Jewish-American Literature

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jewish-American Literature


Jewish-American literature is now only about one century old if we include that literature which was written in Yiddish by immigrants between 1885 and 1935.  Yiddish, however, is hardly used in America at the beginning of the 21st century so that anything foreign except some of the works of Goethe and Voltaire has no influence on the American Jew simply because he cannot read it.

Yiddish writers were commonly radicals and secularists.   From the time of the first volume of Yiddish poetry published in America in 1877 to the end of the Yiddish era in about 1975, Jewish-American writers always exhibited a strong interest in radical and hence secular ideas. Yiddish writers expressed themselves in poetry, in the theater, in novels, in newspapers and in intellectual books, papers and pamphlets. Throughout these five media ran, for the most part,  a secular attitude most visible in the novel.

The first Jewish novels written in America were written by immigrants. This was true not because there were no Jews here before the last two decades of the nineteenth century, but because those Jews who had come here before 1881 were very few, had arrived in the 17th century from Spain and Portugal and in the nineteenth century from Germany and had rapidly assimilated into the majority American culture. However, 1881 marked a major turning point in Jewish history. On March 1 of that year the Russian Czar, Alexander II, was assassinated. When  his son Alexander III ascended  the Russian throne persecution of the Jews became the policy of the Russian government and led to the prompt immigration of millions of Jews to America. These millions of Jews spoke Yiddish so that it is not at all surprising that the first American Jewish writers included in that migration wrote in that language.                      

Thus, the Jewish writers of that day brought European Jewishness to America. Among these was Morris Winshevsky, who promoted socialism but had very little Jewish content in his poetry. Instead, Winshevsky was a follower of the Jewish enlightenment, called Haskalah, a movement with a distinct secular emphasis. In fact, Winshevsky represented the revolt against religion at the end of the 19th century when he wrote: "For disbelief and hatred toward all faiths reached a high point of fanaticism.....My greatest delight was to prove that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, that Joshuah did not cause the heavens to stand still." 

There were of course innumerable other authors but only a few stand out as major contributors to Yiddish writing in the U.S.A. There was Morris Rosenfeld, prime representative of the so-called "sweatshop" poets,  who reflected the Jewish radicalism of his day. That radicalism was the reaction to the misery of living in immigrant slums, of the exploitation of the Jewish workers, and the desperation of the Jewish masses. It was a radicalism which rejected the religion of Europe and sought to rely on the politics of this world instead.  Although Rosenfeld was translated into English, his following in the English language was only temporary so that his fame rests finally on the Yiddish following he was able to attract.  He too was an agnostic.

The most important Yiddish writer of the early twentieth century however, was Abraham Cahan. Although he spoke Yiddish better than English, Cahan succeeded in publishing  The Chosen People and The Rise of David Levinsky in English in 1917. This book has been called "the most important novel written by a Jewish immigrant".   In it Levinsky becomes an American millionaire at the cost of his Jewish heritage and upon first becoming a thoroughgoing secularist. "Spencer and Darwin replace the Torah, Dickens and Thackeray the Talmud." Cahan depicts the emptiness of Levinsky's life despite his rise to money and fame.

Other American Jewish writers who wrote in the Yiddish or the English idiom were Sidney Nyburg, Anzela Yezierska, James Oppenheim, Samuel Ornitz and Ludwig Lewisohn, who was born in the United States, the son of German Jewish immigrants. All these dealt with the fate of the immigrants. All of these rejected religion and sought to show how pragmatism and realism were far superior in solving man's problems than belief in anything supernatural. 

During the depression of the 1930's American Jewish writers, now mostly born in the U.S.A., were very much affected by the discontinuity of European Judaism with American Judaism. Except for the 1978 Nobel prize winner in literature Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was born in Poland in 1904, these writers all wrote in English. Singer, although he wrote in Yiddish, was published in English so that his work is known to almost all Americans in the latter idiom.

