The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature

The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature

The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature

The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature

Synopsis

Jewish Americans produced some of the most important writing in the U.S. in the twentieth century. This Companion addresses the distinctive Jewish American contribution to American literary criticism, poetry and popular culture. It establishes the broadest possible context for the discussion of Jewish American identity as it intersects with the corpus of American literature. Featuring a chronology and guide to further reading, the volume is valuable to scholars and students alike.

Excerpt

“Try not to love such a country!” exclaims Mottel the cantor's son, the orphaned Russian Jewish immigrant child in Sholem Aleichem's only New World novel, when he discovers that in America “it's not allowed to hit somebody smaller than yourself” (Adventures of Mottel the Cantor's Son, 260). Mottel's bittersweet Yiddish praise echoes—if unintentionally and somewhat ironically—a declaration made more than a hundred years earlier by the Sephardi banker Moses Seixas, warden of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in an address to George Washington, newly elected President of the United States:

Deprived as we hitherto have been of the invaluable rights of free citizens, we now… behold a government erected by the majesty of the people, a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance, but generously affording to all liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship, deeming every one of whatever nation, tongue or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.

(Schappes, A Documentary History of the Jews, 79)

These two passages help chart an important theme in the history of Jewish life in America. For millennia, Jews had lived under the rule of many other peoples, both in the Land of Israel and in exile in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. They sometimes enjoyed periods of tolerance, prosperity, and quasi-autonomy; often they suffered oppression, poverty, and violence. Throughout their history, in good times and bad, the Jews were considered to be different—religiously, ethnically, racially, and hence politically—a distinction, by the way, they did not always contest. When they came to America, however, they discovered—whether with unambiguous relief, or cautious optimism, or seasoned skepticism—that America was different. For many scholars, this theme gives coherence and distinctness to Jewish American history in general—and to Jewish American literary history in particular. “Without the opportunities, freedom, and openness found in this land, ”

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