Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture: A Very Short Introduction

  • Review
By – October 11, 2021

For Ilan Sta­vans, Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture is marked by its ater­ri­to­ri­al­i­ty,” a strik­ing term that evokes the cease­less migra­tion” of the Jew­ish peo­ple jour­ney­ing across time and space,” dis­placed from one ter­ri­to­ry to anoth­er in search of a poten­tial homeland.

A dis­tin­guished crit­ic and trans­la­tor, Sta­vans dis­tills almost 600 years of Jew­ish expres­sion in Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture: A Very Short His­to­ry. Sta­vans begins with the Expul­sion of 1492, and moves on to major fig­ures like Kaf­ka (among his cul­tur­al heroes), Yid­dish sto­ry­tellers, poets, philoso­phers, Sephardic and Mizrahi authors, more recent Latin Amer­i­can fig­ures, canon­i­cal Amer­i­can writ­ers, lit­er­ary crit­ics, graph­ic nov­els, comics, tele­vi­sion, and even Jew­ish stand-up artists. The result is a live­ly, if nec­es­sar­i­ly abridged, overview of the famil­iar voic­es and core themes of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. For read­ers seek­ing to become bet­ter acquaint­ed with the shift­ing land­scapes and the­mat­ic rich­ness of Jew­ish writ­ing, its row­dy, amor­phous, even unsta­ble” response to life in var­i­ous Dias­po­ras, Stavans’s com­pressed yet author­i­ta­tive nar­ra­tive is per­haps the best place to begin.

If Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture: A Very Short His­to­ry has an over­ar­ch­ing theme, it is Sta­vans’ belief (build­ing on the his­to­ri­an Yosef Hay­im Yerushlami’s canon­i­cal Zakhor) that Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture is a way for Jew­ish mem­o­ry to engage with his­to­ry.” In this respect, Sta­vans dis­plays an impres­sive knowl­edge regard­ing how Jew­ish his­to­ry is sed­i­ment­ed in those works he choos­es to high­light. Stavans’s method is to find con­nec­tions across bor­ders”; his aim is for read­ers to appre­ci­ate how inter­con­nect­ed, and the­mat­i­cal­ly res­o­nant, the arc of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture tru­ly is. I am inter­est­ed in move­able libraries,” Sta­vans con­fess­es. In this respect, the hall­mark of Jew­ish writ­ing is its porta­bil­i­ty: Jew­ish read­ers can car­ry their his­to­ry from place to place, remain­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly out­side” any ter­ri­to­ry tem­porar­i­ly des­ig­nat­ed as home.” As the poly­glot crit­ic George Stein­er famous­ly observed, for Jews, our home­land is the text, the one sta­ble site in a world marked by flux.

Among Stavans’s achieve­ments in Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture: A Very Short His­to­ry is his abil­i­ty to con­tex­tu­al­ize the key themes of mod­ern Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, weav­ing abstract ideas and modes of lit­er­ary expres­sion togeth­er. As a result, he pro­vides an acces­si­ble, yet stim­u­lat­ing, account of impor­tant cul­tur­al moments in Jew­ish lit­er­ary his­to­ry. For exam­ple, in the case of Kaf­ka (whom Sta­vans calls the high rab­bi of moder­ni­ty”) the fig­ure of Gre­gor Sam­sa in The Meta­mor­pho­sis rep­re­sents the dias­po­ra.” Kafka’s most famous char­ac­ter sym­bol­i­cal­ly embod­ies Jew­ish alien­ation, the sense of liv­ing in the cul­tur­al mar­gins,” even if Sam­sa is nev­er iden­ti­fied as a Jew.

The exam­ple of Kaf­ka enables Sta­vans to deep­en one of the core, over­ar­ch­ing themes in the Intro­duc­tion: the tra­di­tion of Jew­ish sto­ry­telling, which includes Mar­tin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidism, the canon­i­cal Yid­dish writ­ers of the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, I.B. Singer, and even the con­tem­po­rary Israeli writer Etgar Keret.

Per­haps the most fas­ci­nat­ing sec­tion is the chap­ter titled Trans­la­tion Mat­ters.” For Sta­vans acts of trans­la­tion are cen­tral” in Jew­ish life. In this respect, read­ers will encounter a range of self-trans­la­tors, as in the case of I. B. Singer (anoth­er of Stavans’s heroes) and even re-trans­la­tors” as in the case of the Russ­ian émi­gré poet Joseph Brod­sky. Both, it turns out, were Nobel Prize win­ners. Jew­ish lit­er­ary and cul­tur­al his­to­ry can be char­ac­ter­ized by what Sta­vans terms a trans­la­tion­al dri­ve.” In response, read­ers are invit­ed to trans­late Stavans’s per­son­al vision of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture for themselves.

Stavans’s Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture: A Very Short His­to­ry is a remark­able achieve­ment of dis­til­la­tion. In gath­er­ing a vari­ety of Jew­ish lit­er­a­tures across time peri­ods and geo­gra­phies, Sta­vans demon­strates what he calls the decen­tral­iza­tion of Jew­ish cul­ture.” Read­ers who wish to immerse them­selves in the mul­ti­lin­gual babel of Jew­ish lit­er­ary his­to­ry will dis­cov­er both famil­iar and new voic­es on dis­play in Stavans’s rich and com­pelling synthesis.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions