The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature

By Avery, Evelyn | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature


Avery, Evelyn, Shofar


The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, edited by Michael P. Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 296 pp. $24.99.

As the People of the Book, Jews have always left literary footprints wherever they have resided, and nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, which has offered them educational opportunity and freedom from oppression. In the last century in particular, Jewish writers of all genres-poetry, fiction, drama, and the essay-have not just revealed Jewish experience, but have shaped American culture and tastes. How this has happened, the consequences for both Jewish and American culture, is partially addressed in the Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature. Unfortunately, editors Wirth-Nesher and Kramer have chosen to present Jewish American literature as an "incoherent coherence" of fourteen disconnected essays of variable merit.

As a guide for students and the general reader, the Cambridge Companion fills several important functions: illuminating previously neglected areas, providing essential historical and literary data, and suggesting new topics for research. Thus, Michael Kramer's essay explores the roots of Judaism in America and its inevitable break with the European rabbinic tradition, beginning with 19th-century writers such as Gershom Seixas, Mordecai Noah, and Isaac Mayer Wise, who encouraged the integration of Jews in America.

In an essay on Eastern European immigrants Priscilla Wald effectively surveys the writings of Israel Zangwill, Mary Antin, Abraham Cahan, and Anzia Yezierska, as well as other lesser known figures of the period. Her analysis of Yezierska's works is extensive and particularly insightful. David Roskies' delightful journey through Yiddish-American writing includes valuable analyses of works by Morris Rosenfeld, Sholem Asch, Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. An essay by Ruth Wisse recalls the post-World War II Jewish American literary renaissance with references to Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, concluding with a provocative analysis of Roth's The Human Stain. Unfortunately, the essay gives short shrift to Malamud's work, reflecting Wisse's continued bias which first appeared in The Modern Jewish Canon. A similar problem occurs in Emily Budick's piece on American Holocaust literature, which reveals breadth and depth but also bias, resulting in a distortion, for example, of Ozick's The Shawl and in randomly mixing major with minor authors and including non-Holocaust issues and victims.

However, while these essays have the virtue of being comprehensible and informative, others are seriously flawed and should have been omitted. A chapter on Jewish American writers on the left posits the obvious thesis that some oppressed Eastern European Jews became communists and during the cold war were "fired and blacklisted." While supplying an abundance of names of forgotten writers, the author dismisses "New York intellectuals" such as Trilling, Rahv, Fiedler, Howe, Rosenfeld, Podhoretz, who began on the left but became moderate or even conservative in their views. In Alan Wald's attempt to reassess Jewish American literature and place leftist writings at "center stage," he offers little support or explanation for the literature's value other than its demonization and need for rediscovery. …

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