Kaddish is the prayer that sons recite in memory of their parents, and the male child was traditionally referred to by the function he would some day fulfill.) The Hasid retorted, "I think more of yours than I do of your father's." Sadan has artfully sealed his argument with a joke that circles back to the starting point of the cynic, whom the Hebrew sages liken to a dog. Like the morally offended student in the classroom, the Hasid in this joke is provoked by the Jew who mocks religious earnestness, and he outwits Schorr by comparing him invidiously to his dog. Note that here, in contrast to the first joke, it is the Jew speaking for Jewishness who gets the better of the cynic. Sadan finds that in this instance the atmosphere, surroundings, and associations of the joke do determine its Jewishness, because it could not be translated into a Gentile version unless every detail and aspect were to be altered -- the Hasid and the maskil, the Kaddish and the Westernized son, and the uneven struggle between Jewish tradition and modernity in which the latter expects to get the upper hand.
Common to both Ozick's porous concept of "liturgical" Jewish writing and Sadan's search for a texture that is Jewish through and through is the certainty that Jewish literature can be recognizable when we find it. This book shares that assumption. Ozick speaks in prophetic inspirational terms that generate creativity, and with puckish erudition Sadan defines his subject as closely as possible. My own sense of the Jewishness of a work, formed from the perspective of a reader, derives from what Lionel Trilling calls "the experience of literature." In his wonderful anthology by that title, Trilling contends that literature is coextensive with human life, that a truly adequate account of the purposes of literature would amount to nothing less than a description of the whole nature of man. He finds that the making and enjoyment of literature is "what the zoologists call a species-characteristic trait of mankind;" the poet writes poetry because he is a poet, and we like to talk about his poetry because "the literary experience is communal -- it asks to be shared in discourse." Literature has always seemed to me the discipline that encompasses all the others. The same novel can be read for pure enjoyment and for the kind of information about life that otherwise could never be gleaned. It accommodates philosophy, history, sociology, psychology, politics, anthropology, and of course aesthetics. Literature has lately been used tendentiously to score points on class and gender but only because it has plenty to tell us about both these aspects of our existence. Literature also gives the fullest account of national experience, although the same book may sometimes belong to more than one group. The field of comparative literature was designed to address such complexities.
What I mean by Jewish experience will emerge from the works I have chosen rather than from any theoretical model that attempts to subsume the whole. Sometimes a novel plunges us into the Jewish condition, as when Isaac Bashevis Singer describes a seventeenth-century Polish town in the grip of messianic fever or when Yosef Haim Brenner situates his novel among the Jews of Palestine before World War I. Given the prominence of Jews in the twentieth century, thanks both to their own achievements and the achievements of their enemies, literature about their exploits can be expected to yield major interpretations of the modern condition. Sometimes fiction yokes us to a Jewish consciousness, as Isaac Babel does in the tales of Red Cavalry. The texture of prose is also part of the experience of literature, as are its imagery, allusions, and rhythms of speech. Henry Roth conveys in English the contrast between the lyrical Jewish language of the immigrant home and the coarse, defective communication of the New York street. All the layers of Jewish civilization and learning surface through quotations, allusions, and stylistic imitation in the richly intertextual Hebrew of S. Y. Agnon. Jewish writers respond to some of the same events, and occasionally to one another's work. When the hapless young soldier-protagonist of Haim Be'er's Hebrew novel The Time of Trimming(1987; not yet translated into English) gets sloshed with a pail of dirty water as he comes to take up his new assignment, the book he is carrying that gets soaked along with him is, appropriately, Saul Bellow's Herzog. Philip Roth has his artist-hero lecturing on Kafka in one novel and falling in love with the magically alive Anne Frank in another. Modern Jewish literature attests to the indissolubility of the Jews, sometimes negatively, as in Kafka, by demonstrating the consequence of deracination, but more often affirmatively, by illuminating Jewish experience from within. Affirmative is not used here as a synonym for self-congratulatory; indeed, Jewish literature suffers from far too little appreciation of Jewish worth, being the product of an exceptionally self-critical people. I mean simply that in Jewish literature the authors or characters know and let the reader know that they are Jews.
