Lost World

Is generational anxiety keeping Jewish literature alive?

Photograph by aaron007

In the opening pages of David Bezmozgis’s elegant 2014 novel The Betrayers, which was one of the winners of the 2016 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, a former Russian dissident and Israeli politician is at the front desk of a hotel in the Black Sea resort town of Yalta in the Crimea. He is watching his much younger mistress, Leora, berate the wholly uncooperative woman behind the front desk.

Baruch Kotler is fleeing the scandals that erupted in Israel when opponents of his views on the settlements on the West Bank went public with the fact that he has a young lover on the side. The hotel clerk—“a pretty blond girl”—is wearing “a stiff, mulish expression,” writes Bezmozgis. “A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people. The fact that Leora persisted in arguing with the girl proved that she was from another culture.”

Set in the twenty-first century present, Baruch and Leora are both Russian Jews. Baruch is every bit a product of the Soviet Union, but while Leora was born in Moscow, she grew up and came of age in Israel. Anyone who spent time in Israel in the early 1990s, during the great exodus into the country of what remained of the Russian Jewry, will remember what a shock it seemed to Israeli society: the Russians were, well, Russian, and shared little of what at least Ashkenazi Jews thought of as Jewish culture. What Kotler is casually acknowledging, in other words, is that while he and Leora may both be Jewish, they don’t necessarily share the same sensibilities.

Born in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union, Bezmozgis is a Jewish writer who writes largely about Jews from the former Soviet Union, so it hardly comes as a surprise that he would win a Jewish book prize. In fact, The Betrayers has won two Jewish book awards, the first one being the 2014 National Jewish Book Award. Administered for over fifty years by the Jewish Book Council, currently based in New York, and with past winners including Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Jonathan Safran Foer, the National Jewish Book Award demands specifically Jewish content—the author does not have to be either American or Jewish. The Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, which were re-launched and rebranded in 2016 after a year’s hiatus but had been around in a slightly different form for twenty years prior to that, has somewhat trickier requirements: the book need not have predominantly Jewish content so long as the author is Jewish, and the author need not be a Canadian citizen so long as the content is significantly Canadian.

The Betrayers nails the requirements for both awards, but so would a historical fantasy about Jewish life in Montreal in the 1950s written in English by an Inuit author in Nunavut who had never so much as met a Jew. No matter the logical possibilities inherent in the way these awards are set up, what seems clear, from a quick glance over past winners, is that the prize-giving is meant to promote Jewish literature about Jewish life written by Jewish authors who have a personal and historical investment in the subject matter.

If this were the 1950s or ’60s, in the immediate decades after the Holocaust, it would be easy to understand why this was urgent—but now? In our increasingly secularized, globalized, and fragmented society, is there even such a thing as Jewish literature?

When I was coming of age in the Los Angeles of the 1970s, with all its beachfront narcissism and willful cultural anonymity, what we thought of as being distinctively Jewish had little to do with religious observances but with a mode of address and engagement. This tone of voice, ironic and argumentative, harkened back to the eastern European, Yiddish-speaking, immigrant culture partly chronicled in Irving Howe’s landmark 1976 World of Our Fathers: The Journey of Eastern European Jews to America.

Howe focused on generations of Jews who fled the poverty of the shtetls, the pogroms of the 1880s and those that followed the First World War, and, ultimately, genocide. While modern Yiddish literature began and thrived in Warsaw and Vilnius, it also took root in places like New York and Montreal, producing writers who came to prominence in English translation, like I. J. Singer and his younger brother Isaac Bashevis Singer. It was Yiddish language and culture that had an impact on North American Jewish culture, not the rapidly evolving Hebrew literature that was partly set in motion by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s work to modernize Hebrew early in the twentieth century, in what became the State of Israel.

While important works like Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, an account of the tough street life among Jewish immigrant on New York’s Lower East Side early in the 20th century, were published before the war, what has come to represent the quintessentially North American Jewish literature is the work of two overlapping generations of writers: Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, and Mordecai Richler.

One of the distinguishing features of these writers is that all of them, apart from Roth, were first generation North Americans, grew up in eastern European Jewish communities, and understood Yiddish—Bellow was the translator of what may be Bashevis Singer’s most famous story, “Gimpel the Fool,” and even co-wrote a comic send up of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” titled “Der shir hashirim fun Mendl Pumshtock.” These writers came of age as writers in the shadow of their Yiddish-speaking ancestors, and in the larger and deeper shadow of the Holocaust, whose survivors they would have known.

The tone of voice in the classic works of Bellow, Roth, and Richler especially is rollicking, uneasy, uncertain, and aggressive. Their protagonists—Augie March, Moses Herzog, Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, Duddy Kravitz, Jake Hersh—are all restless, ambivalent characters, desperately trying to liberate themselves from the world of their fathers. In their striving, they are racked with anxiety and loaded with guilt. Yiddish literature is rife with tragicomic fools (in the Yiddish version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Konig Lear, Lear is fumbling and slapstick); North American Jewish writing of the 1960s and 1970s is full of neurotics. They are trying to figure out what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust and in secular, Christian, consumer societies without wholly repudiating their histories. They are trying to perform the North American trick of reinventing themselves, but without, wholly, reinventing themselves.

