Commentary Magazine

Sentimentalizing the Jews

Beginning with this issue, ROBERT ALTER joins MILTON HIMMELFARB in conducting this department. Mr. Alter's articles will appear four times a year—in March, June, September, and December. Mr. Himmelfarb's articles will also appear four times a year—in January, April, July, and October. Mr. Alter (who holds degrees from Columbia, Harvard, and the Jewish Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of English at Columbia and the author of Rogue's Progress.

The Peculiar cultural phenomenon which some choose to call an American Jewish literary renaissance is by now showing signs of having overstayed its critical welcome: one begins to suspect that too much has been made of what may not have been such a significant or valid development in the first place. There is no question that a great many writers now active in America are of Jewish descent. This hardly justifies, however, those critics, readers, publishers, members of the organized Jewish community, and a few of the writers themselves, who all insist on the Jewish' character of this literary activity in order to weight both its contemporary and traditional implications.

It ought to be self-evident, first of all, that a literary renaissance can take place only where there is a general cultural milieu alive enough to nourish an original, distinctive literature. A case in point is the extraordinary flowering of Hebrew poetry in Spain from the 11th to the 14th centuries—a movement which has been seized on by some overly optimistic Jewish observers as an analogy for contemporary Jewish writing in this country. But a genius like Shmuel Hanagid, the poet-vizier of 11th-century Granada, transcended his Arabic models in his contemplative personal lyrics and in his great battle poems not because of some mysterious Jewish “sensibility,” but because his imagination could draw freely and variously on a living literary tradition that ran from Genesis to the Responsa. A necessary precondition for the literary renaissance created by Hanagid and his successors was a deeply rooted autonomous Jewish culture which could supply these sources of significant innovation from within the larger context of Arabic secular culture.

By contrast, the so-called renaissance of American Jewish literature has come into being out of what is, from the Jewish point of view, almost a complete cultural vacuum. Given the general state of Jewish culture in America, it is quite understandable that nearly all the American Jews who have become writers are just like other Americans, if not even more so. The typical involvement in Jewish culture consists of an acquaintance with gefilte fish and crass bar-mitzvahs, a degree of familiarity with overstuffed Jewish matriarchs, and a mastery of several pungent Yiddish synonyms for the male organ. With such a cultural heritage at his command, the American Jewish writer is vaguely expected to produce imaginative work rich in Jewish moral insights, alive with Jewish fantasy, humor, and pathos, in a prose whose varied textures will reproduce the exciting differentness of “marginal” experience.

One of the stories in Roar Lion Roar,1 a first volume of fiction by Irvin Faust, includes a delightful incident that can be taken as a paradigm for the predicament of many American Jewish writers, especially the younger ones who have begun to publish recently. Myron Leberfeld, the teen-age protagonist of “Miss Dorothy Thompson's American Eaglet,” has ventured forth from his native Brooklyn, impelled by wartime patriotism, to work on a Vermont farm. There he is confronted—for in such a setting, nothing less than a confrontation could be expected—by the inevitable farmer's daughter, who is, of course, a piece of quintessential America: backwoodsy, big-busted, good-natured, and irrevocably naive. Rita Ann, a hospitable girl in any case, is thrilled by the idea of having so exotic a creature as a Jew in her own home. But she inadvertently confounds the newcomer when she turns to him with the request, “Myron, talk Jew to me.” Myron, with a knowledge of “Jew” scarcely larger than Rita Ann's, rummages through his memory and finally seizes on a phrase recalled from a favorite German record of his aunt's: “Ish leeba Dick,” he pronounces mysteriously.

The effect was exhilarating. “Oh,” Rita Ann moaned softly, “say that again.”

“Ish . . . leeba. . . Dick.”

“Oooh. What's it mean?”

This I remembered, at least to a point. “I love you. . . Dick.”

