Page 167 - 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
sponsibility, relatedness, warmth, and commitment without
which fulfillment becomes anarchic if not impossible; the af-
firmation of unfallen man’s moral freedom to choose his own re-
demption by such commitment; the affirmation of the joys of
life by “the principled quest . . . for life-giving pleasure”; the
affirmation of gentleness and the repudiation of violence; and in
his own pay-off book, the celebration of all of these, steeped in
that compassion which is the pervasive quality of Moses Herzog
as it is of Saul Bellow—the application of the law of the heart.
Mentshlekhkayt, mentshlekhkayt shalt thou pursue all the
days of thy life. However varied the emphases, however un-
formulated the intention, whether in whole or in part, mentsh-
lekhkayt is the moral vision of contemporary Jewish writing,
from Bellow to Wallant and back through Roth to Gold.
The Jew as Culture Hero
If the Jew has emerged as something of a culture hero in a
Christian world during the past two decades, he has done so
because he has emerged, in so much recent literature, not as an
expert in alienation but as an expert in commitment in a world
of moral grotesquerie, as an expert in affirmation and association
in a world of denial and estrangement, as, therefore, an expert
in the deepest needs of our times. This has been his major func-
tion in contemporary American literature as the vision of
mentshlekhkayt has been his major insight, and to this function
American Jewish writers have addressed themselves. To criticize
them for failing to depict Jewish life faithfully is to criticize them
for not doing what they never meant to do. I t is not the study
of Jewish life but the application of traditional Jewish life-
wisdom to our times—and the fervent assertion of its applicability
—that has been their prime concern. Tha t they have been able
to embody that wisdom in memorable works of fiction has been
both its vindication and their achievement.