Over the past week­end I found myself com­plete­ly absorbed in the lit­er­ary uni­verse of Joan­na Smith Rakoff s debut nov­el A For­tu­nate Age and won­der­ing about the next gen­er­a­tion of Jew­ish authors to emerge onto the lit­er­ary scene. Rakoff’s nov­el opens with the line “[o]n a gray Octo­ber day in 1998, Lil­lian Roth found her­self walk­ing down the stone-floored aisle of Tem­ple Emanu-El, clad in a gown of dark ivory satin and flanked by her thin, smil­ing par­ents, who had flow into New York from Los Ange­les…,” set­ting the stage for a cast of dis­il­lu­sioned twen­ty-some­things in search of their place in 21st cen­tu­ry Man­hat­tan. The set” of friends (as Lil­lian Roth deems them) that Rakoff has envi­sioned seek to carve lives for them­selves that evoke their lib­er­al arts edu­ca­tion, their intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ty, and their nos­tal­gia for the good old day of a more rad­i­cal­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly charged Man­ht­tan. For sev­er­al of Rakoff’s char­ac­ters, their Jew­ish her­itage becomes a part of the back­drop – their Judaism is not front and cen­ter – but it’s a part of their foun­da­tion, mak­ing brief appear­ances through­out the book. None of the char­ac­ters are par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious (although one does end up explor­ing Israel out­side the bound­aries of the nar­ra­tive), and none com­ment on their Judaism as a neg­a­tive fac­tor with­in their life (or par­tic­u­lar­ly pos­i­tive) – it’s just a fact. They don’t wear it on their sleeve, but it’s there on the first page of the book, and it seeps back in through­out the course of the narrative.

Pri­or to reaing Rakoff’s nov­el, I had just fin­ished Kei­th Gessen’s All the Sad Young Lit­er­ary Men, which mus­es on a sim­i­lar set of char­ac­ters (albeit male) fac­ing sim­i­lar ques­tions at the turn of the 21st cen­tu­ry. Where does the lib­er­al­ly arts edu­cat­ed, ide­al­is­tic, intel­lec­tu­al end up in today’s world? What does it mean to (final­ly) fin­ish your Ph.D.? What’s next? Suc­cess? Fail­ure? Dis­il­lu­sion­ment? Real­i­ty? Gessen’s debut nov­el touch­es on ques­tions relat­ed to Judaism (specif­i­cal­ly Israel) more direct­ly than Rakoff, specif­i­cal­ly in the char­ac­ter of Sam who sets him­self to the task of writ­ing the the Great Zion­ist nov­el (hav­ing nev­er been to Israel), naive­ly (he’s Jew­ish, so he must iden­ti­fy with Israel, right?) attempt­ing to weave Israel into his iden­ti­ty. Like Rakoff’s nov­el, none of Gessen’s char­ac­ters are par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious, but their Judaism does exist as inescapable part of their iden­ti­ty — even if it is is most­ly in the back­drop. How does the non-reli­gious, lib­er­al­ly arts edu­cat­ed, Jew, incor­po­rate Judaism into their life with­out the tra­di­tion­al foun­da­tion? And then what does this mean for their chil­dren? How does Israel fac­tor in? Does Jew­ish = Israel?

Two nov­els in two weeks that focus on Jew­ish twen­ty-some­thing lib­er­al arts grad­u­ates search­ing for themselves…with a lit­tle Judaism thrown in? A trend? We’ll keep you posted.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the CEO of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.