A Forgotten Forerunner: Zelda Popkin's Novels of the Holocaust and the 1948 War

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A Forgotten Forerunner: Zelda Popkin's Novels of the Holocaust and the 1948 War(1)

Although her work has now fallen into neglect, Zelda Popkin ( 1898-1983) deserves a place in the history of American Jewish literature both for having written one of the first English-language novels with a Holocaust theme and for having published the first American novel about the Israeli war for independence. Small Victory (1947) and Quiet Street (1951) both demonstrate the difficulties that mid-century American Jews, wedded to the project of assimilation into middle-class American life, had in understanding the consequences of the destruction of European Jewry and the creation of an independent Jewish state.

In view of the subsequent development of American Jewish literature, the fact that a Jewish writer who was fairly well known in the 1940s could have published both what may have been the first American novel on a Holocaust theme and what was definitely the first American novel about the Israeli war of independence and yet could now be almost totally forgotten excites some curiosity. This has been the fate of Zelda Popkin, whose Small Victory (1947) and Quiet Street (1951) quickly faded into oblivion and are unmentioned in the scholarly studies of literature on these themes.(2) Even a close relative such as myself has to admit that both books had significant flaws that prevented them from being the successes their author -- my grandmother -- devoutly hoped they would be. The books are nevertheless important as forgotten chapters in the development of American-Jewish representations of the great events of mid-century Jewish history. Popkin's novels show how difficult it was for mid-century American Jews, who had claimed a share in the country's public life on the grounds that "Jews are just like everyone else," to make sense of these dramatic challenges to the ideology of assimilation. The books' fate also illuminates some important aspects of the situation of American fiction with Jewish themes in the years before the great breakthrough associated with the names of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth.(3) Furthermore, the author of these novels was a woman writer who cast women characters in leading roles in her stories, particularly in her book on Israel, and her work deserves its proper place in the history of American Jewish women's writing.

Zelda Popkin (1898-1983) was in many ways typical of her generation, an upwardly mobile child of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants. Born Jenny Feinberg -- she renamed herself after she left home for New York during World War I -- she grew up mostly in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where her father ran a series of unsuccessful stores and commercial ventures.(4) As a child, she was already determined to be a writer. At age 16, she became the first female reporter for the local paper, before heading off to New York to study at the Columbia School of Journalism.(5) In New York, she met Louis Popkin, another child of Jewish immigrants. Their marriage ended her aspiration to be a full-time journalist, but it did not transform her into a housewife. She and her husband founded one of the first public relations firms in the country and continued to run it together until Louis Popkin's death in 1943. The Popkins' New York household broke with the Orthodox traditionalism of Zelda's parents but remained connected to Jewish concerns. "We lived, as far as I remember, in an almost totally Jewish world, consisting mainly of similarly emancipated Jews," one of their sons recalls. "My parents were actively involved in the Yiddish culture of New York, knew the writers, the playwrights, the actors."(6) The Popkin firm worked for a wide variety of clients, including Franklin Roosevelt's presidential campaigns, but also handled publicity for many Jewish causes, such as Albert Einstein's lecture tour on behalf of the Zionist movement in 1923 and the United Palestine Appeal. When the couple's second son -- my father -- was born, Rabbi Stephen Wise took the time to compose a whimsical letter addressed to the new arrival. …