Jewish American Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Jews immigrated to the United States as early as 1654. By the eighteenth century, substantial Jewish communities existed in New England, New York, the middle states, and parts of the South, most notably in Charleston, South Carolina. It was not until the late nineteenth century, however, that Jewish immigration swelled. Between 1882 and 1903, 1,300,000 Eastern European Jews, subjected to persecution in their homes, mostly in czarist Russia and Poland, sought a new life in the United States.

Jewish immigrants came to the United States from many parts of the world, and the literary traditions and languages they brought with them were quite diverse. Jewish immigrants shared a common religious heritage, but they usually brought with them the ways of life that characterized the countries in which they had previously lived. Yiddish was a unifying language of these immigrants, although in many cases it was not their native tongue.

Most of the new arrivals settled in large cities, of which New York, being the city in which most immigrants landed, was the most convenient and had the largest Jewish population. Impoverished, often unable to speak English, large numbers of these Jews managed a life of bare subsistence on New York’s Lower East Side, clustering around Hester Street and other such Jewish enclaves, where Yiddish was the common language. By the early 1920’s, New York City, with some two million Jewish residents, was the largest Jewish...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

The Yiddish Theater

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Jewish American theater has figured prominently in the development of drama in the United States. Such theater draws directly and heavily upon the Yiddish theater that helped Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe deal with homesickness. The Jewish immigrants enjoyed theater in a language they could understand and about situations to which they could relate. The Yiddish theater became a haven and a preserver of culture.

Early Yiddish theater, along with providing classical drama in translation, also offered original melodramas and comedies. Joseph Lateiner, a Yiddish playwright, turned out as much as a play a week for eager audiences during the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. Immigrant Jews took theater seriously. It was their major release from the frustrations of adapting to an alien society. The theater became a major topic of conversation and, at times, animated controversy, among Jews. It became a spawning ground, directly or indirectly, for Jewish actors and actresses as well as for such future Jewish American dramatists as Albert Maltz, S. N. Behrman, Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets, Paddy Chayefsky, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, and Neil Simon.

A Yiddish theater was established as early as 1882 in New York City’s Bowery and, by 1915, twenty Yiddish theaters were flourishing in the city, along with music halls and vaudeville theaters that alternated between English and Yiddish in their presentations. Yiddish theater companies,...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

The Melting Pot

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

In 1908, Israel Zangwill, an English Jew who wrote unmemorable plays about a variety of social causes, produced a melodramatic play about a Russian Jew, David Quixano, who lives in New York. This play, The Melting Pot, which was dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt and was unconvincing in many respects, gained a substantial following and introduced into the American consciousness and vocabulary the concept of the melting pot.

David’s lines in this play have to do with his plan to write an American symphony about an “America that is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! . . . Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.”

David, a musician who can no longer play his violin because his shoulder has been injured in a pogrom, reminds one of Joe Bonaparte in Odets’ Golden Boy (1937), a violinist turned prizefighter whose success in the ring marks the end of his career as a musician. There are also suggestions of The Melting Pot in Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1935), in which the hand of violinist Ernst Tausig is smashed by Nazis. In all these instances, the play projects an image of thwarted dreams, certainly a part of the early American experience of many immigrants, Jewish and otherwise.

Later Jewish American Drama

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The second and third generations of immigrant families assimilated into American society. Many altered their original identities by changing their names to ones that sounded more Western European or American than the names of their forebears. Yiddish theater, which flourished throughout the 1920’s, began to decline toward the end of the decade and into the 1930’s. It was being replaced by companies like the mainstream Theatre Guild and the experimental Group Theatre. These two major companies drew their talent heavily from actors and actresses, playwrights and directors who had been associated in one way or another with Yiddish theater and knew its traditions firsthand. Among the more notable performers who moved from Yiddish theater to mainstream theater were Jacob Adler and Stella Adler, Paul Muni, and Molly Picon.

Some of the playwrights who emerged from this period remained Jewish in the topics they addressed as well as in the dialogue they wrote, capturing the speech cadences of Yinglish, as the combination of Yiddish and English has been called. Religion diminished in thematic importance; the cultural aspects of being Jewish received greater emphasis. Perhaps the most notable Jewish American play of the Depression era is Odets’ Awake and Sing! (1935), whose title alludes to the book of Isaiah. This play addresses questions of the importance, in rank order, of money, class, and family loyalty. The middle-class Berger household is threatened with extinction as the economic noose of the Depression tightens around it. The family matriarch struggles valiantly, not nicely, to hold the family together, but fails.


(The entire section is 676 words.)

Jewish American Fiction

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The most notable fiction produced by Jewish writers in America did not begin to appear until World War I. Those who produced it do not agree among themselves about whether one can legitimately speak of Jewish American fiction. Among those most often associated with such fiction are the writers Abraham Cahan, Michael Gold, Nathanael West, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Henry Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Edward Lewis Wallant, Stanley Elkin, and Cynthia Ozick. Two of the authors on this list, Bellow and Singer, have been awarded Nobel Prizes in Literature.

In a sense, these two Nobel laureates represent two different camps in their attitudes about whether one can say that there is such a thing as Jewish American literature. Singer, born in Lithuania, has produced writing in Yiddish and English. He has clung to his Jewish and Eastern European identity and uses it as a basis for much of his prolific writing.

Bellow, on the other hand, born in Quebec and associated for most of his adult life with Chicago, draws only to a limited extent on his Jewish background. Bellow objects to being called a Jewish writer much as Georgia O’Keeffe objected to being called a woman artist. She, like Bellow, saw no need for the qualifying adjective before the noun. Bellow’s identity and outlook are American generally.

