Commentary Magazine


Reading About Jews

Speaking of Jewish self-consciousness, a friend of mine once quipped that the word that leaps at her from the printed page with second greatest frequency is jewelry. I laughed, as in the Yiddish expression, with lizards. Jews read like scanners crossing a minefield, like pearl divers with one eye out for sharks. Jews read like compulsive investors in a market that is rarely bullish. Jews probably don’t read as much as they used to, and Harold Bloom recently complained that they don’t read as well. But like actors whose living depends on their success with the critics, they do keep close track of their own reviews.

What is it, one may wonder, that they hope to find?

Jewish writers, the ambivalent beneficiaries of this nervous attendance upon them, and upon them in particular, claim to have discovered what Jews don’t like to find. It is many years since Philip Roth, in what would become the classic definition of the problem, protested against the reactions of readers who vilified and even threatened him for his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus. “Writing About Jews,”1 as Roth explained it, was a hazardous profession. The young artist, intent on making great works, and drawing for that purpose on the only substantive material he has on hand—his own remembered experience, his culture, his surroundings—ends up writing about Jews. It is less a thematic choice than an artistic necessity. Since writers write about people, since Jews are people, writers may write about Jews. Since Jewish writers are themselves Jewish people, and since writers tend to write about people like themselves, Jewish writers tend to write about Jews. On the part of the author, this act involves the required degree of responsibility to one’s audience and for one’s characters, no more, no less.

But what if the audience does not understand this impersonal artistic convention of Western culture? Suppose the Jewish reader, coming upon a Jewish character—an adulterer, say, or a smalltime blackmailer—should feel himself fingered, as though his own reputation had been irreparably damaged? This reaction would not be exactly abnormal among people who were historically treated as indistinguishable from one another and held responsible for one another’s real or, imagined sins. Worse still, what if this reader were so intimidated by the bare facts of the case—the adultery, the petty blackmail—that he failed to recognize the sympathetic treatment being accorded to the characters, “the bear hug . . . being administered right in front of his eyes”? In short, what if a young writer, simply doing the proper work of fiction, should be read by Jews who regarded themselves as in the dock at a public trial?

The results, as Roth set them forth in his article, were either amusing or distressing, depending once again on whether one stood with the author in the charmed convention of literature, or among the Jews in the public dock. Because here in this essay Roth really was putting the culpable Jews on trial. Quoting selectively from several letters from rabbis, Jewish professors, and untitled lay leaders, but always from prominent Jews, Roth exposed a sin that in the world of literary ethics is much more serious than adultery, blackmail, or even murder. “Not only do they seem to me often to have cramped and untenable notions of right and wrong, but looking at fiction as they do—in terms of ‘approval’ and ‘disapproval’ of Jews, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ attitudes toward Jewish life—they are likely not to see what it is that the story is really about.” In their strait jackets of morality, with their paranoid suspicions of being singled out for blame, lacking the empathetic imagination required of good readers, the quoted Jews are exposed as genuine philistines, the bourgeois gentilhommes of American society, the more uncultivated for thinking themselves so “cultured.”

Roth concludes his article with a personal challenge:

The question really is, who is going to address men and women like men and women, and who like children. If there are Jews who have begun to find the stories the novelists tell more provocative and pertinent than the sermons of some of the rabbis, perhaps it is because there are regions of feeling and consciousness in them which cannot be reached by the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.

As opposed to the clichés of thought and feeling of official Jews, writers will provide a more complex appeal to the senses and to consciences, and become the new spokesmen if not for, then certainly to, the Jews.

There are several compelling reasons for returning to this youthful essay, not the least of them its centrality in the author’s imagination. In various moods of generosity, introspection, humor, and chagrin, Philip Roth has reenacted this confrontation between the Jewish misreader and himself, its chief victim.2 In 1971, before a new dramatic production of some of the stories which had elicited the aforementioned attacks upon him, Roth reflected on his former insouciance, wondering if it had not been asking too much of people “still frozen in horror by the Nazi slaughter of European Jewry, to consider, with ironic detachment, or comic amusement, the internal politics of Jewish life.” But not long after, following negative criticism from some Jewish sources of Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth returned to his own sense of injury. Citing a number of his Jewish critics, he singled out as his main antagonist not one of those reviewers whose objections to the book were in large part aesthetic, but Marie Syrkin, the Zionist leader and spokesman, who in a letter to the editor of COMMENTARY wrote that she objected to the book on moral grounds. Once again, the Jewish novelist conjured up organized Jewry as incapable of appreciating the idiom of imaginative art.

