Retrieving American Jewish Fiction

By D.G. Myers
Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Jewish "boom" in American writing in the 60's was ignited by Bellow, Roth, and Malamudreeled off in that order as if they were a firm of Jewish accountants.  Soon there were so many American Jewish writers, enjoying so much critical praise, that Truman Capote complained about the "Jewish mafia in American letters," while John Updike (than whom no novelist more goyishe) wrote three short-story cycles in which he pretended to be a Jewish writer. The roots of American Jewish literature go much further back, though. The avot and imahot of American Jewish writing should not be forgotten. And some should even be reread.

I came to the project of "Retrieving American Jewish Fiction" out of the belief that literary critics, as I said some time ago, might "perform a more essential service to readers if they rescued books that do not deserve to be forgotten." The latest bestsellers, the hot titles on everyone's lips, need no push. Good books, however, are always a rarity.

And I particularly wanted to redirect the attention of Jewish readers to some neglected Jewish classics, especially Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers, Myron Brinig's Singermann, and Vera Caspary's Thicker Than Water. Each of these novels, in its own way, raises the question of Jewish difference, and especially the question of what makes Jewish writing different from all other writing. Interestingly, the first novel by an American Jew on a Jewish themeEmma Wolf's Other Things Being Equaldenies that Jews are different from Christians. Later writers thought otherwise; or, rather, they proved Wolf wrong, even when they thought they were agreeing with her. Starting with Ezra Brudno's 1904 novel The Fugitive, American Jewish writing distinguished itself by its Jewish knowledge, its handling of Jewish sources, and above all, by the Jewishness of its language, even though it was written in English.

The reader who comes to these novels for the first time is likely to hear the distinctiveness of the language, its nervous uncomfortable foreignness, more easily than in more recent American Jewish writers. For that reason, if for no other, I invite the readers of Jewish Ideas Daily to this historical symposium, at which the Jews make uniquely Jewish (and oddly attractive) sounds.

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Emma Wolf, 1865–1932
Other Things Being Equal, 1892

When was American Jewish fiction born? The credit usually goes to Nathan Mayer's Civil War novel Differences, published by Bloch in 1867. But a more likely date is 1892, when the Christian-owned house of A. C. McClurg released the first American novel written by a Jew, on a Jewish subject, but aimed at a general audience. Other Things Being Equal is a romance of intermarriage. Its author, Emma Wolf, twenty-seven at the time of publication, was a wheelchair-bound San Franciscan and the spinster daughter of a well-to-do tobacco merchant from Alsace.

Ezra Brudno, 18771954
The Fugitive1904

The Fugitive is not a romance of intermarriage. Rather, Israel and his girl have passed beyond Christian-Jewish enmity into what, in a dream-vision, he has glimpsed as a joint "symbolism of the innocent blood." Just as the martyred Jesus is "the symbol of His people," so are the victims of blood libels and pogroms the symbols of the Jews. For Israel to marry an innocent Christian girl is thus not only to find personal happiness but to accept, and retain, his own symbolic status as a Jew.

Abraham Cahan, 18601951
The Rise of David Levinsky1917

The Rise of David Levinsky, written and published in English, has been called the first Yiddish novel in America. It might be more aptly called the first Russian novel, as Cahan adapts the tradition of Turgenev's and Tolstoy's realism to the American Jewish scene. Although the book purports to be its protagonist's autobiography, Cahan is at his best when he shoulders aside his narrator to become a savvy street-level observer of Jewish immigrants, reporting the strange customs they adopt in turn-of-the-century New York.

Anzia Yezierskaca. 18821970
Bread Givers, 1925

Books for women have been a distinctive and popular variety of Jewish literature at least since the early seventeenth century, when Ts'ena Ur'ena, a Yiddish "woman's Bible" embellished with amazing tales and pointed lessons, started its ascent toward becoming the most widely read Jewish book for the next 300 years. In America, the first writer to tap into this deep well was the Polish-born Anzia Yezierska. Her 1925 novel Bread Givers, frequently misinterpreted as a feminist attack upon Jewish patriarchy, is in fact the most successful attempt ever undertaken to reproduce in another language the half-serious, half-sensa­tionalist brand of popular Yiddish fiction.

Ludwig Lewisohn, 18821955
The Island Within, 1928

Ludwig Lewisohn is nearly forgotten today, but in his day he was a literary celebrity. He was so well-known, in fact, that his marital scandalsmultiple divorces, an accusation of bigamy, flight to Europe with a decades-younger woman, a second wedding interrupted by a hysterical jilted lovermade national headlines. Through it all, he kept writing, publishing 35 books by the time of his death in 1955. A passionate champion of sexual freedom, Lewisohn was equally zealous to promote Zionism and "Jewish self-realization." 

Myron Brinig, 18961991
Singermann, 1929

It is for its notes of homosexuality and transvestism that Singermann is most likely to valued by critics today.  But what really give the Singermannsand Brinig's 400-page novel about themthe interest they possess are the family's stubborn, gnarled roots in Moses' business acumen, single-mindedness, and stiff-necked competitive drive.   Even when he disappears for pages at a time, even when his children are utterly oblivious to him, Moses and the store that he personally manages six days a week for twenty years form the reality in which they and their dreams are anchored.

Michael Gold, 18941967
Jews Without Money, 1930

The characters who populate Jews Without Money are poor, but they are not defined by their poverty. They are defined by the strength that it takes to survive in an inhospitable world, and by the decency, imagination, and resourcefulness they manage against all odds to find within themselves. "They shrugged their shoulders, and murmured: 'This is America.' They tried to live." Jews Without Money is a reminder that, in literature, it is not economic conditions but the moral effort to live that shapes human experience, and ultimately perhaps even nations. 

Vera Caspary, 1899–1987
Thicker Than Water, 1932

Caspary's most ambitious and unusual project was Thicker than Water, a 425-page chronicle of a Sephardic Jewish family living in Chicago. Although I have been unable to confirm my hunch, chances are that Caspary based the novel on her own family. The daughter of a buyer for a Chicago department store, she was born in November 1899 into a "mixed marriage." Her father's father was a German Jew, but her mother's father was a Sephardi whose family had settled in Amsterdam after being expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.

Henry Roth, 1906–1995
Call It Sleep, 1934

Instead of the familiar progress from halakhah (Jewish law) to haskalah (secular enlightenment), Roth's protagonist David makes use of religious props to smack up against the reality of modern urban life in "this Golden Land," the New World. He is not really Americanized; rather, the American scene is Judaized. In the end, David does not find religion, but he gets something almost as good—acceptance at last as his father's son, as the David he is and could be.

D.G. Myers, a critic and literary historian in the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University, is author of the new blog Literary Commentary.


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