Mod­ern Jew­ish Lit­er­a­tures: Inter­sec­tions and Boundaries

Sheila E. Jelen, Michael P. Kramer, and L. Scott Lern­er, eds.
  • Review
By – September 12, 2011
The plur­al noun in the main title of Mod­ern Jew­ish Lit­er­a­tures rais­es the age-old ques­tion of how to define Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture while sug­gest­ing the plu­ral­i­ty of its achieve­ments, cul­tur­al ori­en­ta­tions, lan­guages, cir­cum­stances, and genre man­i­fes­ta­tions. Although the fif­teen chap­ters do not direct­ly speak to one anoth­er, they draw sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of a map of under­stand­ing, a map for which the ulti­mate shape remains elu­sive. 

Each essay breaks new ground in address­ing mod­ern Jew­ish expe­ri­ence and its lit­er­ary rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Sev­er­al schol­ars attend to authors whose works pro­mote a cul­tur­al cam­paign, trail­blaz­ers whose the­o­ret­i­cal frames of ref­er­ence simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ener­gize and cir­cum­scribe their cre­ative efforts. Assump­tions about Judaism and Mod­ernism, the rel­a­tive sta­tus of Hebrew and Yid­dish, and rela­tion­ships between Dias­po­ra cul­tur­al cre­ativ­i­ty and that of Palestine/​Israel are fram­ing propo­si­tions. Is the delib­er­ate pro­duc­tion of a people’s lit­er­a­ture a delib­er­ate exer­cise in nation build­ing? 

Sev­er­al essays look away from the cre­ation of lit­er­a­ture to con­cerns about its pub­li­ca­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion; thus the book offers live­ly explo­rations of unique­ly Jew­ish pub­lish­ing enter­pris­es and of one very spe­cial Jew­ish book store. 

This mar­velous­ly rich and var­ied gath­er­ing has many sur­pris­es for schol­ars and for gen­er­al read­ers who have patience with aca­d­e­m­ic style. It is a major resource for teach­ers and their stu­dents. Index, intro­duc­tion, notes. 

Pro­fes­sor Pinsker argues that the notable gar­den of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture that blos­somed in ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Europe is not well served by crit­i­cism that views it pri­mar­i­ly as a strat­e­gy in the Jew­ish nation­hood agen­da. While Zion­ist impuls­es cer­tain­ly encour­aged the resur­gence of Hebrew as a mod­ern ver­nac­u­lar and lit­er­ary lan­guage, the nature of the lit­er­a­ture (pri­mar­i­ly fic­tion) draws its ener­gy from sev­er­al oth­er his­tor­i­cal fac­tors. Pinsker shows how this body of Hebrew lit­er­a­ture is ener­gized by the var­i­ous esthet­ic and the­mat­ic con­cerns broad­ly labeled as Mod­ernism. 

Like the encom­pass­ing Euro­pean Mod­ernism, the new Hebrew lit­er­a­ture is a lit­er­a­ture of urban expe­ri­ence. Its major prac­ti­tion­ers were wan­der­ers who devel­oped a café-cen­tered com­mu­ni­ty life in sev­er­al cities where Hebrew peri­od­i­cals and pub­lish­ing hous­es also emerged. The Mod­ernist urban themes of dis­lo­ca­tion, alien­ation, and iden­ti­ty (thus the pass­port metaphor) pre­oc­cu­pied this group of writ­ers, as did those of sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der. Pinsker explores provoca­tive sub­sets of these con­cerns, includ­ing the cri­sis of Jew­ish mas­culin­i­ty, the inter­face of writ­ing and sex­u­al desire, and the Jew­ish ver­sion of the New Woman. 

In a major sec­tion of his study, Pinsker exam­ines how these writ­ers express Mod­ernist atti­tudes toward Jew­ish tra­di­tions and reli­gios­i­ty. 

Pro­fes­sor Pinkser’s learned and live­ly explo­ration pro­vides not only a rich the­o­ret­i­cal con­text for exam­in­ing a large­ly undis­cov­ered body of impor­tant Mod­ernist texts, but also a series of close, often orig­i­nal, read­ings. He offers a fine blend of lucid­i­ty, pas­sion­ate atten­tion, and intel­lec­tu­al play. Index, intro­duc­tion, notes. 

These two vol­umes enlarge our under­stand­ing of key issues, texts, and per­son­al­i­ties. Pinsker iso­lates and expands a few of the areas of inter­est pur­sued in Jelen-Kramer-Lern­er enter­prise. Indeed, the two books con­duct a fine, reward­ing con­ver­sa­tion.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review:

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions