New Immigrant Literatures in the United States: A Sourcebook to Our Multicultural Literary Heritage

By Alpana Sharma Knippling | Go to book overview
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Israelis, and even some women who are not Jewish. The novel is Jewish in its concern for the law and ritual; it is feminist in focusing on the group and having no individual who stands out; and it is archaic, and at the same time modernist, in being told in a language redolent of epic, myth, and folktale.

It would be misleading to emphasize the religious dimension of this new writing. Secular-mindedness remains the norm, among younger Jewish women writers as among the men. One thinks of Cathleen Schine Rameau's Niece, an irreverent send-up of New York intellectual types, and of Rebecca Goldstein's The Mind-Body Problem and The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind. Even Allegra Goodman, who draws on substantial Jewish learning, remains more an ethnic than a religious writer. She is basically a satiric observer of manners, in the tradition of Jane Austen. That her fourth- and fifth-generation Jewish-American characters display so odd a mix of traditional Judaic and avantgarde attitudes demonstrates, among other things, a new phase of post-immigrant experience. No longer as stiffly correct as they were fifty years ago, middle- class Jews feel safer now in America. So it's all right to "act Jewish."

That phrase itself points to a problem. Is the new Jewish consciousness mainly a matter of "acting" or of "lifestyle," the now-threadbare term that serves us in place of older, better words like "vocation" or "profession"? A recent book, Saving Remnants, answers yes to that question. The authors, Sara Bershtel and Allen Graubard, telegraph their conclusions in the subtitle, Feeling Jewish in America. Their view is that selective religious observance, determined by mood rather than tradition, makes feel-good Jews pretty much like other hyphenated Americans, who are often being most conformist when they are being most ethnic. Jewish religious law, as Bershtel and Graubard point out, is not compatible with an off-again, on-again impulse to "feel" Jewish.

Saving Remnants is attuned to the weightlessness of some parts of contemporary Jewish-American experience. But it is too early to pronounce on the fate of Jewishness in America or on the profundity of the changes in Jewish consciousness. It will take many more decades before it becomes clear just what has been the effect on Jewish identity of the Holocaust. Then, too, there is the ongoing drama of Israel. These two epochal historical actualities have brought about changes in self-awareness that make the Jewish experience in America different from that of other immigrant groups. Whether the Jewish sense of "feeling different" will be enough to overcome countervailing trends--accelerating percentages of intermarriage and assimilation, decline of Jewish education, and so on--remains uncertain. But clearly, many gifted writers are engaging with the Jewish past and present in a way that distinguishes them from the merely fashionable and light-minded.


SELECTED PRIMARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Apple Max. The Oranging of America. New York: Grossman, 1976.

Arendt Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951. New York: Harvest Books, 1973.

Bell Daniel. The End of Ideology. 1960. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

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