Modern Jewish Literatures: Intersections and Boundaries

Modern Jewish Literatures: Intersections and Boundaries

Modern Jewish Literatures: Intersections and Boundaries

Modern Jewish Literatures: Intersections and Boundaries


Is there such a thing as a distinctive Jewish literature? While definitions have been offered, none has been universally accepted. Modern Jewish literature lacks the basic markers of national literatures: it has neither a common geography nor a shared language--though works in Hebrew or Yiddish are almost certainly included--and the field is so diverse that it cannot be contained within the bounds of one literary category.

Each of the fifteen essays collected in Modern Jewish Literatures takes on the above question by describing a movement across boundaries--between languages, cultures, genres, or spaces. Works in Hebrew and Yiddish are amply represented, but works in English, French, German, Italian, Ladino, and Russian are also considered. Topics range from the poetry of the Israeli nationalist Natan Alterman to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam; from turn-of-the-century Ottoman Jewish journalism to wire-recorded Holocaust testimonies; from the intellectual salons of late eighteenth-century Berlin to the shelves of a Jewish bookstore in twentieth-century Los Angeles.

The literary world described in Modern Jewish Literatures is demarcated chronologically by the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, and the French Revolution, on one end, and the fiftieth anniversary of the State of Israel on the other. The particular terms of the encounter between a Jewish past and present for modern Jews has varied greatly, by continent, country, or village, by language, and by social standing, among other things. What unites the subjects of these studies is not a common ethnic, religious, or cultural history but rather a shared endeavor to use literary production and writing in general as the laboratory in which to explore and represent Jewish experience in the modern world.


This book emerges from the yearlong project at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania on the topic “Modern Jewish Literatures: Language, Identity, Writing.” This was the first seminar at the Center devoted exclusively to literary studies, and it brought together some twenty scholars of literature, as well as one distinguished historian working on a literary topic, during the academic year 2004–5.

What was unique about the group, I think, was its wide diversity: experts in Yiddish, modern Hebrew, and Ladino literatures mixed with scholars of French, German, Arabic, Russian, English, and American writing, all grappling with the elusive subject of what Jewish literature might be if it were not necessarily defined by language or geography. While the group had been carefully selected to include a strong representation of specialists in Hebrew and Yiddish, the voices of those who worked in other traditions were highly audible. In so heterogeneous a group, there were often strong disagreement and heated exchange, and it was clear that the critics of Israeli literature felt that Diasporic literary production had challenged the privileged place they had assumed for Hebrew studies. But the members of the seminar were always courteous and respectful of their colleagues, even when strongly disagreeing with one another. What ultimately united the participants was a shared sense of the importance of literary studies for our understanding of the creativity of Jews over time and space.

This volume has been skillfully shaped by three thoughtful and industrious editors: Sheila Jelen, who works primarily in Hebrew literature; Scott Lerner, a scholar of French and Italian; and Michael Kramer, whose area of specialization is American Jewish literature. I am grateful to them for their hard work, for their conceptualization of the volume, and for their eloquent introduction, which not only contextualizes the variegated essays historically and thematically but also offers an important intervention in its own right on the perplexing question of what is Jewish literature. And of course . . .

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