Cumulatively, modern Jewish literature tells the stories of the Jewish people in the twentieth century, and in merry defiance of those who don't like master narratives, I have tried to include in the Jewish canon the works that tell that story best. But when it comes to literature, the obvious is not always obvious. Bernard Malamud's The Fixer would appear to be the quintessentially Jewish novel, based as it is on the infamous 1911 trial of the Jew Mendel Beilis, who was accused of killing a Russian child to extract its blood for the baking of Passover matzos. As we shall see in the first two chapters of this book, his trial had the force of the Dreyfus case in arousing the Jews to national self-awareness. Malamud is famous for having pioneered in English a style that incorporates Yiddish grammatical structures so as to convey the flavor of Yiddish speech. Yet in turning this blood libel case into a novel, Malamud underscores its symbolic resonance at the expense of its Jewish actuality. The actual Mendel Beilis was a married man with five children. In his memoirs, which reveal that he experienced life as an unexceptional, traditional Jew, he gives the date of his arrest as the day after Tisha B'Av, "when the Jewish people mourns its great tragedy, the destruction of the Temple and being driven from its land, from Mother Zion." Arrested on a Friday, he recalls his first evening in prison as the "first desecrated Sabbath Eve of [his] life." Beilis may have been crafting his story to arouse Jewish sympathies, but he clearly felt that his trial was emblematic of Jewish destiny. By contrast, Malamud makes the fictional Yakov Bok a childless loner who has been abandoned by his wife and lacks any semblance of community. He not only turns the simple Jew into a quasi-intellectual freethinker but invokes Spinoza as the prototype for his hero as a way of universalizing his plight and distancing him from Jewish religion. Thus, when Yakov reads a history book about Peter the Great, he discovers that the Russian people is actually no less oppressed than his own:
The Russians make pogroms against the Russians -- it went on throughout their history. What a sad country, he thought, amazed by what he had read, every possible combination of experiences, where black was white and black was black; and if the Russians, too, were massacred by their own rulers and died like flies, who were then the Chosen People? Fatigued by history, he went back to Spinoza, rereading chapters on biblical criticism, superstition, and miracles which he knew almost by heart. If there was a God, after reading Spinoza he had closed up his shop and become an idea.
Bok's conflation of victim with "chosen" is characteristic of Malamud, who identifies the Jew exclusively and ideologically with the archetype of the sufferer and on this basis imagines the Jew as the ideal Christian. In his earlier and even better novel The Assistant, a troubled Italian boy finds his spiritual father in a Jewish shopkeeper who interprets Judaism as an ethnic form of Christianity and says to his disciple, "I suffer for you." Since Christianity itself evolved out of Judaism, the literary boundary between them is never going to be absolutely firm, and portrayals of the Jew as the suffering Jesus are by now almost a cliché of modern Jewish art and literature. But though it is certainly no slur on Malamud to point out that he nudges his novel toward Christianity, his approach makes it less interesting as a Jewish book, and arguably less successful in aesthetic terms. We recognize the heavy-handedness of literature that tries to stir up national enthusiasm, but the same heavy-handedness can be equally palpable in literature that tries to damp it down.
Since Lionel Trilling informs my comprehensive idea of literature, let me invoke his help to further set the limits of my subject. As a young man Trilling not only equated his consciousness with being Jewish but thought of it as a heightened form of awareness: "Being a Jew is like walking in the wind or swimming: you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere." Had this insight informed his fiction, he would have secured a place of honor in the modern Jewish canon. But Trilling made the protagonist of his only novel, Middle of the Journey(1947), an indeterminate New York Protestant. John Laskell, recovering from a near-fatal bout with scarlet fever, realizes as a result of his brush with death that you can't "live the life of promises without yourself remaining a child." A second check on his enthusiasms comes from a disaffected Communist spy who explains to him the murderous reality of the Great Experiment that most of their friends continue to identify with progress. These two conservative themes intersect with a third, the difficulty that liberals face in acknowledging and dealing with out-and-out evil. There could hardly be a more Jewish set of themes, especially in the aftermath of the Holocaust, when this book was written. Trilling's novel was a blueprint for the cultural reversal that became known as neoconservatism, but he removes his character from the Jewish milieu where this movement actually ripened, thereby depriving the book of its social substantiveness. Regardless of whether Trilling neutered John Laskell in order to make him more purely American or because he could not find an aesthetic means of integrating Jewishness into his story, its consideration as a Jewish book is precluded. We will not try to reinject into any work the lifeblood of a people that its author emptied out.
