Jewish Authors

Jewish American authors maintain an important spot in the world of American literature. These authors wrote primarily in English, but at times in other languages too, such as Yiddish, which was the language spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe. Some of the more famous authors and contributors to the American Jewish literary scene are: Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and many others. They are classified as American Jewish authors, because to call them merely Jewish would not be right, yet not calling them American is also not accurate. Hence, the classification of American Jewish authors and writers came about. Their writings were steeped in Jewish culture and tradition that was quite evident in their work. Of course, they also wrote about American traditions and they were professionals in blending and meshing the two traditions, Jewish and American, into one.

Many Jewish intellectuals and writers arrived in the United States after the great wave of immigration which occurred between the years 1880 and 1924. In the mid-1920s Jewish writers entered the American literary scene, but it was not until the mid-1940s that major Jewish authors and writers appeared on a large scale. In the next 10 to 15 years, Jewish writers made major strides and became the spokespeople for this new influential phenomenon called modern American Jewish literature.

Most of the fiction stories written by the Jewish writers were produced after World War II, and were greatly influenced by the experiences of that time. It is therefore not surprising that many of their topics are similar. Another topic that is common in many of the writings is their cultural identity, which many authors write about and grappled with.

Most Jews who arrived on the American shores in the early 1900s led a strict traditional Jewish life as they had done while in Europe. Shortly after arrival, waves of liberalism, socialism and enlightenment began to emerge and Jews were swept along with the masses. They began revolting against their traditional Jewish way of life and became more American and secular. The first-generation immigrant Jews still adhered to their culture and way of life. However, the second generation slowly detached themselves from their traditions and holy books and got connected to the new ideas and moral changes that had become very popular. They became totally secularized. With the passing of time, these second-generation Jews not only abandoned their traditions but became leaders of the secular revolution.

This change in their lifestyles is very evident in the writings of the second-generation Jewish authors. More and more books were written in English, as opposed to the earlier generation who wrote most of their works in Yiddish. Having abandoned the Yiddish language they began writing in the English language with all its intonations, writing fluently, though many actually spoke the language with very heavy Yiddish accents.

There were two main topics that postwar Jewish authors wrote about. They depicted the atrocities and horrors that had befallen the people during the war; the themes of many of their books were brutality, war, unemployment and depression. Not many of the early Jewish authors wrote love stories or other stories with happy themes. The other topic that Jewish authors occupied themselves with was the dilemma in which they found themselves. They had to come to terms with the isolation that they had created in their separation from their rich traditional past. They were also disillusioned with its ideology as well as the prevailing politics and the economic environment. They were greatly affected by the rise of fascism and the Great Depression. They suddenly found themselves isolated from both their past and their present. For the next two decades Jewish authors wrote fiction that reflected their sense of doom, disaster and displacement. It was quite obvious from their writings that they favored socialism.

Modern and contemporary Jewish authors, including Michael Chabon, Paul Auster and Art Spiegelman, although continuing to write about the Holocaust, have begun to tackle the problem of assimilation and the rediscovery by the younger generation of more traditional Judaism. Another favorite theme of their writing is Zionism and Israel and the latest phenomenon, called new anti-Semitism.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Creative Awakening: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1900-1940s
Louis Harap.
Greenwood Press, 1987
In the Mainstream: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Literature, 1950s-1980s
Louis Harap.
Greenwood Press, 1987
The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature
Hana Wirth-Nesher; Michael P. Kramer.
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Jewish Women Fiction Writers
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1998
Defenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Modern Historical Crisis
Robert Alter.
Jewish Publication Society of America, 1977
Dramatic Encounters: The Jewish Presence in Twentieth-Century American Drama, Poetry, and Humor and the Black-Jewish Literary Relationship
Louis Harap.
Greenwood Press, 1987
A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity, and Memory
Norman Ravvin.
McGill-Queens University Press, 1997
Our Decentralized Literature: Cultural Mediations in Selected Jewish and Southern Writers
Jules Chametzky.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1986
The Schlemiel as Metaphor: Studies in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction
Sanford Pinsker.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1991 (Revised edition)
From Exile to Redemption: The Fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer
Grace Farrell Lee.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1987
Dreamer of the Ghetto: The Life and Works of Israel Zangwill
Joseph H. Udelson.
University of Alabama Press, 1990
Saul Bellow against the Grain
Ellen Pifer.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990
Humorous Contemporary Jewish-American Authors: An Overview of the Criticism
Nilsen, Don L. F.
MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1996
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