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Sam Kerbel: What We Talk About When We Talk About Jewish Writers

February 27, 2012

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Is the “Jewish writer” label still relevant? Was it ever?

By **Sam Kerbel**

American Jewish writers have a long tradition of rejecting this very title. Allegra Goodman cites Cynthia Ozick as saying that to be classified as such “reduces art and ideas to ethnic commodities.” Bernard Malamud has stated that this “term is schematic and reductive.” Most recently, Nathan Englander, author of the newly-released short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, explained his dismissal of the “Jewish writer” label in an interview for The Atlantic:

“People always say ‘you’re a Jewish writer,’ but for me there is no divide. I’m Jewish. And I’m a writer… I understand that some amount of categorization is unavoidable, everyone has to do it. It’s how we make order. But don’t expect me to represent my work as genre fiction.”

If the recent 92nd Street Y panel entitled “In the Beginning There Were Words: The Greatest Jewish Books” serves as any indication, contemporary literary critics and writers generally dismiss Ozick, Malamud, and Englander’s line of reasoning—that the “Jewish writer” label is constricting and shouldn’t be applied to their work. Adam Kirsch, a poet, Tablet Magazine columnist, and senior editor at The New Republic, called Englander’s assertion “preposterous.” The novelist and forthcoming Harper’s book critic Joshua Cohen appreciated Kirsch’s choice of words and considered whether Englander—who, in Cohen’s opinion, spends a significant amount of time explaining himself—made this claim because he yearns to write for a non-Jewish audience. Ruth Franklin, another senior editor at The New Republic, agreed with Cohen’s analysis, diagnosing Englander’s propensity for elucidation as a sign of anxiety.

Indeed, despite the glowing reviews Englander’s most recent fictional work has received, none of the panelists had much of anything positive to say about it. When asked by moderator Liel Leibovitz about the invocation of Anne Frank in works by both Englander and Shalom Auslander—and what, in turn, these works say about the current state of American Jewish literature—Kirsch disparaged the broad and problematic stereotypes that the former invokes in his fiction. Franklin criticized Englander’s recycling of themes that appeared in works by Roth, Bellow, and others almost half a century ago, leading her to claim that Jewish literature finds itself in a “shadowy” moment, searching in the dark for an original and authentic voice to reinvigorate it.

But the exigency of Englander’s problem—and that of virtually every Jewish writer before him—still remains: what can be called a Jewish book, and who exactly is a Jewish writer? For Kirsch, the answer for both lies not in the identity of the author or the work’s subjects but rather in their mutual concern for Jewish books. If an author or book wrestles with issues of Jewish relevance like identity or language (whether English, the primary language of American Jews, can be appropriated as a Jewish language), it falls in the Jewish category.

But despite the ubiquity of Woody Allen film screenings to the present day, the Jewish artist’s fixation on personal identity seems to have run its course.

Having removed questions of identity as a necessary rubric for designating Jewish fiction, Kirsch has offered elsewhere a possible remedy to Franklin’s disillusionment with contemporary Jewish literature. In his review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank for Tablet Magazine, Kirsch observes, “Englander’s stories of identity and belief seem shallow and garish, while his story of Jewish politics feels challenging and true.” He speculates whether Jewish fiction of the not-too-distant future must shift its focus from the psyche to politics. This, Kirsch admits, has consequences. He fears it will exacerbate the rift within the Jewish community drawn not on religious lines, but rather “between those who see themselves as members of a historical Jewish nation, and those who find such an identity archaic or delusional.”

For those who doggedly persevere on the unavailing search for the next Bellow, Malamud, or Roth–the next great Jewish writer who can depict the lived American experience with clarity and imagination unfettered–the political realm may not hold the answer. But despite the ubiquity of Woody Allen film screenings to the present day, the Jewish artist’s fixation on personal identity seems to have run its course—just look at the tepidness of Roth’s recent novels in comparison to his earlier, more virile works. At a moment when the political divide between liberal and Orthodox Jews is expeditiously deepening—when, as Peter Beinart describes in his groundbreaking 2010 article “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” the disconnect between Zionism and lived experience has intensified for secular Jewish youth —one could argue that there’s a responsibility for Jewish writers to tap into the unexplored reservoirs of creativity percolating outside the identity realm. For the sake of Jewish literary vitality, perhaps this is the moment when we stop looking for the next Bellow, Malamud, or Roth and look for something else entirely.

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Sam Kerbel is an editorial assistant at Guernica.

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