Ghost Stories: The New Wave of Jewish Writing

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GHOST STORIES: THE NEW WAVE OF JEWISH WRITING

Morris Dickstein's books include Gates of Eden (Harvard) and Double Agent (Oxford), both recently reissued in paperback. He teaches English at CUNY, where he also directs the Center for the Humanities. Copyright ??? 1997 Morris Dickstein.

The current resurgence of Jewish American writing in a world rife with assimilation is as surprising as the survival of the Jews themselves. As early as the 1960s, when writers like Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud were at the height of their powers, when Philip Roth had only recently made his spectacular debut, informed and sympathetic critics like Ted Solotaroff and Irving Howe worried aloud that younger Jewish writers were running out of material: their work was turning derivative and predictable as they lost contact with the immigrant experience and its vigorous culture.

Soon after the Holocaust, barely a decade after the postwar Jewish writers had touched a universal chord, their successors, cut off imaginatively from Europe and the ghetto, seemed unable to serve up the rich ethnic flavors of the past or to subsist on the thin gruel of the suburban present. By the Sixties young Jews were living much the same lives as other Americans. If anything singled them out, it was their widespread attraction to radical politics, not Jewish experience. With anti-Semitism and discrimination in sharp decline, the young were becoming even more assimilated than their Americanized parents, who had at least grown up with some Yiddish ringing in their ears.

But with the rise of black separatism, the Sixties climaxed with a surge of identity politics. Black nationalism forged a compelling model for radical feminism, gay liberation, and finally what Michael Novak called "the rise of the unmeltable ethnics." Over the next few years it became as fashionable to explore your roots as it once had been to transcend them. The fervent patriotism of the World War II generation and the existential humanism of the early Sixties were now seen as part of a discredited liberal mindset that had deprived us of personal meaning and led us into Vietnam. Culture, identity, and ethnic pride were the new American watchwords, multiculturalism the new faith.

For Jews there were special factors that contributed to a wave of ethnic pride, including the Six Day War of 1967, the dissolution of the New Left, and the growth of the Havura movement that reinvigorated Jewish prayer and ritual by infusing it with communitarian Sixties values. Because of their history of persecution, Jews had always been deeply invested in the Enlightenment vision of equal rights within a color-blind society. The new religious currents springing from the counterculture bridged the gap between Jewish particularism and Enlightenment universalism, especially by allowing women to play an equal role in the service. Not surprisingly, the women often brought an almost forgotten level of emotional and spiritual intensity to the old rituals. They were the Hasidim of the new feminism, dispelling the cobwebs of a musty formalism and rescuing Jewish religious practice from its old masculine dominance.

The new emphasis on identity, the revival of interest in Jewish history, Jewish festivals, and sacred Jewish texts could not help but lead to a new Jewish writing that would confound the predictions of the critics. The generation of Bellow and Malamud had come to Judaism at their grandmother's knee, or at the kitchen table. It was an emotional remnant of a world that had formed them. They had witnessed the desperate struggle of their immigrant parents to make ends meet between the wars. They grasped at culture as a refuge from poverty, bigotry, and superstition. They were a secular generation that had broken out of the ghetto and broken into the university, only to be thrown back to being Jewish by the murderous nationalism of the Nazis and the bogus internationalism of the Soviets. …