There is nothing like this in pre-war European literature. Writers in Yiddish wrote about the Jewish world for other Jews and took their identity for granted. Other great Jewish modernist writers, like Joseph Roth, Isaac Babel, Franz Kafka, and Bruno Schultz had little interest in the question of Jewish identity as such. They may have just assumed that Jews would always remain isolated and exotic and would never adapt to any form of European society.

Malamud, Bellow, and Richler are all dead; Roth is alive at eighty-three but announced his retirement from writing in 2013. The younger generation of Jewish writers, those well into the middle of their careers, would include Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nathan Englander, and Bezmozgis. Setting aside Englander as an unusual exception—he is a fourth generation American who grew up in a strictly orthodox community on Long Island (“A shtetl surrounded by strip malls” is how he describes it)—these are writers who came from successful, wholly assimilated families, with relatively little contact with the older, Yiddish-speaking immigrant generation. Rather than undertaking a chaotic, thrashing quest to break from of the stifling world of their ancestors, they turned to their ancestors to see what it means to be Jewish, as though the experience of the present at this point is too diffuse and rapid-paced and demanding to allow for insight on that.

Chabon’s dazzling, Pulitzer-prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay opens with the phantasmagorical tale of Joe Kavalier’s escape from Prague in 1939; Safran Foer’s precocious debut, Everything is Illuminated, is framed around the quest of a young writer to find his ancestral village in the Ukraine and his Russian guide, interwoven wih a mystical shtetl that unfolds like a warped, expressionist films with sets by Chagall. And the finely crafted tales in Englander’s For The Relief of Unbearable Urges are wryly ironic and often achingly sad Hasidic tales about the orthodox negotiating the exigencies of life in New York or for that matter Jerusalem; sparkling and precise, many of them might have been written by Bachevis Singer had he been a little less nasty and sardonic, and had he spent a few years at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

It’s not surprising that Safran Foer and Englander collaborated on The New American Haggadah, a contemporary translation of the ancient story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. In a sense, what was once thought of as Jewish literature has become a literature that struggles to reclaim an imaginary version of past Jewishness—the Israelites before they staggered out of their latter-day Egypt.

There has never been much sense of thinking of Hebrew literature from Israel as Jewish literature. Israeli writers have their own national culture and history to write about; writers like Etgar Keret (whom Englander has translated into English), David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz have little time or nostalgia for the Yiddish-speaking, Eastern European past.

This is much closer to the temperament of a writer like Bezmozgis. At the end of The Betrayers, Kotler and Leora, after a singularly un-relaxing stay in Yalta, a resort that was also after all where Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin divvied up Germany and Eastern Europe in 1945, are flying back to Tel Aviv. Kotler is feeling old and emotionally exhausted and alienated. Looking out across the plane, he can see the hodge-podge array of humanity: the Hasidim, the Zionist Orthodox, the Russian merchants, the young Americans. Most have little in common with one another, and will escape into their respective, barricaded worlds soon after landing at Ben Gurion Airport.

Nonetheless, Kotler can still remember the rush of first arriving twenty-five years earlier, a Russian dissident who had been in the Gulag, “when he he’d had his first glimpse of the land, the dark contours of Jerusalem scrolling by, the ancient city speckled with light, his heart stretched to the limit, as though pulled from above and below, his eyes welling with tears of primordial grief and thanksgiving, and the words of the Psalm in his head in a strong, mystical voice, When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.

So is there, at this point, any element of North American Jewish literature that isn’t predicated on nostalgia for a previous generation? One might also wonder whether at this point there is a literature that is specifically Canadian or American, rather than being an iteration of contemporary English-language writing. Against the background of the Shoah and with our enthusiasm for affirming multiculturalism, Jews naturally underestimate the degree to which the immigrant group described in World of Our Fathers has assimilated into the broader, interconnected, and unwieldy global culture. In our mass, information-driven society, amorphous and rapidly changing, the very idea that historical cultures can be sustained is becoming less and less coherent; the concept that there are distinctive cultures may itself be a form of nostalgia.

In his new epic family saga Here I Am, its title taken from Abraham’s ambiguous affirmation to God before he is asked the sacrifice Isaac, Safran Foer tries to channel the anxiety and guilt and raw conflict of Roth’s greatest novels in the shadow of a crisis threatening the existence of the State of Israel. But Safran Foer’s protagonists lack the manic, imploding frenzy of a Nathan Zuckerman or a Moishe Pipik; their problems are pedestrian rather than existential; their crises of identity don’t ring true.

The clear-headed melancholy of Baruch Kotler is, I think, truer to our moment. He knows that history is not redemptive, and that Zion is no longer a dream, and that Tel Aviv is just another city amidst a vast web of cities that planes—and messages—continuously fly between.

Daniel Baird
Daniel Baird co-founded The Brooklyn Rail, a monthly arts and politics journal.