If it hurts to omit Trilling, it aches to leave out Proust. Some critics consider Proust a Jewish writer despite the fact that he was baptized a Catholic and received communion when he was twelve. They may do so because Proust's mother, Jeane Weil, came from a Jewish family in Metz in northeastern France, whose members he stayed in touch with all his life. Proust was deeply influenced by his mother and, through her, by his Jewishness. The social matrix of his work owes much to his firsthand knowledge of French Jewry, and when it actually came to choosing sides in the most vehement political debate of his day, Proust was with the defenders of the falsely accused Alfred Dreyfus. Obsessed by memory, Proust believed that a work of art is not the creation of a single artist but is drawn from the accumulation of memories that reach far back beyond his own life: "An artist expresses not only himself, but hundreds of ancestors, the dead who find their spokesman in him." Proust's Jewish ancestors assuredly formed part of that accumulated past, but ancestry is quite different from animate life. And though Proust derives from the Jews and shows sympathy with their condition, he is at pains in his writing to show that he does not share in their fate. In his famous description of Jews in "Within a Budding Grove," for example, where the narrator describes the family of his friend Bloch, it is surely not the harshness of description that excludes Proust from a Jewish canon, for one can find much harsher characterizations than this in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, but simply that his first person narrator emphasizes his own exclusion from "this Jewish colony [cette colonie juive]," this "solid troop, homogenous within itself [un cortege homogène en soi]," this "compact and closed phalanx [une phalange compacte et close]."20 Though the narrator is also detached from the French majority at Balbec, he is much more sorrowfully and explicitly estranged from the Jews. Proust's familiarity and sympathies do not translate into a novel of Jewish experience, however deep and persuasive its knowledge of the subject. On the whole, I think we do well to respect the author's guidelines, instead of taking it upon ourselves to decide, as antisemites do and as the rabbis must, who is a Jew and who is not. Proust's work will continue to give pleasure from outside the Jewish canon.
As I was finishing this book, I was asked by a colleague what I was working on, and after I described my project, she asked, "So are you writing about Paul Celan?" I said no, my book dealt only with prose. "Bruno Schulz?" Not him either. "Who then -- Gertrude Stein?" In the mounting frustration of my interlocutor I heard the exasperation of many educated readers who have formed an impression of Jewish fiction and will be disappointed that mine does not resemble theirs. To such readers I would say that while I would not expect anyone's list to exclude the books I have chosen, they are free to make a case for additional writers. I expect the greatest aversion to my project to come from those who think that globalization begins with the arts and that the denationalization of the arts must begin with the Jews. I would urge such readers to consider whether their discomfort with the category of Jewish literature does not imply discomfort with the Jewish people and to reexamine their own prejudices in tandem with this book. In sum, while the definition of Jewish literature is open to interpretation, its existence is not. Every people has a sustaining culture, and most great writers draw heavily upon their own. The receptivity of the Jews to other cultures ought to stimulate a corresponding interest in theirs, rather than a demand that since Jews are already cosmopolitan, they yield all further claim to national existence.
As for the quality of the Jewish canon, that is what this book is about. Some critics have mistaken the broad appeal of Jewish writing for proof that it belongs to no particular people, but this is to confuse universalism, which seeks to eliminate tribal categories, with universality, which is the global resonance of a tribal work. The Hebrew Bible is a tribal document that became one of the world's most influential works of literature. Modern Jewish literature, too, bears out the relation that Cynthia Ozick establishes between strength given to the inch-hole and splendor spreading wide. Much of the finest writing by Jews in the twentieth century, as in the past, gains its universal appeal from a centrally Jewish perspective.
This book is arranged chronologically to convey my sense of literature as the repository of modern Jewish experience. Chronology, however, is everywhere complicated by considerations of language. At the beginning of the century the vast majority of Jews were Yiddish-speaking Europeans, with Yiddish the main vehicle of secularization, modernization, revolution, and reform. By the end of the century, Yiddish was in daily use only among the so-called ultraorthodox while the growing majority of Jews in Israel spoke Hebrew and the shrinking minority of Jews in America spoke English. The logic of the chapters follows this extraordinary shift of language which, in turn, derives from the manner in which Jews made and interpreted their history.
