THE NEW DIASPORA: THE CHANGING LANDSCAPE OF AMERICAN JEWISH FICTION
Edited by Victoria Aarons, Avinoam J. Patt, and Mark Shechner
Wayne State University Press. 576 pages. $35.99. ISBN 978-0-8143-4055-4 (paperback)
Reviewed by Jim Burns
When Irving Howe edited an anthology called Jewish-American Stories, published by New American Library in 1977, his introduction suggested that it might mark the close of something significant. Howe pointed out that, though not all of the stories dealt with “the immigrant Jewish milieu…..almost all of them bear its stamp, and almost all would be incomprehensible to a reader who lacked some memory or impression – firsthand or through reading – of the immigrant Jewish milieu.” The writers he chose to include in his selection had mostly grown up in that milieu, hearing, in Delmore Schwarz’s words, “two languages throughout childhood, the one spoken with ease at home, and the other spoken with ease in the streets and at school, but spoken poorly at home.” Yiddish was often the language spoken in the home by the parents of writers like Schwarz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Daniel Fuchs, and Henry Roth, to name just a few of them.
It was Howe’s contention that “fiction depends for its life on place,” and that for many Jewish writers (remember he’s writing in 1977), what he termed “the heart’s field” was always “those gray packed streets, turbulent and smelly, which they have kept from childhood, holding them in memory long after the actuality has been transformed or erased.”
But what happened when that memory had gone? When it was no longer relevant in the minds of younger writers who had grown up in vastly different places than those “gray packed streets, turbulent and smelly.”? Howe seemed to be of the opinion that American Jewish fiction had “moved past its high point,” and that because “it drew heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning-out of materials and memories. Other than in books and sentiment, there just isn’t enough left of that experience.”
It’s true that a novel like Isaac Rosenfeld’s Passage From Home could never again have the same resonances that it had for many of the Jewish writers and intellectuals who had been born just before and during the 1920s to immigrant parents, and at some point broke away from their backgrounds to move to Manhattan, and particularly Greenwich Village. And I wonder if Wallace Markfield’s To an Early Grave, about the adventures of a group of New York intellectuals going to the funeral of one of their colleagues (probably based on Isaac Rosenfeld), could be written now? I would guess that many of the younger American Jewish writers are far too scattered in their locations and interests to feel the urgency of a similar sense of identity, other than their general Jewishness, to gather together for an occasion of that sort.
When Partisan Review closed down in 2003 it was “the end of an era,” according to The New York Times,” but the decline in its relevance had been obvious long before that. One only needs to look at the contributors’ notes in The New Diaspora to see the differences between their backgrounds and those of many of the writers included in Harold U. Ribalow’s A Treasury of American Jewish Stories, published in 1958 by Thomas Yoseloff, though that edition brought together the contents of two books originally published in 1950 and 1952. Compared to the earlier writers, the authors in The New Diaspora can offer impressive lists of grants, awards, fellowships, prizes, university positions, and the like, which relate to their more-assured status in American society. It’s interesting to see that Ribalow makes a point of mentioning a story by Nelson Appet as one of the few “ever written about Jewish life in American suburbia.” Times, and the stories, have changed.
I’m not wanting to set up an argument about the respective qualities of either group in terms of their writing. But it is inevitable that the content of their novels and stories will be different. The old social and political concerns have largely disappeared. So, too, has the psychoanalytical element that seems to have influenced at least some of the American Jewish writers of the 1940s and 1950s: “Fiction absorbed psychoanalysis at a moment in history when a writer’s mission was to keep a fever chart of a character who was often a thinly disguised stand-in for himself: Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Malamud’s Arthur Fidelman.”
Saul Bellow describes Von Humboldt Fleisher in Humboldt’s Gift as a man who “owned a set of Freud’s journals. Once you’ve read The Psychopathology of Everyday Life you knew that everyday life was psychopathology ” It might be worth noting that Delmore Schwartz was the basis for the character of Humboldt, and that the editors of The New Diaspora mention that “Bellow’s friend Isaac Rosenfeld spent hours in an orgone box.” Not many people now will recall orgone boxes and Wilhelm Reich’s theories. And, with regard to Freud, the same editors also insist that: “The inventor of the Oedipus complex who gave intellectual nourishment, not to say promise of remedy, to a generation of Jewish writers and thinkers in mid-twentieth century, has become himself a museum piece of intellectual history.”
The editors of The New Diaspora are somewhat dismissive of Irving Howe’s comments about American Jewish fiction having perhaps peaked with the passing of the immigrant experience, but to be fair, he did point out that younger writers disagreed with him, and that they would argue for a “post-immigrant Jewish experience in America which can be located in its own milieu, usually suburbs or middle-class neighbourhoods; that it has its virtues and devices distinctly its own; and that it offers a body of experience which a serious writer can draw upon in creating fictions.”
It could be that anthologies such as Joyce Antler’s America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers (Beacon Press, 1990), Ted Solataroff and Nessa Rappoport’s The Schocken Book of Contemporary Jewish Fiction (Schocken Books, 1992) and Gerald Shapiro’s American Jewish Fiction (University of Nebraska Press, 1998) led the way in tracking the transition from “the arias of `me, me, me’ “ into choruses of `us, us, us,’ the Jews as a collective body embedded in history, culture, and a collective memory.” Paul Zakrzewski’s Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge (Harper, 2003) pushed the process even further.
