Thursday, February 10, 2011

“Most essential”? “Jewish fiction”?

Yesterday Jewcy unveiled the “50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years.” Jason Diamond, who compiled the miscellany, is remarkably open about the incoherence of the list. “Our criteria for this list,” he shrugged, “was any work that could be considered ‘Jewish fiction’: written by a Jewish author or dealing heavily with Jewish topics and themes, all written in the last 100 years.”

By “Jewish author,” Diamond appeared to mean anyone with any Jewish connection at all. Thus Marcel Proust, the seed of a mixed marriage, who was baptized into the Church of Rome and never considered himself Jewish, is nevertheless Jewish by Jewcy’s standards. Any name that will permit the Jews to shep a little nakhes, and self-respect be damned.

By “Jewish fiction,” Diamond appeared to mean almost anything that was not non-fiction. Thus plays (The Death of a Salesman, Angels in America), comic books (A Contract with God), children’s books (Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Where the Wild Things Are), and bestselling potboilers (The Carpetbaggers) make the list. But if this is the definition of Jewish fiction, where is the Jewish poetry?

And Yiddish fiction? Two titles—by the Singer brothers. Nothing at all, however, by the most important Yiddish writer ever. Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman was begun in 1895 and finished in 1914, just coming in under Jewcy’s hundred-year wire. His Railroad Stories first appeared in book form exactly a century ago.

And if plays by Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner are to be numbered among the fifty “most essential” Jewish books then surely one of Jason Diamond’s friends might have taken the time to remind him of The Dybbuk, which was written by S. An-sky in 1914. If Diamond had bothered to reread the books on his list—or even to read them for the first time—he might have been provoked by Cynthia Ozick’s story “Envy, or Yiddish in America” (published in his eighth-ranked “Pagan Rabbi” and Other Stories) to recall Jacob Glatstein or Chaim Grade, even if he had never heard of David Bergelson or the Singers’ sister Esther Kreitman or Der Nister or Joseph Opatoshu or Sholem Asch or Moshe Kulbak or Peretz Markish or Israel Rabon or Chava Rosenfarb.

Yiddish was the language in which the Jews burst into modern fiction. To reduce Yiddish fiction of the past one hundred years to the Singer brothers, as great as they are, is to make a violent abridgment of a major achievement, or display one’s ignorance.

Even worse, the only Hebrew-language writer for whom Jewcy found room was forty-three-year-old Etgar Keret. Meanwhile, S. Y. Agnon, the father of modern Hebrew fiction and the only Israeli writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is nowhere to be found. Perhaps Jewcy believes that he belongs on a list of the “less essential” Jewish fiction? Along with Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, and David Grossman, I suppose.

Let’s be honest. The Jewcy list of “50 Most Essential Works Of Jewish Fiction Of The Last 100 Years” is what results from a parlor game among Jews for whom Jewishness means anything and nothing.

By contrast, here are Ruth R. Wisse’s prose fiction selections from the last one hundred years of The Modern Jewish Canon (2000):