The anchoring chapter is devoted to Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman, the most inexhaustible work of modern Jewish fiction that anticipates most of modernity's challenges to Jewry, albeit in somewhat milder form than they assumed. After trying his hand at any number of heroes and genres, Sholem Aleichem hit the jackpot with this traditional Ukrainian Jew who showed off the genius of Yiddish wit and humor in telling the story of himself, his wife, his horse, and his household of daughters. As Tevye confronts his rebellious daughters, Yiddish is the source of his cultural security, the expressive vehicle of his self-deprecating self-confidence; he stays morally intact through twenty years of assault. The same cannot be said for the American Tevye, who gained renown through the musical adaptation Fiddler on the Roof. In translating Tevye for American stage and screen, his adapters introduced certain changes into the plot that undermine his Jewish authority without even acknowledging (probably without even realizing) that they were destroying the source of his power. Tevye's transition from Yiddish to English epitomizes the difficulties Jews later run into when they try to perpetuate their culture in hospitable English.
Chapter Two traces the considerable contribution to modernism by Jewish writers of Central and Western Europe who were working in non-Jewish languages. Kafka follows so naturally after Sholem Aleichem that one might think his comic vision had derived from his older kin's. The moral and cognitive breakdown that always threatens Sholem Aleichem's characters overtakes Kafka's fiction from the very first, but whereas Tevye's Yiddish is the source of his moral self-confidence, Kafka's German heightens his anxiety the more he masters the "master tongue." The move from Yiddish to German, from Tevye's trials to Joseph K.'s Trial, turned the model of cultural security inside out. K. is the character with a truncated identity who does not understand the terms of the life that he inhabits, divulging terrifying truths about the liability of Jews in Europe. Kafka was the keenest witness to the growing chasm between the inner and the outer person. His German fiction constitutes the definitive parody of Jewish deracination.
A parallel and equally unsettling experience was being registered by fugitives from the yeshivas who began to write in Hebrew, trying forcibly to change the fate of Diaspora Man by reconfigurating a new Jew and a new Jewish literature in the old-new language. The Hebrew revival distinguished itself at once from assimilation (by virtue of using a Jewish language) and from Jewish populism (because the masses used Yiddish): it mitigated against the loss of tradition yet interrupted the cultural continuum whose prototype was Tevye. Yosef Haim Brenner idolized Sholem Aleichem for transmitting the voice of typical Jews, but he did not think that Sholem Aleichem spoke for him. At the same time that Kafka wrote The Trial, Brenner wrote a Hebrew novel that described the settlement of a Jew like himself in Palestine, the country to which he had just immigrated. His modernist prose is nervous and impaired, an objective correlative if there ever was one to the disconnected culture of the pioneering society. Nonetheless, Brenner's Hebrew fiction inspired the early Zionist settlers to believe that their story was being told (and inspired Kafka's Hebrew teacher to bring it as a gift to her ailing student). His ability to express the failings of his generation in Hebrew seemed to confirm the authenticity of the Zionist project.
One might have expected Jewish writers in Russian to be far worse off than contemporaries in other languages, because by the beginning of the twentieth century, tsarism still held out little of the promise of emancipation and Russian antisemitism had become the most violent in Europe. Yet, as I show in Chapter Three, the reactionary political atmosphere of Russia held several advantages for the Jewish writer. In a land without democratic political opposition, writers were considered the obvious counterforce to government, and Jewish as well as Russian writers were accorded the moral stature of a prophetic intelligentsia. Unlike in the West, the Jew in the atmosphere of relative backwardness felt no necessary embarrassment for his putatively inferior language and heritage. Russian Jewry produced a fervent Zionist movement, an equally fervent Jewish revolutionary movement, and a powerful literature in Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian. Indeed, Isaac Babel started out as the boldest writer in the modern Jewish pantheon. After the Bolsheviks overturned the rotten regime, he cast the Jew of his masterpiece, Red Cavalry as chronicler of the Russian Revolution. The revolution guaranteed parity to its Jewish subjects, and some writers took it at its word. But it soon became clear that Jewish writers under the new regime were offered the ultimate version of Hobson's choice: either yield Judaism and take what the new order has to offer or forfeit your share in the new society. After a decade of experimental brilliance, the art of the Soviet regime began to curdle under the heat of restrictive edicts that made tsarism a paradise in retrospect. For some Soviet writers in Yiddish and Russian, Jewish consciousness was a saving grace. Although their Jewishness may have subjected the writers to greater risk, particularly as Stalin's antisemitism became overt in the mid 1930s, it protected their art by fortifying them morally.