The latest and most developed version of this archetypal confrontation has been transmuted into fiction in Roth’s new novel, The Ghost Writer.3 Nathan Zuckerman, in this portrait of the artist as a young Jew, moves from the parochialism of his father’s house to the loftier constraints of the Palace of Art. Most of the book concerns the pursuit of a new spiritual father, a syncretic figure of the American Jewish writer who serves young Zuckerman as the complex model of True Master. Yet in order to see where the young artist is going, we have also to appreciate what he has overcome. Here, given due prominence, is that standard caricature of Philip Roth’s satiric repertoire, the “prominent Jew,” or the Jewish Yahoo. This role is assigned to Judge Leopold Wapter, “after the Jewish mayor and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, perhaps the city’s most admired Jew.” The attentive reader can find in Judge Wapter’s coarse advice to the young artist a compendium of all the quoted letters in the essays referred to above: “What in your character makes you associate so much of life’s ugliness with Jewish people?” or “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your short story that would not warm the heart of a Julius Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?”

Wapter is the negative image of Lonoff, the artist. On one side the prominent Jew, with his concern for public image, his reflex of paranoia that has by now lost its authenticity, his cheap appeal to loyalty at the expense of truth, and his pretentious, cloying prose; opposite him, the majestic figure of Lonoff, the solitary Jewish artist, no less heroic, but only more human for the ironic perspective in which his admiring disciple presents him.

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In drawing attention to Roth’s recurring preoccupation with “writing about Jews,” I am not offering an analysis of his latest novel, or of his considerable achievement as a writer. As it happens, like most Jews of my generation, I place an inordinately high value on this achievement (in my case, especially on Portnoy’s Complaint). But it is precisely this widespread overestimation of Roth’s work that so seriously calls into question his cultural portrait of the Jews. A majority of Roth’s Jewish readers are now, and have been from the beginning, as properly educated in Western culture as he, if not at the University of Chicago, then at some lesser institution with analogous courses in literature and art. They may not have become writers or even good readers, but they have learned enough about biographical fallacy, ambiguity, distance, and the difference between life and art to avoid any such gaucheries or “parochial judgments” as Roth delights in quoting. What is more, they have undoubtedly showered the author with adulatory letters in far greater numbers than those “uncultivated” Jews he is still battling after decades of recognition.

Far from being at odds with his Jewish readers, Philip Roth has served most of them as the very embodiment of their attitudes and values. He has been, as Irving Howe observed at the outset of his career, always perilously close to the surface realities he describes, imaginatively yoked to the Jewish middle class out of which he emerged. If their idea of a “real Jew” is a Hasid with fur hat and earlocks, so is his. If their picture-postcard image of Israel shows a Sabra with ready gun and bed, so does his. And if their idea of the slaughter of European Jewry finds its comforting symbolic rest in Anne Frank, so too does his. Roth has expressed for his generation of American Jews their lingering resentment of Jewish constraints, their shopworn images of Jewish identity, and their attendant idealization of Western civilization in which creativity figures as the highest good. It is only to achieve a sense of separation from a world view that is essentially his, and to suggest the idea of the artist as rebel, that Roth keeps alive the notion of a repressive “official” Jewry from whom the artist must liberate himself and whose limitations he must transcend. When Roth complained in a recent interview that people don’t read him as attentively as they once did, I wonder whether he wasn’t really complaining that certain Jews don’t misread him as attentively as they once did, thus affording him the chance to champion literature against them anew.

