Non­fic­tion

Amer­i­can Tal­mud: The Cul­tur­al Work of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Fiction

Ezra Cap­pell
  • Review
By – November 14, 2011

In Amer­i­can Tal­mud, Ezra Cap­pell argues that Irv­ing Howe’s pre­ma­ture claim in the 1977 Intro­duc­tion to Jew­ish-Amer­i­can Sto­ries con­cern­ing the end” or exhaus­tion of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture is belied by an emerg­ing cohort of Jew­ish writ­ers who explore the range and mean­ing of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty from a deeply-informed per­son­al knowl­edge of Judaism itself. Thus fig­ures as var­i­ous as Rebec­ca Gold­stein and Alle­gra Good­man, among oth­ers, have, in Cappell’s view, been con­tribut­ing to a rad­i­cal rework­ing and a rad­i­cal reimag­in­ing of Jew­ish texts in the new world.” Curi­ous­ly, how­ev­er, Cappell’s desire to per­form a series of close read­ings—drash­es, in the Tal­mu­dic tra­di­tion of search­ing for deep­er mean­ings” — yields often skewed, decid­ed­ly mixed results. 

Except in the case of his long, nuanced read­ing of Saul Bellow’s neglect­ed mas­ter­piece, The Old Sys­tem” (1967), which, as Cap­pell shows, is per­haps Bellow’s deep­est com­men­tary on the emo­tion­al and reli­gious vicis­si­tudes of the immi­grant expe­ri­ence in the New World, Amer­i­can Tal­mud unac­count­ably arraigns fig­ures as indis­pens­able as Hen­ry Roth and Bernard Mala­mud. Do Malamud’s sto­ries real­ly lack Jew­ish con­tent,” and thus por­tray a hol­low ver­sion of tra­di­tion­al Judaism”? Is there tru­ly lit­tle gen­uine Jew­ish­ness in Malamud’s prose”? And even if Roth evinced a com­pli­cat­ed form of self-hatred with regard to his own Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, inscribed, per­haps, in Call It Sleep’s” ungen­er­ous por­trait of bit­ter Reb Pankow­er, Cappell’s indict­ment pre­vents him from a more inter­est­ing, and nec­es­sary, drash­like encounter with this key text. [Again, unac­count­ably, Cap­pell returns to Roth in the final chap­ter, more or less repeat­ing the cri­tique offered at the beginning.] 

By impos­ing an un-nuanced, strin­gent way of read­ing Jew­ish Amer­i­can texts, Amer­i­can Tal­mud miss­es an oppor­tu­ni­ty to set the rich con­tem­po­rary scene of Jew­ish let­ters in a more prof­itable dia­logue with some of the pre­vi­ous mas­ters of the tradition.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Discussion Questions