Mark Twain is said to have quipped, “The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” The same could be said of Jewish American literature, whose death pundits have been regularly predicting for decades. In the 1970s, Irving Howe opined that once the leading Jewish literary lights of the day were done — Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Grace Paley, Philip and Henry Roth — Jewish-American literature would be done, too. The great waves of early-20th-century immigration, the single most animating event that gave rise to these writers’ works, will have faded into history. Jewishness — that hard-to-define brew of religion, custom, and culture — could not, in Howe’s vision, offer up enough deeply felt material to nourish a serious literary output. American Jews will have succeeded in the presumably desired enterprise of assimilating, and there would be nothing specifically Jewish left to write about. All that would remain is nostalgia.
Could the Jewish experience, Howe asked, ever again penetrate deeply enough into the lives of future American Jews to enable them to create lasting work? Could it form the “very marrow of their being” and provide enough “memories of exaltation and suffering such as enable the writing of stories?” What could possibly replicate the enormity of that early mass dislocation and acculturation on any future writer’s psyche?
The answer is, “Plenty.” What are today’s writers writing about? Who is doing the writing? And what are they telling us about Jewish American life?
Howe might have been right about the centrality of the immigrant experience to Jewish literature, but what he hadn’t counted on was that Jewish immigration would continue well into our own century.
Perhaps no immigrant story has made itself heard in recent years through such vigorous and prolific voices as those of Jews from the former Soviet Union. Bursting onto the literary scene in 2002 with his satirical first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Gary Shteyngart, who has since published two more novels and a memoir poignantly titled Little Failure (his mother’s nickname for him and her mordant prophecy for his life), typifies this cohort. Like his contemporaries, David Bezmozgis — the author of three works of fiction, most recently The Betrayers, about a Soviet Jewish dissident who has become a disgraced Israeli politician — and Yelena Akhtiorskaya, whose lively debut, Panic in a Suitcase, limns the wild hopes of a Ukrainian family transplanted to “Little Odessa” in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, Shteyngart, from Leningrad, was brought to America as a child. All three writers arrived in America at the ages of 6 or 7 and today mine the humor, absurdity, and pain of straddling cultures, having had their own feet in both worlds.
Yet Russians aren’t the only ones writing of migration. Works by Persian Jews such as Dalia Sofer (The Septembers of Shiraz) and Roya Hakakian (Journey from the Land of No) illuminate Iranian Jewish life after the 1979 revolution. Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is an account of her family’s life in Cairo and its painful relocation to the States. And in My Father’s Paradise, Los Angeles–born Ariel Sabar tells the story of his journey to his father’s village in the Kurdish region of Iraq and his efforts to sort out his own identity.
And then there are the Israelis. Whatever the number of Israelis living in North America — figures seesaw from 100,000 to 500,000 depending on who’s doing the counting — sooner or later some were bound to start writing about their divided sense of self. Their stories have been slow in coming. Leaving Israel is called in Hebrew yerida — going down — in contrast to the much-lauded Zionist step to move to Israel — aliya, going up. For a long time Israelis in America didn’t typically speak in terms of living here permanently: the decision to stay was often a nondecision.
Ayelet Tsabari, an Israeli of Yemeni descent who moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, after her army service, deftly explores the complicated lives of Israelis and North Americans at the crossroads of nationality and identity in her prize-winning collection, The Best Place on Earth. Two other notable recent books give us Israel as seen through an American lens. In The Pale of Settlement, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Margot Singer explores the meaning of home in interconnected stories about an American with Israeli roots, while in the novel Safekeeping Jessamyn Hope brings to life the world of an Israeli kibbutz through the eyes of an American volunteer.
Together, these narratives of migration trace the collision of cultures, the complications of personal identity, and the complex nature of what it means to be a Jew in a global and changing world.
On and Off the Derech
Despite Howe’s assessment that Jewishness would cease to be fertile soil for American Jewish literature, narratives of secular Jews embracing religion — becoming ba’alei tshuva, literally “masters of the return” — have been flourishing for decades. Writers such as Allegra Goodman (Paradise Park), Myla Goldberg (Bee Season), Tova Reich (Master of the Return), and Tova Mirvis (The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World) have all turned their discerning eyes onto the odyssey to observance through richly imagined novels and stories. And we can’t go on without mentioning novels like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated and Geraldine Brooks’s The People of the Book (not to mention non-North American Western works such as Tamar Yellin’s The Genizah at the House of Shepher and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key), gripping “history mysteries” that force ambivalent Jews to reconcile the past and grow into their identities.
It is also not surprising that we’re beginning to see literature exploring the lives of those who have gone in the other direction. Sometimes characterized as stories of going “off the derech” (literally “off the path”), the most affecting of these works recount harrowing, if liberating, journeys that leave the sojourner bereft of community and sure footing in the world. Shulem Deen was a member of the Skverer sect in the all-Hasidic village of New Square north of New York City and the father of five young children when he began to question his
religious beliefs. His first transgression was to listen to the radio; soon he moved on to books. All Who Go Do Not Return is Deen’s account of his effort to become himself. Unhindered by hyperbole and the need to take the reader through forays into sexual experimentation and drugs that unfortunately have come to dominate similar memoirs, Deen’s narrative shines for its humility and restraint.
Equally luminous is Leah Lax’s Uncovered, which tells the story of Lax’s move through the turnstile of observance. At 19, Lax, a Texas native, went from secular college student majoring in music to Lubavitcher Hasid. Following an arranged marriage to another ba’al tshuva, Lax raised seven children and remained married for 30 years before coming out as a lesbian. In this riveting work, Lax wrestles with the deepest issues of selfhood while not stinting on conveying the beauties of the religious life.
No discussion of writings about leaving Orthodoxy would be complete without mentioning the subversively irreverent Shalom Auslander, whose thunderous work delivers comedic, dark, and often brilliant observations about Jewish life from his unique perch among the fallen.
Holding Up the Mirror
Like the best of any art form, literature serves as a mirror, reflecting the struggles and triumphs, obsessions, and preoccupations of the culture from which it springs. For Jews in America, questions about identity, culture, nationality, and religion abound: Where do we belong? What to make of our history? What to make of one another? Perennial questions, never to be answered. What matters is the asking. Pundits notwithstanding, there will be no shortage of material for writers for generations to come.
Head to the library with this reading list of some of our favorite recent titles.
All Who Go Do Not Return, Graywolf, 2015
Shulem Deen’s beautifully told, tragic tale of struggling with himself and his faith as everything he’s ever known falls apart.
Uncovered, She Writes Press, 2015
Leah Lax’s memoir chronicles the 30 years she spent in a Hasidic community and her decision to leave it in her forties.
The Best Place on Earth, HarperCollins Canada, 2015; Random House, March 2016
Yemeni-Israeli writer Ayelet Tsabari’s collection navigates traditional and modern identities across generations and oceans, often to a heart-wrenching degree.
Hope: A Tragedy, Riverhead, 2012
Master of absurdity, the irreverent Shalom Auslander smashes apart our most sacred stories in this novel about a suburban Jewish family that discovers a surprise in the attic.
The Betrayers, Little, Brown, and Company, 2014
David Bezmozgis captures 24 hours in the life of former refusnik Baruch (né Boris) Kotler, now a hard-lined and recently disgraced Israeli politician, in a novel where everyone is a betrayer — and the betrayed.
Safekeeping, Fig Tree Books, 2014
Jessamyn Hope’s stunning debut novel intersects the lives of the wildly different personalities on a kibbutz in the 1990s, asking timeless questions about love, history, and belonging.