Commentary Magazine


New Jewish Voices

It is the character of our culture to be on perpetual alert for change, and so it is not surprising that we can now speak of a new generation of American Jewish writers—among them such novelists and storytellers as Cynthia Ozick, Hugh Nissenson, Johanna Kaplan, Jay Neugeboren, Arthur A. Cohen, and the much younger Mark Helprin—whose beliefs and preoccupations constitute a distinctive set of Jewish voices unlike those of previous generations. But the critic’s predilection for boxing and dividing writers by generations is a vexing one, as is the convention of marking off one decade from another—the 30′s as against the 50′s, the 60′s as against the 80′s—in order to signify changes in the political climate and the literary culture.

Obviously, categories defined by such code words as generation and decade are imprecise and reductive. Yet in the end this mode of making cultural distinctions is probably inescapable. For the fact remains that writers do fall into generational groups, however dissimilar the individual talents may be, and decades do—on the whole, if not in exact step with the calendar—tend to be characterized by different moral tempers. This is the burden of modernity, for we derive our consciousness from common experience in time, and not from the continuity of tradition.

This has been especially true of Jewish writers in 20th-century America, driven by a restless hunger for experience. Their singular mission has been to bridge the worlds of the shtetl and of urban modernity, to do justice to both the immigrant life they were born to and the assimilationist and cosmopolitan culture in which they had to make their way.

In the shifting tides of Jewish writing in America, the first generation consisted of those who grew up in Europe and whose literary language was Yiddish. In the early novels of Sholem Asch, such as Salvation and Mottke the Thief, in family sagas like I.J. Singer’s The Brothers Ashkenazi, the writer sought to preserve the shtetl memory which he felt had been threatened by transplantation to an alien land. Contemporaneously there emerged another generation, the first Jewish novelists born in America to immigrant parents—most prominently Michael Gold, Meyer Levin, Daniel Fuchs, and Henry Roth—among whom the blessings of talent were very unequally distributed, but who had a fierce need to capture not only the stifling life of the ghetto but their own struggle to escape it, often into the world of radicalism. Their novels were high-tension wires strung between incongruent worlds, and their balance was often precarious.

But neither the Yiddish novelists nor the first-generation Americans who began publishing in the 1920′s and 1930′s have left any substantial trace as memory or influence on the younger writers who followed. Except for the work of Roth and Fuchs, who have remained cult figures despite periodic revivals, most of the Jewish fiction published in the first third of the century rapidly came to seem ideological or lachrymose, and by now is badly dated. (In any such accounting of Jewish writing in America, Isaac Bashevis Singer resists every attempt to fence him in, since his language, his imagination, and his transcendent place in time flout all the touchstones of generations and decades.)

It was only with the triumph of the next generation, dominated by Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, that the die-stamp image of the American Jewish writer became fixed as a formidable presence in the culture. They were the first to make it on their own terms, at once alien and American, and they had no doubt about their rightful place in the literary mainstream. Bellow and Malamud were by no means the only writers whose work fused the racy inflections of Yiddish idiom and diction with the nervous rhythms of urban life; a similar breed of fiction was being written by Michael Seide, Irvin Faust, Jerome Weidman, and would continue to come from such younger figures as Herbert Gold and Stanley Elkin. But Bellow and Malamud became the archetypal embodiments of a newly complex Jewish personality full of intellectual ambition, ironic self-confidence, and erotic sophistication. And for all their divergences as writers and as Jews, the novelists of this generation were the first to regard success as their American birthright.

Most of this is of course an old story, but one needs to keep it in mind in order to understand how and why the succeeding generations have not conformed, consciously or otherwise, to the iconographic notion of the Jewish writer in America. The ground of experience—namely, the Yiddish-speaking immigrant life—has all but vanished, and a novelist’s specifically Jewish theme is no longer ready-to-hand, as it was for so many decades, in the chasm dividing the parents’ values and culture from the sons’ American aspirations.

_____________

 

If one asks, then, what theme, what imaginative and temperamental qualities now identify a younger novelist as Jewish, besides his Jewish parents, the answer varies with the writer. Often this Jewishness consists of nothing more than the odd Yiddish word (usually misused) which crops up in dialogue, or a wraith-like grandparent, lurking in the shadows of the story, who is a lingering reproach to his descendants’ insensitivity or emptiness of heart. It is now possible, as it was not ten or fifteen years ago, to read a serious novel about men and women (and children) whose names, speech, and history are unmistakable, yet who are never identified as Jewish, and the word itself is mentioned, if at all, as casually as a yawn.

