Despite a long-standing Jewish presence in the New World, the existence of a Jewish-American literature, as such, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its origins lie in the immigrant culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period in which a massive influx of Eastern European Jews settled in America, particularly in the United States. The stigma of foreignness and the desire for cultural acceptance proved to be a prevalent theme in the writings of early Jewish-American novelists who, in works like Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), detailed the struggles of Jews as they experienced acculturation and dramatized the clash between traditional Jewish ethics and American materialism. In reaction to economic misfortune and prevalent anti-Semitism, many writers in the Depression era produced proletarian novels, such as Michael Gold's Jews without Money (1931), as a means of social activism and protest, or toward a more introspective and personal form of the novel, the prototype of which is Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934). The years following World War II saw such writers as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth move to the fore of American literature, heralding a period lasting from the mid-1950s until the 1970s sometimes described as a "Jewish-American Literary Renaissance," which accompanied a growing acceptance of Jews and Jewish culture. Largely responsible for defining the Jew in modern literature, the writings of these three figures typify such Modernist themes as alienation and self-deception, and, coupled with a sensitive and at times humorous concern for the human condition, represent the transition of Jewish-American fiction from an ethnic voice to a significant force in world literature. Still, these writers, like other mainstream Jewish-American authors—among them Norman Mailer, J. D. Salinger, and Arthur Miller—chose to deemphasize their Jewishness. More recently the Modernist outlook that has been shared by many Jewish-American authors has given way to a rediscovery of Jewish tradition and conscious efforts to depict the subtleties of Jewish culture and its long religious heritage in the contemporary novel. At the forefront of this movement are such writers as Cynthia Ozick and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of whom assert the importance of the Yiddish language and culture as central to maintaining the Jewish tradition. Likewise, recent years have witnessed a growing interest in two World War II-era topics that remained neglected in Jewish-American literature: the Holocaust and the creation and continued existence of the state of Israel. Concern for both subjects has since invigorated contemporary Jewish-American fiction and gained it renewed attention from an international audience.
The Promised Land (novel) 1912
East River (novel) 1946
The Victim (novel) 1949
The Adventures of Augie March (novel) 1953
Seize the Day (novel) 1956
Herzog (novel) 1964
Mr. Sammler's Planet (novel) 1970
Broner, E. M.
A Weave of Women (novel) 1978
The Rise of David Levinsky (novel) 1917
Cohen, Arthur A.
In the Days of Simon Stern (novel) 1973
Doctorow, E. L.
The Book of Daniel (novel) 1971
King of the Jews (novel) 1979
Leah (novel) 1964
Friedman, Bruce Jay
A Mother's Kisses (novel) 1964
Summer in Williamsburg (novel) 1934
Homage to Blenholt (novel) 1936
Potash and Perlmutter (novel) 1910
Jews without Money (novel) 1930
The Mind-Body Problem (novel) 1983
The Chute (novel) 1937
A Jew in Love (novel) 1931
Good as Gold (novel) 1979
God Knows (novel) 1984
(The entire section is 417 words.)
SOURCE: "The Jewish Novelist in America," in The Schocken Guide to Jewish Books: Where to Start Reading about Jewish History, Literature, Culture, and Religion, edited by Barry W. Holtz, Schocken Books, 1992, pp. 274-302.
[In the following essay, Shechner surveys twentieth-century Jewish-American fiction, focusing on those writers who declare their Jewish self-consciousness in their work.]
From the start, writing by Jewish novelists in America has been a vast enterprise. Seen from afar, the house of Jewish letters may resemble a bustling sweatshop, where writers arranged by rank and by file turn out books the way garment makers used to turn out apparel for the American clothing market. If that image belies the isolation and enclosed sensibility of the writer's enterprise, it does suggest the scale of the Jewish entry into American letters along with the hothouse atmosphere in which that literary endeavor has flourished. Writing remains, as tailoring once was, a principal Jewish occupation. Plainly, a reader's guide must proceed by exclusions, by ignoring certain books that were once read by thousands and by omitting entire careers that once appeared to define the Jewish presence itself. If the reader should find scant mention of writers once as prolific and acclaimed as Edna Ferber, Sholem Asch, Ben Hecht, Jerome Weidman, Maurice...
