Page 36 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 51

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
CLASH WITH JUDAISM
T h e first grea t wave o f Jewish-American fiction writers —
the generation o f Saul Bellow, Be rna rd Malamud, and Philip
Roth — was characterized by a deep ambivalence, often a
marked hostility, towards Juda ism as religion and as culture.
Moving ou t o f a Juda ism characterized as parochial, socially and
sexually constraining, a varied set o f protagonists en te red an
Americanized, cosmopolitan landscape with — at best — a wist­
ful, nostalgic backward glance at imm igran t values too fragile
for this world. For example, the Jewbird o f Malamud’s eponym ­
ous story guides and nu r tu re s a troubled young boy far be tter
than his vulgar, Americanized father. But the Jewb ird can b are­
ly live ou t the harsh winter. One can almost hea r the echo o f
Tennessee Williams — “Blow ou t your sabbath candles, Lau ra .”
Fictional Jewish protagonists — like the ir au thors, primarily
male — left the Jewish community fo r la rger horizons, rebelled
against its narrow parochialism, castigated its vulgarity and ma­
terialism, sought non-Jewish spouses and lovers, o r valorized
(and secularized) only very particu lar aspects o f Jewish cu ltu re
— for example, the redemptive possibilities o f suffering (Leo
Finkle knew “tha t he was a Jew and tha t a Jew su ffe red”), o r
the striving fo r social justice. T h e ir outward movement — p res­
en t also in popu la r cu lture (for example, the plays o f Neil Simon
and the early comedic films o f Woody Allen) — frequently takes
the form o f fascination with a gentile woman, e ithe r as a self-
conscious transgressive practice with repud ia tes Juda ism , o r as
p roo f o f acceptance into the secular world. While the narratives
criticize anti-Semitism and wholesale denial o f one ’s Jewish
roots, religious identity transmu tes into psychological o r cu ltural
identity, and — as in Philip Roth’s sho rt stories — Jewish p rac­
tice and beliefs, when present, are mocked o r unravelled. While
these works often criticize the hollowness o r shallowness o f Jew ­
ish life in America, they do not advocate — o r even imagine
— a re tu rn to religious observance as a solution.
By contrast, con temporary writing by Jewish-American wom­
en features a su rprising re tu rn to and re-evaluation o f trad i­
tional Juda ism — su rprising not only in light o f the ir (male)
literary precursors, bu t also because o f the opposition between
feminism and Juda ism (particularly O rthodox Juda ism ) as d e ­
picted both by secular cu ltu re and by Jewish feminists. Not with­