Ideology and Jewish Identity in Israeli and American Literature

By Hoffman, Todd | Shofar, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview
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Ideology and Jewish Identity in Israeli and American Literature


Hoffman, Todd, Shofar


edited by Emily Miller Budick. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 288 pp. $71.50.

This important addition to SUNY Press's Modern Jewish Literature and Culture series is a collection of thirteen essays by such notable scholars as Gershon Shaked, Wolfgang Iser, and novelist A. B. Yehoshua, among others. This anthology reads like an encyclopedia of American and Hebrew-Israeli writers and their position in the contemporary history of Jewish writers in general. It is both a fine compilation of incisive analyses of cultural and historical influences on the shaping of American and Israeli Jewish identity and also a useful and thorough introduction to this particular field: namely, the debate over what constitutes "Jewish" writing or writers. The general claim of this book is that despite what Emily Budick calls the "disinclination of writers and intellectuals from the world's two major communities of Jews to relate seriously to the experience of the other," this very disinclination "tells us as much about processes of Jewish self-definition...as the narratives themselves." Furthermore, the historical conditions that gave rise to both American and Israeli conceptions of Jewish identity run along parallel lines: both literary traditions tend to construct narratives of Jewish identity upon secular grounds, exclusive of Judaism; both share commonalities in their early Zionist orientations and the subsequent separation from "Old World" values as immigrant groups slowly assimilated into a new culture; both were influenced by the Holocaust and the formation of Israel in 1948; and lastly, both have a "shared commitment to doing in the world" (Budick's italics) and have a keen sense of one's ethical responsibility and engagement with political issues. This anthology constructs "a dialogue" between these seemingly disparate groups who share a common culture and attempts a reconfiguration of the possible points of coordination in their literary output which would disclose an identifying category of Jewish writing and identity.

The organization of the essays is effective, beginning with a comprehensive examination of the overall periods of Jewish writing in America and Israel, moving on to a discussion of the various methods of appropriating specifically Jewish "cultural goods" in order to reconstruct a secular Jewish identity in a new homeland, progressing to a series of critiques of conservative accounts of Jewish history and language use, and finally ending with a discussion of the role of the critic in facilitating the dialogue of what it means to be a Jew. Eliezer Schweid's thorough and convincing account of the role of Zionism in the formation of a nationalist Hebrew-Israeli identity in his essay "The Construction and Deconstruction of Jewish Zionist Identity" nicely pairs with Shaked's own more sweeping examination of the role of historical conditions in the continually evolving formation of Israeli literary themes ("Contemporary Israeli Literature and the Subject of Fiction: From Nationhood to the Self").

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