When we think about creative centers of Judaism in the twentieth century, we might keep in mind the counterintuitive decision of young American Lucy Dawidowicz to leave New York City for Vilna in 1938 because she wanted to study Jewish history where it was being taught best. Politically, the reconstituted Polish Republic of the 1930s was becoming a most unfriendly place for its three million Jews. After many centuries of by no means uniformly disagreeable interaction, Poles had begun treating the Jews as hateful intruders. But by then, the Jews had struck such deep roots in the country that their creative development continued unchecked, and was even stimulated by the need for self-reliance. Most people nowadays know Polish Jewry through the prism of the Holocaust, as a mound of ashes like the one commemorating its victims at the Maidanek death camp near Lublin. But for the student of Jewish literature in the twentieth century, interwar Poland figures (after modern Israel) as the most fertile ground of all.
Chapters Four and Five of this book are devoted to literature of and about the Poland of the 1930s. To represent Yiddish literature emanating from Poland, then the hub of Jewish literary creativity, I bring three almost contemporaneous novels of the talented Singer family -- Israel Joshua, Isaac Bashevis, and their sister (Hinde) Esther Kreitman -- utterly different in subject and style yet with an eerily similar conception of life that is fatally stuck between hopeless alternatives. A contrast of a different kind is manifest in the autobiographical novel of the American Yiddish writer Jacob Glatstein and of the Palestinian Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon, each novel imaginatively based on a return visit the author paid to his native city in Poland. In the book that stands at the center of the modern Jewish canon, the epic A Guest for the Night, Agnon exploits the resonance of Hebrew to shape a personal myth of the modern Jewish writer who ceases to be the guest of Europe when he resettles permanently in the Jewish land. Glatstein's journey, contrarily, turns into a threnody for the Yiddish writer as well as for his native community, since he sees no home for his European Jewish tongue. In the parallel works of Agnon and Glatstein, the leading modernists in their respective languages, we can read the fate of Hebrew and Yiddish at that ominous turning point in history.
That ominous turning point was Hitler's war against the Jews. Launched under the cover of World War II, it defined Jews against their will prior to exterminating them as a people. The Jewish civilians were not only physically unarmed but unable to understand the intentions of this Nazi aggression. The Germans applied their genius to killing the Jews with methods invented and adapted precisely for this purpose, and they relied on their armed might to ensure victory. Jews fought back, mostly by trying to survive, mostly through their weapons of choice -- pen, typewriter, pencil. Even the small surviving fraction of ghetto diaries and depositions shows how resolutely, how religiously, Jews kept the record, determined that the truth would outlast them to condemn their destroyers. In the layered writing that bore witness to the Holocaust (what Yiddish calls the khurbn, and what Hebrew calls the Shoah), the most important stratum is the first -- the writing of people during the war, under the immediate pressure of events. Then come the postwar memoirs and fictions of witness-survivors, at first a small stream, then swelling into a torrent as these people aged and realized that their unique experience might go undocumented. At farther remove, writers who never experienced the genocide began to take it for their subject -- just as the Israeli Amos Oz centuries later chose to write a novel about the Crusades. At the beginning of the century, expressionists and surrealists used explosive experimental forms to communicate their visions of violence and madness. The horror of the Holocaust restored the need for precision, since any exaggeration was bound to diminish the reality of violence and madness.