Early Jewish American Fiction

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), a title that recalls William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), is among the earliest examples of Jewish American fiction. Cahan, born in Lithuania, was a dedicated socialist who immigrated to the United States and, in 1897, became the first editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, a newspaper whose mission he conceived as being to help as broad a segment of the immigrant populace as possible to learn about their Yiddish culture while, ironically, working at the same time to separate them from it, to make them Americans.

In The Rise of David Levinsky, Cahan has captured the complexity of an eastern European immigrant whose...

(The entire section is 470 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

To many Jewish Americans, the safest course to follow was that of assimilation, which is inherent in the melting-pot theory. Jews who espoused this solution worked to minimize national differences, often supporting an internationalism that was too idealistic ever to succeed or a cosmopolitanism that was equally unattainable.

The writing that proceeded from writers in the assimilationist camp is, understandably, like the fiction of non-Jewish American writers of the time. Novels like Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Miller’s Focus (1945), and Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions (1948) blur the distinctions between gentiles and Jews in mid-century America. Many of the writers who reflect assimilation have been castigated for their seeming detachment from the Jewish community.

Bellow and Mailer

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Some of America’s most renowned post-World War II fiction was written by Bellowand Mailer, both Jewish. Understanding what was going on in a rapidly changing United States, they wrote about it with vigor in books such as Bellow’s Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947), and, much later, Seize the Day (1956). Mailer’s fame began with his much-celebrated The Naked and the Dead (1947). Most of their work, despite the presence of Jewish characters in it, is not so notably Jewish as that of Philip Roth, Malamud, Chaim Potok, Leslie Epstein, Arthur Cohen, Ozick, or a host of other Jewish American writers.

Jewish American Self-Hate

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Among the significant psychological themes reflected in Jewish American writing after the mid-twentieth century was self-hate. Meyer Levin’s Compulsion (1956) explores the psychological underpinnings of the murder of Bobby Frank by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, attributing it to Jewish self-hate. Unlike his novel, The Old Bunch (1937), which traces the lives of twenty neighborhood Jewish youths from Chicago after they leave their families to begin their independent existences, Compulsion focuses upon the motivation for a single, seemingly irrational act. Levin goes on in The Fanatic (1964) to suggest that when Jews commit themselves to Communism, the basic reason is self-hate.

Philip Roth’s parody on self-hate, his onanistic novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), resulted in part from his being reviled as a purveyor of the self-hate doctrine in such early works as Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1960) and Letting Go (1962). He was denounced in synagogues and chided by his publisher to move from this stance. His reaction was to write Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel that was exuberantly politically incorrect before the term “politically incorrect” existed.

Malamud and Ozick

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Malamudwas close to his Jewish roots and made little attempt to write fiction that did not have Jewish themes. Books such as The Assistant (1957), The Fixer (1961), and The Tenant (1971) are notably Jewish, as is his collection of stories, The Magic Barrel (1958). Malamud, however, deviated from his roots in such works as his academic novel, The New Life (1961).

Ozick also remains close to her roots in Trust (1966), The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), and Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). Ozick criticized the gentile writer John Updike for his attempts to present Jewish characters authentically in his Bech stories, which did not ring true to Jewish ears.

The Holocaust

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Many Jewish American writers have avoided writing about the Holocaust. Some Jewish writers suffered from survivor guilt, having escaped Europe before Hitler’s annihilation of six million Jews. Ozick’s The Shawl (1989) addresses the Holocaust and attracted favorable notice. Prior to the publication of Ozick’s work, Cohen’s In the Days of Simon Stern (1973) and Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews (1979) broached the subject, as did Singer’s Enemies: A Love Story (1987).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Jewish American poet best known to early immigrants was Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus” expressed what the Statue of Liberty means to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Lazarus, the daughter of an affluent, assimilated family, showed few Jewish influences in her early writing; her volume Songs of a Semite (1882) marks the beginning of Jewish American poetry in the United States.

The early objectivist poets were almost exclusively Jewish. Objectivism grew out of an earlier poetic movement, Imagism. Imagism, as its name implies, makes a visual image central to a poem; Objectivism seeks to make the poem an object, with historic and cultural particulars in a unifying context. The typical Objectivist lyric poem is spare and brief; longer poems also incorporate the style of referring to specific objects and events and of being terse. Poets belonging to the Objectivist school include Charles Reznikoff, George Oppen, Louis Zukovsky, and Carl Rakosi. Reznikoff was thoroughly Jewish in his literary approach, writing poems with titles such as “Kaddish,” “The Fifth Book of Macabees,” and “A Short History of Israel” in his Collected Poems (1978). Paul Goodman is notable among Jewish poets for writing unabashedly about homosexual topics. Allen Ginsberg, in his Beat poetry, sometimes deals with the topic.

Karl Shapiro’s Poems of a Jew (1958) and The Bourgeois Poet (1964) have helped to assure his sterling literary reputation. Noteworthy also are Muriel Rukeyser, Stanley Kunitz, and Louis Untermeyer, the last as a poet and as an anthologist.

Other important Jewish American poets include Delmore Schwartz, Laurence Lieberman, Howard Nemerov, Irving Feldman, Anthony Hecht, and John Hollander, all of whom have incorporated considerable Jewish ethnicity, as well as scholarship, into their writing.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish American Stage and Screen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. The eighteen essays in this valuable collection deal with playwrights, actors, actresses, and Yiddish theater.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. Jewish Wry: Essays on Jewish Humor. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. This solid presentation of Jewish humor delves into many aspects of Jewish American literary production.

Erens, Patricia. The Jew in American Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. Erens’...

(The entire section is 428 words.)