(The entire section is 22609 words.)
SOURCE: "Malamud, Bellow, and Roth," in On Culture and Literature, Horizon Press, 1970, pp. 200-233.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1966, Mudrick considers the early works of Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth as attempts to define the twentieth-century American Jew in fiction.]
Malamud, Bellow, and Roth have taken upon themselves the job of inventing the contemporary fictional Jew. In contemporary America, where Jewishness has been more and more rapidly converging into the WASP matrix of neutral pristine affluence, the job is almost anachronistic, almost archeology, like setting up a wailing wall in a supermarket. It is as if a Hebrew patriarch, having outlived the wife of his youth, had married the wife of his old age and fathered three sons to say Kaddish for him in post-ghetto America: Bernard, traditional and belated down to the self-protective ghetto humor, a pillar of the synagogue, rather prosaic maybe but steady and reliable, his father's son; then Saul, irresistible talker, promoter, last of the big-time spenders, flashy, wilful, hypnotically charming, bottomlessly cynical and sad, home only for the high holidays when he puts on the skullcap and a pious face for services; finally Philip, nervous, vulnerable, the doomed and delicate one, least committed to the past and most troubled by the future, whom all the...
(The entire section is 23250 words.)
Jewish Writers And American Life
Leslie A. Fiedler
SOURCE: "Zion as Main Street" and "Jewish-Americans, Go Home!" in Waiting for the End, Stein and Day, 1964, pp. 65-103.
[Fiedler is a controversial and provocative American critic. While he has also written novels and short stories, his personal philosophy and insights are thought to be most effectively expressed in his literary criticism. Fiedler often views literature as the mirror of a society's consciousness, and his most important work, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), assesses American literature, and therefore American society, as an infantile flight from "adult heterosexual love." In the following essay, he examines the place of the Jew in twentieth-century American culture and literature.]
Certainly, we live at a moment when, everywhere in the realm of prose, Jewish writers have discovered their Jewishness to be an eminently marketable commodity, their much vaunted alienation to be their passport into the heart of Gentile American culture. It is, indeed, their quite justified claim to have been first to occupy the Lost Desert at the center of the Great American Oasis (toward which every one now races, Coca-Cola in one hand, Martin Buber in the other), which has made certain Jewish authors into representative Americans, even in the eyes of State Department officials planning cultural interchanges. The autobiography of the...
(The entire section is 32145 words.)
Jewish Characters In American Fiction
SOURCE: "The Jew in the American Novel," in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, Vol. 11, Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 65-117.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1959, Fiedler surveys the defining characters and characteristics of the Jewish-American novel as they developed up to the end of the 1930s.]
This essay is intended to be not exhaustive but representative. The few writers who are discussed at any length are those who seem to me (and my personal taste plays a role of which any reader enamored of objectivity should be warned) both most rewarding as artists and most typical as actors in the drama of Jewish cultural life in America. I have not deliberately, however, omitted as untypical any Jewish American fictionist of first excellence. I am aware of how many rather good novelists I have slighted (along with some rather bad ones whom I am glad to pass over in silence); but I will not try to list them here, thus risking further injustice to those whose names fail to come to mind.
What I hope emerges from my study is a general notion of the scope and shape of the Jewish American tradition in fiction—useful to Gentile and Jew, reader and writer alike, not merely as history but as a source of pleasure and self-knowledge. The bonus of satisfaction for the critic engaged on such a job is...
(The entire section is 31560 words.)
Themes In Jewish-American Fiction
Melvin H. Bernstein
SOURCE: "Jewishness, Judaism, and the American-Jewish Novelist," in The Chicago Jewish Forum, Vol. 23, No. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 275-82.
[In the following essay, Bernstein characterizes the half-century between the publication of The Rise of David Levinsky and Herzog as a period of waiting "to rediscover in Judaistic values the definition of the worth of self heart, mind, and society.']