For Jews caught up in Hitler's net, language assumed existential urgency. The register of ghetto diaries, even when they record the same incident, differs, depending on whether they were kept in Yiddish or Hebrew or a non-Jewish language. In Chapter Six we see that writers who felt at home in their languages wrote differently from those who were forced to adopt a new language after the war. In her diary, Anne Frank dreams confidently in Dutch of becoming a model Dutch citizen and writer. The Italian Jew Primo Levi recognized his kinship with Dante, who likewise wrote of a descent into hell, but having come upon Yiddish speakers for the first time in Auschwitz, he later questioned his authority as a witness and tried to write a novel about the "real Jews" of the Holocaust, the Yiddish Jews of Eastern Europe. Elie Wiesel, a pious Hungarian boy whose life had been circumscribed by Jewish faith until his arrest, discovered Western literature in Paris after the war and wrote his memoir under its formative influence ten years later; he began his literary odyssey as a Yiddish and Hebrew writer but then turned his first book into French and wrote thereafter in his adopted language, largely about his native Yiddish and Hebrew culture. In his writings, Henryk Grynberg fights back in Polish against those who drove him from his country. Some critics believe that the historical force of the Shoah created a new body of testimony, like the Christian Gospels. But the literature of the war attests just as forcibly to the power of language in determining the nature of that testimony.
What a relief it is to come, in Chapter Seven, to English along the continuum of Jewish literature! And after so much literature of destruction, how welcome the theme of the return to the Land of Israel and the resumption of effective Jewish self-defense! The intersection of English with the rebirth of Israel marks the most cheerful point of Jewish culture in the quarter century after the war. The English-speaking world deserved the lion's share of credit for the defeat of Hitler, and its (albeit grudging) help was critical to the flourishing of Israel. Moreover, despite punitive British policies toward the Jews in Palestine, the spirit of English liberalism seemed to reassure the yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, that it could effect British withdrawal from the country and perhaps even win endorsement from the British as well as the Americans. Having suffered such deep humiliation and loss in full view of the world, the Jews wanted to be reassured of the respect of the world, and they expressed that claim to dignity in the English language. The best-selling Exodus and the modernist Canadian Jewish classic The Second Scroll invoke biblical parallels to dramatize the heroic rise of the Jewish state. But George Eliot had foreseen long ago that insofar as British liberalism was an outgrowth of Christianity, it would have difficulty accepting the particularism of the Jews. She recognized that English civilization might generously wish to embrace all the world yet stop short at the point of accepting a people that does not want to be embraced. Daniel Deronda, the best Zionist novel (though not a Jewish book), foretells just how difficult it would be to uphold the idea of Jewish peoplehood in English literature. Taking its cue from George Eliot, Chapter Seven asks how well the Jewish story can be told in English.
One thing English assuredly did do for Jewish fiction was to allow authors to worry less about the Jews and concentrate on themselves. America became a safe haven for Jews during the decades at the turn of the century, when political antisemitism was gaining momentum in Europe, and a haven, too, for writers, journalists, artists, and playwrights. Chapter Eight traces the way the immigrant masses from Europe switched from Yiddish to English, the verb switch signifying the speed and finality of the changeover. The products of American public schools began telling the story of how they had adapted to the urban frontier. Soon the Jewish immigrant story joined the classics of America. Mary Antin gave one of the brightest accounts of reaching and penetrating the promised land. The master broker of the marriage between the Yiddish-speaking Jews and English America, Abraham Cahan, editor of the Yiddish daily Forward, implied in his novel The Rise of David Levinsky that the Jew may best prove himself American by remaining suspicious of his own success. Henry Roth was inspired by the modernism of James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to invent a new polyphony of English in Call It Sleep for telling how an immigrant boy harnessed the power of the streets against the confining force of his family. A subgenre of the American Jewish novel exposed the Jewish hustler, including the sexual hustler, who doesn't share Levinsky's conscience about succeeding in America. The energy of American Jewish writers was so charged, so buoyant, that for a time they appeared to dominate American fiction. But there was so little Jewish energy in this art that one could invent parlor games over the ethnic or religious identity of its authors: Edna Ferber? Waldo Frank? Lillian Hellman? Nathanael West? Norman Mailer? E. L. Doctorow?
