David Herman

The ancient lineage that makes writers Jewish

What unites such different writers as Bellow and Bruno Schulz, Roth and Primo Levi? With Jewish Book Week approaching, it's time to ask what makes a writer a 'Jewish writer'?

February 27, 2020 17:38

This year’s Jewish Book Week opens on Saturday at Kings Place and runs until Sunday March 8. It is the biggest Jewish literary event of the year, full of major names from Edmund de Waal and Howard Jacobson to Eva Hoffman and Simon Schama. The range of subjects is as broad as ever: from Irving Berlin, Einstein and Freud to David Ben-Gurion and the Cairo Genizah. I can also recommend the smoked salmon bagel stall and the brownies.

There’s one fascinating question that runs through the week: Is there such a thing as Jewish literature? In his new book of essays, Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? Adam Kirsch, one of the rising stars of American literary criticism, tackles this full on.

How Jewish, for example, were Saul Bellow and Philip Roth? “They were American writers who happened to be Jewish,” writes Kirsch, “and who happened to write about Jews, some of the time — but ‘Jewish writer’ was a label they had no interest in.” Cynthia Ozick, however, “positively embraced a Jewish literary identity.” She once took Saul Bellow to task for not writing about the Holocaust. Bellow pleaded guilty: “I was too busy becoming a novelist,” he wrote, “to take note of what was happening in the Forties… Not a particle of this can be denied.”

Of course, it wasn’t just the Holocaust. That famous generation of Jewish-America writers that included Bellow, Roth, Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, rarely addressed Judaism or Israel either.

So, what made them Jewish writers? What unites such different writers as Bellow and Bruno Schulz, Roth and Primo Levi? “Do a story in German by Franz Kafka, an essay in English by Susan Sontag, and a novel in Hebrew by Amos Oz all belong in the same category?” asks Kirsch. “Is there any meaningful sense in which these are all Jewish works, other than the fact that they were all written by Jews?”

This leads him to two interesting answers. What makes Jewish writers Jewish, he argues, is not whether they read Yiddish or whether they write about the Holocaust or Israel. There is something distinctive about the way Jewish writers relate to texts, he says. “Perhaps Jewishness is not so much a way of writing as a way of reading.” Look how Clive Sinclair and Howard Jacobson have reworked the story of Shylock or how Roth reinvented the story of Kafka in one of his best short stories.

Jewish writers see themselves as part of a particular tradition, says Kirsch. “Jewish literature is what happens every time a writer tries to make a place for himself or herself in that ancient lineage.”

When the young American writer, Nathan Englander, translated the Haggadah (edited by Jonathan Safran Foer with commentaries by, among others, Lemony Snicket) he was finding a way of relating to the Jewish past, literary and historical. In the same way, Kafka proclaimed his Jewishness when he wrote about the Law, judgment, sin and atonement. Think of Before the Law in The Trial.

But aren’t there other ways of proclaiming your Jewishness as a writer or of finding a Jewish voice? Let’s go back to Saul Bellow. He famously translated Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story, Gimpel the Fool from Yiddish, introducing a new generation of American readers to Singer. Nearly 20 years later, he wrote Mr. Sammler’s Planet, about a Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust. Not long after that, he wrote To Jerusalem and Back. But what made him a great Jewish writer was not that he read Yiddish or wrote about Israel and the Holocaust. It was the rhythms of his writing, the use of Yiddish words, the kinds of Jewish characters he created, the mix between high and low, pathos and comedy.

And Bellow’s great friend, Philip Roth? Yes, he wrote about American antisemitism in The Plot Against America and reinvented Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer but, again, it’s the humour, the kind of dialogue, the excess and hysteria, that makes Roth so Jewish.

We find the same kind of voice in some of the younger Jewish American writers but also the same great Jewish subjects. The opening story in Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges was about the execution of the Yiddish poets by Stalin. Perhaps his greatest story is the title story from What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. In Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel Everything is Illuminated, the narrator is looking for a woman who saved his grandfather, a Ukrainian Jew, from the Nazis. Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love was about a missing manuscript, Jewish refugees and the Holocaust.

Texts and tradition or subjects and humour? What makes Jewish writers Jewish? Come to Jewish Book Week and find out.


David Herman will be in conversation with Adam Kirsch at Jewish Book Week at 8.30pm on Monday.


February 27, 2020 17:38

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