Great Contemporary Fiction: Why Jews are Hot

by Bliss Kern

Novels Everyone knows that too many novels are published each year. I've read that one is released about every hour, which leaves even the fastest and most dedicated reader woefully unable to keep up with the market. One consequence of this deluge of words has been the development of a range of services targeted at letting each reader sift through the vast list of titles to find those must appreciated by others like them: Amazon comments; virtual, physical, and TV book clubs; Shelfari; endless new book review blogs, written by professionals and amateurs alike. By necessity, every reader has become an advocate, choosing novels we love and recommending them to others so that the stories that impressed us don't get lost in the textual flood. This constant need to listen to others to find our new favorites and to regularly champion them to others compels self-consciousness about our own literary tastes. I can now reel off a list of twelve of my favorite works of contemporary fiction without even thinking because their names are a cultural currency, invoked in all kinds of exchanges. I am of course not the only one. I recognize this habit in my friends and colleagues as well. While looking for common ground among us I have noticed an interesting phenomenon: a disproportionate number of the contemporary novelists about whom my demographic (urban, young thirties, educated) are excited are Jewish American. Is there some common thread among these texts that speaks to us? A new trend has developed in Jewish American fiction, one that holds out the universally tantalizing hope of integrating all of our complex cultural inputs into a single functional, even exciting, individual. Recent Jewish fiction has hit on the ability to describe exactly what it feels like to be that mythic creature: a modern American.

America has seen at least three prior waves of English language fiction written by Jewish Americans, each of which has been distinguished by relationship to a sub-culture rather than so-called mainstream culture. First, Jewish Americans addressed the realities of the immigrant experience alongside (among others) Polish, Irish, and Italian immigrants. Then, broadly speaking, there was a shift towards assimilationist fiction, which either thematized a cultural sense of marginalization and alienation or which implicitly denied that there need be any difference between fiction written by Jews and any other Americans. The diversity appreciation and identity theory of the eighties and nineties brought a new kind of literature to the fore, one which S. Lillian Kremer, a professor of Jewish American literature, describes as being defined by “Judaic affirmation, renewal, and redemption.” Orthodox habits and midrashic literary devices came out on the page in full regalia to celebrate the differences between (some) Jewish Americans and the non-Jewish American majority. None of these periods can be perfectly defined, and they all overlap. In fact, the redemptive focus still appears in much new Jewish American fiction. Village Voice reviewer Alexander Nazaryan recently identified it in the novels of what he calls the “Jewish New Wave”: “From the ashes of cultural unity has risen a new Jewish literature, propagated by young writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, his wife Nicole Krauss, and Gary Shteyngart …Less occupied with the anxieties of assimilation, these new Jewish novelists search through diaspora, immigration, and genocide for those precious strands of continuity that would make Jewish history their own.” Those familiar with Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated will immediately understand what Nazaryan references. In his debut novel, Safran Foer narrates a young man's return to his family's shtetl to thank the woman who saved his family from the Nazis and thereby allowed him to be. This protagonist's bildung requires that he connect with his past to appreciate his present and define his future.

For all the truth in Nazaryan's observation, he does suggest that their Jewish American identity, unmitigated, is what defines authors of the Jewish New Wave, thereby trapping Jewish American authors in the moment of identity celebration. Look at Safran Foer's second novel. The marvelous Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close continues the literary experimentation notable in Everything is Illuminated but has a very different cultural project for its protagonist. New fiction written by Jewish Americans takes as many forms as there are different conceptions of what it means to be Jewish in America today—or just American today. There are those novels that confront or embrace the constraints of Orthodoxy; those that suggest Jews are particularly suited to be private detectives; those that revise or protest the state of women; those that explore, reject, or uphold the role that Israel plays in the self-conception of modern Jews; those that do not thematize the author's cultural roots at all. Among the many is a trend that compels its readers, no matter what their own history, to strive for an identity that acknowledges the particularities of historical and genealogical pasts without allowing them to define the core of self.

The renaissance of the late eighties and nineties pitched Jewish American culture as one distinct and worthy of pride to an audience whose assimilationism meant they needed convincing. The present generation of Jewish American novelists, arising from a culture that has been convinced, demonstrates how identity is formed from the admixture of pride in heritage and the American tendency to reject the old and tried in favor of the new and unknown. These authors do not shy away from revealing underbellies and eccentricities of their cultural inheritance or from exploring the liberties or losses that would accompany discarding their roots; they reveal a collective weltanschauung that theirs is not a persecuted culture in a borrowed land, but a complex, loosely connected community in a land where they have a recognized stake. This stake means they can step out from behind any special status to be defined by other qualities, desires, and relationships. The new generation may seem more American that Jewish, but by right of a love of their heritage rather than the assimilationist denial of it.