This is not meant to be an impeachment of such books—a recent example is Richard Brickner’s wonderful novel, Tickets— but only to indicate that for some “Jewish” novelists today, even a vestigial link with their heritage has long since rusted away. The fact that they are Jewish, though they may not try to hide it, is so devoid of any cultural, never mind religious, meaning that it plays no part in the way they live and think and feel. This neutrality—it is nothing so strong as rejection—is a fact of Jewish life in America and thus an inevitable fact as well of much fiction written today by novelists who “happen” to be Jewish. In the case of Philip Roth, who has insisted that “I am not a Jewish novelist, I am a novelist who is a Jew,” the obsession with middle-class vulgarity and the Jewish intellectual’s guilty anxiety, the need to mock and the longing to be forgiven for this mockery, can hardly be confused with anything but what Roth is—a Jewish novelist with a vengeance, and literally so.

But there are those who, appalled by the desiccation of Jewish identity in America, have dissociated themselves strongly from the apostasy of assimilation, and regard it as a form of self-hatred that amounts to religious and/or cultural transgression. The most uncompromising indictment of the Jewish surrender to Gentile America has come from Cynthia Ozick. In her essays and stories, she has envisioned the flowering of a Jewish liturgical literature, in English, whose lifeblood will come not from the social and psychological actuality that holds so many novelists in thrall but from Jewish myth and legend. Unfortunately, as Ruth R. Wisse pointed out several years ago,1 “the present-day American Jewish community would seem to present an almost insurmountable obstacle” to the fulfillment of Miss Ozick’s vision.

_____________

 

One gifted young writer has recently spoken to Cynthia Ozick’s point. Mark Helprin, born in 1947, grew up in the Hudson Valley, and has two degrees from Harvard. After leaving Cambridge he emigrated to Israel, where he served in the infantry and air force, but came home after a year because, as he recently confessed to a New York Times reporter, he was miserable in the Israeli army. He has published three books—a collection of stories, A Dove of the East (1975); a novel, Refiner’s Fire (1977); and another volume of stories, Ellis Island,2 brought out earlier this year. Most of his stories appeared originally in the New Yorker, and since Ellis Island he has been living the very dream of literary success: extravagant notices, interviews, photographs, the works. Though it seems safe to guess that he was raised in an assimilated family—his father was a film executive, his mother an actress—Helprin is a religious-minded Jew who feels that his work has more in common with S. Y. Agnon than with Bellow and Malamud.

In a recent interview he declared that he feels totally removed from the skeptical secularism which he identifies with the gray eminences of American Jewish writing: “I’m not at all like [Bellow and Malamud]: I don’t have that introspection. I have no agony and resentments. Boredom and alienation don’t mean a thing to me.” And he believes that because he writes “devotional literature . . . in praise of the Supreme Being” and has an “unfettered relation” to his faith, he has been shunned by the Jewish press, which is more interested in agonizers than in healthy believers like himself.

Up to this point he seems to be in perfect agreement with Cynthia Ozick. But anyone who comes to Mark Helprin’s fiction by way of these pronouncements will be struck by the discrepancy between what he says and what he writes. If any proof were still needed of D. H. Lawrence’s wise dictum—“Trust the tale and not the teller”—Helprin provides more than enough. The question is, in what way is his writing Jewish?

_____________

 

His stories are an astonishment of imaginative virtuosity, written with measured and rather stately elegance about a prodigious variety of places, times, and persons. A Dove of the East opens with a Persian Jew in Israel who thinks he is the devil’s prey, and it moves on to stories about a Spanish widow in the mountains of northern New Mexico; an American priest dying in Rome; a Civil War battle in Virginia; a cattle rancher in Jamaica whose herd is destroyed by a bull. In the long title story, a Parisian survivor of the Holocaust, who has become a crack horseman and farmer in Israel, refuses to abandon hope that one day the young bride who vanished during the war will reappear, unchanged. A number of the stories are extremely brief and too oblique to yield more than the feeling of a fragmented dream. Seven of the twenty stories have Jewish characters, and only “A Jew of Persia” touches in any way upon Jewish myth or legend, though even here Helprin may be thinking more of demonology than of religion. In any case, since Helprin makes such scant use of recognizably Jewish themes or people in A Dove of the East, there appears to be little justification for his calling it “a Jewish book.”

The artful and gnomic simplicity of most of these stories suggests that they are meant to be read as fables, but in most cases it is hard to know what they attempt to convey. And though it is true that the unbound imagination of the fabulist, roaming everywhere in time and space with ghostly ease, is absolved of the constraints of reality, the fables in a single writer’s collection are not discrete. Even the bardic storyteller, unaccountable to the mundane, must convey some idea, albeit hidden in metaphor, of a unifying sensibility that binds his disparate imaginings into some coherent meaning. Because one can discern no singular way of seeing and feeling in A Dove of the East, it seems a collection of beautifully wrought masks without a face.

_____________

 

In the novel Refiner’s Fire, Helprin indulges his virtuosity to such excess that here again it is virtually impossible to find any thread of purpose or meaning, beyond the prodigy’s uncontrollable eagerness to show what he can do. Extravagantly written and plotted, the book unfolds the picaresque biography of a foundling, Marshall Pearl, born in 1947 on a dilapidated tub carrying illegal immigrants from Italy to Palestine. The baby is brought back to America by the ship’s captain, a Jewish officer in the U.S. navy, and adopted by a wealthy couple living on a huge estate in the Hudson Valley. One bravura escapade explodes into another until the novel begins to read like a cross between The Adventures of Augie March and the Hardy Boys. From his school on the Hudson, Marshall wanders to a Jamaican rain forest, where he is caught up in a Rastafarian rebellion. After three years at Harvard he lands in a Kansas City slaughterhouse. Not long after, we find him at the summit of a mountain in New Mexico, studying eagles and unintentionally reminding us of Augie March’s Mexican initiation into the art of falconry, a more memorable confrontation of man and nature. In search of his real father, our Jewish picaro eventually comes to Israel, where he joins the army and is mortally wounded in the October 1973 war.

Though Helprin tells us that Marshall is driven by “obsessions about achieving the impossible and defending the indefensible,” it becomes futile to try and make any sense of this whirlpool of thrilling exploits. As the cliff-hangers pile up, Refiner’s Fire reminds one less of Bellow and more of a boy’s book—adventure for the sake of adventure and nothing more—although its style is too lapidary to please any boy. Lacking a center—Marshall is not a hero, just someone to whom things happen—the story becomes a numbing bore. Helprin obviously used a good deal of his own experience in Refiner’s Fire, but the novel seems a lifeless make-believe because there is no sustaining idea behind the frenetic theatricality. And though Helprin claims that the novel, like his stories, is “a Jewish book,” this, despite several Jewish characters and the Israeli denouement, is more wish than deed.

_____________

 

Happily, Ellis Island, which brings together two stories and an ambitious novella, is much less mired in exhibitionistic dazzle than Helprin’s earlier work, and if some of the elaborately arched and buttressed epiphanies seem more literary than felt, one can at least see a moral intelligence at work, and not just a stunt-man of the imagination. In “Palais de Justice,” for example, an elderly lawyer, drawn at first against his will into a sculling race on the Charles River with a contemptuous young brute, becomes determined to win because

if one man were to remain strong and upholding, if just one man were not to wilt, then the light he saw and loved could never be destroyed, despite the barbarism of the war, of soulless materialism, of the self-righteous students who thought to remake this intricate and marvelously fashioned world with one blink of an untutored eye.

Even though Helprin’s symbols are too strenuously pointed, the story beautifully conveys, through the old man’s near-suicidal urgency, a sense that civilization itself is at stake in a seemingly trivial contest.

Like the old lawyer, the German photographer in “The Schreuderspitze” drives himself to an extreme severity of physical endurance because, in the hope of recovering from the accidental death of his wife and son, he wants “to suffer a parallel ordeal through which he would balance what had befallen him.” Redeemed by the power of his dreams, in which he succeeds in climbing a treacherous Alpine peak that would have killed him in actuality, the photographer comes to terms with his loss, his commitment to life restored by the mystical healing of revelation.

In the longest and most complex piece in the book, the novella “Ellis Island,” Helprin draws upon immigrant history and hasidic legend and does earn the right to call this a Jewish story. But it deteriorates into an exercise in whimsy. Though Helprin’s temperament and language seem altogether too ponderous for the light touch comedy demands, he has attempted a quasi-serious farce that seems to lean heavily on the unlikely trio of Menasha Skulnik, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Marc Chagall. On one level, the immigrant narrator slides from one banana-peel mishap to another as he makes his schlemiel’s way toward a mooring in the new world. On another level he wanders out of the confounding reality of Ellis Island and Hester Street into ornate mythical fantasies in which rabbis turn into bees, and tens of thousands of Hasidim blanket the Williamsburg bridge and shake it to the beat of their pious joy as they dance to work in lower Manhattan. But these comic visions are hopelessly arch and contrived; instead of bestowing imaginative weight on the story, they overload the circuits. How the real and hallucinatory adventures of this young immigrant lead him to “the binding principle of the world” remains a mystery.

