Telling the Lit­tle Secrets: Amer­i­can Jew­ish Writ­ing Since the 1980’s

Janet Han­dler Burstein
  • Review
By – June 15, 2012

In Telling the Lit­tle Secrets Janet Burstein maps the past 25 years of Amer­i­can Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture in rich and sug­ges­tive ways. Burstein shows how a range of con­tem­po­rary writ­ers have, in effect, joined in what ther­a­peu­tic process of art (main­ly mem­oir and fic­tion). By invent­ing sto­ries or recov­er­ing fam­i­ly mem­o­ries these authors seek a mode of work­ing out, and thus strug­gle for a way of work­ing through the trau­ma of Jew­ish mem­o­ry con­nect­ed above all with the shad­ow of the Holo­caust. The result is a superb crit­i­cal-ana­lyt­ic syn­the­sis show­ing how con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish writ­ers con­tin­ue to achieve a labor of recon­nec­tion” with their Jew­ish iden­ti­ties. Viewed togeth­er, their work embod­ies a col­lec­tive effort, a rit­u­al of re-mem­ber­ing, lead­ing to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of gen­er­a­tional healing. 

As a crit­ic of this grow­ing body of lit­er­a­ture, Burstein is strongest in iden­ti­fy­ing those shared themes and plot struc­tures that, remark­ably, occu­py (haunt?) this body of work (which includes writ­ers like Thane Rosen­baum, Melvin Jules Buki­et, and Pearl Abra­ham, among oth­ers). In the process, a ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of impor­tant writ­ers, draw­ing on, yet mov­ing beyond Philip Roth and Cyn­thia Ozick, the strongest pre­cur­sor fig­ures in the canon of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, emerges. Burstein’s most engaged, often pro­found read­ings are of recent books by Jonathan Rosen, Aryeh Lev Stoll­man, and Rebec­ca Gold­stein — espe­cial­ly in terms of their engage­ment with the tra­di­tions of midrashic inter­pre­ta­tion. Along with a host of oth­er impres­sive writ­ers, they reveal the emerg­ing con­tours of an imag­i­na­tive land­scape that all stu­dents of Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture will need to dis­cov­er for them­selves. In this respect, Telling the Lit­tle Secrets may well be the best guide we have to this vibrant new chap­ter in Jew­ish Amer­i­can letters. 


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

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