Page 15 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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Nissenson’s literary theology defies easy categorization. Rob­
ert Alter terms him the “only genuinely religious writer in the
whole American Jewish group.”2 In fact, Nissenson is the only
one among Jewish American novelists to focus his attention on
the religious situation of Jews in Europe and Israel, as well as
in America. But one of the central keys to understanding
Nissenson’s work is to recognize what the author means by re­
ligion. He cannot affirm God. But neither can he abandon “Jew­
ish mythology.” Jewish theology, for Nissenson, is mythological,
comparable to that of ancient Mesopotamia or classical Greece.
It is, therefore, more accurate to contend that Nissenson’s pas­
sion is for a sense of the holy. Moreover, after Auschwitz, this
life-long fascination with holiness unde rgoes a crucial
transformation. He now believes that holiness “is not from out­
side, but from within.”3 Holiness has no transcendent reference.
Consequently, the theological tension in Nissenson’s works
stems from his Rubenstein-like “death of God” position which
hovers over all Jewish existence.
Biographically, Nissenson remembers two crucial childhood
events that stamped his relationship to God. Born in Brooklyn
three months after Hitler came to power, he recalls seeing pho­
tos and newsreels of the dictator. Once, he and his parents lis­
tened to one of Hitler’s ranting speeches on the short wave
radio. Nissenson attests that (Hitler) “dogged my childhood.”4
The second trauma occurred when his mother’s thirty-one year
old friend died of breast cancer. Nissenson writes that “My love
for (God), which was mixed with fear, became hate. I gave up
my faith. I hate the idea that a just and loving God allows cells
to metastasize and men to make gas chambers.”5 In the wake
of this assertion, Nissenson grapples with issues of post
Jewish faith and identity through application of paradigmatic
themes from Jewish history, mythology, and theology. His char­
acters represent the points of view of such diverse figures as
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who, after the destruction of the
2. Robert Alter, “Sentimentalizing the Jews,”
40:3 (September,
1965), p. 75.
3. Hugh Nissenson, “A Sense o f the Holy,”
Spiritual Quests: The Art and Craft
o f Religious Writing.
Ed. by William Zinsser (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Com­
pany, 1988), p. 139.
4. Op. cit., p. 135.
5. Ibid., p. 137.