The Writer Uproot­ed: Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Exile Literature

  • Review
By – January 5, 2012

Exile, that char­ac­ter­is­tic and endur­ing fea­ture of the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence, became espe­cial­ly har­row­ing in the last cen­tu­ry as Jews fled the lethal per­se­cu­tion of Nazis, Stal­in­ists, and Com­mu­nists. This engross­ing vol­ume brings evoca­tive per­son­al accounts of dis­place­ment — phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, and par­tic­u­lar­ly lin­guis­tic — by con­tem­po­rary writ­ers like Nor­man Manea, Lara Vap­n­yar, and Geof­frey Hart­man. Tak­ing his lan­guage with him, Manea still writes in Roman­ian while liv­ing in New York. Hen­ryk Green­berg feels a dif­fer­ent kind of iso­la­tion: I write Pol­ish as very few of today’s Jews can, and I write Jew­ish’ as few very of today’s Poles can.” 

Strik­ing­ly, these authors’ sense of being Jew­ish comes from anti-Semit­ic per­se­cu­tion rather than a con­nec­tion with Jews or Judaism: as a cir­cum­stance more than an iden­ti­ty. Manea, con­scious­ly or not, ends his essay with a ref­er­ence to the New Tes­ta­ment. For three Russ­ian writ­ers, the crit­ic Mor­ris Dick­stein remarks, their resid­ual Jew­ish­ness was often rep­re­sent­ed by lit­tle more than a stray grand­par­ent, a fig­ure in the back­ground.” These may be Jew­ish exiles, but they feel much more deeply con­nect­ed to their birth­places than to their reli­gion. And that reflects a his­toric shift in iden­ti­ty wide­ly shared among con­tem­po­rary Jews, not just writers.

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