(  1.) Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman (Yiddish, 1895–1914)
(  2.) Franz Kafka, The Trial (German, 1914, 1925)
(  3.) Abraham Cahan, The Rise of David Levinsky (English/American, 1917)
(  4.) David Bergelson, Descent (Yiddish, 1920)
(  5.) Yosef Haim Brenner, Breakdown and Bereavement (Hebrew, 1920)
(  6.) Micah Yosef Berdichevsky, Miriam (Hebrew, 1921)
(  7.) Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (Russian, 1926)
(  8.) Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Samson (Russian, 1928)
(  9.) Moshe Kulbak, Zelmenyaner (Yiddish, 1928)
(10.) Israel Rabon, The Street (Yiddish, 1928)
(11.) Avigdor Hameiri, The Great Madness (Hebrew, 1929)
(12.) Joseph Roth, Job (German, 1930)
(13.) Sholem Asch, Three Cities (Yiddish, 1929–1931)
(14.) Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (Polish, 1934) [also on Jewcy list]
(15.) Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (Enlgish/American, 1934) [also on Jewcy list]
(16.) Isaac Bashevis Singer, Satan in Goray (Yiddish, 1935)
(17.) Israel Joshua Singer, The Brothers Ashkenazi (Yiddish, 1936) [also on Jewcy list]
(18.) Esther Kreitman, Deborah (Yiddish, 1936) [republished in 2009 as The Dance of the Demons]
(19.) Jacob Glatstein, Homecoming at Twilight (Yiddish, 1938) [republished last year as The Glatstein Chronicles]
(20.) Der Nister (Pinhas Kahanovitch), The Family Mashber (Yiddish, 1939, 1943)
(21.) S. Y. Agnon, A Guest for the Night (Hebrew, 1939)
(22.) Arthur Koestler, Thieves in the Night (English/British, 1945)
(23.) A. M. Klein, The Second Scroll (English/Canadian, 1951)
(24.) Albert Memmi, Pillar of Salt (French, 1953)
(25.) Haim Hazaz, The Gates of Bronze (Hebrew, 2 vols., 1956)
(26.) Bernard Malamud, The Magic Barrel (English/American, 1958)
(27.) Vasili Grossman, Life and Fate (Russian, 1960, 1980)
(28.) Amos Oz, The Hill of Evil Counsel (Hebrew, 1960)
(29.) Piotr Rawicz, Blood from the Sky (French, 1961)
(30.) Yehuda Amichai, Not of This Time, Not of This Place (Hebrew, 1963)
(31.) Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva (Yiddish, 1967–1968)
(32.) Albert Cohen, Belle Du Seigneur (French, 1968)
(33.) Henryk Grynberg, The Victory (Polish, 1969)
(34.) Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet (English/American, 1969)
(35.) Yaakov Shabtai, Past Continuous (Hebrew, 1970)
(36.) Cynthia Ozick, “The Pagan Rabbi” and Other Stories (English/American, 1971) [also on Jewcy list]
(37.) Chava Rosenfarb, The Tree of Life (Yiddish, 1972)
(38.) Shulamith Hareven, City of Many Days (Hebrew, 1972)
(39.) Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (Hebrew, 1974)
(40.) Adele Wiseman, Crackpot (English/Canadian, 1974)
(41.) A. B. Yehoshua, Mr Mani (Hebrew, 1990)
(42.) Philip Roth, American Pastoral (English/American, 1997) [also on Jewcy list]

To Professor Wisse’s canon I would add eight additional titles, to bring the list to fifty:

(43.) Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers (English/American, 1925)
(44.) Jiri Weil, Life with a Star (Czech, 1964)
(45.) David Grossman, See Under: Love (Hebrew, 1986)
(46.) Leon de Winter, Hoffman’s Hunger (Dutch, 1990)
(47.) Angel Wagenstein, Isaac’s Torah (Bulgarian, 2000)
(48.) Zoë Heller, The Believers (English/Anglo-American, 2009)
(49.) Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (English/British, 2010) [also on Jewcy list]
(50.) Steve Stern, The Frozen Rabbi (English/American, 2010)


Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

Perhaps I'm reading more into this than is warranted, but is there the suggestion in your post that Jewcy's list is more than an expression of literary ignorance?

Are their watery definitions and categories intended to reflect a conception of Jewishness that is more palatable to both the larger society and secular-minded younger Jews? Or am I getting it all wrong, and is it just an off-the-cuff list by someone who didn't know better?


ADDeRabbi said...

If we're going on "most essential" but not necessarily "best", it's hard to leave out Potok's The Chosen, Uris's Exodus, and Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf even if all three are Hebrew school book report fare. Adam Kirsch wrote about Exodus earlier this week and pointed out that yeah, it's trash, but copies of it were passed around clandestinely behind the Iron Curtain.

Diamond might as well have entitled his list "The fifty books I've read that have some tenuous Jewish connection".

D. G. Myers said...


Both. The list, which (in your excellent phrase) doesn’t know better, reflects the hipster version of Jewish secularism. A more knowledgeable version of the itch to fashion a Jewishness “more palatable to both the larger society and secular-minded younger Jews” can be glimpsed in the letter to me from Nachman [sic] below!


D. G. Myers said...

I would certainly agree that The Chosen belongs on any list of “essential” American Jewish fiction, and in fact I have already included it on such a list.

About the two others, I’m not so sure. If them, why not Marjorie Morningstar?

A.J. said...

I have tried to finish Call it Sleep but it is a very sad story.

Unknown said...

And to think I used to read Jewcy... Actually it was only for Michael Weiss.

As far as Mr Diamond, what can you say about someone who describes Lou Reed and Bob Dylan as "two most important Jewish musicians of the 20th Century"?

He must be very young and live in his iphone.