Ilan Sta­vans is Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor in Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege. His most recent books are the col­lec­tion of essays Singer’s Type­writer and Mine: Reflec­tions on Jew­ish Cul­ture (Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press, 2002) and the graph­ic nov­el El Ilu­mi­na­do (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin). He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

I hear repeat­ed­ly that Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture is under­go­ing a renais­sance. The state­ment puz­zles me.

I can’t think of a peri­od over our last 3,000 years of his­to­ry — yes, since the Bible began to take shape as a com­pendi­um of folk­tales — when Jews haven’t been part of a lit­er­ary renais­sance. We’re always dying…and leave a record of our near extinc­tion. Indeed, Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture thrives because it is con­stant­ly said to be on its last stand.

We write the apoc­a­lypse: no soon­er does some­one announce our demise, we do every­thing pos­si­ble to prove it wrong.

Ours, no doubt, are apoc­a­lyp­tic times. Not since 1945 has anti-Semi­tism been more nox­ious than it is now. All of us Jews are seen as par­a­sites in count­less places. The hatred against us wasn’t cured after the Holo­caust; it sim­ply went com­man­do.

We’ll unques­tion­ably sur­vive the cur­rent cli­mate of ani­mos­i­ty, although not with­out casu­al­ties: we’ll be again be phys­i­cal­ly dec­i­mat­ed, not to say psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly bruised. It has tak­en us a long time to think our­selves out of the Holo­caust. Our next sur­vival will also require enor­mous sta­mi­na.

That’s the eter­nal cycle in which we’re actors. The theme of Jew­ish his­to­ry — and its lit­er­a­ture — is the dialec­tic between cre­ation and destruc­tion.

We’re tex­tu­al crea­tures: our pri­ma­ry rela­tion­ship with the world isn’t mate­r­i­al but tex­tu­al. We’re simul­ta­ne­ous­ly authors and char­ac­ters in a larg­er-than-life nar­ra­tive. And texts con­note lan­guages. Every chap­ter in our his­to­ry is deliv­ered in anoth­er lan­guage. I don’t see a lit­er­ary renais­sance today in Span­ish, French, Por­tuguese, Pol­ish, Russ­ian… Our cur­rent mode, our lengua fran­ca, is Eng­lish. In fact, Eng­lish is
what Yid­dish was a cen­tu­ry ago: our portable home­land.

That habi­tat isn’t eter­nal; it will per­ish, just as oth­ers did before.

What puz­zles me about the present-day lit­er­ary renais­sance is its hubris: Amer­i­can Jews believe they their sheer dri­ve can over­come any­thing. Yet no dias­po­ra in Jew­ish his­to­ry has been more insu­lar, and more mono­lin­gual too. Our lit­er­a­ture is a tes­ta­ment to our arro­gance.

A mea­sured life is defined by the aware­ness of its own shortcomings.

Check back on Wednes­day for Ilan Sta­van’s next post for the Vis­it­ing Scribe.

Ilan Sta­vans is the Pub­lish­er of Rest­less Books and the Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor of Human­i­ties, Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege. His books include On Bor­rowed Words, Spang­lish, Dic­tio­nary Days, The Dis­ap­pear­ance, and A Critic’s Jour­ney. He has edit­ed The Nor­ton Anthol­o­gy of Lati­no Lit­er­a­ture, the three-vol­ume set Isaac Bashe­vis Singer: Col­lect­ed Sto­ries, The Poet­ry of Pablo Neru­da, among dozens of oth­er vol­umes. He is the recip­i­ent of numer­ous awards and hon­ors, includ­ing a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship, the Mass­a­chu­setts Book Award for Poet­ry, Chile’s Pres­i­den­tial Medal, the Inter­na­tion­al Lati­no Book Award, and the Jew­ish Book Award. Sta­vans’ work, trans­lat­ed into twen­ty lan­guages, has been adapt­ed to the stage and screen. A cofounder of the Great Books Sum­mer Pro­gram at Amherst, Stan­ford, Chica­go, Oxford, and Dublin, he is the host of the NPR pod­cast In Contrast.