Roth is the ablest but by no means the only exponent of this image of a vulgar and repressive Jewish constituency. In a recent talk, derivatively entitled “Writing About Jews,” the Canadian Jewish writer, Mordecai Richler, mounted the familiar complaints about Jews who “confuse their writers with publicists” and whose attitude toward art is the same as that of the Soviet Union! The Jewish community, he said without a flicker of irony, “suffers from an inability to make moral distinctions.” Comparing his task to that of Balzac, Dickens, and Faulkner, “who could create the Snopeses without being considered anti-American,” Richler defended the artist as one compelled to be an honest witness to his times. This talk marked a local Canadian opening of Jewish Book Month, established in 1941, as the audience was reminded, “as a countermeasure to the Nazi destruction of Jewish culture,” and “to revive the traditional zeal for Jewish learning.” The invitation extended to Richler on this occasion, and the hundreds of paying listeners, some of whom had literally pounded open the door to be allowed standing room in the aisles, bear witness to the very opposite of what he was contending. The community has undoubtedly erred in its assessment and expectations of Jewish writers, but in an excess of adulation, and with inflated expectations of what literature is likely to offer.

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For the Jewish reader, Roth’s concluding remarks in “Writing About Jews” yield a final point of interest. When he asks who is going to address men and women like men and women, and who like children; when he says there are Jews “who find the stories the novelists tell more provocative and pertinent than the sermons of some of the rabbis,” he is setting up a dichotomy as false as it is momentarily persuasive. In the author’s ingenious formulation, Jews are actually being invited to discriminate not between good and bad writers or between good and bad rabbis, but between bad rabbis and (by implication) good writers. That the author thereby gains for himself an unmerited advantage is less than half the problem. Of greater concern is the implied distortion of Judaism in being thus contrasted with Art.

In Roth’s fiction and thought there is an axiomatic relation between Judaism and childishness, as there is between literature and maturity. The rabbi or Jewish spokesman is intellectually limited and correspondingly pompous since he has to compensate by exaggerated shows of authority for what he lacks in essential credibility. The Sunday school student, Ozzie Freedman, in Roth’s early story, “The Conversion of the Jews,” who reduces the rabbi to cringing obeisance, remains the author’s image of the proper relation between the maturing child and his tradition. In this, too, Roth shares with most of his Jewish contemporaries an attitude born of experience: Judaism is the stuff of Hebrew school, moral pap administered by faltering authorities; literature, on the other hand, is the epitome of civilization, an “expansion of moral consciousness . . . of considerable value to man and society.”

While Philip Roth has rebuked his misreaders for not knowing how to distinguish between Jewish adultery and the adultery of a Jewish character, there is every indication that he himself has never distinguished between Judaism and his own childish perception of it. Roth accuses his misreaders of focusing on his “anti-Semitism” while overlooking the warmth of his affection. But in concentrating on his detractors, it is he who falsely victimizes himself, ignoring the enthusiastic embrace of his readers and the degree to which they share his values. Roth has exposed the hyper-ambition of American Jews, their eagerness to cover the traces of their poverty with ostentatious shows of wealth. He is part of that movement. His disdain for his “primitive” cultural origins bears an unmistakable resemblance to their rejection of shabbiness. But whereas poverty may indeed be better left behind, Judaism is not. In that respect, the Jewish writer’s move to literary refinement, which he interprets as an ascending rather than a lateral exchange of priorities, is not so benign as the material climb he mocks.

That Jewish readers did not initially object to Roth’s infantilization of Judaism (or to the Christological Judaism of Bernard Malamud) may be due to the very humble expectations of the Jewish reader of English fiction. To come upon the American Jewish writers of the 1950′s, as educated readers often did, after a diet of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Henry Adams and Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and even Faulkner, was to be so grateful for Jewish characters who assumed recognizable human and occasionally even attractive form that to ask for more would have been inconceivable, as if Oliver had demanded better cuisine. Here at least were writers who represented Jews not as the corrupters of Western society or as exotic greenhorns, but as an intrinsic part of American life, making their own intricate adjustment to its complexities.

The relief in having recognizably good Jewish writers taking on the stuff of Jewish experience was especially great since the anti-Jewishness of American literature had by no means been confined to its Gentile practitioners. A particularly virulent strain of anti-Semitism was current among those artists and writers, many Jews among them, for whom Marxism had become, if not the touchstone of values, then certainly the language in which values were weighed. In this language, Judaism was at worst exploitative, at best irrelevant. Jewish writers in this sphere of influence often consciously avoided Jewish heroes and turned even minor characters into cultural neuters in order to avoid the parochial associations a “Jewish character” would introduce. In the Soviet Union, the reduction of ethnicity was part of dictated and controlled literary policy. In America, it was largely an “artistic” decision at a time when anti-Semitism was a powerful ideological component of both the Right and the Left.

