The New Jewish Canon

Article excerpt

The New Jewish Canon Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer, Edited by Derek Rubin. Schocken Books, 2005

The celebrated American playwright and author S.N. Berhman revealed in his 1954 memoir, The Worcester Account, that though his father was a TaImudic scholar, he himself never knew what was contained in that compendium of Jewish legal thought and literary expression. And while Berhman's failure to incorporate Jewish themes into his creative work may have earned him criticism from the aggressively Jewish author Ludwig Lewisohn, it can not be said that the playwright's general disinterest in things Judaic was unusual for a man who came of age in early-twentieth-century America.

Nearly a hundred years after S.N. Behrman began his meteoric ascent from a Massachusetts shtetl to Broadway, a new generation of Jewish writers has taken the American literary scene by storm. Hardly a week passes that the New York Times or the New Yorker does not tout the emergence of a new talent whose work draws on the Jewish experience. While S.N. Berhman may have come to terms with his Jewish roots only toward the end of his life, the new generation of Jewish writers has, from its inception, achieved a mastery of Hebrew, Yiddish, Torah, Talmud and ... literature.

Derek Rubin's anthology, Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Jewish Writer, appears then at a curious time. Comprised largely of essays by writers who populate the generations that came of age between Berhman and Generation X, the anthology seeks to gather in one place the musings of writers on their relationship to their Jewish roots. According to Rubin, a professor of American Studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, although critics and scholars have had their say, what has been sorely needed is a collection that sheds light on fiction writers' feelings on being Jewish writers in America.

To this end, Rubin presents the essays of thirty-nine writers, beginning with Saul Bellow, who recently passed away at eighty-nine, to one Yael Goldstein, a New Jersey born writer who is twenty-five years old. While some of the selections are re-edited essays from yesteryear that will be familiar to students of American Jewish literature, others have been prepared specifically for the anthology. Encompassing an extremely broad spectrum of American Jewish writers, the authors line up roughly along two trends of thought: those who see the fiction of authors with Jewish origins as a necessary component of the larger world of literature and those who find some deeper Jewish purpose in their craft. Among the former are of course Bellow, whose essay on becoming a writer in depression-era Chicago is as dazzling as any of his fictional writings, and Ragtime author E.L. Doctorow, who without hesitation argues that "all writers worth the name are unaffiliated. " While Cynthia Ozick also places herself in this camp, the most articulate and literary defense of this position comes from Alan Lelchuk, the controversial author of American Mischief and Brooklyn Boy. Recalling the inner conflict of the early Hebrew writer Joseph Hayyim Brenner, Lechuk cogently argues that while an author's ethnic background and experiences will necessarily affect their writing, great literature should be judged on its artistic merits. Still, Lelchuk celebrates the possibilities of richness that can occur when the ethnic is "joined with the familial to provide conflict."

Philip Roth's essay, "Writing about Jews" is, forty-one years after its initial publication, hopelessly dated. Roth takes to task Rabbi Emmanuel Rackman for publicly criticizing his 1959 Goodbye Columbus for its depiction of a materialistic Short Hills matron as an Orthodox Jew. …