Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature

Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature

Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature

Red, Black, and Jew: New Frontiers in Hebrew Literature

Synopsis

Between 1890 and 1924, more than two million Jewish immigrants landed on America's shores. The story of their integration into American society, as they traversed the difficult path between assimilation and retention of a unique cultural identity, is recorded in many works by American Hebrew writers. Red, Black, and Jew illuminates a unique and often overlooked aspect of these literary achievements, charting the ways in which the Native American and African American creative cultures served as a model for works produced within the minority Jewish community. Exploring the paradox of Hebrew literature in the United States, in which separateness, and engagement and acculturation, are equally strong impulses, Stephen Katz presents voluminous examples of a process that could ultimately be considered Americanization. Key components of this process, Katz argues, were poems and works of prose fiction written in a way that evoked Native American forms or African American folk songs and hymns. Such Hebrew writings presented America as a unified society that could assimilate all foreign cultures. At no other time in the history of Jews in diaspora have Hebrew writers considered the fate of other minorities to such a degree. Katz also explores the impact of the creation of the state of Israel on this process, a transformation that led to ambivalence in American Hebrew literature as writers were given a choice between two worlds. Reexamining long-neglected writers across a wide spectrum, Red, Black, and Jew celebrates an important chapter in the history of Hebrew belles lettres.

Excerpt

This is not a history of Hebrew literature in America. Instead it relates a fascinating chapter of that literature’s preoccupation with America’s indigenous minorities, African Americans and Native Americans. the uniqueness of this interest stems from the fact that at no time in the annals of Hebrew literature and in any land of the Jewish Diaspora have writers demonstrated such a curiosity about other groups, out of sympathy with how other marginalized peoples have fared compared to the way Jews have fared in America. and while some of the ensuing interest is a consequence of the onset of modernity and a fostering of pluralism in Jewish, and Hebrew, culture, the American cultural factor is more significant than others have been. the spectacle of Hebrew writers preoccupying themselves with the ways of other minorities is, but for literature composed in English, unique in its scope among all minority literature on the American stage.

Though Hebrew writers in Europe did delve into encounters between Jewish protagonists and Gentiles, they foregrounded the former, often presenting them in superficial, stereotypical fashion. Few if any works were composed about the Gentile world without Jews as relevant factors in the plot. By the late nineteenth century, Hebrew literature about Jewish women and their lot began to become de rigueur. Later, Hebrew literary projects included translations of national epics of other groups out of motives other than interest in marginalized minorities. in tracing the Americanization of Hebrew literature, then, one of my concerns will be the examination of the works by American Hebrew writers who became inordinately enamored of the non-Jewish cultural landscape, including that of Native and African Americans.

Having reached its zenith in the middle of the twentieth century as it grew commensurately with the influx of immigrants, American Hebrew literature is a little-tapped record of the newest wave of Jewish immigration, cultural adaptation, and transformation in the New World. Though little may be attained by probing the meager Hebrew literary legacy of . . .

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