Among the more vexing issues for scholars of Jewish American writing is the relation between “multicultural” literature (African American, Asian American, Chicano American writers, etc.) and the emergence of a rich tradition of Jewish American letters, especially in the last half century. For the most part Jewish writers have been deemed “white” (as opposed to, say, “ethnic”); as a result, canonical figures like Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, along with a host of wonderfully original and provocative younger writers, have tended to be left out of the English or Ethnic Studies curriculum, relegated to the margins, rarely taught, except in those courses/surveys devoted to Jewish writing on its own terms. Younger scholars of ethnicity and multiculturalism like Dean J. Franco have sought to place Jewish writers through a widening dialogue with other “ethnic” writers. In Race, Rights & Recognition Franco deepens this emergent, necessary dialogue by revealing how a range of contemporary Jewish American writers — above all the playwright Tony Kushner — can be understood to be complicating, indeed provocatively critiquing the very philosophical-social-racial ideas that shaped the communal vision associated with the project of multiculturalism itself. In this respect, Franco offers a deeply felt — and deeply “Jewish” — ethical reading of a range of Jewish writers whose social vision provides an alternate way of imagining how we might relate to each other in our globalized twenty-first century.
What is striking about Franco’s deep readings of authors as various as Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Allegra Goodman, Kushner, and Gary Shteyngart are the surprising juxtapositions and deeply personal perspectives on the texts under his scrutiny. For example, Franco summons Roth’s late-’60s contemporary Eldridge Cleaver to highlight each figure’s challenge to the era’s unexamined liberalism. And for all her resistance to fashionable multicultural “discourse,” Ozick’s great early stories (“Bloodshed” and “The Pagan Rabbi”), in their engagement with issues around “identity” and “community,” implicitly look forward to the key debates in the 1970s that inaugurated the multicultural debates themselves. Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls, set in the same era as those debates, about a young Hasidic woman’s desire to enlarge her freedom within a strictly controlling religious sect, “enriches our understanding of the limitations and possibilities of 1970s-era pluralism.” Above all, Kushner’s deeply humane Jewish ethics in Homebody/Kabul offers a mode of “recognition” — “a vision of ethical responsibility” — that inspires Franco’s hopes for the future.
Race, Rights & Recognition seeks to change the conversation about Jewish American literature’s relation to the canonical ideals (political and literary) of multiculturalism. Designed for scholars and specialists familiar with the discourses of academic literary criticism, cultural theory, and Jewish Studies, Franco’s often profound readings will prove enriching for those readers already immersed, and committed, to his vision of a Jewish ethics of relationality.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He lives in Amherst, MA.