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Is the Jewish-American Experience Over?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1993
Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity. By Leslie Fiedler. Godine. $19. 95. A History of the Jews in America. By Howard M. Sacher. Knopf. $40. Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Jack Fisehel and Sanford Pinsker. Garland. $95. 00. The Jewish People in America, (five volumes). Edited by Henry Feingold. John Hopkins. $145. 00.

I am the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants which means, among other things, that I overheard a good many heated discussions conducted across our kitchen table. My parents took great pride in their night school English, but when the talk with my assorted uncles and aunts got serious, really serious, their conversation took an abrupt turn into Yiddish. They debated everything—that is, everything they could cobble to the larger, more important topic known in those days as “the Jewish problem.” No subject, however innocent-looking or unrelated, was immune: Fanny Brice, Major Bowes, even baseball. Indeed, when I first encountered the classic joke about the Jewish student who wrote his term paper on “The Elephant and the Jewish Problem,” I missed the punch line, figuring that he was onto a topic my parents surely would have approved.

In such a world, passion may have outstripped intellectual precision, but of one thing there could be little doubt: these were people who knew how to worry, and what they worried about was nothing less than Jewish survival itself. Which is to say, these people would have regarded the query my title raises with the same amused skepticism and withering irony they brought to much of American life. A question was likely to generate still more questions (“Over? Has it even begun?”), along with a shower of sarcastic epithets, all in capitals (“Listen, Mr. Big Shot, Mr. Know-It-All. . . .”), and sentences ending in the excited authority of exclamation points (“You haven’t seen! You don’t know!”). But most of all, my family used such occasions to tell stories, because only stories could ground abstractions in the gritty surface of particulars: “The thing is like this: There was once a pious widow too poor to afford even shabbos candles. . . .” And while the more theatrical aspects of my childhood have been muted by secular education and the popular culture swirling around me, I would like to think that my immigrant inher-itance has not entirely melted into either bland Americanism or, perhaps worse, trivializing schmaltz.

In short, Jewish-American scholars raised as I was find themselves balancing the claims of nostalgia against the need for critical detachment, an inclination to “celebrate” against equally strong claims to pursue the truth wherever it might lead. The result is a recipe for conflict, but also for great richness. Perhaps a story of my own will make the previous sentences clear: in the years following the publication of Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (1976), scholarly interest in New York’s lower East Side increased dramatically—so much so that YIVO, the center for Yiddish studies in New York City, held a symposium devoted to aspects of immigrant Jewish life. Participants gave 10—15-minute “working papers,” outlining their research-in-progress and designed to use the audience both as a sounding board and a potential source of information. It seemed like a good idea: those doing scholarly research on, say, Yiddish newspapers would be able to meet kindred spirits in the coffee klatches that followed each round of presentations, those hot for hard information about a specific block of tenement buildings on Orchard Street might strike paydirt during the inevitable “question period.”

Everything went swimmingly until a young man explained that he was out to research “Jewish gangsters”—not, he hastened to add, the likes of Dutch Schultz or Meyer Lansky, but, rather, the faceless hoodlums who had once given the Lower East Side a very bad, very public name. That said, his working paper quickly turned into a barely disguised cri de coeur, one lamenting the fact that the immigrant Jewish community was happy to supply information about its doctors and lawyers, but had a way of clamming up when you asked about its thugs. To nobody’s surprise except his own, he was having a hard time gaining access to the historical records that might clinch his complicated thesis about nature and nurture. “Could anyone help?”

Talk about opening a Pandora’s box! Some questioned the young man’s motives (“Why the fascination with Jewish no-goodniks?”), others, the use to which such scholarship might be put (“Our enemies maybe don’t have enough ammunition?”), but there were also those who insisted that YIVO was devoted to scholarship, not to cultivating good public relations for the Jews. One could feel the room dividing into two separate, inalterably opposed camps. That I felt a certain amount of sympathy with each position was true enough, but not likely to be of much help as the tensions mounted. Finally, an elderly gentlemen rose slowly from his chair and made the following proclamation: “I, myself, was a Jewish gengstah.” No doubt he was prepared to elaborate, but the essential point had already been made—namely, that this wizened, grandfatherly figure with the thick accent was none other than the living embodiment of so much defensiveness and fear. Both sides of the aisle burst into a laughter that one would be hard pressed to find at most other scholarly meetings.