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Readers have long since caught and identified the slurs against them of non-Jewish writers, but the subtler effect of Marxist anti-Semitism, which far outlasted the direct Communist influence, has never been fully identified. This, in part, is what Meyer Levin angrily documents in his book, Obsession, which accuses Lillian Hellman and others of de-Judaizing The Diary of Anne Frank. Unfortunately, Levin’s attack is so personalized that its general observations are lost in the author’s plea for attention to his own problem. But the literary techniques developed during this period for undoing the Jews are still worth identifying, and they still rankle.

A perfect instance of this kind of anti-Jewishness is Arthur Miller’s novel, Focus, originally published in 1945 and recently reissued as part of Miller’s collected works.4 Since the book is ostensibly an attack on racial prejudice, it does not draw attention to its own tendency in the same direction. Miller’s novel shows how the truly “deracinated” Jewish artist and intellectual may repudiate the Jew even while he is pretending to defend him.

Focus is the story of Lawrence Newman, an ordinary white Protestant minor executive, whose short-sightedness one day necessitates the adoption of eyeglasses, and whose eyeglasses make him look like a Jew. As a consequence of this wholly accidental identification, Newman is forced into the fate of the Jew, and exposed to increasingly violent confrontations with anti-Semites. At first he tries to prove his “innocence,” even joining the anti-Semites so as to dissociate himself from his imposed identity. But when these tactics fail, Newman is finally goaded into accepting the identification, feeling “as though he were setting down a weight which for some reason he had been carrying and carrying.”

The plot device obviously antedates the introduction of contact lenses. It is no more or less clumsy than that used in Laura Hobson’s contemporaneous novel, Gentleman’s Agreement, in which a reporter becomes a Jew to write an exposé of anti-Semitism. While Miller’s hero is the more existentially anxious, because he does not volunteer for the role, the thematic point of both books is identical. What makes the Jew defensible is not the legitimacy of Judaism, the normalcy of Jewish national survival, or any other intrinsic value, but that undifferentiated essence which comes of having been accidentally born with a certain physiognomy and paternity, as external as eyeglasses and about as meaningful in shaping identity. At no time in either book is it ever suggested that a meaningful Jewishness—whether religious, Zionist, ethnic, or any other kind—exists or deserves to exist.

It may be argued that the device chosen by the novelists is the most appropriate for the task they set themselves, namely, the exposure of anti-Semitism to a public that might not understand the internal niceties of Judaism but would be persuaded of the individual’s right to live freely in America. If so, it is also clear that the authors were offering the only defense with which they themselves were comfortable. This is particularly clear in Focus, which includes as part of its defense of the Jew an exceptionally nasty bit of apologetics.

The only real Jew in Miller’s novel is a candy-store owner named Finkelstein who is one of several foils in the hero’s evolution from passive anti-Semite to symbolic “Jew.” Since the whole book is written from the perspective of the Gentile, Newman, the reader is startled when the author interrupts this narrative to follow Finkelstein on a chapter-long trip to the cemetery, a visit to his father’s grave on an impulse Finkelstein himself does not understand.

Miller uses the contrived cemetery trip for one purpose only—to introduce an archetypal story, “the one story his father had been able to tell time after time . . . without changing it.” It is a familiar enough story of a Polish baron, a peasant uprising against him after bloody provocation, and a Jewish peddler, Itzik, whom the baron sends in to fleece his ignorant tenants, making him the convenient scapegoat for their wrath. Having forced this story into his novel, Miller then forces upon it a “meaning” which, since the author is still prominent in our midst, is worth quoting in full:

The meaning, he saw again as he rode the trolley through Bushwick, was that this Itzik should never have allowed himself to accept a role that was not his, a role that the baron had created for him. When he saw that the baron was bent on diverting the peasants’ wrath from himself, he should have allowed his indignation to carry him away and gotten on his wagon and driven directly home. And when the pogrom came, as it would have no matter what he did, he could have found the strength to fight. It was the pogrom that was inevitable, but not its outcome. Its outcome only seemed inevitable because that money was in his house as the horses’ hoofs came pounding into the village. That money in his house had weakened him, it was the blindfold they had put upon his face and he had no right to let them put it on him. Without that blindfold he would have been ready to fight; with it he was only ready to die.

Finkelstein thereupon comforts himself. Since he has no filthy lucre in his own house, he will have the moral energy to resist.

Thus an American Jew, writing in 1945, as European Jews had just undergone their final pogrom, understands the meaning of Jewish history: the trouble is that the Jews failed to resist their social role. Either Miller did not know, which makes him culpably ignorant, or he pretended not to know, which makes him viciously cynical, that Jews in feudal Poland did not choose their economic functions with quite the same ease as they do in America. For him the presence of anti-Semitism implies Jewish guilt. Jewish guilt derives from the Jewish sin of exploitation. The theorems of Marxist anti-Semitism have found no more classic expression than this.

Here, then, is Miller’s defense of the American Jew: first, he is undifferentiated; second, he has finally shed his dishonest role of middleman. This book may indeed have combated anti-Semitism—by proving to anti-Semites that there was nothing left for them to do.

In monitoring their “reviews,” Jewish readers have not always been as sensitive to insult as they are made out to be and as they should have been. Sharing to the degree that they do the accepted ideas of their time, they sometimes even fail to sense what is really being said about them and about the tradition to which some of them still adhere. The inability or reluctance of Jews properly to understand literature—the moral lesson of Philip Roth’s essay—may be demonstrated just as persuasively by what Jews have failed to protest as by the examples of protest that petulant authors cite. It may be the educated and sophisticated Jews, twittering nervously about the sanctity of art, who more seriously subvert the literary enterprise—as in their recent rush to boost the reputation of so vulgar an item as Joseph Heller’s Good as Gold.

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All this still leaves open the question with which I began. If Jews are ever on the hunt for their reflection in print, it is not only out of fear of the bad news, but with hopeful expectations of the good as well. The phenomenon of postwar American Jewish authors writing openly and often brilliantly about Jews raised among Jewish readers a slow but steady wave of anticipation. What is it in the works of Jewish writers that we hope to find?

One tends to forget, given the subsequent cataclysms of Jewish life, with what suddenness the modern age descended on European Jewry, and with what consequent impact. The greatest victim of change was the old authority: the teachings of the rabbis, the heads of yeshivahs, and the saintly scholars could have little relevance to young Jews catching their first breathtaking glimpse of emancipation and the cornucopia of Western achievement. Jewish civic leaders, usually merchants with somewhat higher than average status, could do little to mitigate the impoverishing effect of Czarist edicts, or stem the outward flow of population, or impose the necessary discipline on a disintegrating community. Yet the need for new guidelines was as relentless as the rejection of the old. And since Jewish authority had always emerged from texts, it was natural for Jews to seek new authority in the same form. The dominant image of the Jewish transition to modernity may well be the small book of philosophy, natural science, or literature, concealed by a yeshivah student inside the large and sturdy Talmud folio that he would soon abandon.

I believe it was the Yiddish critic, Shmuel Niger, who said that by the end of the 19th century the Jewish reader had begun to seek in the bukh, the secular book, what he had formerly found in the sefer, the text of tradition. Niger made the observation in a discussion of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature, which had begun to serve the evolving Jewish community as a substitute for its previous sources of instruction, inspiration, and creative amusement. Despite the great differences between the cohesive society Niger was describing and the Jews of contemporary America, something of his observation remains true. The contemporary Jewish reader is still looking for a synthesis between a culture he is supposed to have inherited and the one of which he forms a part. Though the American Jewish writer rarely treats the art of literature as a Jewish pursuit, some of his Jewish readers are trying to find in him the continuity in an interrupted chain of transmission.

When this Jewish reader turns to a Jewish writer, particularly to one who has chosen a “Jewish” subject for whatever creative purpose of his own, he is looking not merely for the expansion of consciousness and all the other good things that good books provide, but for a milestone in his own quest for identity. Often unfamiliar with the classic Jewish texts, he hopes the secular book will help to compensate for what is missing. How else explain the earnest Book Review Series of synagogue sisterhoods and men’s clubs, the home-study groups where Malamud and Roth and Bellow are standard texts? Even the courses on American Jewish fiction introduced at many colleges and universities are part of the same search for a new Jewish culture, what Cynthia Ozick has called a new Jewish language. The dream is that art, on which Western civilization places such value, will define a new Jewish national posture, refashion a mythology, forge new links between the inherited teachings and the amorphous claims of the present. In their cultural hunger and their mistaken notion that he will provide it, Jewish readers have helped to make the American Jewish writer the envy of his non-Jewish peers.

