Who We Are: On Being (And Not Being) a Jew­ish Amer­i­can Writer

Derek Rubin, ed.
  • Review
By – August 13, 2012
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.”

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

Discussion Questions