Faust, whose stories are refreshingly free of portentousness, does not mean this encounter to symbolize anything, but the analogy to his generation of American Jewish writers is in some cases painfully close. These younger writers, appearing as they do after the successes of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth in the 50's and especially now after the spectacular popularity of Herzog and the remarkable revival of Call It Sleep, often end up playing the role of a pseudo-exotic Myron opposite the American reading public's gaping Rita Ann. The one quality which seems most to distinguish Jewish writing in this country is its growing self-consciousness about its own Jewishness. Everyone is by now aware of the fact that literary Jewishness has become a distinct commercial asset, and at least Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer have shown that it can be an artistic resource as well. Some of the younger writers thus feel called upon to “talk Jew” in their fiction, but, unlike Myron in the story, they do not seem to realize either their own ignorance or the falseness of their position.

One clear symptom of this general condition are the palpably ersatz touches of Jewish local color that have been appearing with increasing frequency in recent novels and stories—garbled Yiddish, misconstrued folklore, plainly impossible accounts of synagogue services and religious observances. Faust again offers a convenient model in his “Jake Bluffstein and Adolph Hitler.” The story is transparently a conte à thèse about Jewish self-hatred and the Jew's fascination with moral qualities dramatically antithetical to his. This schematic presentation of a complex psychological phenomenon is embarrassingly inept because Jake Bluffstein, as even his name suggests, has been imagined with no more individuality or ethnic authenticity than the stereotyped Jew of a tired anecdote. Jake Bluffstein's thought and speech are flavored, if that is really the right word, with an oddly limited set of Yiddishisms—the usual obscenities, and a few words like shikkah (which Faust seems to think is Yiddish for “drunk”) and tzoris (which is construed as a singular noun). The place of worship Bluffstein frequents is an androgynous sort of affair that is sometimes described as an old-fashioned shul and alternately spoken of as a “temple” with an Americanized rabbi. The entire story was obviously a mistake on Faust's part—he does considerably better with other materials—but it is a mistake which illustrates the compromised position into which many American Jewish writers have worked themselves.

In more general terms, what has happened over the last decade is that a new sentimental literary myth of the Jew has gained what appears to be general acceptance in American fiction and criticism. A sentimental literary myth usually represents the failure of a culture to come to terms
with some vital aspect of its own life; most often, the culture responds to its own inadequacy by projecting its secret fears, its unadmitted desires or illusory fantasies of itself onto a patently unreal image of a figure from another culture. (One has only to recall the image of the South- or East-European slinking through Victorian fiction, dark, sultry, sexually potent and attractive, an embodiment of bold and perhaps unsettling possibilities of freedom.) Such myths are sentimental because they are not live responses to any observable realities but rather sets of contrivances—stock situations, characters, and images—intended to produce certain desired emotions or predetermined states of imagination.


To understand how a sentimental myth about the Jew has been fostered in recent American literature, we have to remind ourselves that the so-called American Jewish writers are—with rare exceptions—culturally American in all important respects and only peripherally or vestigially Jewish. It seems to me that this elementary fact needs a great deal of emphasis. We are accustomed to admiring the marginal man's supposed advantage in perspectives on the disparate worlds he straddles: so many great modern writers have been outsiders, the argument runs, and this has been pre-eminently true of the Jews. But the fact is that the role of the Jew—and especially the intellectual Jew—as an outsider in American life has generally dwindled into an affectation or a stance of pious self-delusion.

Ironically, what most American Jewish writers are outsiders to is that very body of Jewish experience with which other Americans expect them to be completely at home. The result of this reversed situation is a reversal of the critical perspective which is an outsider's proverbial birthright. That is, the American writer of Jewish descent finds himself utilizing Jewish experience of which he is largely ignorant, and so the Jewish skeletons of his characters are fleshed with American fantasies about Jews. The result is a kind of double sentimental myth: the Jew emerges from this fiction as an imaginary creature embodying both what Americans would like to think about Jews and what American Jewish intellectuals would like to think about themselves. From the larger American point of view, the general assent to the myth of the Jew reflects a decay of belief in the traditional American literary heroes—the eternal innocent, the tough guy, the man in quest of some romantic absolute—and a turning to the supposed aliens in our midst for an alternative image of the true American.

