I entered the world of book reviewing, criticism, and literary journalism during the height of the multicultural movement, when academics, critics, and librarians were belatedly recognizing the significance of works by writers from groups left out of the official canon of American literature. During this awakening, books by African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Americans, as well as gay and lesbian writers, were read with fresh eyes, accorded serious critical attention, and embraced by the public. This enrichment of American letters has had lasting and profound effects, and librarians were in the vanguard of this movement, not only by making books available to readers, but also by sponsoring book groups and participating in book discussion events, including the American Library Association's latest "Let's Talk About It" (LTAI) program, "Jewish Literature: Identity and Imagination" (AL, Mar., p. 7-8).
I've given a great deal of thought to the relationship between ethnicity and literature, and as a Jew I've contemplated my heritage. Yet I did not expect to see Jewish literature recognized as a subset of American letters because Jewish writers have long been in the mainstream. Think Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, E. L. Doctorow, and Cynthia Ozick. But a confluence of events has convinced me that there is such a thing as Jewish literature that is recognized as unique and avidly read by Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike.
The gestalt of exile
I was inspired to reconsider the state of Jewish literature after I realized that I was coming across a surprising number of provocative works of fiction about what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. I was quite taken with Julie Orringer's fiercely beautiful short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater (Knopf, 2003), in which she deftly portrays an array of young Jews, including Hasidic teens. As I read Russian-Jewish immigrant Lara Vapnyar's There Are Jews in My House (Pantheon, 2003), a stunning short story collection set in Moscow and Brooklyn, I found myself thinking about all that has changed (and all that has remained the same) since my Russian-Jewish grandfather arrived in New York City as a child. Another debut author, David Bezmozgis, who also writes about the Russian-Jewish immigrant experience in Natasha and Other Stories (Farrar, 2004), caused me to consider how, from the Exodus forward, exile has been at the core of Jewish existence, and how the Diaspora caused Jews to become known as the people of the book. As Jonathan Rosen, author most recently of a novel featuring a woman rabbi, Joy Comes in the Morning (Farrar, 2004), writes so succinctly in his brilliant interpretative treatise, The Talmud and the Internet: A Journey between Worlds (Farrar, 2000), the Talmud, the great gathering of Jewish tradition and thought, "offered a virtual home for an uprooted culture, and grew out of the Jewish need to pack civilization into words and wander out into the world."
When ALA's Public Programs Office asked me to help evaluate the materials for its new LTAI program, I had the opportunity to further clarify my perception of Jewish literature. A 22-year-old reading and book discussion series conducted at libraries nationwide, LTAI programs are led by local scholars and supported by exceptionally thoughtful and enlightening materials. Themes have included family and work, books for children, women's autobiography, Latino literature, Native-American writing, the African-American migration, and Japanese literature. As I read through the four rich and provocative essays that support "Jewish Literature: Identity and Imagination" and considered each of the books to be discussed, I could see how the new writers I'd been reading simultaneously fit into the continuum of Jewish literature and pulled it in new directions. In particular, the essay on exile, "Between Two Worlds: Stories of Estrangement and Homecoming," resonated with the themes in books from the past, such as the unforgettable 1925 novel Bread Givers (reprinted in 2003 by Persea Books) by Anzia Yezierska, who emigrated from Poland to America in 1890, as well as such contemporary works as Myla Goldberg's popular Bee Season (Doubleday, 2000). …