Conference Report: Trends in Jewish American Literature

By Shapiro, Gary | Midstream, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Conference Report: Trends in Jewish American Literature


Shapiro, Gary, Midstream


Just where is Jewish American literature headed? A group of academics assembled in a sun-drenched room high above Philadelphia at the close of a conference of the Modern Language Association, the nation's largest professional organization in the humanities, to take stock of this flourishing field. The scholarly issues raised continue to resonate two years after the panel discussion took place.

The variegated legacy of Jewish American literature spans centuries, ranging from nineteenth-century poets such as Emma Lazarus to Yiddish authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and contemporary authors such as Michael Chabon. The panel mainly restricted itself to various changes in the field that have taken place in roughly the last decade.

The topic of women writers was the first to come up for discussion. A professor of English and Humanities at Farmingdale State College, Ann Shapiro (no relation to the author), opened her remarks by saying, 'We may be living in a post-feminist age." She said that she was not finding the same kind of feminist Jewish American writing that she encountered in the 1970s and 1980s: "What we are seeing in well-regarded young novelists is something different." The new generation of women writers were less rebellious than their "foremothers" writing in the previous decades, she observed.

A professor and coordinator of Jewish Studies at Towson University, Evelyn Avery, agreed. She said that since the 1990s, Jewish American literature has partly returned to heritage and tradition--and even more specifically--to religion. Ms. Towson, who presided at the panel, said a number of young women authors have written novels and short stories exploring their Jewish heritage "not just sociologically or historically, but theologically." Traditional religion has been evident in the work of writers such as Allegra Goodman and Pearl Abraham, "who are proudly invested in their Judaism."

Ms. Shapiro, a scholar whose specialties include Jewish American women's writing, said that Tova Mirvis and Pearl Abraham, who were raised in orthodox homes, have mined that experience for their novels. But she said that capturing the religious dimension of Judaism in literary

form was not necessarily new. Cynthia Ozick had already been doing that years earlier, Ms. Shapiro said.

A number of earlier Jewish American writers had tended to distance themselves from the yoke of religion. Ms. Avery said that immigrant novels in America by writers such as Sholem Aleichem and Anna Yezierska were rebellious in pulling away from traditional Judaism of earlier generations. Ms. Shapiro said that this earlier immigrant literature asked the question, "How much change can a Jewish family and culture sustain?" She said later writers from the Jewish feminist movement, such as Norma Rosen and Anne Roiphe also exhibited a further pulling away from traditional Jewish heritage, partly because of how it restricted Jewish women.

Some of the new writers cannot be pigeonholed. Ms. Shapiro offered the example of Geraldine Brooks, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel March. She has Jewish parents and a Jewish husband, but is not easily labeled as a Jewish American writer. Some of her writing has little to do with Judaism, Ms. Shapiro said. The audience laughed when she said that Ms. Brooks, who divides her time between America and Australia, considers herself a "Green Jewish-Australian/American-liberal-feminist-socialist-atheist."

Ms. Shapiro said writers such as Ms. Brooks were not the kind predicted by Irving Howe, who had famously pronounced that as the Jewish-American immigrant generation passed, there would no longer be a basis for Jewish American literature. "Obviously, Howe was wrong in that writers have since been identifying with other aspects of the tradition," Ms. Shapiro noted.

Ms. Shapiro concluded her remarks by noting that she was finding in Jewish American literature a move perhaps toward something more androgynous. …

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