Page 15 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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PINSKER / THE CONTEMPORARY JEWISH-AMERICAN NOVEL
7
one thing, however, both groups would agree: contemporary
Jewish-American fiction can no longer wrap itself in the mantle
o f m ere sociology. Moreover, the most interesting o f the Jewish-
American fictionists would insist that library “research” need
not be antithetical to the imagination’s power, and tha t Howe’s
claims on beha lf o f the “cult o f experience” are vastly overstated.
I have chosen Rhoda Lerman, Tova Reich, and Je rom e Ba-
danes as representative cases, not only because they strike me
as interesting and talented — in short, as writers worth watching
— bu t also because their recent work, taken as a whole, suggests
importan t new directions in Jewish-American fiction.
Let me begin with Rhoda Lerm an’s
God’s Ear
(1989), a novel
that looks for all the world as if it were a collaborative effo rt
hatched by a very unlikely duo: the Chaim Potok who gave
us
The Chosen
(1967) and o ther page-turn ing tales o f hasidic
life in America, and the Philip Roth who raised A lexander
Portnoy’s complaints to a new high, o r perhaps plunged them
to a new low, o f comic art. Indeed , one need only read the
opening pa rag raph o f
God’s Ear
to feel the intimations both
o f Potok’s ambience and Roth’s ear: “The Rabbi’s only son,
Yussel, sold insurance, mostly life. He made a fo r tune because
everyone in the Hasidishe world knew that his father, the Rabbi,
and his g rand fa the r o f blessed memory, all o f them stretching
back unbroken in a golden chain from Far Rockaway to
Horodenka, to Braslow, Chernobyl, Lubin, Tiberias, Jerusalem ,
to David, to Adam, all o f them in the Fetner family made p ro p h ­
ecy” (Lerman, 1).
Potok, o f course, has become a fixture on the best seller lists
since he burst onto the literary scene with
The Chosen,
a novel
so filled with insider information about ultra-O rthodox Jewish
life that one wondered how those west o f Borough Park would
respond. No doub t pa r t o f the appeal — to Jewish as well as
non-Jewish readers — has to do with the fact that Potok is him ­
self a p roduc t o f the hasidic world he describes, and tha t his
training as a rabbi lends a certain credence to the discussions
o f Talmud that invariably make their way into his novels. In
short, Potok’s novels are filled with the appeal fiction has always
offered up as its excuse for being — namely, that its “stories”
make the medicine o f history or philosophy, o r in his case, Jew ­
ish theology, go down easier.