Leslie Fiedler has for years been an ideologue of the new sentimental myth; his most recent novel,2 because it illustrates the myth with the engaging clarity of a well-drawn comic strip, marks out most of the important guidelines that both generations of American Jewish writers seem to be using for their literary ideal of the Jew. Baro Finklestone, the hero of Fiedler's novel, is, predictably, an archetypal outsider—a Jew in Montana, an intellectual among the hicks, a square despite himself among hipsters, and so forth. Like all Jews who are allowed to be the protagonists of novels, Finklestone is an inveterate shlemiel, but in his very ineffectually and muddle-headedness, he is also—Fiedler must insist—morally sensitive in a way that others are not. He is not just a well-meaning, perennially protesting liberal; he really cares about other human beings, he carries the world's guilt on his shoulders, and he is driven to a sort of self-immolation in an attempt to expiate that guilt. This last touch, incidentally, introduces the by-now-familiar motif of the Jew as Christ, which itself is a good indication of the degree to which the fantasy-image of the Jew in American fiction is American and Christian in its deepest imaginings.

Finklestone, as a moral preceptor without real disciples, also illustrates one version of the fashionable archetype with diagrammatic neatness in being a father in quixotic search of a son. (Here Leopold Bloom lurks in the background.) Since we no longer like to take our moral preceptors straight, Fiedler supplies his with elaborate camouflage. Finklestone is a compassionate and honest man—in the bed of his best friend's wife; a seeker for the truth—through the agency of mescaline. Like the heroes of many American Jewish novels, he alternates between the role of the zany and that of an updated version of the Hebrew sage, “caught between an impulse to play the clown and a resolve to act the professor.” But one begins to suspect that the former role is intended mainly to make the latter more palatable. I, at any rate, become skeptical when Fiedler writes of his archetypal exiled hero that there is a “trace of something oriental about him which had made him feel always a visible stranger in the ultimate West.” This sounds perilously close to Daniel Deronda, that well-meant but silly Gentile fantasy of the Jew as Mysterious Stranger, a dark, exotic figure from the East who has been through the crucible of suffering and emerged a creature of saintly gentleness, with unguessed inner stores of moral wisdom.


The general formula, in fact, for the Jew as literary herb in this new version of an old sentimental myth is Daniel Deronda with cap-and-bells, Daniel Deronda in the cool world or on the dissident fringes of academia, perhaps flaunting conventional morality, certainly talking and acting bizarrely, but Daniel Deronda nevertheless. Whatever the particular twists, he is a man with a luminous past and a great if desperate dream for the future, his heritage of suffering and survival providing him with a unique adeptness in the ultimate science of knowing how to be.

Earl Rovit's The Player King,3 a first novel published this past spring, could serve as a textbook introduction to this whole literary image o£ the Jew. Rovit is a novelist with dazzling verbal gifts (in sharp contrast to all the other new writers) and with an artistic self-consciousness that is occasionally an asset but more often a serious impediment to his writing. His novel is framed by opening and concluding dialogues between the author and a Yiddish-accented alter ego. Moreover, there is an inner frame, the journal of a novelist who is presumably writing the principal story; and inserted between chapters of what one hesitantly calls the novel itself are parodies of imagined reviews of the book and a Paris Review interview with the (pseudonymous?) author of The Player King. In all this literary talk, which is sometimes very bright and often quite funny, Rovit suggestively characterizes the myth in which his characters are caught up and out of which he—“vaudevillian of the interior consciousness . . . crucified clown of the esthetic high wire”—has contrived a distinctive narrative mode.

According to Rovit, or rather one of his several personae, the two great myths of Christian literature, Christ and Faust, the Victim and the Victimizer, are dead, and their place is now taken by the myth of the Jew, at once a grotesque figure of fun and an uncanny shaman-hero:

The Wandering Jew has taken off his cloak (the mysterious greasy black of the ghetto, the usurer's pit, the worn entrails of the peddler's pack) and he is naked revealed for the first time. There is a white scar on his side which has healed into a pious caricature of the comic mask. . . . The feet are strangely pale and long-boned, and he rolls from heel to ball in dark reminiscence of the Mourner's Chant.