Academic studies of the Jewish-American experience, then, are likely be exercises in memory and redefinition, in communal affirmation and sober assessment—a difficult juggling act, to be sure, but not an impossible one. By contrast, studies that concentrate on Jewish-American culture are much more vexing. As Yale English professor, Harold Bloom, likes to put it: Jewish-American culture is rather akin to the Holy Roman Empire—that is, neither American, nor Jewish, nor a culture. Granted, there are problems with the hyphen that links “Jewish” and “American” (Cynthia Ozick once likened it to the Gingham Dog who ate the Calico Cat), but the real rub, I suspect, comes with the word culture. If one means that American Judaism has not produced the equivalent f the Babylonian Talmud or that no Jewish-American theologian is the equal of Maimonedes, Bloom is, of course, right. But culture is a multi-faceted, many-splendored thing, especially in democratic countries, and I do not count myself among those who would argue that Jewish-American life deserves the crack that Gertrude Stein once heaved at Oakland—namely, that there was no there there.

Still, the Jewish culture that American democracy made possible comes to more than posh temples and garish bar mitzvahs, more than stand-up comics and a litany of film stars. For one thing, this was a culture whose deep commitment to social justice radically changed the landscape of American labor and the very fabric of American society; for another, it would be hard to imagine America without the enormous contributions that Jewish-Americans have made—in science and medicine, in law and government, in the arts, in academia, in the media, in everything from what Americans wear to what they eat. Our country would be a poorer, infinitely less interesting place without blue jeans and the Salk vaccine, without George Gershwin’s music or Hollywood films.

In short, “celebration” cannot be avoided, nor should it be. At the same time, however, scholarship rightly insists on sober judgment and critical detachment. Among the various threads that make up the Jewish-American experience are occasions giving justifiable cause for pride, as well as occasions sions for continuing disagreement and debate. That is part of the story; perhaps it is the story.

Interestingly enough, 1992 saw the publication of three ambitious projects that had as their purview nothing less than to tell the story of Jews in America as it had never been told before. The five-volume history, The Jewish People in America, is explicit about why 1992 seemed an especially propitious time: it was not only the centennial year of the American Jewish Historical Society, and as such, an occasion to demonstrate how much rigorous scholarship had replaced the philopietism of the Society’s early days, but also a way to place the quincentennial year of Columbus’s discovery of America, an event “precipitated by developments during the fifteenth century in the Iberian peninsula,” in the context of the first settlement by Jews on the North American landscape in 1654. Finally, 1992 struck the editors of the series as an ideal time to join the larger cultural debate about the extent to which multiculturalism should be acknowledged in the nation’s classrooms. Even those who would argue that the benevolent, absorbent atmosphere of America has thinned Jewish culture almost beyond recognition would have to admit that at least one aspect of Jewish culture—a deep appreciation of history—has largely remained intact. The very motto on the seal of the American Jewish Historical Society admonishes us to “Remember the Days of Old.” It is taken, of course, from the Pentateuch, itself an historical chronicle.

At the same time, however, as Eli Faber makes clear in the first volume of the series, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654—1820, “ the Jews of early America were among the first Jews in the modern world able to choose among separation from the larger society, acculturation, and assimilation.” Moreover, these have been choices faced by successive waves of immigrants to America, Jews and non-Jews alike, and often by their native-born descendants. The history of early American Jewry is, therefore, an early chapter in the more general history of many ethnic, racial, and religious groups that, together, have shaped American civilization and produced a complex multicultural society.

While much of the hoopla and heartbreak about the “meaning” of 1492 has been fixed on Columbus, what we tend to forget is that 1492 was also the year in which Queen Isabella was at last able to make good on her promises of a united, Catholic Spain. That Catholics, Moslems, and Jews had enjoyed long stretchs of peaceful coexistence within Spain’s large border and, more important, that the mixture of cultures contributed to its Golden Age are truths all but lost in the longer, bloodier history of religious warfare. But the cunning of history is such that the Edict of Explusion, which sent Jews scurrying to the safety of Holland, the Ottoman Empire, and, of no small significance, to America, is also the same moment when Spain began its downward spiral as a superpower.

