Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American Literature; Lazarus, Syrkin, Reznikoff, Roth by Ranen Omer Sherman

Article excerpt

Occasionally, one comes upon a work of criticism that is so rich, so learned, so eloquent, and so astute in its analysis that one cannot help frantically underlining and filling the margins with orthographic outbursts of "yes!" Even more seldom are found books where such affirmative scrawlings intermingle with loud exclamatory scribbles of disagreement. The latter describes my own reading of Ranen Omer-Sherman's critical study of Diaspora and Zionism in the writings of Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), Marie Syrkin (1899-1989), Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976), and Philip Roth (1933-), a book which brings critical attention to a number of significant and underacknowledged writers, which is a model of interdisciplinary analysis and interpretive acumen, but which, for this avowedly Zionist reader, evinces a disturbing ideological bias.

Omer-Sherman wrote this book with a number of goals. In choosing to write about four Jewish American writers only one of whom is a mainstream popular figure (Roth), he acted on a desire to create "a counter-paradigm of the Jewish American canon" over and against such canon-forming works as Ruth Wisse's The Modern Jewish Canon (2000). To this task of reading these four writers, Omer-Sherman brings to bear an impressive variety of theoretical and methodological tools, combining history, literary interpretation, and cultural studies, as part of a "goal to bring the products of Jewish American literary creativity into a...broad multicultural perspective," as exemplified by the socio-political writing of Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin. Which brings us to the third goal of Omer-Sherman's book, which is to promote -- à la the Boyarins, and via the poetry of Charles Reznikoff -- a view of Jewish Diaspora not as forced Exile but as cultural practice, and as the primary source of Jewish ethics and identity.(1)

With respect to the first goal, Omer-Sherman consistently delivers thoughtful and illuminating readings of the writers he's chosen to study. His readings of Emma Lazarus' work are a case in point. Over the past decade or so, under the auspices of feminist and Jewish American literary studies, there has been renewed interest in Emma Lazarus, but Omer-Sherman's combined analysis of Lazarus' poetry and polemical prose adds a great deal to the discussion. Whereas most critics attribute Lazarus' later Jewish poetry to her contact with Russian immigrants and her rising awareness of pogrom atrocities, Omer-Sherman also considers the importance of Lazarus' disappointment in not having any of her work included in Ralph Waldo Emerson's anthology of American poetry (Parnasus, 1874). According to Omer-Sherman's notes, this was Lazarus' wake-up call that a Sephardic Jewess could not easily enter into the canon and a major impetus in her tam toward matters Jewish and Zionist. Despite her embrace of Jewish causes, as Omer-Sherman argues, Lazarus's lyrics and polemical writings interiorized some of the antisemitic notions that she set out to decry in many of her essays and poems.

Omer-Sherman's next chapter on the poetry and polemical prose of Marie Syrkin treads new ground, in bringing well-deserved attention to Syrkin as both Zionist activist and polemicist and poet. According to Omer-Sherman, in marked contrast to Lazarus' work, which oscillates between the poles of Zionism and Americanism, Syrkin's writing consistently condemns European Diaspora as violent and dangerous and the American Diaspora as "uniquely vacuous." As Omer-Sherman argues, Syrkin's staunchly Zionist writing refuses to validate "the open-ended flux of reality" in the Diaspora.

Throughout this study, Omer-Sherman pits Syrkin's post-Holocaust Zionist distrust of Diaspora against her husband [!] Charles Reznikoff's "liberal, anti-essentialist notion of Jewishness." In setting up this radical dichotomy between Reznikoff and Syrkin, he sets up a Zionist straw-woman, reducing Zionism to a unitary early 20(th) century Labor Zionist ideology that makes no accommodations with the Diaspora, that remains impervious to the potentially beneficial aspects with the culture hutz la-Arets (outside Israel), that is characterized by "manifest" social and ethical "failure. …