Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 29

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J EW I S H I D E N T I T Y A ND J EW I S H
S U F F E R I NG I N BELLOW, MA L AMU D
AND P H I L I P R OTH
B
y
D
avid
H . H
irsch
D
u r i n g t h e d e c a d e
of the fifties the state of Jewish letters
flourished in America. There were some ironies in all this
success, however, which are only now becoming fully appare
For one thing, the achievement of Jewish writers was partly owing
to a general weakening of nineteenth-century “Jewishness” through-
out American society, a weakening which numbered among its
symptoms a paradoxical nostalgia for the old ways. This weakening
of Jewishness was, and is, primarily apparent in the disappearance
of faith, a universal Western phenomenon, and in the disappear-
ance of Yiddish, the language through which Jewish culture had
been transmitted for nearly a thousand years. Writing in the
language of the dominant culture, and from the vantage point of
liberal humanism, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip
Roth entered the mainstream of American culture.
In the sixties, novels by Jews about Jewish subject matter con-
tinued to appear, but the three novelists who established their
reputations in the previous decade must still be counted as the
major figures in this sub-genre, and it is to the work of these three
that I shall address myself here. All three have tried in some way
to come to terms with that most elusive of concepts so far as
Americans are concerned—Jewish Identity. And all three have tried
to cope with the problem of Jewish suffering, specifically, with the
problem of how Jewish suffering can be related first to American
experience (which by and large has not been an experience of
unusual suffering) and ultimately to universal human experience.
Finally, all three of these writers have interpolated, to a greater
or lesser extent, consciously or unconsciously, the rhythms of
Yiddish into English.
Malamud has used these rhythms most consciously and most
extensively. It is, as a matter of fact, through his extraordinary
ability to reproduce dialect English that he manages to give vitality
to his fictions. Of Pinye Salzman, for example, the marriage-
broker in “The Magic Barrel,” we are told that “he smelled
frankly of fish. . .” The misplaced adverb, “frankly,” is the key to
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