Academic journal article Shofar

Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation, by Emily Miller Budick

Academic journal article Shofar

Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation, by Emily Miller Budick

Article excerpt

Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation, by Emily Miller Budick

In this richly textured scholarly work, Emily Miller Budick probes the relations between Jewish- and African-Americans as expressed in modern literature. As a former American, a religious Jew living in Israel, Budick believes she stands outside of the conundrum of the African-American -- Jewish-American relationship at an "ideologically informed critical distance" (p. 6) and, therefore, can tease out aspects of the relationship that are taken for granted by the engaged participants. Her work is particularly plangent because she implies that much of Jewish-American ethnic writing reveals a "failure to consolidate ethnic identity within the Jewish community itself" (p. 12), a fact that is in dramatic contrast to the African-American community whose "careful course of cultural preservation and separateness...succeeded in transforming our idea of America" (p. 6).

Budick's intention is to illuminate the ethnic identities of African- and Jewish-Americans by examining their "mutual construction" of identity in literature. However, what lifts Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation from a merely literary discussion is her insistence on an implicit comparison between Jewish-American identity and "that other national identity that proved for many Jews (the writer of this study included) irresistible...the state of Israel" (p. 150).

For Budick, the difficulties Jewish-Americans face in constructing an identity in this pluralist society are epitomized by Bernard Malamud's The Tenants, the novel that provides the paradigm for Budick's literary critique. Malamud's novel ends with two tenants of the same house, both writers (one black and one Jewish), killing each other in a violent and horrible way. Unlike most other critics who explicate the obvious confrontation, Budick chooses to examine Malamud's treatment of Jewish material in the novel to illustrate "the failure of American Jews to consolidate an American identity that preserves Jewish content" (p. 13). The "most Christian" of the major modern Jewish-American writers, Malamud, Budick argues, not only "resisted being labeled a Jewish American writer" (p. 13) but in his use of the universalizing metaphor of the Jew as sufferer, subordinates Jewish identity to Christian theological tradition. This metaphor, "all men as Jews and all Jews as Christs" (p. 15), underpins the inability of Malamud's Jewish character, writer Harry Lesser, to move out of the building in which he is a tenant and to finish the book on which Lesser has been working for many years. In Budick's reading, Lesser faces a sterile future because of his identity confusion: "the problem that Malamud's Tenants and the other texts that stand behind it raise is whether universalism includes or excludes, expresses or denies, the different ethnic groups it would subsume" (p. 52).

Lurking behind this novel, Budick claims, is the socio-cultural dialogue between Jewish- and African-Americans about who should have cultural dominance in America, a debate that informed both Malamud's authorial intentions and the critical reaction to the novel. The history of the exchange begins in media res with the angry response of Ralph Ellison and other African-American intellectuals to the assumption of cultural hegemony by Jewish-American critics, a response triggered by Irving Howe's declaration that Richard Wright was the "quintessential black writer" (p. 21). Ellison argued that Howe, although claiming the position of outsider, ultimately supported the existing white power structure and that, while Jewish-Americans identified with the oppression of blacks, the Jewish relationship to white American culture was substantially different from that of African-Americans. Ultimately the dialogue became fiercer (Norman Podhoretz and Stanley Edgar Hyman became entangled) because, as Ellison and others felt, white Americans (which included Jewish-Americans) do not have problems with African-Americans speaking "on the margins" but with African-Americans "as central players in the American culture game" (p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.