Posted by Joseph Winkler
A Jewish joke: what do you get when you stick five contemporary, talented Jewish writers on a panel?
A. 10 opinions on what constitutes a Jewish writer.
B. A very stale and bad Jewish joke.
C. A dynamic, entertaining, and insightful panel that explored the cross sections of Jewish identity and literature.
D. All of the above.
If you guessed D, you win a badge of pride (good joke, I know.) Last night at the Housing Works on Crosby Street — dubbed “best bookstore, perhaps ever” by the panelists – the Jewish Book Council in conjunction with Vol. 1 Brooklyn hosted an event entitled The New Yiderati: Redefining the Jewish Experience in Literature. (Sidepoint: If I had to choose a bookstore to go all From the Mixed Up Files of Basil E. Frankweiler on, I would definitely choose the Housing Works bookstore because of its romantic setting full of rich mahogany bookshelves.) Speaking to over fifty people, the five authors — Michelle Haimoff (These Days Are Ours), Sharon Pomerantz (Rich Boy), Joanna Smith Rakoff (A Fortunate Age), Adam Wilson (Flatscreen), Jeffery Oliver (Failure to Thrive) — along with moderator Jason Diamond opined on a range of issues including a working definition of Jewish literature, questions of supposed obligations to the Jewish community, and the burgeoning role of Jewish women writers. Like all great Jewish discussions, the conversation worked off a tension between innovation and tradition, though the tradition in mind was more the literary Jewish tradition than the religious one.
For example: How do you create a satire of Jewish, wealthy suburbia with the shadow of Philip Roth looming over your writing? As women authors, how do you situate yourself in a largely patriarchal literary tradition, especially if Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick were just not doing it for you as an aspiring artist? What’s the difference between a Jewish novel and a Jewy novel? On the whole, everyone provided fodder for further thought, although some authors nailed specific questions. Jeff Oliver explained what “Jewy” meant with his insightful comedic style: “If it makes me feel full of dread, anxiety and terror, then it feels pretty Jewy to me.” “How Jewish is ‘too Jewish’ in literature?” (perhaps the ultimate Jewish literary question) elicited a range of smart answers, but none as sharp as Adam Wilson’s “If you find yourself more Jewish than Larry David then your book might be too Jewish.” What emerged amongst the hodgepodge of responses was a consensus that our society, especially the literary subculture, has moved past the question of Jewish identity into a period in which Jewish characters simply represent part of the American experience. Thankfully, we live in an era where Jewish characters need not wear flashing neon signs announcing their Jewishness to the world.
At these type of panel events, the audience hopes that the speakers themselves will pick up the questions and run with them, creating fluid natural conversations not bound by the original questions. Last night’s panel did not disappoint. The most contentious question of the night, concerning the role of women in the Jewish novel, elicited a fun, lively argument about the portrayal of women in novels. These probing critical questions forced some of the authors to explain their choices in writing parts of their novels, but what’s a good Jewish event without some modest argumentation?
Overall, the event balanced a sense of seriousness with a cool insouciance appropriate for a panel of this kind. Many of the writers sprinkled jokes throughout their answers, jokes that yes, in a Jewish manner, provided stellar answers albeit in an indirect way, ending on questions, working off circularity. While many of the questions and answers still require digestion (and my intuition tells me that the questions asked were more conversation starters, intellectual icebreakers, than questions demanding concrete answers), the event did provide one answer to an implicit question overhanging the event: yes, Jewish writers are not only alive and writing en masse but are thriving, thinking, and publishing important works, which I think we can all agree is a cause for celebration.
Joseph Winkler is a freelance writer living in New York City. He writes for Vol.1 Brooklyn, The Huffington Post, Jewcy, and other sites. While not writing, Joe is getting a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support his extravagant lifestyle, Joe also tutors and unabashedly babysits. Check out his blog at noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com