Faber is especially good at tracing both the cultural conditions and the complicated journeys that brought Sephardic Jews to places such as Curasao and Recife, and later to the colonies. His, in short, is history of the workmanlike sort—not only documenting family trading networks but also the ways in which Jews from the Iberian peninsula were joined by those from Eastern Europe:

By 1635, an Ashkenazic congregation had been organized in Amsterdam. Jews from Poland and Germany went from there to Brazil; now they went to North America, as well. The embryonic Jewish community on Manhattan Island in 1654 thus brought together representatives of each of the two great subdivisions of the Jewish people, foreshadowing the demographic pattern that would characterize all of American Jewry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Moreover, Faber’s account does much to temper the philopietistic views that have clustered around this period of Jewish-American history. For example, Oscar S. Straus, writing in 1891, felt that “if it were historically shown that our race had a direct part in the discovery of America [because there were, presumably, good reasons to believe that several members of Columbus’s crew—perhaps even Columbus himself!—might be baptised Jews] this would be an answer for all time to come to any anti-Semitic tendencies in this country which doubtless will come to the surface sooner or later by reason of the large Russian immigration to our country.” But as Jonathan D. Sarna points out in a recent article in Commentary magazine (November 1992), such persistent myths—that the Indians were the Lost Ten Tribes or that the Puritans were “Hebraic” to the core—”have precious little to do with the real history and significance of the Indians, the Puritans, or Columbus.” Rather, what they speak to are the same loyalties and insecurities that have led some Jewish Americans to vastly overestimate the contributions Hyam Solomon made to the American Revolution (a more rigorous scrutiny reveals that he was not quite the “Financier of the Revolution” he is often made out to be) or to overlook the intermarriages that largely absorbed the Sephardic populations of Newport and Savanah into the larger fabric of Christian America.

Perhaps nothing quite dramatizes the condition of the first Jews in America more than two widely disparate facts—the first, that Newport’s Touro Synagogue was designed with a trap door under the reader’s table that led to an escape tunnel, a reminder of the Inquisition; and the second, that George Washington’s 1790 letter to this same congregation assured them that “the government of the United States. . . gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” As Faber points out, “In one fell swoop, Washington, who symbolized the nation, acknowledged not only the principle of religious freedom, but also that Jews were citizens—the first time anywhere for a head of state to do so.” Jewish Americans have often had occasion to remind America of its democratic promises, not only for Jews, but for all its citizens. And while there have been occasions when these “reminders” were not especially welcomed, what matters is that the gap between American ideals and day-to-day American life be shortened and the quality of life for all Americans become enriched.

That story is, of course, the tale that subsequent volumes in The Jewish People in America series attempts to tell. Most standard histories talk about the Jewish-American experience as successive waves of immigration—from modest numbers during the 17th and 18th centuries (by 1820, there were fewer than 3000 Jews in America) to the 200, 000 German Jews who arrived during the years between 1820 and 1880 and finally to the enormous influx of Russian Jews—some two million—who emigrated here between 1880 and 1924. But this rough outline, accurate though it may be, hardly tells the whole truth, especially if the “master story” of American Jewry is both richer and more complicated than a one-dimensional march from the trauma of immigrant adjustment to the assets of acculturation, and then to full-scale assimilation.

Indeed, what distinguishes Hasia Diner’s A Time for Gathering: The Second Migration, 1820—1880 are the questions she poses in her opening chapter:

This book focuses on the “German” period of the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It challenges this simplifying label and questions some of the images that pervade the history—and hagiography—of these years. The familiar figure of the mid-nineteenth-century American Jew portrayed a successful man of German origin who, devoted to German language and culture, participated fully in German American life. His connection to Judaism and the Jewish people eroded dramatically as he became integrated into the staid comfort of Victorian America. Collectively, American Jews of this sixty-year period have been depicted as a homogeneous group sharing their Germanness, their affluence, their Reform Judaism, and their striving for acceptance in America, What Diner discovers instead is that “Germans” made up a slim majority of the Jewish immigrants of the period: “They arrived together with other Jews from Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, Alsace, and even parts of Russia and Lithuania.” Moreover, those German Jews who did come constituted a very Jewish migration: “They did not leave as a result of tangential connections to Jewishness. . . . They were not the least committed, least knowledgeable Jews among their peers. [Indeed], since the better-off and more modernized Jews of central Europe actually avoided America and moved to cities at home, immigrants to America may have been the least modern and the most traditional Jews.”

