Opinion |

How American Jews Lost Their Religion, and Found Their Identity

I didn't need the Pew survey to tell me just 15% of U.S. Jews think being Jewish is about religion. Philip Roth had already helped me lose my faith

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Philip Roth in 1973
Philip Roth in 1973Credit: Wikimedia

When I was growing up in post-war America, Jewish writers were enjoying an unexpected Golden Age.

Some of them were overtly Jewish, like Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Cynthia Ozick; some were slyly so, like Saul Bellow; and some were not-at all-so, like J.D. Salinger and Norman Mailer.

But they and others impacted our lives: It was Joseph Heller who brought "Catch 22" into the American idiom and Arthur Miller who told us that attention must be paid to America’s everyman, Willy Loman, in "Death of a Salesman."

Was there such a thing, I wondered, as a Jewish-American novel? How did stories by Jews influence Jewish identity in Diaspora America? And why did I - raised in a kosher home but moving away from Orthodoxy - care so much about it?

It’s hard to define Jewish-American literature, and many writers who happen to be Jewish have long hated ethnic labels. Saul Bellow once lamented that being called a Jewish writer is rather like being called "an Eskimo cellist." It was a funny line, but Bellow was very serious.

He thought that the very category of "Jewish writer" was itself discriminatory, a way of defining him and others as parochial novelists who lacked universal appeal.

The question of Jewish identity in the fiction I was reading played out in a little-known literary feud between Malamud and Roth in the 1970s. Their argument focused partly on Malamud’s most revered novel, "The Assistant," written in 1957, which tells of Morris Bober, a wretchedly poor Jewish grocer in Brooklyn, and his relationship with his Catholic assistant, Frank Alpine.

Like father and son, Morris and Frank discuss religion. How is it, Frank asks, that Morris disobeys Judaism by eating ham? And why does he accept the suffering of his meager life with so little complaint?

Morris tells Frank that Judaism is not about ritual, but rather about leading an ethical life, about doing good in the world. And suffering is inevitable. "I suffer for you," Morris says.

Malamud’s vision of Morris Bober as a saintly Jew reverberated for years. In a 1974 essay, Roth took on Malamud, his friend and literary father-figure, criticizing Malamud for creating Jewish characters that were virtuous victims, full of "righteousness and restraint," lacking any "libidinous or aggressive activities." By contrast, the Christian characters, like Frank Alpine, were full of sexual lust and transgressive behavior - the bad goy to Morris Bober’s good Jew. "The Assistant," Roth wrote, was a book of "stern morality."

Bernard Malamud (April 26, 1914 – March 18, 1986)Credit: Wikimedia/Library of Congress

Roth contrasted Malamud’s protagonists to the exuberant Jewish characters created by Bellow, especially the picaresque Augie March, and his own hypersexual Alexander Portnoy. In effect, Roth said, Malamud had created Jews who were stereotypes, not fully realized human beings.

Malamud was stunned. He drafted two letters to Roth, refuting his arguments, but never sent them. Instead, Malamud mailed only a few words to Roth: "It’s your problem."

Roth wrote back, audaciously insisting that he had pointed out "fictional skeletons" that perhaps Malamud himself didn’t see.

Little wonder that Malamud refused to talk to Roth for several years. They were reconciled in May 1978, when Malamud and his wife, Ann, accepted a dinner invitation in London from Roth and Claire Bloom, who were then living together. The two men kissed on the lips and resumed their friendship.

However, in a letter to his daughter a week after that dinner of reconciliation, Malamud voiced his true feelings: Roth, he said, had written a "foolish egoistic essay about my work" and had "certainly misinterpreted" The Assistant. The letter was not made public until 2006, some 20 years after Malamud’s death.

What do we learn from this exchange about Jewish identity? Is suffering a key to Jewishness? Does being a Jew mean doing good in the world, as Morris explains to Frank? Or can a Jew be as transgressive as the next guy, as Roth would have it? Does ritual have little place in Jewish identity, as Morris claims when he eats ham? Can you be Jewish without being religious?

To Ozick, the doyenne of Jewish-American writers, the answer is a profound "No." In her novels and essays, she defines Jews as the Biblical people who made a covenant with God - chosen to spread monotheism in return for a promised land. To be Jewish in America, Ozick believes, a Jew must embrace the faith. "When a Jew becomes a secular person, he is no longer a Jew," she wrote.

Most American Jews do not agree. In a stunning 2013 survey, the Pew Research Center found that religion matters very little to most American Jews, who overwhelmingly embrace secularism. According to the report, "62% say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while only 15% say it is mainly a matter of religion."

The Pew report also probed the question of Jewish identity: "What does being Jewish mean in America today?" The answer: 73% of Jews say "remembering the Holocaust" and 69% say "leading an ethical life." More than half say "working for justice and equality is essential to what being Jewish means to them."

This growing secularism, it seems to me, stems partly from the influence of the American Jewish writers I so admired. Except for Ozick (nearly all of the time) and Malamud (some of the time), they rarely wrote about Judaism as a religious experience. They tended to explore the life of assimilated Jews in their American context – or to satirize it. Portraying Jews as believers did not come with the territory.

The decline in religious feeling that Pew documented might have happened anyway, of course. But literature does influence society, as well as reflect it - and the secular concerns of our leading Jewish writers signaled that being a non-observant Jew was an acceptable way of being Jewish in America. It gave us permission to downplay our faith.

And so I, among many others, did.

Stephen B. Shepard is the Founding Dean Emeritus of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He served as a senior editor at Newsweek, editor of Saturday Review, and editor-in-chief of Business Week. His latest book is A Literary Journey to Jewish Identity: Re-Reading, Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Ozick, and Other Great Jewish Writers (Bayberry Books, 2018). Twitter: @StephenShepard

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