Unfortunately for these readers, Jewish writers in English have rarely shared this vision. Among the few who did, the most successful was A.M. Klein, the Canadian Jewish poet who placed himself in a North American literary context, but whom national convention has consigned to the narrower Canadian berth. Klein’s lifelong enterprise was to amalgamate the two cultures in which he was raised in order to pioneer a distinctively Anglo-Jewish or Judeo-English style.

Klein had the advantage of being a well educated Jew, familiar with Jewish classical sources and with modern Yiddish and Hebrew writing. He was also a well-educated English poet, one of the “Montreal Group” of the late 1920′s that included the poet, A.J.M. Smith, and the future literary biographer, Leon Edel, who together helped spur the development of a Canadian modernism. Although he never completed what was to have been a definitive study of Ulysses, Klein was a recognized authority on James Joyce, a writer whom he studied “like the Talmud” and for whom he felt a complex set of cultural affinities.5

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In attempting to conjoin his literary traditions, Klein wrote not only about Jews, but for Jews. He did not dilute his contextual vocabulary, assuming on the part of his readers a Jewish education at least equal to his own. Unlike his fellow native Montrealer, Saul Bellow, in whose work Yiddish phrases and Jewish references are usually accompanied by courteous explanations for the non-initiated, Klein wrote a richly-veined Jewish English with no internal glossary. “You are right when you say that my book presupposes on the part of the reader a knowledge of the Hebrew tradition,” he wrote to a friendly critic on the publication of his volume of poems, Hath Not a Jew. “Apart from, being written because I wished to write it, the book is addressed precisely to those who have that knowledge or those who may acquire it.”

It is clear from Klein’s writing that the Jew and the artist were not easily accommodated within the same framework. He expends great energy trying to remain true to both axes of his identity. To succeed he must incorporate two critical perspectives. Of the poet, Karl Shapiro, for example, he praises the poetry while deploring his negative images of the Jew. He reviews Ezra Pound in a malicious Canto of his own which uses the poet’s own style to damn him:

USURA: that his offense
that he sought to extract an exorbitant interest
                     from a limited talent.

At the same time, Klein would not lower his aesthetic standards to accommodate a facile nationalism, or to praise a book merely because its ideas were good. He knew that a national character would never emerge in a literature through a programmatic act of will, but only through the force of character and personality of its writers, “and for this . . . it is necessary only that they possess talent.”

Klein’s own considerable talent resulted in a small but fine body of poetry and a novel, The Second Scroll6 that are as close as modern Jewish readers have come to an English-language high culture addressed directly to their collective imagination. His trademark is wit, the sign of his semi-ironic effort in yoking together two such disparate worlds. Sometimes the wit is gentle, as in his “Psalter of Avram Haktani,” a wonderfully varied series of lyrics in which Abraham Klein draws attention to his diminution in the Hebrew equivalent of his patronym, Haktani, while grandly linking his proper name to the first of the Patriarchs, and his medium to the biblical canon. At other times, Klein ‘s wit is fierce: in the Hitleriad of 1944 Klein heils his heavenly muse in a mock epic that throbs with deadly rage. As one who shared the national passion of the Jews, Klein did not select his topics for their artistic possibilities alone, or wait for the proper cooling distance to separate him from the slaughter of his people. The Hitleriad and other poems of World War II bear the marks of incontinent frustration.

As might be expected of a writer whose imagination has its roots in Jewish experience, Klein’s writing was filled with longing for the East. The Second Scroll, a novel which grew out of Klein’s own postwar mission to Casablanca and Israel, tells of a young Jew’s search for his uncle, Melech Davidson (king, son of David), whom he pursues through the ruins of Europe, the ghettos of North Africa, and the settlements of Israel, catching signs of him everywhere, but seeing him never. This messianic work required of Klein the simultaneous creation of a new diction, and a new vision of contemporary Jewry. In comparing this book with a similar later work, Arthur A. Cohen’s In the Days of Simon Stern, one can note many differences of sensibility and style, but none more striking than this: whereas Cohen’s emphasis is on Jewish survival, Klein’s is on Jewish glory, on the formal and spiritual brilliance of Judaism, and on its reconstituted dream in Zion.

Whatever our assessment of Klein’s artistic merit (possibly inflated in Canada and under-appreciated elsewhere), he is an interesting challenge to Jewish readers who think they want a high Judeo-English culture of their own. Klein places the reader at the point of intersection between two strong currents, inviting him to enjoy the intermingled best of both worlds. But those who are not thoroughly rooted in both the English and Jewish literary traditions will either lose their footing and feel foolishly exposed, or resent the labor required for the degree of pleasure received. Even the ideal reader may find himself focusing on the strain of the author’s attempt, which, like the throbbing muscles of a weightlifter, often detracts from the grace of the finished act.

At the other end of the literary spectrum, where readers are offered easy access to everything, there have emerged in the past few years a number of writers who also bring the gritty substance of Judaism into the accepted conventions of popular literature. There is, for example, Harry Kemelman’s amiable detective, Rabbi David Small, whose Jewish credentials are among the most authentic in modern fiction. As his name suggests, Rabbi Small resists the inflation of obvious heroism, and instead projects the steady, disciplined intelligence of Jewish legal analysis. Conservative by temperament, as are all the best detectives of the genre, this Jewish mystery-solver relies on the discriminating procedures of his own traditions, first to resist his own congregation’s flirtation with various trendy “improvements,” and second to protect the innocent by uncovering the guilty. Kemelman’s failings are merely artistic. Even by the standards of the mystery novel, the hero is too formulaically stilted, the plots somewhat forced, the motivations hollow. Though the books may reinforce a positive cultural stereotype, they do not work the mystery of literature, which is to capture the soul’s assent.

The same is true for the fiction of Chaim Potok, who is a fine 19th-century American Jewish novelist. In form and in content, Potok’s novels derive from a much earlier period, when Jews were still firm in their ways, and the novel still grounded in its understanding of man in society. Potok’s heroes emerge from the enveloping certainties of Judaism into the modern era with the freshness of villagers entering industrial towns, and with about the same degree of contemporaneity. Their conflicts between Orthodox religious practice and such modern infractions as social science, modern biblical criticism, and secular art allow for meaty dramatic confrontations with a high level of Jewish content, but for Potok’s readers, such conflicts are the stuff of nostalgia. Part of the reader’s facile pleasure in reading about Orthodox heroes who become moderns is knowing that he himself has long since moved in the right direction.

In the making of a Jewish literary culture it is not enough that writers portray an authentic Judaism. When art is the category of transmission, its authenticity must first be assured.

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In looking to writers, perhaps the one thing Jewish readers want most is a champion. Even if Jews were not so buffeted by world events, and even if they were less sensitive to attack, they would still, as a normal national group, have need of good spokesmen to defend their honor, to interpret their vision of justice, to fight for their interest and right. Expressing the dignity of one’s people has been one of the time-honored roles of the poet, especially in times of national sorrow and fear. It is not a role that many American Jewish writers have ever thought to assume.

All the more remarkable, then, was the appearance a few years ago of Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back. For years Saul Bellow has patiently tried to place himself in the unhyphenated tradition of American and English writing. He has good-naturedly tried to pry himself loose from what he has called the “Hart, Schaffner, and Marx” approach of Jewish readers to Jewish writers and to emphasize his literary indebtedness to Joyce, Dostoevsky, and the American masters. His artistic undertaking has been not at all the same as A. M. Klein’s. Far from attempting to “amalgamate” two cultures, as Klein did, Bellow moved bodily into Western literature, bringing with him, as any wise immigrant would, every shred of his own possessions in order to make himself thoroughly at home in his new surroundings. In doing so, he eventually transformed, or at least affected, the literature he entered, but that is simply the consequence of his talent. Bellow’s novels are preoccupied with Western civilization, in general and America in particular; nowhere are they addressed to any particular concern of the Jews.

To Jerusalem and Back moves out of the author’s usual sphere, which is fiction. This is a memoir, a “personal account” of his visit to Israel in 1976 and his subsequent ruminations about that visit. It is an exceptionally eloquent book, reminiscent of Zola’s “J’accuse” in its moral passion, vividly alert to detail and nuance. Bellow presents himself as his own character—a novelist who would rather be writing novels were it not for the sense of urgency he feels. As a famous writer, he was invited to visit Israel, and went. Once there, he is faced with an obvious anxiety: “On this speck of land—an infinitesimal fraction of the surrounding territories—a troubled people has come to rest, but rest is impossible.” The anxiety becomes the author’s own. He gathers and sifts all the information he can, bringing to the task as high a degree of intelligence and courage as it has ever received. When he returns to Chicago, he brings all this back with him and tries to put it all together. “But this subject resists clarification.” No prescriptive suggestions are offered, and as in Bellow’s novels, no resolutions are proposed. Only the sustaining moral strength of the author’s judgments defies despair.

Bellow’s rich sense of life is always embedded in details of character and observation. Here the dignity of Israel is similarly confirmed in snatches of conversation, glimpses of family life, fragments of literature, ordinary decencies of life that are only extraordinary because of the evil and pain among which they manage to persist. One of Bellow’s great subjects has been “the difficulty (the impossibility, rather) of screening out the great noise of modern life.” What has been for him an artistic problem becomes in Israel a struggle between “politics and peace.” Reluctantly, he has entered the great noise of politics because he thinks Israel deserving of peace.

This memoir marks one of the few occasions when the American Jewish writer has shared the preoccupations of ordinary Jews. Until recently, nothing so critically pointed up the chasm between Jewish readers and most of “their” writers as this unshared passion for Israel—on the one hand, a community uncommonly united in concern and deed, on the other, an uncommon indifference. Bellow’s book, though late in coming, suggests that Jews may have had good reason to look hopefully in the direction of their good writers. No publicist could have written with such skill, no professional Jew with the same artistic authority, the same ability to persuade, if mankind were only open to persuasion.

Yet when all is said and done, the book is one of a kind, in quantity as in quality. Saul Bellow remains a novelist who will return to the world of fiction to its eternal advantage. Fiction will continue to set its own conditions of identification and moral relativism which derive, as Philip Roth correctly implies, not from the civilization and religious structure of the Jews, but from the conventions and requirements of literature. Jews may seek their champion, but when they themselves appear in fiction, they will be shaped in the author’s image, not their own. And the writer is rarely a custodian of Judaism, rarer still a defender of the Jews.

_____________

 

To expect from American Jewish literature a new cultural tradition is to look for clay and mortar in Newcastle, for coal in Pharoah’s Egypt, for the right thing in the wrong place, and in the right place for the wrong thing. Those earlier generations who were the direct products of a traditional Judaism might have found cultural continuity in literature because both writers and readers brought the tradition into literature with them. Modern Jewish readers, bringing nothing to literature but what they hope to discover in it, will find at best only a reflection of their needs.

The ideal of an American Jewish literary culture is not likely to be realized. The truth is, William Styron may have more interesting things to say about victimization these days than Bernard Malamud, and Joan Didion is certainly closer to the Jewish moral imagination than Erica Jong.7 The legitimate hunger of Jews for inspired direction, a hunger they share with modern men and women of every group, has sought its satisfaction in what they considered the likeliest source—in the writings of their fellow Jews. The search itself is not parochial, only the place of its launching. Writers of fiction, however great the hope we may invest in them, cannot replace the rabbis, however small the confidence we may place in them.


Footnotes

1 COMMENTARY, December 1963.

2 Several of these essays were collected in Reading Myself and Others, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975.

3 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979. See also the review by Pearl K. Bell, COMMENTARY, December 1979.

4 Penguin Books, 1978.

5 A biographical study of A. M. Klein by Usher Caplan is soon to be published in Canada.

6 Knopf, 1951.

7 Styron's literary treatment of the Holocaust in Sophie's Choice may actually have been intended as a challenge to the Jewish “appropriation” of Auschwitz, as Alvin Rosenfeld argues in an essay, “The Holocaust According to William Styron,” Midstream, December 1979. I am not suggesting that either Styron or Joan Didion is a substitute Jewish writer, merely that the apparent distinctions in American literature between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish” subjects and issues may be increasingly insubstantial.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).




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