_____________

 

Just how affecting a writer Helprin can be, however, when he is not being cute or straining for sonorous metaphysical profundities is superbly demonstrated in “Tamar,” the most fully realized story in this volume. Told with uncluttered lucidity, it concerns that credulous time before the war when it was naively assumed that if only German Jews had the money for transport, they could get out. One way of raising the escape money involved the sale of German Jewish art collections to the Jewish aristocracy of England, and a young man is sent by the Jewish Agency to London to negotiate the sales. He is gripped by foreboding, for he has just been traveling in the endangered heart of Europe, where “It was as if the 19th century—indeed, all the past—were in hiding and feared to give itself away. The whole world of the Jews in Central Europe looked outward with the saddest eyes.” Yet he must get on with his mission. It brings him one evening to a dinner party at the grandest Jewish mansion in London, where the vulnerability and unthinking complacency of this patrician world are brought home to him by the daughter of the house, entrancing in her beauty and self-assurance, unable to imagine that her life will soon be permanently wrenched from its opulent socket by six years of war. In “Tamar,” for once, Helprin does not remain at an aloof distance from the emotions his story might arouse.

But whether Helprin is the essentially religious writer he claims to be, whether his metaphysical obsessions are identifiably Jewish—from the interior evidence of his fiction one can only say no. If the Jewish religion is indeed the nucleus of his creative life, which would bring him close to Cynthia Ozick’s position, then we should be able to know this from his writing, not from newspaper interviews. What his fiction reveals is not a uniquely Jewish writer of a devotional stamp but a sophisticated and restless intellect and imagination whose distance from the sensibilities of Bellow’s generation is not so great as Helprin would like to think.

_____________

 

Among those writers of the new generation who share Mark Helprin’s concerns but not his literary gifts is Jay Neugeboren, born a decade earlier than Helprin into an immigrant Brooklyn neighborhood in which Jewish religion and culture were still the wellspring of daily existence. In an autobiography published in 1970, he told the familiar story of a young man’s pilgrimage from a sheltered Jewish life to the radical movements of the 1960′s. Like the writers of the 30′s and 40′s who leaped from the ghetto into the iron embrace of the Communist party, Neugeboren felt that he had finally arrived at the truth: “The only hope—for the world, for myself—is immediate revolution.”

But this apocalyptic fervor had sputtered out by 1976, when he published a midrashic novel, An Orphan’s Tale, whose tone and intentions were nourished not by Marx and Marcuse but by the wisdom of Pirkei Avot, the homiletic aphorisms of the ancient rabbis which are the favorite reading of the novel’s touching Wunderkind hero. The literary theme of the devout orphan’s search for a Jewish family and home, a sense of belonging, was developed with a learned abundance of Jewish lore, and placed Neugeboren within the new generation of writers committed in varying ways to the Jewish tradition, if not religion.

His new novel, The Stolen Jew,3 is a more elaborate yet more conventional narrative than the earlier book, since it deals with the kind of destructive family that has left a distinctively Jewish trail of broken spirits and thwarted hopes in 20th-century American fiction. The central figure, Nathan Malkin, had cut short a promising literary career, after publishing a well-received novel about Jews in Russia, so that he could make money to provide proper care for his schizophrenic brother. Half a century later, when the brother commits suicide, Nathan returns to Brooklyn, and gradually begins to break out of the protective shell of loneliness in which he had hoped to end his days. Forced to reenter the rooms of memory, he not only relives the history of his tormented family but also begins to rewrite his book. Now that he feels he truly understands what he had set down so long ago, Nathan can reclaim the life he once abandoned.

The Stolen Jew contains a novel within a novel, since long passages of Nathan’s book are interpolated into Neugeboren’s story. Yet while Neugeboren suggests that Nathan has resolved the meaning of his novel, it is less clear to the reader what Neugeboren intends his novel to mean as a Jewish story. He weaves a rich strand of traditional, especially kabbalistic, detail into his protagonist’s ruminations. But the focus of the larger story, as we see from Nathan’s bitter childhood recollections, which are rendered with great power, is the continuity of memory rather than the character of religious belief. The thread of memory, with its emphasis on the family, is one of the recurrent and important aspects of Jewish writing, and in this respect Neugeboren is returning to an older literary tradition. Yet one feels, too, that the religious elements are not really integral to his craft or to his characters, and for all their detail they remain an unrealized hope.

