A narrow definition of the Jewish book - but also, conceptually, the widest - would chiefly include the Torah and the Talmud (the Hebrew Bible and the ocean of ethically transformative commentaries), and all other texts that strive to unriddle the Job-like vagaries of the human heart while urging it toward the moral life.
A Jewish book is liturgy, ethics, philosophy, ontology. A Jewish book speaks of the attempt to create a world in the image of God while never presuming to image God. A Jewish book, whether it is Maimonides' "Guide for the Perplexed," written in the 12th century, or Joseph Soloveitchik's "The Lonely Man of Faith," written in the 20th, derives ultimately from the radical commandment in Leviticus: "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
A Jewish book is didactic. It is dedicated to the promotion of virtue attained through study. It summons obligation. It presupposes a Creator and His handiwork. Is what we nowadays call "the Jewish-American novel" likely to be a Jewish book? I think not. If a novel's salient aim is virtue, I want to throw it against the wall. To be a Jew is to be a good citizen, to be responsible, to be charitable, to respond to society's needs. To be a novelist is the opposite - to seize unrestraint and freedom, even demonic freedom, imagination with its reins cut loose. The term "Jewish writer" ought to be an oxymoron. That may be why novelists born Jewish, yet drawn wholly to the wild side - Norman Mailer, for instance - are not altogether wrong when they decline to be counted among Jewish writers.
What we want from novels is not what we want from the transcendent liturgies of the synagogue. The light a genuine novel gives out is struck off by the nightmare calculations of art: story, language (language especially), irony, comedy, the crooked lanes of desire and deceit. The late Irving Howe defined the American Jewish novel (it had not yet become the Jewish-American novel) exclusively by its subject matter. And the Jewish novel's only viable subject matter, he insisted, was the great crisis of immigration and its aftermath; when that was played out, as it inevitably would be, the hands of Jewish writers would hang empty.
But the complexities of immigration and the conflicts between older and newer generations are hardly confined to Jews, and Willa Cather's immigrant Bohemians had already made claim to that territory; so Howe's self-imploding definition was mistaken from the start. Still, he was right to predict an absence of Jewish subject matter in America.
The profoundly Jewish themes of our time are to be found in Europe (the effect of the mass murder of one third of the world's Jewish population) and in the restitution of historic Jewish sovereignty in Israel (the 20th century's most revolutionary event, which only Philip Roth has had the wit to touch on). All other subject matter in the so-called Jewish-American novel is, well, American, written in the American language, telling American stories. Multiculturalism, aka, diversity, likes to manufacture "ethnic" fiction. (Ethnicity: a sociologist's invention producing fake and demeaning splintering.)
In recent decades, almost all anthologies, in order to be "inclusive," have occasionally harvested weak prose. This practice, steeped in societal goodwill, results in ill will toward literature. Background, however individuated, is not the same as literature. The living Jewish luminaries of American literature today are Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. No Jewish writer of their generation or the next matches them. Their engine and their genius have been toward the making of literature, not the expression of background.
If background is powerful there, it is because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer shrewdly put it, every writer needs to have an address. Isaac Babel had his ebullient Odessa gangsters, but also his stories of pogrom. Sholem Aleichem's shtetl terrors are masked as comedy, Singer's as demonology. Franz Kafka's dread - the Jewish dread of the denial of the right to exist - wears the counterfeit name of justice.
In Roth's homage to the Bellovian hero [in his just-published "Shop Talk"], he lists "humiliation, betrayal, melancholy, fatigue, loss, paranoia, obsession and despair" as the instruments of a "lushly comical orchestration of misery." A riff on the Jewish temperament and plight, yes; and also, to a degree, everyman's.
An ideal Jewish Book Month - one that will never be launched - would stick to the wisdom-heritage of serious Jewish civilization (not phony neo-Hasidic, semi-New Age "spiritual" vapor). It would feature, emphatically and abundantly, Jewish history - a scandalous contemporary void. It would handle with care partisan polemics posing as sociology (Peter Novick's "The Holocaust in America," for example).
It would not mistake passing social habits for Judaism or, God help us, ethnicity for literature. It would not pretend that every current novel by a Jewish author is a Jewish book.
Cynthia Ozick's latest book is "Quarrel & Quandary: Essays" (Knopf, 2000).
By arrangement with the Forward.
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