At the end of the day, of course, the test of any novel or story is going to be how it works for the general reader, unless it is accepted that its potential readership is only that of a specific group which may share the background and interests of the writer. There were moments, when reading the otherwise excellent introduction to The New Diaspora, when it did seem to be suggested that American Jewish writers do only want to reach an American Jewish audience. But surely any writer looks for as wide a readership as possible?
And if the older generation could transmit their experiences, as Bellow, Rosenfeld, Malamud, Markfield, and others, certainly did to me (a non-American, non- Jewish reader), then I assume the newer writers will want to do the same. In Irving Howe’s introduction to Jewish- American Stories, he refers to Jerome Weidman’s “brilliant” story, “My Father Sits in the Dark.” It’s definitely an American Jewish piece of writing, but is it specifically so? I often used it when I ran creative writing classes for mature students (from a non-academic background) in a Northern English city, and it never failed to arouse positive responses from them. They could easily identify with the situation it described.
There are stories in The New Diaspora that could be usefully employed in the same way. Steve Stern’s “Heaven is Full of Windows,” which uses the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 (when 146 workers, most of them young Jewish and Italian girls, died) as its basis, is short and poignant and would certainly be quickly understood. Jonathan Safran Foer’s lively, “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly,” is a fast-moving piece that nowhere depends on an American Jewish context for its success. I’m not trying to suggest that every story should be plain and without references to local customs or practices. And there’s no reason why any of the other stories which do have a specifically Jewish location, like Israel, something that does occur in more than one of them and so distinguishes them from earlier American Jewish writing, can’t be appreciated by non-Jewish readers. Joan Leegant’s “The Baghdadi” is a good example and deftly combines a personal story with some recent political factors. such as the fate of Iraqui Jews and the fact that French Jews have been leaving France as anti-semitism begins to rise. Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” relates to an incident during the 1956 war with Egypt and how it shapes a man’s actions many years later.
If the earlier American Jewish writers mostly focused on contemporary life, more than a few of the newer ones give their stories various historical contexts. The excerpts from Sara Houghteling’s Pictures at an Exhibition are set in Paris in the inter-war years and indicate a knowledge of art history. Dara Horn’s novel, The World to Come, locates itself in 1920s Russia, and the excerpt in The New Diaspora is about a boy in an orphanage who shows some talent for painting and is encouraged by Chagall. With Jonathan Keats’s “Zayin the Profane,” it is difficult to say exactly when the action takes place as the plague strikes and a young girl appears to have the capacity to cure its victims.
The Holocaust crops up in some stories. Thane Rosenbaum’s “The Day the Brooklyn Dodgers Finally Died” has an old man seeing swastikas scrawled on cars in the streets of Brooklyn. Later, he meets several black teenagers who are curious about the numbers tattooed on his arm. Avner Mandelman’s “Pity” describes how some Israeli agents lie in wait on a Paris street for an ex-Nazi to emerge from his home. It reads like a conventional thriller with political overtones. Lara Vapnyar’s “There are Jews in my House” is about the entry of German troops into the Ukraine and how it affects the relationships between Jews and non-Jews who had been friends. Should non-Jews betray the whereabouts of the Jews in order to ensure that they would not be accused of harbouring them?
I’ve been selecting items from the more than thirty in The New Diaspora to try to indicate the range of the material. There are others I could point to. They’re all competently written, though I did once or twice feel that they might have been produced as exercises for a writing course. It’s a minor complaint, if it’s seen as that. But it perhaps raises the question of whether or not the kind of creative writing courses that lead to qualifications can institute a standardised creativity as students strive to meet laid-down criteria.
I think it’s worth pointing out that the editors refer to the number of recent arrivals in America of Jewish writers from Russia (especially), Hungary, South Africa, Iran, Cuba, France, and other countries. Their backgrounds and influences are adding to the variety of American Jewish writing. Although he isn’t in the anthology I recently read The Yid (Picador, 2016), a novel by Paul Goldberg which wittily revolves around a plot to assassinate Stalin on the eve of a purge connected to the so-called Doctors’ Plot in the early 1950s. It is yet another example of the vitality of American Jewish fiction, and how it is benefiting from the arrival of new immigrants.
A final comment. I was pleased to see that Joseph Epstein is included in The New Diaspora. He’s one of my favourite short-story writers, and his collections, The Goldin Boys (Norton, 1991), Fabulous Small Jews (Houghton Mifflin, 2003), and The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) are a delight to read. Epstein is also an essayist of note and his work in that line is highly recommended. It does amuse me a little to find Epstein among all the “newer” or “younger” writers. Born in 1937 he’s almost as old as I am. But, as they say, you’re as young as you feel.
The New Diaspora is a stimulating collection. I’m not about to pretend that I enjoyed every story, and inevitably some were more interesting than others. But all of them deserve to be read, and if a few had, as I noted earlier, a whiff of the creative writing course about them as they moved smoothly and predictably to their conclusions, it’s perhaps understandable. We live in a time when many writers find a way to publication through such courses. I should add that the introduction to the anthology is an informative guide to contemporary American Jewish fiction, with useful references going far beyond the writers in the book.