Previous generations of Jewish American fiction depended upon recognizable cultural markers and stereotypes to mark themselves as artifacts deriving from and in conversation with a particular sub-culture. There were Bar Mitzvahs, mentions of goyim and Shabbos/Shabbat, and memorializing, discrete or direct, of ancestors lost in the Holocaust. Each description and elbow-nudge of the author crystallized a collective Jewish American identity that enjoyed exclusivity at the cost of alienation. Michael Chabon's afterward to Gentlemen of the Road (2007) presents these and similar markers as a force that shaped cultural artifacts for too long. His description of people's reaction (fictionalized, perhaps) to his working title Jews with Swords humorously draws out just how widespread certain internally created stereotypes are. Chabon writes that those who envisioned a Jew with a sword “saw…an unprepossessing little guy, with spectacles and a beard, brandishing a saber…They saw their uncle Manny, dirk between his teeth, slacks belted at the armpits,” assaulting “nefarious auditors” (198). Chabon's adventuresome hero, Zelikman, stands in absolute contrast to the preconceptions we might have of uncle Manny or, say, the Coen's Larry Gopnik: he is neither high-belted nor engaged in a business requiring mathematical facility. Instead, he is a talented and principled con artist, well dressed (in fact a bit of a dandy) and competent with weapons.

By creating Zelikman as a Jewish hero wandering the world with a set of diverse and changeable companions, Chabon rewrites the common narrative of the Diaspora. The story is no longer one of forced exile, weakness, and collective vulnerability—which lead to Jews finding shelter but alienation in a new land—but an adventure with a strong and self-directed hero who chooses his own destinations. Zelikman is closer to Odysseus than Uncle Manny; he exhibits the competence and resources to best his enemies and lead others on a long journey to a successful conclusion. He is no more solely a “Jewish” hero than Odysseus is solely a “Greek” hero. But he is a Jew, and that, too features in story, for it is what defines him in his formative years. Zelikman, in his stark difference from the stable of Uncle Manny-like characters (and those others which have become equally recognizable) represents the trend towards a new vision of Jewish heroes who act more than react, who shape the world around them more than they are shaped by it.

While Chabon's generic choice required that he write his hero into the exotic world of 10th century Asia, other authors are creating homegrown American heroes who equally suggest that the Jewish narrative needs no longer be one of victimization and Diaspora. The Pigskin Rabbi (1999), by Willard Manus gives us the story of one Ezekiel “Ziggy” Cantor. The path Ziggy takes and the reward he receives are familiar tropes of American literature revitalized for the modern world and its conflicted ideas about self and society.

Ziggy, a graduate of Yeshiva and descendent of a long line of rabbis, has left the rabbinate in order to play professional football. A single question dogs Ziggy's career: should he follow his passion or the traditions of his orthodox community? In the end, he does both by rekindling his attachment to Judaism while his team makes a bid for the championships. Whether playing football on holy days, davening in the stadium, or learning that sex (even with a Shiksa) can be faith affirming, Ziggy makes his own choices, informed by, but not dependent upon, his heritage. In doing so, becomes a hero and revises his own and his rabbi's sense of the range of roles Jews play in the strange patchwork of American culture.

Manus emphasizes Ziggy's part in a new generation of young America Jews by writing him into a story that puts him in conflict with an older generation, represented by his father. Ziggy's intense individuality stands in relief against the communalism of his father, who puts history, tradition and collective wisdom first. Furious with Ziggy for not defending their “ways and traditions,” he attacks him as the redemptive line of writing inherently critiques the assimilationist tradition, implying that he rejects his heritage out of shame and moral weakness. Ziggy's father goes so far as to compare him with the Jews that they would not flee Germany even when their lives obviously depended on doing so. Ziggy rejects the notion that all questions of modern Jewish faith and culture can productively be brought back to the Holocaust as the ultimate in shared experience. “That's not fair. This isn't Germany and we're not surrounded by Nazis” (172). Implied is his response is Ziggy's belief America is their home country, and that Nazi-types are hard to find. Ziggy's ability to think for himself, to resist seeing himself within a constantly replaying cycle of exile and persecution, and to block out his father's disapproval, result in an unbelievable field goal on the day when, according to Orthodox culture, he should least have been playing. Ziggy's “miraculous Yom Kippur Day field goal” presents an exaggerated reward for his individualism: “The ball not only carried to the goal posts [an impressive 61 yards] and cleared them, but went another ten yards” (145). Because of Ziggy, “Jewish was hot” (239); through following his own lead he creates a cultural context for Jews opposite to that of Nazi Germany. It is a result neither of assimilating nor of putting his cultural pride before other parts of a multifaceted identity. Pigskin Rabbi values an ability to negotiate the disparate claims of collective knowledge and individual inspiration, and to do so with a feeling of power and safety in a new cultural landscape.