These, in short, are the “uptown Jews” who became the princes of American business—the Seligmans, Lehmans, Warburgs, and Schiffs in investment banking; the Bloomingdales, Filenes, Lazaruses, Gimbels, and Rosenwalds in retailing—and it is their story that helped to create the mystique of the German Jewish immigrants who, in a single generation, catapulted themselves from poverty to fabulous wealth. And it is these Jews whom their Russian Jewish counterparts would later accuse of being overly stiff and impossibly formal, afraid to assert their ethnic identity and fearful of those who did. But as Diner hastens to point out, the staggering successes of the few often obscures the wider truth that the bulk of German Jews remained small merchants and many others labored as tailors or cigar makers. Diner’s history, then, is a corrective rather than an extended exercise in revisionism; and as such it balances a perspective from the “bottom up” with one that takes full account of how those of influence managed to change the landscape of Jewish-American life. It was, after all, the German Jews who were responsible for the creation of many of the basic institutions associated with American Jewish culture (e. g., the B’nai Brith, the single largest Jewish organization in the world, in 1843).

Gilbert Sorin’s A Time of Building: The Third Migration, 1880—1920 goes over much of the ground covered earlier in Irving Howe’s justly famous, World of Our Fathers (1976) at the same time that it widens the scope to Jewish-American life beyond the Hudson River. But whether the focus be New York’s lower East Side, with its grinding poverty and tenement squalor, its heady excitements and thriving Yiddish culture, or the larger rhythms of disunity, fragmentation, and the significant reshaping of tradition that characterized Jewish-American life, the period gave ample evidence of persistence and durability. If America was not exactly heaven, it was as far from hell as Jews in the Diaspora had ever known. As Sorin points out, “Despite restrictions, the number of Jews on college campuses, in government service, and in the professions increased significantly, as did their affluence. Anti-Semitism was mostly private, never becoming part of the national political agenda, and never strong enough to deny Jews access to the opportunities offered by American society.”

Unfortunately, the next decades would sharply test Sorin’s optimistic assessment. Henry F. Feingold’s A Time For Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920—1945 begins as the wide doors of immigration effectively slam shut and ends with the nightmare of the Holocaust. History, of course, does not flow evenly. Some epochs are crowded with stormy events; others are comparatively placid. The years between 1920 and 1945 were packed nearly to overflowing with evidences of the former, bookended as they were by world wars and the Great Depression in between. Small wonder, then, that Feingold divides his book into chapters on economic, political, and cultural influences, on acculturation, and religious and organizational developments. The result is a systematic way of understanding how it was that “during the interwar years the term community no longer adequately described American Jewry. Few of the commonalities that communalism was based on were present. The religious bond no longer unified, and the ethnic bond, based on a Yiddish-speaking culture, was on the wane. . . . Paradoxically, only in the anti-Semitic imagination were Jews a unifed and conspiratorial tribe.” Indeed, in one form or another, accusations of “Judeobolshivism” became the rallying cry of groups loosely knit by xenophobia and religious hatred. And in the tireless effort to beat back such charges, to insist that Jewish values and American ones could be—indeed, were— synonymous, secular Jewish liberalism had its birth. That some have regarded the new “religion” as a decidedly mixed blessing is the theme of the last, and arguably, the most interesting book of the series: Edward S. Shapiro’s A Time For Healing: American Jewry since 1945.

