Commentary Magazine

Fiedler on the Roof, by Leslie Fiedler

Dead End

Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity.
by Leslie Fiedler.
David R. Godine. 161 pp. $19.95.

Many readers may be put off, as I was, by the grating pun of the title, but a certain cultivated vulgarity is both an essential part of Leslie Fiedler’s design and a necessary consequence of the contradictory role as Jewish writer that he assumes. Fiedler on the Roof is a collection of the author’s essays and book reviews since 1970 on more or less Jewish topics. These include: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the Book of Job, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud (probably the best in the collection), and Jewish consciousness in Joyce’s Ulysses. This miscellany does not constitute a volume with a sustained argument, and some of the individual pieces are rather slight, anecdotal, and episodic in their articulation. The essays abound in brief autobiographical revelations, and the real justification for the volume is that it spells out the author’s Jewish credo, or non-credo. As such, Fiedler on the Roof, despite its verve, despite its occasional flashes of probing insight, is a very sad book.

Fiedler, now in his seventies, made his real mark as a critic with two books on American literature published in 1960, Love and Death in the American Novel and No! In Thunder, a volume of essays. In both he showed a flair for drawing bold mythic patterns in literature, sometimes with a casualness about matters of detail but always in ways bound to provoke thought. The years immediately following witnessed the great vogue of Jewish writing in American fiction, and though Fiedler in the transition from his early Stalinism to myth criticism had made nothing of his Jewish origins, he now became one of the liveliest expositors of the new Jewish writing. Looking back on all this two decades later, he sees the Jewish literary awakening as a transient moment, perhaps the only one in which he could find some cultural expression as a Jew, and he speaks of it in a bleakly elegiac tone: “I have long since decided that the Jewish-American novel is over and done with, a part of history rather than a living literature.” Writers like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth may continue to publish fiction, but “their most recent books have come to seem not merely irrelevant but posthumous.”

Although I would agree that the importance of the 60’s writers was blown out of proportion, and that, as Fiedler acutely contends, much of the purportedly Jewish fiction was built on a matrix of Christian archetypes (I argued both positions in these pages at the time), the grimness of Fiedler’s judgment reflects the dead-endedness of his own stance as a Jew. That stance is founded on two absolutely contradictory elements: a flaunting of Jewish ethnic style and Jewish historical memory (however selective) and a firm commitment to total assimilation. It is, I think, the display of Jewishness without a vestige of Judaism or Jewish national consciousness that leads Fiedler to play the role of the Jewish buffoon, the “aging Jewish comedian,” as he puts it, and to claim rather extravagantly that he can assume the voice of Leopold Bloom, “the eternal amateur, the self-appointed prophet, the harassed Jew, the comic father” as his “own authentic voice.” He is shrewd enough to perceive the contradiction—might it even be bad faith?—in this assumed persona, as when he glosses the title of his book: “I have shamelessly played the role in which I have been cast, becoming a literary Fiedler on the roof of academe.”

Chagall’s fiddler, turned by Broadway into the presiding spirit over the world of Sholem Aleichem, danced on the roofs of real Jewish habitations. Fiedler floats over a ghost house compacted of fragmentary memories, vestigial ethnic gestures, and mythic plots in which Jews figure. He announces at the end with a kind of melancholy pride that neither he nor any of his eight children has a Jewish spouse, and goes on to identify himself as

not just as I have long known, a minimal Jew—my Judaism nearly nonexistent—but, as I have only recently become aware, a terminal one as well, the last of a four-thousand-year line. Yet whatever regrets I may feel, I cannot deny that I have wanted this, worked for it

To this declaration of assimilationist principle he adds the disturbing observation that his aim is unlike that of the Nazis because he seeks

to memorialize in honor the last choice of the Chosen People: their decision to cease to exist in their chosenness for the sake of a united mankind. Still in all, it cannot be denied that the future we have dreamed is, like that foreseen for the “Thousand-year Reign,” Judenrein.

This is, I suppose, an honorable effort on Fiedler’s part to be painfully honest about the ambiguity of his own position, but it is also woefully anachronistic. There are, to be sure, plenty of Jews who are fading into the landscape through intermarriage and sheer indifference, but the notion of an idealistic aspiration to Jewish self-abolition sounds as though it should have been written in San Francisco in 1935 or in Berlin in 1835, not here and now. What other peoples have declared their readiness to disappear “for the sake of a united mankind,” and how many Jews still think in those self-deluded terms? Fiedler seems entirely out of touch with all the developments—cultural, national, religious—of self-affirmation and self-discovery that have marked Jewish life in this latter part of the 20th century. Indeed, the whole modern period, from the late 18th century onward, has been a theater for what Benjamin Harshav, in his remarkable book, The Meaning of Yiddish, has called the Jewish Revolution, through which Jews have variously sought to redefine their historical location and identity as Jews and take up a new active role in history. Zionism, with all its problems, remains the most successful of these revolutionary movements, but Fiedler has no imaginative vocabulary for even thinking about Zionism or any other attempt by Jews to project their flesh-and-blood existence forward in real historical time.

For him, the Jews are a dead people, their writers prematurely “posthumous”—a fit subject only for memorialization, or alternately, a breeding ground in the critic’s fertile imagination for wraithlike archetypes that play their part in a myth. A story Fiedler tells of his experience in liberated China at the end of World War II vividly exposes the tenuous link with history of his mythic thinking about Jews, even as he focuses on concrete historical events. Assigned to interrogate Japanese prisoners (the army had trained him in Japanese), he felt a wave of guilty consciousness: “I seemed to myself more like an SS interrogator than a Jew-boy from Newark, trapped in a war in which he did not believe.” His lack of belief in a war that one would have thought men of conscience could have readily supported was a consequence of his youthful Marxist orthodoxy. But his peculiar perception of the vanquished Japanese aggressors flowed from his mythic recasting of the idea of the Jews, via Isaiah 50:

I encountered them only as victims: and as victims, all men, I came then to believe, are the suffering servants through whose stripes their victimizers are healed—are, in the mythological sense, Jews.

This is, of course, a Christian typological reading of the text in Deutero-Isaiah that is fed back into a drastically schematic definition of Jewish history as an eternally reenacted myth of noble victim-hood. It deprives not only the Jews but also in this case the Japanese of the specific complexity of their historical existence. It is but a protester’s stone’s throw from the propagandistic reversal of archetypes by which the Palestinians become Jews, “in the mythological sense.”

One especially revelatory slip among numerous imprécisions in these essays is Fiedler’s representation of the Yiddish term for Holy Tongue as lashon-ha-kaddish instead of loshn-koydesh. He confuses, that is, the prayer for the dead with the word that means holiness—not surprisingly, since the particular roof on which he has chosen to fiddle covers only a vast historical burying ground. What he lacks above all is any concrete sense of how Jews living in varied circumstances might have produced, might actually still be producing, vital values—at first, largely sacred, but in modern times, secular as well.

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