Today the Jewish writer is the subject of scrutiny in Germany, in England, and in America. On the East Coast he is studied in the Jewish-supported Commentary; on the West Coast he is studied in the Catholic-supported Ramparts. Last year the Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia) not only issued Irving Malin and Irwin Stark's Breakthrough, an anthology of thirty-one American Jewish writers but also Oscar Janowsky's edited collection of essays by many hands, The American Jew, A Reappraisal. For the 1964-65 season the New York City 92nd Street YMHA-YWHA has advertised a ten-lecture series on American Jewish novelists by Dr. Eugene Borowitz.
To Dr. Janowsky's book professor Marie Syrkin (Brandeis) contributes an essay, "Jewish Awareness Literature," in which she writes: "One must conclude a survey of the American Jewish novel with the unhappy reflection that for many of the ablest of its sons, 'being Jewish' has become a...
(The entire section is 36207 words.)
Jewish-American Women Writers
SOURCE: "Identities within Identity: Thoughts on Jewish American Women Writers," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, No. 3, 1983, pp. 6-10.
[In the following essay, Sochen describes the defining quality of the Jewish-American woman writer as her continual effort to forge a personal and creative identity.]
It is said that the twentieth century is the time in which artists and philosophers are preoccupied with the issue of identity. Perhaps so, but one could argue that Jews have always been obsessed with the question: "who am I?" Living as marginal, separate people throughout most of their history, they have always been required to be introspective collectively and individually. Identity has been an especially vital, active issue in the life of Jewish Americans where the interaction with Gentiles is commonplace. Jews raised within the Jewish tradition must question, test, and confirm their identities, their links to the Judaic past and present, and their connections to American culture as well. Jews who only had nominal or no Jewish upbringing had to create their identities in heterogeneous America.
For Jewish American women, the identity problem becomes multi-layered. Until very recently, the role of women in both the Jewish and American cultures prescribed behavior patterns and values different from that planned for men. Where the public world...
(The entire section is 15468 words.)
The Holocaust And Jewish-American Fiction
SOURCE: "The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction: A Slow Awakening," in The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate, Ohio State University Press, 1979, pp. 121-46.
[In the following essay, Alexander discusses the Holocaust as a long-neglected subject among Jewish-American writers not truly addressed in literature until the late 1960s.]
During World War II, American policy toward rescuing Jews from Europe could have been the occasion of a tragic conflict of loyalties for the American Jewish community. Yehuda Bauer has succinctly described that policy as follows: "Every humanitarian consideration was dropped, and the slogan 'rescue through victory' became the statement of official policy. This policy did not take into account that few Jews would remain to be rescued after victory." The conflict never occurred: the Jews of Europe were left to be murdered, and their brethren in the United States, who barely thought of allowing their Jewish loyalties to "interfere" with the war effort, remained largely undisturbed by tragedy or divided loyalties.
If one large segment of American Jews, descended either actually or spiritually from the German Reform movement, had always believed that they were Americans of the Jewish persuasion rather than members of the Jewish people, another large and vocal group, those descended from...
(The entire section is 21245 words.)
Antler, Joyce, ed. America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990, 355 p.
Stories from throughout the twentieth century about the Jewish-American experience from the female perspective.
Chapman, Abraham, ed. Jewish-American Literature: An Anthology of Fiction, Poetry, Autobiography, and Criticism. New York: New American Library, 1974, 727 p.
Represents a diversity of cultural, intellectual, and political viewpoints found in Jewish-American literature.
Fishman, Sylvia Barack, ed. Follow My Footprints: Changing Images of Women in American Jewish Fiction. Hanover, N. H.: University Press of New England, 1992, 506 p.
Sampling of short stories and excerpts from novels by authors ranging from Abraham Cahan to Cynthia Ozick, that portray Jewish-American women.
Malin, Irving, and Stark, Irwin, eds. Breakthrough: A Treasury of Contemporary American-Jewish Literature. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1964, 376 p.
Collection of short stories, poetry, and nonfiction by prominent Jewish-American writers.
Solotaroff, Ted, and Rapoport, Nessa, eds. Writing Our Way Home: Contemporary Stories by American Jewish Writers. New York: Schocken Books, 1992, 380 p.
(The entire section is 1349 words.)