The challenge in putting together any anthology of American-Jewish literature is to define each of those three terms — American, Jewish, and literature — in a clear and thoughtful way. Is something “American” if, as in the case of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work, it is written in a language other than English? Is something “Jewish” only if it is written by a Jewish author, or does it need to be on a Jewish subject whether written by a Jew or not? And what constitutes “literature”?
In The New Diaspora, Victoria Aarons, Avinoam Patt, and Mark Shechner have sought to define those foundational terms in an original but somewhat narrower fashion than their title — and in particular their subtitle, The Changing Landscape of American Jewish Fiction—implies. That is, they have decided to trace their subject as it looks from their perspective as judges for the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, easily one of the most prestigious awards in Jewish American fiction.
As a consequence, the area of overlap in their definitions is small and focused even if the result is broad-ranging and inclusive. The writers in the anthology are Jewish, and their subjects are almost always explicitly “Jewish,” engaging with Jewish history or even theology as it is lived. And the fiction in question is all linked to the editors’ experience of judging the Wallant Award: the first half features recent work by former winners of the prize, and the second provides selections from work by authors the editors have admired in the course of their judging process.
The narrowness of the project makes for an interesting perspective — providing the opportunity, as the editors acknowledge in their thoughtful introduction, to peer over the shoulders of the judges, to get a sense of both the challenge of determining what literature should represent an ongoing literary tradition and of the wonder over the many different directions that tradition might take going forward.
At the same time, that approach has its limits. There are many terrific writers included — some like Dara Horn, Jonathan Safran Foer, Myla Goldberg, and Joseph Epstein with bestsellers to their names, and others who have labored in relative obscurity, such as Steve Stern, Edith Pearlman, and Joshua Henkin. Still, in staying open to the idea that the American Jewish literary tradition could go in any number of directions, the editors of The New Diaspora sustain a diverse profile in this anthology. The book does not claim to present anything along the lines of an “essential” sweep of contemporary American Jewish fiction. In fact, by representing the former winners of the Wallant Award with newer material, the authors suggest the opposite: that there are so many intriguing authors writing in the tradition over the last quarter-century that there is no way to contain them within a single volume.
Such an approach is generous to the writers represented, and, in providing such generally excellent stories throughout, it also proves a reward to the readers. Still, the modesty of the editors’ claim that they are presenting some of the excellent fiction they have come across — or even that they are presenting fiction by some of the excellent fiction writers they have come to admire — keeps them from doing with the usual implicit directive of an anthology to deliver a sampling of “the best” material available.
Pick up The New Diaspora not for a look at a current “best of,” but rather for the unusual and rewarding experience of seeing a “look- how- much- good- stuff- is- out- there” survey. As such, The New Diaspora works as a celebration of the Wallant Awards, which have now survived fifty years of changing tastes and altered generational perspectives, and as an idiosyncratic glimpse at some of the excellence the tradition has delivered in the last several years.