The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature/Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon: Nation Building and Minority Discourse

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Canon Fodder

* The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher and Michael Kramer. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

* Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon: Nation Building and Minority Discourse, by Hannan Hever. New York University Press, 2002.

The two books under review have been brought together in an attempt to construct a dialogue that should have taken place, but didn't. In imagining that dialogue, or in diagnosing the mutual deafness or autism that preempted it, we can identify a major loss in contemporary Jewish letters. True, the disconnect is largely due to the fact that the Jews of America, like the Jews of Israel, have become so naturalized in their respective national cultures that the sense of a common Jewish civilization and a (sometimes bitterly-contested but consequential) cultural agenda has been either relinquished altogether or relegated to the rituals of religious or political solidarity. Still, it is hard to believe that just one hundred years after H.N. Bialik's poetic response to the Kishinev pogrom generated a global Jewish reaction, we have little left but a dialogue of the deaf. On the overleaf of the Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, the series editors note the "important roles" that Jews have played in the "development of American literature." The trajectory of Hannan Hever's monograph, Producing the Modern Hebrew Canon, moves from Eastern Europe to Israel, with a stress on local cadences and local lacunae-though his theoretical framework belongs more to the western European/American axis. Let me, then, as they do, consider each of them as separate universes-while noting the absent synapses.

Whether the Cambridge Companion, a volume of essays by fourteen literary scholars, is meant to represent an inquiry into one particular ethnic strand within the larger weave of American culture, or an exploration of one chapter in the history of Jewish literature written in what Rashi might have called the American "lo'azit" [vernacular], is, in fact, never explicitly stated. It does emerge, however, from the essays themselves, that this very difference in emphasis is at the heart of the cultural debates that have engaged Jews since they became articulate in America around the time of the Revolutionary War. If, as Hana Wirth-Nesher and Michael Kramer, the editors of this volume, claim, we cannot conceive of areas of achievement in America without Jews ("landmarks of modern and contemporary American culture are products of Jewish American experience"), is that a tribute to Jewish talent and imagination? Or to the fertile ground that America provided for its ethnic communities to realize their potential as both discrete cultures and springboards for individual self-fulfillment? While the subject of each essay in this volume dictates its own focus, it is never really clear whether the mandate of the entire project was to examine ways in which Jews have contributed to a polyphonic American literature or the ways in which America has contributed to a polyphonic Jewish literature. Okay, you might well ask; but does it, after all, make a difference?

If we view this volume as companion to the anthology edited a few years ago by Wirth-Nesher, entitled What is Jewish Literature?-or as companion to its putative Hebrew-speaking interlocutor-it does make a difference. As such, it is significant that difference itself is invoked as the definitive parameter in The Cambridge Companion: Jews "flourished differently" in America than elsewhere, and different generations and ethnic subgroups in America created different "usable pasts" and literary traditions. Over the generations, Jewish American English is seen to have evolved out of many vernaculars, inflections, and multilingual layers as well as the epiphenomena of American Hebrew and Yiddish (Wirth-Nesher, Alan Mintz, David Roskies). To underscore the plurality and dynamism of approaches, periods, themes, languages, genders, genres, and cultural levels, the editors have titled their introductory essay, "Jewish American Literatures in the Making. …