Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish American literature and culture.
By the usual laws of literary justice, Jewish American fiction should have melted into the giant maw of assimilation. After all, the story of Jewish American literature may have begun with a chronicling of the shocks and sordid poverty that immigrants found (mostly on the lower East Side and mostly in the fictions of Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska and Henry Roth), but it became the saga of how a generation of immigrant sons managed to take the long psychic journey from Brooklyn tribalism to Manhattan sophistication. This second group of writers could be said to have achieved the victory of becoming American: in the years following World War II, Americans were so taken with things "Jewish"--whether it be Borsht Belt comics or Levy's rye bread--that the stage was set for such disparate writers as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, I.B. Singer, and Philip Roth to be characterized as members of a Jewish American renaissance.
The same literary politics, however, that once inspired critic-writer Leslie Fiedler to talk about the "Judaization of Main Street" cooled off precipitously during the mid-1970s. After all, how many pale imitations of Portnoy's Complaint did anyone need? What else was left to be said? Quite a bit, as the newest generation of Jewish American writers has found. Their insistence on what could be called a literature of "return" or a "new Jewish literacy" has little to do with the usual pitched battles between the ambitious young and those prone to imagine that history will end when they do. Rather, it is a case of material that now chooses them (rather than the other way around) and that differs markedly from the strenuous efforts immigrant sons once made to escape from the parochialism of their parents.
Some of these writers, like Allegra Goodman and Rebecca Goldstein, explore the often deliciously comic ways that modern Orthodoxy and modernism rub against each other. Others, like Steve Stern, have discovered that the shtetl exerts an imaginative grip long after urban Jewish quarters gave way to suburban split levels. And then there are a considerable number of contemporary Jewish writers (among them Thomas Friedman, Barbara Finklestein, Art Spiegelman, J.J. Steinfield, Julie Salamon, Lev Raphael, Carol Ascher) who are children of survivors, creating a new genre I call post-Holocaust fiction. These fictionists share Melvin Jules Bukiet's stark insistence that "in the beginning was Auschwitz"--not, to be sure, the Auschwitz actually experienced in Mittel Europa, but rather the Auschwitz that, as Thane Rosenbaum likes to insist, is coded into their very genes.
Because these writers are formed by--and respond to--a shared condition as children of those who experienced the nightmare of the Shoah first-hand, Alan Berger, in a recent study, has called them Children of Job (SUNY Press 1997). To his credit, Berger does not lump all Holocaust survivors, or their children, into a single, easily defined category. Some embrace God and religious observance; some decidedly do not. Some point toward gestures of reconciliation while others continue to stoke the fires of loss, mourning, and unremitting fury. But can the Holocaust's second generation be termed "children of Job?" Perhaps, although I am surely not alone in finding The Book of Job's deus ex machina, fairy tale ending unconvincing. As Berger puts it, "The Job of antiquity suffered, and even rebelled, but he was granted a mystical experience of the deity and a divine `confession' that the universe lacked perfection. The Book of Job `answers' the question of theodicy by affirming divine majesty and human penance." In the world after Auschwitz, however, I believe Job's story demands a more complicated--and darker--telling. Elie Wiesel has pointed out the need for a sequel to the Book of Job, and that is what the children of survivors, albeit in very different forms and attitudes, are trying to write. …