Except for Ludwig Lewisohn and Meyer Levin, who defended Jewishness if not Judaism, these writers all rejected Jewish tradition. Instead, these writers leaned toward the political "left" and viewed their Jewishness as a secular condition. Nelson Algren in Somebody in Boots, Albert Halper in The Foundry, Isadore Schneider in From the Kingdom of Necessity  and many others viewed socialism as the answer to the Jewish problem both here and abroad and disdained religion entirely. Demanding a future free of tradition, writers such as Michael Gold in Jews Without Money, or Charles Reznikoff in By the Waters of Manhattan all believe that Marxism, not Judaism, is the inevitable answer to the degradations and hardships of the immigrant slums.

The writer Paul Goodman, whom the historian Irving Howe called a "Jewish intellectual alienated to the point of complete reduction," thought that the fellowship of all humans is enhanced by the Jewish tradition and that the fully Jewish is regarded as the fully human. Judaism as a religion or as a separate experience is hardly credited by Goodman. 

Added to these novelists, there were in the first part of the 20th century Jewish theologians who also strove to distance theology from the European tradition. Kaufman Kohler, a reform Rabbi wrote Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered in 1918 and in 1934 Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a representative of the conservative movement in Judaism, published his monumental Judaism as a Civilization.  

Not only did these rabbis disconnect American Judaism from European Judaism, they also redefined the God concept. Thus, Kaplan presents God as "a chronologically variable social idea," or as a "struggling ordering force of nature."

Thus, after the second world war, i.e., after 1945, a vast number of Jewish - American writers inundated the literature of the United States and have kept this up until the beginning of this century.

A list of all the American - Jewish writers who have contributed to American literature since 1945 cannot be presented here. It is far too long and would involve a discussion of a whole social movement with far reaching consequences for American culture. Some of the most prominent names among American-Jewish fiction writers are of course Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Tillie Olson, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, Herbert Gold, Joseph Heller, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, Hugh Nissensen and Phillip Roth.

The works of Phillip Roth are undoubtedly  excellent examples of the rejection of traditional Judaism already exhibited by the Yiddish writers a generation earlier. Like their non-Jewish contemporaries and predecessors, Jewish writers in the last half of the 20th century contributed a great deal to the secularization of America and Jewish life as well as they created a distinction between Judaism and Jewishness which their grandparents never knew and which has become the Great Divide within the Jewish community in the twenty-first century.

In 1933, when Phillip Roth was born, mass  immigration to the United States had come to an end and Jewish immigration, mostly from Germany, was small and involved many newcomers already secularized by their German environment. Numerous Yiddish writers and the philosophical, scientific and literary world in America had secularized at least the academic world and in particular such institutions as the University of Chicago,  where Roth was a student and where American sociology was created.

Like thousands of other Jews who came of age in the '30's, Roth entered into the world of higher education where the challenges to Judaism or any religion were already embedded in the curriculum. And since over eighty percent of Jews of college age attend an institution of higher education and have done so for half a century, they, like Roth, found every reason to divorce Judaism from Jewishness and discard "the faith of our fathers."

Many of the Jewish writers, with Roth in the forefront, now opposed their Jewish heritage and treated it with contempt, disdain and calumny. In fact, since Roth wrote Good-Bye, Columbus in 1959 "there are those who still grit their teeth, hoping that the irreverent, satirical  Mr. Roth will go away."

Roth, of course, did to the Jewish world what non-Jewish writers had already done to the Christian world for a century. He secularized the sacred. He ridiculed the divine. He insulted the tradition and he vulgarized his "in-group." Thus, Roth, and so many other Jewish - American writers, contributed mightily, not only to the secularization of Judaism and America in general, but also to the de-mystification of the Jewish tradition. This means that both for non-Jews and for Americans of Jewish origins who had left the tradition behind, Roth provides insight into 20th (and 21st) century Jewish life as it is lived each day. He explains what is important to contemporary American Jews. He shows that Judaism is not one of the important ideas in the lives of American Jews but that Jews have substituted membership in clubs and organizations for membership in synagogues. Roth further claims that synagogues and rabbis are themselves secular institutions at the end of the 20th century, that Jewish ritual emphasizes financial display as in Bar Mitzvahs and weddings and that the Jewish community in America is governed by the same type of business interests which Sinclair Lewis described  governing  the Christian community exhibited and shown over and over again in Babbitt.

