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The Death of Edge

Every writer wants to push boundaries. We all want to be “edgy.” I’m sure I’m not the first writer who has found himself lying awake at night wondering who he has to pay to get banned, seized, and censored. But with over a million copies in print of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (once the subject of an obscenity trial), with Jerry Seinfeld making out during Schindler’s List and Larry David mocking Holocaust survivors on national television, I and my fellow young Jew-writer brethren face a more difficult question: What conventions are left to challenge, what (l)edge is there left to inch out onto?

Jewish writing in the 20th century has invariably been labelled “on the edge.” In the Diaspora, and most specifically in the North American Diaspora, the “edge” has come from being outsider immigrants making their way through a suspicious, separate, antisemitic populace. As 29-year-old novelist Dara Horn says in the recently released anthology Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer, “Even people my age seem to have internalized the idea that what makes us Jewish is the fact that other people either secretly or explicitly hate us.”

Horn, part of a new generation of Jewish American writers, has good reason to be surprised at this “internalization.” There is plenty of evidence to suggest that “other people” in North America do not hate the Jews. Increasing rates of conversion to Judaism, the Vice Presidential candidacy of Senator Joe Lieberman, Spielberg’s films, the widespread availability of new-Jew kitsch in the form of slogan-bearing T-shirts, and 1970s Bar Mitzvah picture books all suggest what few would be able to successfully contradict: Jews are mainstream in America, as popular and unthreatening as bagels, Bubby, and borsht.

Clearly, we writers—and the Jewish community in general—need another way of thinking about North American Jewish life and identity. We look to the new-Jew writing vanguard to do for us what the great Jewish authors of the 1950s and 1960s did for previous generations of alienated Jews. But we find that our new writing fails us. With few exceptions, it continues to portray the North American Jew of Ginsberg’s era. Our composite personality is no longer that of the perpetually marginalized neurotic, dominated by traditional parents and rejected by the outside world. So why cling to an edge on which the Jewish people no longer teeter?

In Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge, editor Paul Zakrzewski collects the work of 25 New Jewish writers. A better subtitle for the book might have been “Jewish Fiction from the Middle.” The book’s characters are suburban teens, comfortable college students, flaky journalists, and newly minted professionals. These characters ingest intoxicating substances, have sex out of wedlock, ruminate on their irritating families with their annoying traditions and religion, and otherwise do what every other character in every other “edgy” novel by a hot new writer does, Jewish or otherwise.

What passes for “edgy” New Jewish writing has the oddly familiar tone of flailing effort. Consider the following excerpt from a Lost Tribe story in which Ellen Miller writes of a line of cosmetics for pale Jew babes called “Shtetl Girl”: “A blood-red lipstick, Pogrom, for when I was feeling impetuous…, an extravagant perfume, christened…with a musical, tintinnabular name, Kristallnacht… and advertised with the slogan, For Those Unforgettable Nights Out…. Before bedtime I’d soak a cotton ball in a clear, liquid astringent, The Final Solution…. Then I’d apply an overnight moisturizer—Crematorium—to help slow the formation of wrinkles caused by millennia of anxiety and persecution.”

Here is edge, of a sort. It’s Philip Roth’s Portnoy on ketamine, even more self-absorbed and ironic, and subject to astonishing bouts of verbal diarrhea. But did a single rabbi respond to Miller, as they did to Roth, by railing from the pulpit and issuing thundering Semitic fatwas against everything the book stood for? Lost Tribe emerged and nobody so much as blinked.

Which means we young writers have a big problem: We are mainstream, middle-class, and oppressed primarily by such horrors as Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons and dim memories of Zadie’s herring breath. I say this with the utmost sympathy. In search of my edgy voice, I’ve gone through such stages as binge drinking, avoiding the dating of Jewish girls, claiming support for the Palestinian cause, and loudly challenging my friends and co-workers to confront their obvious anti-Semitism. Nothing took. In my cosmopolitan East Coast world, I had difficulty finding disapproval for my attempt to reject the conformist comforts of suburban Jewry, and equal trouble locating any meaningful anti-Semitism. If no one is going to oppress me, what do I have to write about?

There are many talented writers caught in this nexus. Some of them, like Gary Shteyngart, are capable of writing about not a whole lot with great wit and verve. Shteyngart is our Jewish Jonathan Franzen. Both authors give us a breakout book that focuses on a young man shrugging off overbearing parents and travelling to a mythical Eastern European economy being plundered by the new world order. If one finds Shteyngart’s book ultimately more poignant, it is because Shteyngart’s Russian immigrant seems to have an effortless claim to the authentic pathos of otherness both authors seek to convey.

That said, among recent Jewish novels, Joshua Braff’s first book best exemplifies the many problems endemic to New Jewish writing. Braff’s The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green is an enjoyable first-person story that flirts with both of the standard themes: Jew boy rebelling against dad and the religious establishment; Jew boy not fitting in to non-Jew society. But Braff can never settle on one particular dilemma. Perhaps this is because the Jewish establishment in the book doesn’t seem all that oppressive and overbearing, nor does the suburban New Jersey the Greens live in.

I don’t mean to pick on Braff in particular; his novel is simply an example of an entire genre of explicitly Jewish coming-of-age-in-the-middle-class novels—books like Adam Langer’s 1970s period piece Crossing California, in which a seventh-grader shocks her teacher by praising the Ayatollah. As a genre, it’s indistinct from an entire group of non-Jewish books on the exact same subject: vaguely defiant suburban kid copes with psychological blows from dysfunctional parents and society.

Like many of these middle-class bildungsromans, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green never clarifies what, exactly, our sensitive narrator is so upset about (other than his freakishly annoying soon-to-be divorced dad). Ultimately, Braff’s book works itself up to an appropriately vague final epiphany: Jacob, on his way to read from the Torah at shul, starts to run. To or from, we’re not sure. “Where the hell,” the narrator asks, “is that kid going?”

Where is that kid going? With anti-Semitism no longer an issue in our lives, where do Jewish writers go now? How do we portray what remains distinct—and, despite all the comfort and success, distinctly unsettled—about Jewish American life at the beginning of the 21st century? For a start, we writers need to stop trying to prove that we can howl the loudest. “Edgy” is just another speciality cable channel, film festival, youth-oriented publisher’s imprint. The New Jewish middle whispers a quiet, complicated narrative about fitting in when your whole identity derives from not fitting in. We’ve become like everyone else, and, in the process, lost our ability to see ourselves. Who can tell that tale?

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