by Dr. Gerhard Falk
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.
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 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
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
me....my 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."
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.
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.
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.
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
Bashevich 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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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 end of the century.
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.
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 have
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 twentieth century.
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.
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, as we have seen, 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."
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
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 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 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.
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 end 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 ones 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.
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.
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 latest effort called Operation
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'?".
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
Kosinski in The Painted Bird, Bernard
Malamud in The Fixer, and Saul Bellow's Mr
Sammler's Planet all deal with the issue of how the immigrant survivor can
deal with his past and his future.
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.
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
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
non-sense. 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.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications,
A New Look at the Supporting Generation (with Dr. Ursula A., Falk, 2002),
Ascent to Reason (2003).