Telling the Little Secrets: American Jewish Writings since the 1980s

By Osborne, Monica | Shofar, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Telling the Little Secrets: American Jewish Writings since the 1980s


Osborne, Monica, Shofar


Telling the Little Secrets: American Jewish Writings since the 1980s, by Janet Burstein. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. 264 pp. $45.00.

By now Irving Howe's dire prediction of the death of Jewish literature has undergone its own death. The outpouring of Jewish fiction in recent years has unquestionably proven Howe wrong. Janet Butstein's insightful and engaging new book, Telling the Little Secrets: American Jewish Writing since the 1980s, is yet another important undertaking in debunking Howe's premature epitaph for Jewish American fiction.

Remarking on the proliferation of literature by American Jews throughout the past three decades, Burstein contextualizes this literary explosion as part of a more recent Jewish American impulse to reconnect with the Jewish legacy of exile and trauma. Identifying the manner in which contemporary culture responds to its losses, "reconstructs memory of the Jewish past. . . and moves on" is central to Burstein's project, and launches her exploration of what she calls the "new wave" of Jewish American writing and reconnecting with the past "without hope of reviving it" (pp. xiii, 6, 13).

The term "new wave," however, which Burstein applies to Jewish American literature after 1980, unfairly ignores the nuanced differences of the past three decades of Jewish American writing - subtleties that have prompted some to break a century of Jewish American writing into four segments: immigrant, assimilationist, writing that returns to Jewish ritual and loss, and more recently writing that explores the experiences of new Jewish immigrants to America. While Burstein notes that the term was first used in 1995 by Andrew Furman and in 1997 by Morris Dickstein and Thane Rosenbaum in Tikkun to describe the work generated by Jewish American writers of the eighties and nineties, she seems to ignore the obvious: the "new wave" is no longer new. Much like the Jewish identity, it has "split at the root," to use Adrienne Rich's phrase, maturing into a thriving subgenre that has birthed a fourth wave of Jewish American writing with Russian immigrant authors including Gary Shteyngart and Laura Vapnyar, whose work looks more like the immigrant writing of Anzia Yezierska and Henry Roth, with socialist undertones in place of an urge to retrieve the remnants of Jewish ritual-all of whom Burstein leaves out with the exception of a footnote on Shtyengart.

Nonetheless, Burstein's sections on Thane Rosenbaum and Aryeh Lev Stollman are exceptionally well-written and offer carefully articulated analyses of both writers' work. Important is the concept of home as "the site of our most desperate struggles-a struggle first to receive nurture and care, then to achieve independence, and finally to assume tesponsibility." She notes that for Stollman's young Alexander (The Far Euphrates, 1998), distance and separation are "essential elements of what we imagine home to be" from the womb forward (p. 108).

Though critical in nature, Burstein's writing is articulate and imaginative in many instances. Vibrant imagery and provocative metaphors flourish in her writing. In her vision of new Jewish American writing second-generation "survivors" "stand closer to that center of radical destruction-like the crater left by a bomb-in which our dead, and much of the culture they created, are lost" (p. 7); Philip Roth's work exposes the "fault lines along which individual character breaks down" (p. 15); a sense of self becomes "a grave in which the past lies buried" (p. 43); what is left after atrocity are "shining lethal shards" (p. 75); and Jewish losses become a"mirrored chamber in which contemporary experience identifies its precursors" (p. 177).

But despite her noteworthy flair for insightful imagery, the project feels unfinished. For such an ambitious undertaking-the subtitle is, after all, "American Jewish Writings since the 1980s"-her treatment of recent Jewish American fiction is cursory at best, a marginal treatment of a burgeoning American literary phenomenon.

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