Page 158 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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J
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all well-informed people admit. Some of the tunes are pleasant,
so are some of the dances, but the whole effort is mostly irrele-
vant fluff. The Tenth Man by Chayefsky was a vaudeville
version of suburban Jewish life. His Gideon was based on a
fine Biblical theme—man’s lack of humility in the presence of
God’s bounty—but the treatment was broad, aimed for laughs
and loud exclamations. What understanding of Judaism there
was in it was slight. The Clifford Odets’ various plays about
Bronx dentists and uncles were colored with Hollywood meta-
physics. The dramatization of Harry Golden’s Only Yesterday
was quite pallid. Other names come to mind: Lillian Heilman
(Watch on the Rhine), S. N. Behrman (The Cold Wind and the
Warm), Gertrude Berg (The Goldbergs)—and one begins to falter
and hesitate. The Goldbergs was not as poor as some say. Mrs.
Berg was not a profound observer, and hokum poured out of her,
but she did point to interesting characters that more able play-
wrights had overlooked: the Jewish doctor, the Jewish widower
who is bewildered by his “educated” daughter-in-law, the pathetic
people, both young and old, who go to “summer places” and
“winter places.” One wonders if there wasn’t more understanding
of Jewish life in America in the brief scene about anti-Semitism
in William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs than in
all the plays by Jewish playwrights.
The past twenty-five years, as has been said, have witnessed
a truly stupendous production of Jewish novels and short stories
in the United States. The publishing climate for Jewish fiction
has been most salubrious. And that has been both a blessing
and something of a worry. There have been good works of the
literary imagination—perhaps those most likely to endure have
been mentioned in this necessarily brief survey. But many more,
one must say, have been cheap, ignorant, and riddled with self-
degradation and obsessed with various aberrations, sexual and
otherwise. Jews have become good “copy” and unscrupulous writ-
ers have taken advantage of the fact.
Another misfortune has paralleled this development. The truly
worthy books have not always enjoyed the acclaim of the few
critics who have command of the influential journals and news-
papers. These critics have spent most of their lives away from
Jewish life, and when they have on occasion come in contact
with it, they have been baffled and looked askance at it.
But a reaction has already set in. General readers are beginning
to talk back, so to speak, to the critics. Many of them refuse to
finish
Herzog.
They ask what Jews ever talked the way Henry
Roth, in
Call I t Sleep,
claims Jews talked. They are beginning
to wonder about some of the great virtues attributed to I. B.
Singer’s novels and stories, and they ask where he got the idea
that Jews have had so much traffic with ghosts. The Golem is