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Imagining Jewishness

In his review of Michael Chabon's new novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases, William Deresiewicz says of the state of American Judaism: My own experience tells me that American Judaism has long been beset by a deep … Read More

By / May 21, 2007
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In his review of Michael Chabon's new novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Nathan Englander's The Ministry of Special Cases, William Deresiewicz says of the state of American Judaism:

My own experience tells me that American Judaism has long been beset by a deep sense of banality and inauthenticity. To the usual self-contempt of the liberal middle class is added the feeling that genuine Jewish life is always elsewhere: in Israel or the shtetl, among the immigrant generation or the ultra-Orthodox. Jewish culture as lived by the non-Orthodox tends to feel bland and thin even to its practitioners–the last, worn coins of a princely inheritance. (To those who have fled Orthodox backgrounds, like Englander and myself, that very different milieu tends to feel, for all its traditionalism, spiritually dead.) The most visible of the current generation of self-consciously Jewish novelists appear to be avoiding their own experience because their own experience just seems too boring. What is there to say about it? Better to write about a time or place where there was more at stake.

These comments come in the context of Deresiewicz's remarks on the state of Jewish American literature, namely that the work of newer, younger Jewish American writers has little to do with Jewish experience. Or, if it does explore Jewishness in some form, it is someone else's Jewishness, so to speak.

The seeming omission of Jewish authenticity from the work of these contemporary writers, Deresiewicz seems to suggest, is a casualty of Jews' successful assimilation into mainstream American culture. Jews and Jewishness are no longer exotic enough to warrant writing from one's own personal and cultural experience. And so we have this phenomenon of Jewish writers reaching back into the experiences of their grandparents or others to whom they are not even related — searching for a use-able past because the present is . . . not useful? 

The question, however, is whether this is actually a problem — do such novels betray a loss of Jewish identity or experience as a result of assimilation? Or, through efforts to access Jewish culture and heritage through the eyes of others, do they demonstrate that Jewishness is not lost in assimilation? Of Chabon's novel Deresiewicz writes:

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is about no Jews who have ever lived, but it is one of the best novels in English about what it means to be a Jew, and how it feels.

But,

the book is so good not despite taking place in an imaginary world but because of it. Chabon has gotten into trouble before when he's tried to re-create a historical situation he hasn't experienced himself. Kavalier & Clay, which lists more than forty consulted sources in its "author's note," never succeeds in making its world seem more than secondhand. This is obviously a minority view–the book was a huge bestseller–but never for one minute did I believe its characters were fully real. The materials may all have been there, painstakingly assembled, but as with the golem who appears in its pages, the magic formula was missing that would quicken them to life.

Deresiewicz is not impressed with Englander's writing at all, though he finds numerous strengths in his new novel — the problem is that, for Deresiewicz, there is nothing particularly "Jewish" about the novel.

I half wonder why Englander felt the need to make his characters Jewish at all, especially since, given their estrangement from both the Jewish community and Jewish tradition, there's so very little that's Jewish about them. As for Chabon, it is telling that the rich complexity of Jewish meanings he manages to develop in an invented Jewish Alaska he has not thus far shown any faith in being able to locate in contemporary Jewish America. His novel is a stunning act of imagination, but it underscores all too clearly the extent to which American Jewish experience, insofar as it possesses the kind of density necessary for it to function as a substrate for fiction, is receding, precisely, into the realm of the imaginary.

This is frighteningly bleak. But while Deresiewicz has written an amazing review essay, in his mention of numerous contemporary Jewish writers he omits authors like Pearl Abraham, Allegra Goodman, and others who do in fact write specifically about the Jewish experience, from their own experience.

I don't think Deresiewicz's gloomy predictions about the state of Jewish American literature are wrong (though they do scream Irving Howe, who, in 1976, falsely predicted the impending death of Jewish American literature) —  but if there are fewer Jewish writers penning about their own Jewish experiences, there are now also far fewer scholars and professors who are working and writing in the field of Jewish American literature.

It feels like a dying discipline, which also does not bode well for the future of Jewish American literature — if there are no critics to critique, and overall there are far fewer people who actually read books, the future of literature by American Jews is little more than, as Deresiewicz suggests, a golem that will never be awakened to life. 

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