For most of the twentieth century, American Jewish fiction maintained the perspective of the child or adolescent -- passing from home, starting out in the thirties, casting a new life, making it. Writing about an autobiographical character who at age forty-two is still locked in battle with his eighty-year-old father, Herbert Gold says wryly, "only in this odd century can I still be considered young" (and he might have added, "only in America"). John Updike's character Henry Bech (b. 1965) was a delightfully good-natured compliment to the centrality of the Jewish writer in America, but the author's impression of his literary contemporaries is conveyed by Bech's bachelor status and absence of any Jewish affiliation. To my knowledge, the first time an American Jewish writer publicly assumed the role of a Jewish parent rather than a Jewish child was when Norman Podhoretz, then thirty-one, framed the questions for the 1961 symposium Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals in Commentary, the magazine he had just begun to edit. Addressed to American-born Jews under forty, the questions gave respondents the "absolute right" to choose their loyalties, but asked, inter alia, whether they felt any obligation to extend the values inherent in Jewish tradition to the next generation, how they regarded the possibility of their children's conversion to another religion, and what loyalty, if any, they felt to Israel, the new Jewish polity. The gingerliness of these questions attests to the irresponsibility that most aspiring Jewish writers cultivated toward their own people as some of them rushed to prove their tender feelings for other disadvantaged cultures and groups. But since then, the situation has changed somewhat. As the culture of the sixties came into ever-greater conflict with traditional Jewish values, the American Jewish literary world became divided as never before over political, cultural, and even theological issues. It was in this atmosphere that Saul Bellow summoned up a refugee from Hitler's Germany to provide the point of view for Mr. Sammler's Planet, and Cynthia Ozick declared herself an avowedly Jewish writer. Toward the end of the century, as portrayed in Chapter Nine, a trickle of American Jewish writers took up the perspective of parents rather than children and, seeing the world as Tevye saw it, asked what kind of world they had wrought.
This book ends, inevitably, with a chapter on the revitalization of Hebrew as the Jewish national language -- revitalizing a language is a feat unparalleled in the history of nations -- and on the singular impact this has had on the literature of the Jews. In A. M. Klein's 1951 novel The Second Scroll, a Canadian Jewish poet is sent to Israel by his publisher shortly after the War of Independence to prepare an anthology of translated modern Hebrew verse. He dutifully hunts down poems by Rachel, Natan Alterman, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and the school of Canaanite poets but then realizes that the "fashioning folk" had been creating "the total work that when completed would stand as epic revealed!":
They were not members of literary societies, the men who were giving new life to the antique speech, but merchants, tradesmen, day laborers. In their daily activity, and without pose of flourish, they showed it to be alive again, the shaping Hebrew imagination. An insurance company, I observed as I lingered in Tel Aviv's commercial center, called itself Sneh -- after Moses' burning bush, which had burned and burned but had not been consumed. Inspired metaphor, born not of the honored laureate, but of some actuary, a man of prose! A well-known brand of Israeli sausage was being advertised, it gladdened my heart to see, as Bashan -- just tribute to its magnum size, royal compliment descended from Og, Bashan's giant king. [...] In my student days I had been fascinated always by that word which put an end to the irreconcilable controversies of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai: this House would maintain Permitted, that House would insist Prohibited; a deadlock would ensue. Came then the Talmud editor and wrote taiku, stet, the question abides. My teacher would then go on to explain that taiku was really a series of initials that stood for Tishbi yetaraitz kushioth v'abayoth, the Tishbite would resolve all problems and difficulties. Now the magic cataleptic word was before me again, in a new context, in a newspaper, the report of a football game where the score had been tied. Taiku!
I will forego discussion of such ironies as Klein's unself-conscious assumption of masculinity in this claim for inclusiveness, and the heavy exertion that is required in English to describe the spontaneous creativity of Hebrew. Let us only register the excitement felt by a poet for the "nameless authorship" that flourished in the streets over and above the formal work of his fellow poets. The narrator is educated enough, and at the same time distant enough, to appreciate every turn of wit, every innovative appropriation of the Israeli neologians. "It was as if I was spectator to the healing of torn flesh, or heard a broken bone come together, set, and grow again." Klein, who appreciates the difficulty of writing Jewish poetry and prose in English, subordinates the individual talent to the miracle of Hebrew reborn.
