Choosing to Be Chosen: The Jewish Literary Imagination in America. (Arts and Letters)

Article excerpt

Exactly when did Jewish writing in America begin? Most people assume that it began in the last decades of the 19th century with the poetry of Emma Lazarus and the great wave of immigration from Europe. Though a good guess, strictly speaking, it is not quite accurate. In point of fact, Jewish writing in America appears to begin at the end of the 18th century when Reverend Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first native-born "minister" (that is how he referred to himself) of a synagogue to preach in English, hazzan of the Sephardic synagogue Shearith Israel, and an incorporator of Columbia College in New York, preached his famous sermons. In his May, 1798 "Discourse" (Wm. A. Davis & Co. for Naphtali Judah, Bookseller and Stationer, no. 47 Water Street, New York, 1798), he argued for French-American relations even though New York had many bitter opponents of the French Revolution. (1) This text later would be published by the Jewish Publication Society. Of course, as advertised, this is "discourse"--not imaginative literature, and so one may rightly ask when it was that we first began to see fruits of the Jewish literary imagination in America. For this, we must wait until the 19th century; but even this terminus a quo proves a bit earlier than one might have guessed.

In the last decades of the 18th century, when America was a young republic, the novel was dismissed as an inferior literary form, of dubious moral value. Yet a member of the American branch of the prestigious English Franks family, one Isaac Franks, a New Yorker and veteran of the Revolutionary War, rose to defend the lowly novel. Found among the papers of this highly cultivated gentleman was a handwritten defense entitled "On Novel Reading," dating from 1800. Franks was an avid novel reader and had come to the conclusion that "[i]gnorance and malignity may decry this species of writing; but in my opinion, the names Cervantes, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Roche, and Burney will and ought to command the admiration of those who possess feeling, discernment, and taste." (2)

The Jews of early America may have been avid readers, but they were not yet writers of novels. The very first evidence of creative literary activity comes from the pen of the Charleston-born Penina Moise (179%1880), whose volume of verse, Fancy--Sketch Book, published in 1833, was the first book of poetry by a Jew--male or female--to be published in America. Though her verse was not especially inspired, it is worth noting that at a time when most Jews avoided writing about Jewish subjects (particularly in non-Jewish publications), in 1820, Moise contributed a poem to the Southern Patriot that prefigures Emma Lazarus's famous sonnet affixed to the Statue of Liberty:

   Fly from the soil whose desolating creed,
   Outraging faith, makes human victims bleed,
   Welcome! Where every Muse has reared a Shrine,
   The respect of wild Freedom to refine....
   Rise, then, elastic from Oppression's tread,
   Come and repose in Plenty's flowery bed.
   Oh! not as Strangers shall welcome be
   Come to the homes and bosoms of the free. (3)

In these first few decades of the 19th century, however, a few dramatists were writing plays, notably, Isaac Harby of Charleston, and the more famous Mordecai Noah of New York, who wrote about a dozen plays and still holds a minor place in the history of American drama. Nonetheless, Noah is probably best remembered for his fantastical scheme for a temporary asylum for Jews on an island in the Niagara River, near Buffalo, New York, which he called Ararat; here they could await their return to Palestine. None of these playwrights, most of whom were of Sephardic background, included any depiction of Jews or addressed Jewish subjects, except for one or two plays on Biblical themes.

By the fourth decade of the century, however, as poverty, political upheaval, and antisemitism provoked Jews across the ocean to move from one place to another in Europe, America soon began to attract a sizable emigration from Germany and the Central European countries. …