No doubt it is Portnoy's Complaint, however, which Roth wrote in 1969, that led to the accusations that Roth is a Jewish anti-semite, a self hater and a self promoter.  This book, which attacks the stereotypical Jewish mother, recites at length and in detail the sexual problems of the protagonist. It has been labeled "pornographic" for good reason and was  truly "shocking" on first coming to public attention. Now, at the beginning of the century, nothing else will shock anyone any more. Dreiser and Lewis and their companions also shocked Americans. But by the time Roth began to write, the only means of gaining the readers' attention among all the competing writers was to do something yet more extreme than what had already been done before the second world war. Merely proclaiming one's disbelief in orthodox theology was no longer necessary since, as we have seen, innumerable writers in philosophy, science and literature had already made secularization a most popular attitude. Roth and his contemporaries, particularly his Jewish companions, sought to now attack the core of Jewishness as they understood it. This Jewishness, in the hands of these writers, consists of being "raving hysterics", nagging "Jewish mothers",  and female shrews of every variety. Thus, the popular Jewish writers in the tradition of Roth were accused of being Jewish "anti-semites", producers of filth and self - hatred and conveyors of the same calumnies which the Jews of the old world endured for so long.

Roth has rejected all of these complaints in an essay he wrote for Commentary in 1963. Roth argues there that his Jewish characters, who are inevitably less than admirable, are never meant to represent all Jews or even a large number. To Roth, each story he wrote refers only to the one person described and without any further implications. Yet, Roth himself quotes a letter he received after the publication of his story "Defenders of the Faith," which says in part.".......With your one story, 'Defenders of the Faith', you have done as much harm as all the organized anti-Semitic organizations have done to make people believe that all Jews are cheats, liars and connivers." Roth writes that he was even accused of legitimizing the murder of six million European Jews by stories which, he does not deny, vilify Jews. Yet, his argument is that those who see these things in his stories do not understand them and that it is submission to anti-Semitism to not write about subjects which depict Jews as human beings, i.e., sinners, fools, adulterers, cowards and connivers.

Now Roth has always argued that fiction and reality are different. He did so again in 1987 in The Counterlife and seeks thereby to escape responsibility for what are clearly attacks on Jewishness and Judaism. To Roth Jewish identity cannot be taken for granted. It is always  in question as seen once more in his relatively recent effort called Operation Shylock (1993).

Roth holds that it is  "timidity and paranoia" for American Jews to object to his stories about Jewish failure and Jewish moral weakness. He will not accede to the common Jewish view that a Jew must never talk about negative Jewish traits to non-Jews. Roth rejects that anti-Jewish conduct can result from his negative stories about Jews. Referring to a complaining rabbi, Roth writes: "Can he actually believe that on the basis of my story anyone is going to start a pogrom, or keep a Jew out of medical school, or even call a Jewish school child a 'kike'?"

Although it is indeed true that one author cannot provoke a "pogrom" it is also true that those who like to set quotas on Jews in medical schools or call children ethnic names can easily feel themselves justified in that kind of persecution by using a story by Roth. 

More important is that Roth and his followers have legitimized the distancing of Jews from Judaism and the Jewish tradition and have in that sense contributed immensely to the  secularization of Judaism in the United States.

This may be said of Roth despite the fact that in "Eli the Fanatic" Roth exposes the boorishness of many modern American Jews who find even the survivors of the Holocaust irrelevant in their anxiety to avoid being identified with Jews dressed in the black garb of the Chassidim and speaking with a distinct accent.

This then leads us to consider one more aspect to American - Jewish writing which is unique to Jews and has been very influential in promoting secularization in the Jewish community at the end of the twentieth century. That is the fiction and the historiography of the holocaust. This writing has led to the phenomenon in the Jewish community of literally substituting holocaust memorial activities for Judaism so that for many otherwise utterly secular Jews ceremony and ritual surrounding the holocaust has become their religion. This phenomenon was instigated by holocaust writers, both fictional and non -fictional. The second way in which holocaust literature has influenced secularization is raised by those who question whether a God can exist in a world which permits such horrors.