To be sure, it is hard to hold on to the freshness of a miracle once it turns everyday. At first, Hebrew writers may have felt that they were breathing new life into the dry bones of the language, but why else go to the trouble of revitalizing a language unless you want to express yourself more truthfully? As the difficulties and contradictions of modern Jewish existence multiplied, these became the mainstay of Hebrew literature. At the same time, many Hebrew writers felt that they served Hebrew best by "serving" it least, by freeing it from national imperatives and from collective duties. After all, if Hebrew really were just the national language of a sovereign people like any other, why should national consciousness figure in its literature at all? Thus, after a lifetime of trying to inspire his students with love of Zionism, Pinness, the teacher of the pioneering village in Meir Shalev's comic saga The Blue Mountain, is struck in old age by the heretical desire to escape the ideological fervor he had tried to instill in his students:
Pinness envied the caveman, who had wandered to this guileless land without biblical get-thee-outs to find it unpossessed and unscarred by the petty footprints of human loyalty and love, "driven only by his own hunger and thirst and an innocent appetite, retained by every living cell to this day, for that warm, moist thing we call life."
Pinness has all the sympathy of the author (and of the narrator who is here quoting his words) in evading the fateful consciousness of Abraham's heirs. Poor Jew, saddled with a history so very long and so very edifying that he has to go back to the caveman for his model of natural innocence. Shalev and his translator resort to the language of undoing -- "guileless," "without biblical get-thee outs," "unpossessed and unscarred" -- to free the "folk teacher" of his yoke so that he can enjoy unmediated contact with his land.
Hebrew literature is just beginning to appreciate the irony that having helped to normalize the political and cultural status of the Jewish people, it may not want to be the voice of their Jewishness. Indifference and outright hostility to Judaism is expressed in Israeli fiction not only by Israeli Arabs who may be hostile to the intentions of the Jewish state but also by Israelis who resent their Jewish birth. Being born Jewish is the greatest imaginable boon to some writers, but for others it is a nightmare from which they struggle to awaken. In Gentile America, it matters less when Jewish writers pass into the mainstream. So what if Arthur Miller deracinated Willie Loman or if Joseph Heller made Yossarian an Armenian instead of a Jew? And what difference does it make, except to a small group of their Jewish admirers, that both men later acknowledged the Jewish roots of their characters? Pressures are very different inside a Jewish state that carries not only the collective historical legacy of the Jewish people but also responsibility for its future. The Arab war against Israel re-created the mentality of siege in the very country that was created to escape it, and how can Israelis fail to feel some bitterness at still being singled out for hatred when they did everything imaginable to save the Jews from its taint? As political antisemitism moved from Europe to the Middle East, it infected Israelis as well, and overt anti-Jewishness penetrated Hebrew literature just as it had done in the work of Jewish writers in Europe a century earlier. The pressure of identity within a Jewish language is reconnecting modern Hebrew with the beginnings of modern Yiddish literature, although the resemblance has yet to be acknowledged or explored.
I call my last chapter "A Chapter in the Making," because it would require another book to contain the subject of Israeli literature. Hebrew has begun to dominate Jewish literature, just as Israel now largely determines the future of the Jewish people. The Jews are not becoming monolingual; they continue to write in the languages into which they are born, as they have been doing with surprising new confidence in parts of Europe and South America. But neither are there likely to be many great Jewish writers of the next century who are uninformed and uninspired by the spirit of Hebrew. Hebrew today is not only the language of Bible and liturgy, it is now also the language of the Jewish state where an increasing majority of the Jewish people resides. Hence, it is the crucible of the national fate. Individual genius may come wherever it comes and do whatever it does, but the Jew who has no access to the heart of the Jewish polity is ever less likely to generate a valuable literature of Jewish experience.
The study of comparative literature subsumes Jewish literature in all its languages. Indeed, the Western canon at large includes some of the great books that are discussed here. But Judaism is also a competitive civilization whose literature follows patterns of its own. The fact that cultural traditions can be studied in tandem does not mean that they coincide, and even when they seem perfectly compatible, as they do in America, the perpetuation of each requires some independence from the other. Modern Jewish literature contains a record of national experience unlike any other, which makes it all the worthier of study, but it promises no happy merger into universalism at the end of the day. The odd thing about the multilingual literature of the modern Jewish canon is that although its reality can easily remain obscured, once it is revealed it appears to have been there all along.
Copyright © 2000 by Ruth R. Wisse
Meet the Author
Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Born in Romania and raised in Montreal, she was the first professor to introduce courses in Yiddish literature at McGill University, where she helped to found the Jewish Studies Department in the late 1960s. She has written and edited eight previous books on Jewish literature and culture. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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