Chabon and Manus both engage in narratives that celebrate Jewish individualists through genres steeped in wish fulfillment. Other contemporary Jewish American novelists, like Dara Horn, put emphasis on the importance of individualism while eliminating the sense of its magical glory. Horn's most recent novel All Other Nights (2009) makes a new tension explicit; it's anti-hero, Jacob Rappaport, makes decisions that, to him, seem to be about choosing between being an American or being part of a Jewish community. This personal journey takes place amidst the American Civil War. The larger context highlights the violent potential of strong and traditional ideas like slavery and religion to alienate people from groups and force them into taking stands for self-definition even while maintaining an affection or nostalgia in embryo for the scorned identity.

Horn's novel focuses on the birthing of “the Jacob Rappaport whom no one expected…the one who could prove beyond all doubt that his life was entirely his own” (9). To make his life his own requires divorcing his identity from that of his immigrant family, whose religion and provincialism embarrasses him at every turn. Through his uncle, he identifies the most shameful mark that his family and their culture have left on him, and therefore knows what he needs to accomplish to become an American. They have bequeathed him “the crippling need for the approval of others, the fear of freedom that placed even the smallest dream beyond [his] reach” (35). This is his heritage as a Jewish American, one unsatisfying for someone whose goal is to be “an American hero.” Jacob kills his uncle, not for his role in a plot to assassinate Lincoln for which the Union has sent down to do it, but for his desire to wipe from his life the mirror of himself in which he sees what he considers Jewish weakness masquerading as political courage.

From the beginning of his pursuit of glory, Rappaport confronts his religious upbringing. He starts by rejecting his past out of hand, calmly breaking its taboos. He later allows it to reassert itself as a form of cultural currency that will buy him what he wants. His journey begins and ends with a visit to a cemetery, a place forbidden to him because of his status as a descendent from the biblical high priest. He steps away from familiar loyalties when he walks into a graveyard, where, “the entire edifice of law and custom dissolved before his eyes” (13). As he matures, he discovers that that edifice can serve his ends. In one instance of the young American confronting his past, Rappaport imagines that “the [kosher] law itself was in fact nothing but a magic spell, inscribed into the tradition of thousands of years ago for the sole purpose of being called up for duty…to bring him face to face with a woman who could raise the dead” (176). This woman “who could raise the dead” plays only a very small part in the epic confederate versus union spy plot of the novel; in fact, she is an erotic distraction. From where Jacob stands, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the details of his religion have been created, believed, and passed on from generation to generation just to play a supporting role in his wartime romance. Jacob's sense of his people's past is just as shallow as his sense of his religion's roots. He revels in his belief that he is different, that his position has changed from that of his elders caught in the rage of the pogroms. He righteously thinks that unlike those old world victims, he and his wife “[a]ren't victims, but perpetrators” (87). Proud of his active role in the most deadly battle in his adopted country's history, he calculates that his murderous escapades are more valuable than the lives of ancestral sufferers. Jacob's status as anti-hero softens the force of his position, but the underlying myth he writes for himself is one familiar enough—he must define himself against the history of his people in order to be his own person. Once he has done so, his urge to be different subsides, and the end of the novel shows him, once again in a cemetery, choosing to live a standard domestic life with Jewish wife and child. The bright blaze of young adulthood convinces Jacob that he can rewrite myths of the past, can “prove beyond all doubt that his life [i]s entirely his own.” Once he has done so, he can accept without rancor how much his past shaped even the trajectory of his rebellion against it.

Chabon, Manus, and Horn emerge from a complex tangle of historical, cultural, and literary circumstances to write in the vanguard of a literary trend that explores a new freedom in narrative horizons. New Jewish American authors find themselves free from the burden of identity politics and have space to allow the particularity of their characters and stories to emerge. The stories that have emerged so far have the power to speak to readers with little or no relationship to Judaism. The pages of these stories capture the unselfconscious attachment young Americans, raised to tell a story of being 1/4 this and 1/4 that, have for their mythic past. Their characters are familiar to all; like young Americans today, they must all refashion myths from the past to craft a sense of self and collective identity in which they can feel comfortable. Although a past story of exile and landlessness stands almost in direct opposition to the American story of patriotism and manifest destiny, the stakes of recognizing each as not the truth of the present do not.

Bliss is a reader errant with a language and information-input addiction. She also blogs about books (myshelfrunnethover.blogspot.com) and tries to teach students of a small college in New Jersey that words actually matter.

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