Foremost among these writers is Elie Wiesel. Although of a Yiddish speaking background, Wiesel has made a name for himself in both French and English. When "Night" was first translated from the French and published in America in 1960 it opened the door to a wide range of such literature thereafter.

It is true that Chaim Grade had already published "My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner" in 1951, but that book was written in Yiddish and only later became available in English. Grade deals with one question in his book. The question is: "How can one believe in God after the Holocaust?"  Grade renounces religion and belief in God. Saul Bellow, however, in Mr. Sammler's Planet describes in detail the horrors of the Holocaust experience but reaches the conclusion that God does exist and "nihilism is denied."

 Many Jews have answered Grade's  question by renouncing traditional religion and placing their emotions into "holocausting", which refers not only to attendance at various commemorative events, but also refers to financial contributions to the Washington D.C. holocaust museum, the Los Angeles based "Wiesenthal Center," and other such efforts to remember the mass murders of the second world war. This means in practice that it is much easier for commemorative organizations to raise money concerning the past than it is for Jewish educational institutions to raise funds for the propagation of Judaism among the young.

Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird, Bernard Malamud in The Fixer, and Saul Bellow's aforementioned Mr. Sammler's Planet all deal with the issue of how the immigrant survivor can deal with his past and his future.

There are many additional Jewish-American fiction writers who have concerned themselves with the Holocaust. The work of Cynthis Ozick, Hugh Nissenson, Richard Elman, Zdena Berger, Norma Rosen,  Isaac B. Singer, Joshuah Singer and Daniel Stern are only a small example of all that has been written and is still being produced concerning that heinous crime.

There is also an ever growing non-fiction literature concerning the Holocaust. Best known among these is Lucy Dawidowicz, who has received the most attention among historians for her book The War Against the Jews,  1933-1945 (1975) although Nora Levin, writing in The Holocaust in 1968, was far more detailed in her description of the events collectively so labeled than was Dawidowicz. There is also the book by Hilberg called The Destruction of the European Jews and more recently The Holocaust by Gilbert. 

In addition to these major histories there are innumerable other works dealing with the holocaust such as oral histories, psycho-social analyses, memoirs and diaries. This literature is increasing as the years since that crime go on. Each of these many publications raises the questions anew. Is there a God? Is religion meaningless? Can one be a  Jew by showing an interest in that terrible Jewish experience? The memorializing of the holocaust has yet one more dimension for the vast majority of American Jews who never experienced those horrors. It gives the native American Jewish population a pseudo-martyr status. American Jews, fortunately ignorant of what is really meant by the word "Holocaust" and not really willing to listen to the first hand accounts of survivors, enjoy the victim status some assume when these nightmares are discussed in public. This kind of stance is evident during the large Holocaust commemorations which secular American Jewish "leaders" like to stage in full view of television cameras and other media coverage. These events are generally chaired by some one known as a "great contributor." Such a personage addresses the crowd and the cameras and creates the impression, at least  in his eyes, that he is somehow a victim. In the victim oriented American society at the beginning of the 21st century, this stance is sought after and prestigious and achieved by making large financial contributions. All that in face of living holocaust survivors who, by reason of their general poverty, are often ignored because they have neither the education nor the finesse to make a convincing television appearance. Thus, even the Holocaust and all that implies has become banal and absurd in the hands of those who cannot understand that  such overused phrases as "the Jews went to their deaths like sheep" are false and nonsense. Even worse is the effort on the part of some native American Jews, and a good number of non-Jews, to trivialize the Holocaust by comparing it to the bombing of Dresden, the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the innumerable slaughters that have taken place since 1945 in every part of the world. All of that is the consequence of the perceived need to compete for victim status in a world so secularized that even the most incomprehensible of human experiences is categorized as an occasion  to gain status and prestige. 

 Shalom uívracha.           


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