Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Breaking the Silences: Jewish-American Women Writing the Holocaust

Academic journal article Yearbook of English Studies

Breaking the Silences: Jewish-American Women Writing the Holocaust

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article focuses on a detailed reading of three short stories from the 1980s (Cynthia Ozick's 'The Shawl', Rebecca Goldstein's 'The Legacy of Raizel Kaidish', and Leslea Newman's 'A Letter to Harvey Milk'), and argues that the recent profusion of short fiction by American-Jewish women, much of it dealing with the Holocaust, represents a breaking of two silences: the taboo imposed on American-Jewish women writers by the canonical dominance of male figures such as Bellow, Roth, and Malamud, and the absence in their fiction of the Holocaust. It suggests that there is in these short stories an ambivalent aesthetic of Holocaust fiction at work: that is to say, a desire to give a voice to wartime Jewish suffering, and the fear that to do so will inevitably involve aestheticizing, and therefore profaning, that suffering. This manifests itself in these stories in an unresolved tension between speech and silence.

Literature is often a matter of response to the challenge of the literature that went before. Work by women swings not only on this pendulum, as most writing does; it swings on a second pendulum, within the first. Women reply to what is expected of them as women -- complying if they are compliant, rebelling if they are not. (Norma Rosen).[1]

The greatest paradox forms about the Holocaust, it seems to me, for novelists, in the tension between writing and not writing about it. If the writer treats the subject, the risk is that it may be falsified, trivialized. Even a 'successful' treatment of the subject risks an aestheticizing or a false ordering of it, since whatever is expressed in art conveys the impression that it, too, is subject to the laws of composition. Yet not to write means omitting the central event of the twentieth century. (Norma Rosen)[2]

One of the most striking developments in post-war American fiction has been the emergence of a number of male Jewish-American novelists as mainstream, even canonical figures. In the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Bernard Malamud all have entries; among contemporary American-Jewish women only Grace Paley rates a mention. The gender imbalance is even greater in Tony Hilfer's Longman Guide to post-1940 American fiction in which Bellow, Roth, Malamud, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, and Joseph Heller are all given individual consideration, whereas Cynthia Ozick's is the lone female Jewish entry. When Martin Amis observes, 'The twentieth-century novel belongs to [. . .] Jewish-Americans',[3] it is these male writers he is referring to, rather than their female counterparts: Anzia Yezierska, Hortense Calisher, Tillie Olsen, Ozick, and Paley. Leaving aside his personal enthusiasm, amounting almost to discipleship, for the work of Bellow, and the question of whether his aesthetic values are underpinned by peculiarly male sensibilities, there is undeniably a generic, if not a gender, bias operating here. Although he has himself written a collection of short stories, for Amis (and indeed for most of the still predominantly male academic establishment) it is the novel that is the index of greatness in fiction. This immediately loads the dice against women fiction writers, who have often been, and still are, drawn to the short story form.[4] When it comes to Jewish-American women writers, certainly, the three most influential figures, Ozick, Paley, and Olsen, are all best known for their work in this genre. Moreover, in the last ten years or so, there has been an explosion of writing, most of it in the form of short stories, by American-Jewish women.[5] If it was once possible to speak of Jewish-American fiction and mean male Jewish-American fiction, it should be so no longer. While Bellow and Mailer are still writing and Philip Roth continues to go from strength to strength, many of the old guard (Singer, Malamud, Heller, Stanley Elkin) are now dead, and among the younger generation it is women writers (most of whom have made their names writing short stories) who are leading the way. …

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