If you want to be cool, you will read . . .

For the last hour I've been debating on whether or not to post another blog about books, and since I'm still at the Jewish American Literature Symposium for the rest of the week, I can't promise that there won't be … Read More

By / April 20, 2007

For the last hour I've been debating on whether or not to post another blog about books, and since I'm still at the Jewish American Literature Symposium for the rest of the week, I can't promise that there won't be one more along these bookish lines. So in this post I'm going to offer a semi-brief rant on what I see as a problem in current Jewish American literary scholarship.

Then, I'm going to give you a list of Jewish American writers and books that you have to read if you want to be cool, if you want to sound hip and with it when you are around people who read. Even if you can drop a few of these names you'll be way ahead of others in the "I'm more cultured than you" game.

If you don't care about the literary rant, at least scroll down and check out the list of must-devour writers and links.

So here's the problem.

Jews were the first to write immigrant literature, and be great at it, in America (Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierzka, Henry Roth, Michael Gold, etc).

And then the grandchildren, literally and figuratively, of immigrants began writing what we might call Jewish assimilationist literature, which still often includes Jewish themes, but also carries a strong sense of trying to escape Jewishness, though in many cases we see the image of the fully assimilated Jew (think Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth). Others (Norman Mailer, Nathaniel West, Joseph Heller, even E. L. Doctorow) wrote simply as Americans, to the extent that most people forget that they are Jewish.

This second wave of Jewish American literature spans much of the twentieth century. And some, like Ozick and Roth, are still writing. Jewish American writers from this era achieved crazy success, and often were seen as mainstream rather than ethnic writers.

Not surprisingly, the literary critics were all over this, and scholars of Jewish American literature began popping up all over the place — for more than a couple decades, Jewish American writers were all the rage. To date, there is a substantial body of literary criticism dealing with this wave of Jewish American literature.

Okay, so what's the problem? I'm getting there . . .

The writers that the scholars at this symposium typically deal with include: Roth, Malamud, Ozick, Chaim Potok, and Bellow. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part these are the heavy-hitters.

This feels wrong to me — not because I don't love these writers, but because there is a whole new wave of Jewish writing that is not getting the critical attention it deserves. This third wave of Jewish American writers is reaching back into tradition, trying to reconstruct the memories of our great-grandparents and beyond. There is a sense of wanting to be Jewish in a traditional sense in many of these writers' work. And to make matters worse, we are seeing the beginnings of a fourth wave of Jewish American (and Canadian Jewish) writing — from the immigrants of Russia, Latvia, etc., and their children — that few scholars are acknowledging.

What worries me, is that there are few scholars, people in the academy, paying attention to these writers. And when nobody pays attention to a group of writers, the future of those books starts to look nasty really quickly.

So while we can't expect the average reader to suddenly become a scholar or literary critic, why not check out the work of some of these new, often young, Jewish American writers who are really not new at all. As a beginnng, here is my short list of authors and works that are worth checking out (feel free to add to this list):

Allegra Goodman (Called one of the 20 best writers under 40 by the New Yorker)

Dara Horn (Raises some cool ideas about re-constructing Yiddish culture, among other cool things)

Pearl Abraham (The Romance Reader was a bit chick-lit-ish, but still important; Seventh Beggar is cool)

Tova Mirvis (Writes about Orthodox Jewish communities in Memphis, especially from female perspective)

Steve Stern (Also writes about Memphis Jews — The Wedding Jester won a National Jewish Book Award)

David Bezmozgis (okay, so he's Canadian, but he is my new FAVORITE, and rocks my world; he may be Isaac Babel re-incarnated and re-configured for a contemporary world)

Aryeh Lev Stollman (Another favorite; I must have a thing for Canadian Jews right now)

Gary Shteyngart (Russian Debutante's Handbook; Absurdistan; this guy's gonna be big)

Laura Vapnyar (There Are Jews in My House)

Again, this is a very short list — many other should be on it. And then there are Second Generation writers like Melvin Bukiet and Thane Rosenbaum who are both good, as well as Israeli writers like David Grossman and A B. Yehoshua who don't get enough attention in the US.

So get on it . . .

Oh, and I promise I am not forcing these books on you so that I have people who I can talk to about them . . .

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