Monday, July 13, 2009

Five Books of Jewish fiction

Tim Davis asks me to “recommend [a] handful of books (fiction) in which Judaism either is a central theme or is the foundational spirit the author draws upon for the book’s style and tone.”

Sure thing. Before I do, though, let me direct you to the great Ruth R. Wisse’s 2000 book The Modern Jewish Canon. Moreover, the Yiddish National Book Center compiled a longer list of one hundred great Jewish books as selected by Wisse, Hillel Halkin, Robert Alter, and four other critics. In what follows I try my best merely to supplement their canons. I have also restricted myself to American writers, if only to narrow the field that I must survey to compile such a humash. The Amateur Reader can add more Yiddish titles. Perhaps Israeli novels will make up another Five Books some day.

(1.) Isaac Rosenfeld, Passage from Home (1946). The novel might have been entitled Call It Sleep: The Next Generation, if only Henry Roth’s superlative novel had not already disappeared twelve years after its publication. An immigrant Jewish family; the fifteen-year-old son, “sensitive as a burn”; the inevitable conflict with the Old World father, who has submerged his own intellect in ambitions for his son—much that would become familiar is here. The boom in American Jewish fiction was ignited by this book, which explains most of what came after.

(2.) Bernard Malamud, The Assistant (1957). As much as I dislike The Natural do I revere Malamud’s novel about Frank Alpine, the young Italian-American who goes to work in Morris Bober’s grocery after sticking it up. I know all the objections against it: for Malamud the Jews are symbols of metaphysical suffering, the Yiddish-inflected English is artificial and nothing like what any Jew has ever spoken, etc. I could not care less. No one gives a better flavor of the Jewish spirit of hope in the midst of despair.

(3.) Chaim Potok, The Chosen (1967). Another novel that has undergone a deflation in recent years. For a glimpse of Orthodoxy with its glorification of Talmudic study, its intense family life, and its rivalries between modernists and hasidim, no book is a better introduction. When this book made him famous, Potok was liberated from the editors who stayed after him to plane The Chosen into shape. The story is uninvolved, and so is the prose. The people are sharply individuated and yet wholly recognizable. In a real sense, although he published eight novels, Potok was a one-book author.

(4.) Cynthia Ozick, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983). In one of those coincidences that God seems to delight in, it was published the same year as Arthur A. Cohen’s Admirable Woman, which was also based on the life of Hannah Arendt. In Ozick’s novel, the Arendt figure is a mother in conflict with the Jewish educational establishment. Although I’ve never heard it described this way, it is a novel about the ancient quarrel between official institutional Judaism and the text-centered culture inhabited by deeply religious Jews. Except for Agnon, no other Jewish novelist is so hypertextual with Jewish texts. You may not catch all of the allusions, but you will get a taste for Jewish textualism.

(5.) Zoë Heller, The Believers (2009). I have already reviewed the novel at unconscionable and unbloglike length, and then went on to discuss it further. My addendum is autobiographical. Like Rosa, I am a baal teshuvah, a Jew who “returns” to Orthodoxy—that is, who becomes Orthodox in adulthood. I can say this much: Heller gets it exactly right. You may not feel the rightness for yourself, but believe me, this is how it happens.


R/T said...

Let me make two comments:

First, thank you very much for the generosity of your time and your willingness to respond to my request for the "handful" of Jewish novels. A list of five books is a superbly manageable starting point from which to improve my literary education.

Second, I would like to speak more about your recommendations but cannot do so without having read them, so . . . it is off to the library.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I'll limit myself to two books here (I also put this in the comments at Wuthering Expectations), well-known ones, but great places to start. Both are on the Yiddish National Book Center list.

First, Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman. The story of one man's faith, and its tangles with his family and the world around him. The monologue form is central, as is Tevye's stream of religious quotations and jokes, part of his lifelong argument with God.

Second, I. L. Peretz, The I. L. Peretz Reader, ed. Ruth Wisse. Stories, fables, and a memoir, by a man with an extremely complicated relationship with his religion and traditions. He's a modernizer, a rationalist, and perhaps not much of a believer, yet his distinctive form is the neo-Hasidic fable.

I'm going to write more about Peretz, soon.