We read literature for many reasons: perhaps to see the world through the eyes of others, to grow in ways that make us more human, or to study truth. In The Blessing and the Curse, Adam Kirsch, winner of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, and author of several prize-winning books of poetry and literary criticism, takes the reader on a profound journey into the minds of some of the twentieth century’s most enlightened Jewish writers — from Franz Kafka, to Cynthia Ozick, to Elie Wiesel, and more. Kirsch illustrates, with clarity and consistent vision, how these most trenchant works illuminate the human condition and possess the power to alter one’s world-view.
The Blessing and the Curse is a collection of essays that introduce major concepts in modern Jewish thought, tackling genocide and immigration, antisemitism and the diaspora, exile and return, and retribution and repentance. Particularly keenly realized are Kirsch’s insights into the relationship between assimilation and antisemitism. All together, the essays flow easily from one idea to the next, connecting concepts with the lightest threads. As the sections build, Kirsch guides the reader forward and backward in his thoughts simultaneously.
The book is divided into four parts: three geographically focused sections that present an analysis of writings about Europe, America, and Israel, and one more about modern Judaism as a whole. The Blessing and the Curse begins by explaining its title – a nod to a passage in Deuteronomy, in which Moses presents a choice for the Jewish people as they are about to enter the Promised Land: “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live.”
This thoughtful title sets the tone for the essays that follow. Kirsch weaves us into the text of each literary work he analyzes, writing with a color and verve that brings the stories to life. He deftly sets the historical stage so that the reader can situate themselves in time and glimpse the cultural and political pressures bearing down on the authors. Whether the story he is examining is strange, hopeful, menacing, ambiguous, or uplifting, Kirsch provides a structure that enables the reader to grasp them easily.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.