There is unresolved irony here: it is hard to know just what is meant seriously and what satirically. This very irresolution is Rovit's way of hanging onto both the grotesque mask and the sentimental image behind the mask. But the mythicized Jew, sheltering in that “mysterious greasy black of the ghetto,” is clearly present both in this passage and elsewhere in the novel, for all the ingenious disguises Rovit provides him.

“Mysterious” is notoriously a dangerous word to use in a novel, even half-ironically. It is usually a sign that the novelist is in some way asking us to assume complexities of feeling which his art has not in fact been able to evoke. In this connection, there is a very funny moment in The Player King which inadvertently points to the core of hollowness in the fashionable mythic version of the Jew. The protagonist discovers that the zipper of his fly won't close, and, shielding himself with a copy of Ebony, he makes his way to the nearest tailor, who he finds has just locked up for the day. When the little old Jew refuses to open the door, the stricken hero explains that “It's worse than trouble, it's tzoris I got.” This is the magic tribal password: the door swings open and the tailor, grinning, answers, “Trouble is trouble, but tzoris—dat's someding else.”

But is it really? The two words, of course, were created in different historical circumstances, each was gradually molded into its own subtle contours of meaning by different kinds of experience. But the pressure of collective experience that has shaped the Yiddish word is scarcely present in Rovit's book: it is the word itself which is waved like a magic wand, just as in this and other novels the name or idea of the Jew is invoked and the naked invocation is expected to conjure up all sorts of images, from epiphany to pogrom, of a unique history and a unique moral heritage.


One of the most bizarre expressions of the sentimentality of this myth is the motif of conversion or quasi-conversion that has been improbably cultivated in American Jewish fiction. The model, of course, is the circumcision of Frank Alpine at the end of Malamud's The Assistant. There is something instructively peculiar about that act. Circumcision, after all, is a theologically serious matter; it means sealing a covenant in the flesh between a people and its God. But the idea of being a Jew in Malamud's novel—as is generally the case in American Jewish fiction—is shorthand for a set of moral abstractions: Jewishness is equated with an ethic of hard work, integrity, acceptance of responsibility, forbearance in distress, and so forth. Since there is no necessary connection between any of these qualities and being a flesh-and-blood Jew, the symbol inflicted on Frank Alpine's flesh seems gratuitous, or, rather, obtrudes as a merely symbolic contrivance.

More often, the conversion motif appears under the guise of discipleship. One clear example is the relation between Angelo DeMarco (another wayward Italian lad) and Sammy the orderly in Edward Wallant's posthumously published novel, The Children at the Gate. Angelo, who doesn't believe in the genuineness of feelings and would like to think of human beings as machines, is taken by Sammy on the rounds of suffering at his hospital to be taught the lesson of redemptive love. Sammy, in keeping with the general formula, has the mannerisms of the bizarre comedian: his mouth is full of obscenities, his past is queer and sordid, and he is generally suspect at the hospital. But of course he has a real Jewish Heart, and for all his bizarreness he is a true Jew—which, as one often discovers in American Jewish fiction, means that he turns out to be a true Christ. The Children at the Gate manages to be a moving book, but it would have been more completely honest, I think, if its ethical guide had more authentic credentials for his role than a command of Yiddish slang and a ghetto childhood.

Perhaps the most ingenious variant of the conversion motif is the metamorphosis of Nick Lapucci into Lipshitz in Jerome Charyn's recently published second novel, On the Darkening Green.4 (The Italians may begin to wonder why they should be made the object of all this fictional missionary zeal. Perhaps it is simply a matter of sociological convenience, since Italian and Jewish neighborhoods have often bordered on or overlapped each other.) Nick Lapucci has from the outset some suspiciously Semitic features: he is bookish, unathletic, an outsider in a neighborhood of tough (Jewish) kids, and, of course, something of a shlemiel. So he is ripe for symbolic conversion when he takes a job as counselor-jailer at a Jewish school for delinquent and retarded boys in upstate New York.

