Page 161 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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a n d is
— R
e f l e c t io n s
o n
m e r ic a n
ew i sh
r iter s
writers who will try in varying ways to observe the Jew as a
real human being” instead of the “parade of Jews as holy suf-
ferers, adepts of alienation, saintly buffoons, flamboyant apostles
of love—in all the twisted, grinning mask of a literary con-
vention that keeps literature from making imaginative contact
with reality.”
Once the Jewish Problem was passionately explored; now the
problem of the Jewish Writer seems to have taken its place.
He is not only a category but an issue with whom and about
whom dialogues are arranged, symposia conducted, books and
articles written without abatement. Curiously, not the least
debatable aspect of the problem is the very definition of the
genus. The efforts to describe the nature of the Jewish writer’s
Jewishness, the distinctively Jewish qualities of his writing, have
covered a range from the very general qualities of moral sen-
sitivity and intellectuality which Maxwell Geismar sees as the
distinguishing characteristics to the very specific responses to
“a series of moments in the search for God,” which Irving Malin
uses as his touchstones. On occasion, description approaches
prescription, as when Leslie Fiedler proclaimed: “To be a Jew-
ish writer means to be an outsider, to assume the prophetic
role; that is, to assume the role of one step ahead of the moral
order in which he lives. And the prophetic writer is driven to
blast and excoriate and caricature the community, which is in
the process of making . . . capitulations . .
The problem of definition is not entirely new to Jewish
criticism. At the turn of the century, Yitshok Leibush Peretz,
as ideological leader of the Jewish Renaissance in Yiddish and
in a very real sense the founding father of modern Yiddish
literature, also felt the need to evoke that particularity in Yid-
dish creativity which would produce Jewish writing rather
than a duplication of European writing with Yiddish words.
In attempting to suggest that Jewish quality, he wrote: “Is
there a people that changes its language, a wander-folk without
fixed borders, without its own economic structure; and is it
a people that lives, suffers and does not perish; that is weak,
attacked by the greatest and the strongest and does not sur•
render—then must such a people see differently, feel differently,
have a different view of life, a different conception of the future
of the world, of life, and of man . . .” Peretz conceived of a
Jewish world-view that is unique because it is the product of
a unique historical experience and a unique response to that
experience, a Jewish vision of life of which the essence is not
so much a search for God as it is a search for man. I t is a
vision, as Brendon Behan once observed with some surprise,
that is more concerned with improving men’s happiness within
a framework of righteousness than with saving their souls. I t