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.