Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He lives in Amherst, MA.
Who We Are: On Being (And Not Being) a Jewish American Writer
In Who We Are, South African-born, Netherlands- based scholar of Jewish American literature Derek Rubin gathers a rich collection of essays on the complex matter of “Jewish” identity (literary, cultural, religious) by canonical writers (Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, E. L. Doctorow), recently established figures (Steve Stern, Thane Rosenbaum, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Jonathan Rosen, Allegra Gooman, among others), and emerging writers (Lara Vapnyar, Tova Mirvis, Dara Horn, among others). Arranged chronologically by the author’s date of birth, over half of the book’s 29 essays were solicited expressly for this volume; and well over half of the contributors are women, who represent, above all, an impressive generation of rising literary stars. The result is a superb anthology that conveys the current lively — indeed urgent — debate among our best younger writers about how the claims of Jewish memory, how the traditions of Jewish American literature, continue to resonate for a supremely self conscious “post-immigrant” generation.
The essays in Who We Are can be read in sequence, thus providing a linear literary history, from, say, Bellow to Roth to Goodman; but the collection’s real contribution is the fostering of dialogue across generations: In response to Irving Howe’s famous (and now virtually discounted) prediction about the fate of Jewish American writing in the wake of immigrant experience and Ozick’s stringent rejection of any “ethnic” — and thus imaginatively limiting — label for a serious writer, we have the striking testaments of writers like Steve Stern to a creatively altered relation to the past (what he calls a “deeper strata of narrative”); or Robert Cohen (who, safely New Jersey-born, nonetheless locates himself as a “singer in the back of the Diaspora chorus”); or Tova Mirvis, who relishes her own mode of creative “straddling” within religious orthodoxy, “one foot inside and one foot stepping out.”
Indeed, to judge from the stunning group of vibrant essays commissioned by Rubin, the rising generation appears unworried, either about labels or about the determining “ethnic” tracks laid by the literary sociologists. Rather, they tend to embrace the various ways of being “Jewish” available in this new century. In this respect, the rising generation recapitulates, perhaps ironically, the familiar “new world” story: in the end, their fiction is expressive of the ongoing creative encounter with “America.”
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