_____________

 

Nessa Rapoport, a younger member of Helprin’s generation, is a much less interesting writer, but there is no ambiguity whatsoever about the Jewish tradition she belongs to. If one must take the Jewish nature of Helprin’s literary visions on faith, as it were, Miss Rapoport’s religious identity is fully rendered as a social document. Her novel, Preparing for Sabbath,4 her first, is a copiously informative chronicle of a religiously observant upbringing that in young adulthood fails to satisfy the heroine’s longing for a personal God who will provide the peace that passeth understanding.

Miss Rapoport takes a long time to reach the spiritual crisis that seems to contain the religious point of her story. Most of the novel is a doggedly faithful recapitulation of the author’s childhood and adolescence—the conventional way that countless literary careers, Jewish or Gentile, begin. In contrast to Mark Helprin’s genius for surprise, Miss Rapoport is the slave of prosaic memory. She seems less interested in understanding the past, or investing it with metaphoric freshness, than she is in reliving it, day after ordinary day.

Since the heroine, Judith Rafael, is the child of a devout middle-class family in Toronto, the high drama of her formative years revolves around such agonizing questions as whether blue Chiclets are kosher. Such niceties aside, however, Miss Rapoport’s torrent of unforgotten trivia is no different from the narcissism that engulfs so many autobiographical novelists. Oblivious to the fact that we have been here before, and often, Miss Rapoport explains:

The way Judith ate a Coffee Crisp was to undo the yellow and brown waxed paper that said Coffee Crisp it’s a Nice Light Snack, and scrape off the top coating of chocolate with her teeth. Then, if she did it right, and didn’t bite too hard, came a layer of biscuit, and then a layer of coffee-cream icing, then. . . .

Positively nothing has been left out, we can be sure, as Judith fills us in on her rites of passage—first the girlfriends, then the boyfriends; school supplies; how Judith spent her summer vacation; her first trip to Israel; all the funny things that happened when she hitchhiked to California; lovable grandmothers; moving to New York; Israeli women brimming with wisdom; and so on. The only principle at work through most of this lip-smacking Bildungsroman is the author’s unshakable certainty that if it happened to me, it must be interesting.

Out of the family nest and studying in New York, Judith is neglected by her boyfriend, a with-it would-be rabbi who introduces her to what he calls “a bunch of Jews into spiritual alternatives.” She flirts with feminist ideas about reforming patriarchal Judaism, drops them along with the boyfriend, and flees to Israel, where she starts each day “with yoga and davening.” When she plunges into her black night of the soul, Judith cries: “I want there to be nothing for me but God, alive in my life always. But I am bound by appetite, fettered by desire. I want, I need, I cry like a child.” All too true, but God is forgiving and dries her tears.

The strange thing about the spiritual peace that, we are told, Judith finally attains in an ineffable gift of divine revelation is its startling Christian tone, though Miss Rapoport seems unaware of this. Craving a life unblemished by the promptings of earthly desire, her heroine seems to envision herself as a bride of Christ, transfigured by the purity of renunciation. If this seems an invidious charge to level at a nice Jewish girl, perhaps the muddled impression we are left with is due not to religious confusion but to a childlike romanticism that does not know where it wants to go or how hard it may be to get there.

_____________

 

In sum, we cannot yet speak confidently about a “new generation” of Jewish novelists, though clearly a conscious effort is being made—or at least felt—by some writers to have done with a secular older generation trapped in the modernist worship of experience. Some, like Cynthia Ozick and Mark Helprin, are more antagonistic toward that generation than others, like Nessa Rapoport, still mesmerized by a personal past. But in their sense of themselves as Jews they are no longer beholden to the literary postures of alienation and victimization. Instead, they seek—or say they seek—to find their literary nourishment in Jewish tradition and belief.

Yet it is also clear, in thinking about Mark Helprin, that he cannot wholly escape the burden of modernity. Though the best of his stories are rooted not in his actual experience but in what he has imagined the experience of distant times and places to be, this is not the same as a literature dedicated to the continuity of Jewish culture, legend, faith, and custom. In the hands of a great writer, the tension between tradition and experience is the crucible of art—if he has the intellectual and creative power to confront this tension, and acknowledge its treacherous complexity. It remains to be seen whether Mark Helprin will welcome this challenge when they meet, let alone be equal to it.


Footnotes

1 “American Jewish Writing, Act II,” COMMENTARY, June 1976.

2 Delacorte, 196 pp., $10.95.

3 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 336 pp., $14.95.

4 Morrow, 288 pp., $10.95.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.