The requisite Jewish elements of grotesqueness are generously multiplied and unusually contorted in this novel. The upstate institution is run like a concentration camp by its director, Uncle Nate, a self-deluded sadist and Jewish chauvinist, a sort of comic-gothic version of Faust's Jake Bluffstein, the Jewish Nazi. Probably the most important person for Nick on the school's staff is Rosencrantz, who works for Uncle Nate as part-time chaplain, part-time chauffeur, and full-time thorn-in-the-side. A defrocked rabbi, he is one of the stock types of the new sentimental myth of the Jew, possessing in fine balance through his heretical-clerical status all the necessary qualities of grotesqueness and moral insight. He is way outside institutional Judaism, yet significantly linked with it. He is utterly unillusioned, yet he ultimately evinces faith in the possibility of becoming human. Though a lost soul himself, he somehow manages to be a guide to others. Virtually crazy, he is nevertheless reliable in teaching his Torah of stubborn survival and of the seductive danger of hate and violence to all men, the persecuted as well as their persecutors.

Nick's eventual success in becoming part of the weird society of wayward and deranged Jewish boys means, predictably, his entrance into the sphere of significant moral experience. The rebellion in which he participates with them is the moral climax of the novel because it demonstrates that real solidarity is possible and that people can muster enough concern for their own human dignity to protest being deprived of it. Charyn handles his bizarre moral microcosm imaginatively, but his inclination to treat the novel as parable unfortunately encourages the tendencies inherent in the sentimental myth to schematize and simplify moral issues. And his enlisting a Jewish group to serve as moral paradigm reinforces the fashionable conception of the Jew as primarily a symbolic entity: to become truly human one must become True Israel, like the elect in the Book of John.

Hugh Nissenson's A Pile of Stones,5 another recent first volume of fiction, is worth mentioning because it provides such a striking contrast to all the books we have been considering. Nissenson is, as far as I can recall, the only genuinely religious writer in the whole American Jewish group. His fiction represents an attempt to follow the twisting, sometimes treacherous ways between God and man; his stories reach out for Jewish experience in Eastern Europe, in Israel, and in America, in an effort to discover what Jews do with their faith in a God who so often seems conspicuous by His absence. Where other Jewish writers haul in our forefathers by their pious beards to provide scenic effect or symbolic suggestiveness, the introduction of such figures in Nissenson's work is an act of serious self-examination: can the God of the kaftaned grandfather still be the God of the buttoned-down grandson, especially with the terrible shadow of the holocaust intervening between then and now?

This exploratory relationship to Jewishness reflects an order of imaginative integrity lacking in the writers who end up merely using Jewishness, but it is not without its own artistic difficulties. Religious fiction—witness Graham Greene—is often problematic: it is probably easier on the whole to talk precisely and persuasively about encounters with transcendence in poetry than in narrative prose. Nissenson's fiction, moreover, seems to suffer from some of the intrinsic limitations of the modern intellectual's religion-in-the-head, culled from the pages of Buber, Heschel, Herberg, Tillich, Niebuhr, and the rest. There is an odd element of abstractness in his stories; they read like neatly arranged laboratory situations for testing out a series of problems of faith and theodicy. But whatever the drawbacks of this kind of writing, one senses that it is about something real, and that there is a necessary connection between the Jewishness of its subjects and what it has to say.

Nissenson, however, is obviously a rather special case. A Pile of Stones offers welcome relief but hardly an indication of a change in the current trend of American Jewish fiction. It allows one to hope for more writers who will try in varying ways to observe the Jew as a real human being, but what seems immediately in prospect is a continuing parade of Jews as holy sufferers, adepts of alienation, saintly buffoons, flamboyant apostles of love—in all the twisted, grinning masks of a literary convention that keeps literature from making imaginative contact with reality.


1 Random House, 213 pp., $3.95.

2 Back to China, Stein & Day, 248 pp., $4.95.

3 Harcourt, Brace, & World, 568 pp., $5.95.

4 McGraw-Hill, 244 pp., $4.95.

5 Scribner, 173 pp., $3.95; paperback, $1.65.

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