As Jewish Americans began to realize the full impact of the destruction of East European Jewry, they felt, as perhaps never before, the truth of the Jewish folk saying, “it is hard to be a Jew.” The classic answer of Jewish survivalists to such despair was theological. God had chosen the Jewish people for His own purposes, but most Jewish Americans were skeptical. They prefered, in Feingold’s words, that “God should choose some other people for a change and give the Jews a respite.” Indeed, what Feingold finds remarkable about Jewish-American life after 1945 was . . . the rejection of the gospel of despair by the vast majority of American Jews. As a result of the decimation of European Jewry, the United States had become the most important Jewish community in the world. Nowhere else was there a Jewish population with its numbers, wealth, and intellectual resources. The burdens of world Jewish leadership had crossed the Atlantic and rested with these upstart Americans, most of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants. Their tasks included not only succoring the remnants of European Jewry and aiding the struggling Jewish community in Palestine, but also creating a vibrant Jewish life in the United States that could give the younger generation a reason for continuing to identify as Jews.

That Bess Myerson of the Bronx became the first Jewish Miss America—on Sept. 8, 1945, less than a week after V-J Day— signaled the postwar movement of American Jews into the American mainstream. More substantive triumphs would follow. For example, in what one chapter calls “A Tale of Two Shapiros”—namely, how it was and what it meant that Irving Shapiro became the president of the Du Pont Corporation in 1973 and Harold T. Shapiro the president of Princeton University in 1987—Feingold rehearses the shameful history of Ivy League quotas and corporate snobbery.

Nonetheless, when Shapiro comes to ask the question that Ed Koch made famous during the days when he was New York’s major—namely, “How am I doing?”—he is more sanguine, because, for Shapiro, the question translates, inevitably, into “How are we doing, as Jewish Americans?” On the face of it, Feingold readily admits that things could hardly be brighter: “The economic and social profile of America’s Jews was the envy of other ethnic groups, anti-Semitism had diminished almost to the point of insignificance, and the political influence of Jews was at its peak.” But the future of Jews as Jews is a very different matter. Intermarriage remains a threat, as do other costs of radical assimilation. But what worries Shapiro, and what causes him to end his book on such a pessimistic note, is nothing more or less than Jewish apathy: Jewish Americans might be a “certain people,” as Charles Silberman’s study calls them, but they are neither a chosen people nor a separate people: “American Jews were becoming Jews in the way that other Americans were Presbyterians, Masons, and Republicans.”

By contrast, Howard M. Sacher’s thick, and thickly textured, A History of the Jews in America, does not share Shapiro’s fear that the arc of American freedom leads inevitably to cultural extinction. Here, one feels that the “story” of the Jews in America unrolls with the epical sweep and emphasis it deserves. Granted, no history can be definitive (given the nature of “history,” revisionism always lurks in the wings), but I suspect that few will take to their typewriters to correct a shading here, a nuance there, any time soon. For Sacher is not only hard-working and meticulous, but he also writes well. The result is a history of Jewish-American experience that is likely to find a place as “required reading,” along with Sacher’s earlier books on modern Jewish history, Zionism, and the Middle East.

That said, let me return to my original question—namely, is the Jewish-American experience over? Sacher, I suspect, would insist that it is not, and cite as evidence the chapters yet evolving in the “history” yet to be written—about those third-generation Jewish-Americans who have made a conscious effort to discover a Jewish heritage that their greatgrandfathers could not shuck off fast enough; about those who have adopted the cause of Holocaust remembrance as a version of secular religion and those who vest their passions in Israel’s continued survival; and, yes, those who make no apologies about America as the most congenial, most potentially fertile landscape Diaspora Jewry has ever known. One thing, however, is clear: no ethnic group has a stronger sense of communal organization or a deeper commitment to its own survival. As a character in Philip Roth’s The Counterlife argues, it is almost possible for American Jews to be comfortable in the way that Zionists had once predicted could only happen in the State of Israel:

The fact remains that in the Diaspora a Jew like you lives securely, without real fear of persecution or violence, while we are living just the kind of imperiled Jewish existence that we came here to replace. Whenever I meet you American-Jewish intellectuals with your non-Jewish wives and your good Jewish brains, well-bred, smooth, soft-spoken men, educated men who know how to order in a good restaurant, and to appreciate good wine, and to listen courteously to another point of view, I think exactly that: we are the excitable, ghettoized, jittery little Jews of the Diaspora, and you are the Jews with all the confidence and cultivation that comes of feeling at home where you are.

To be sure, Roth is a writer who takes a special delight in turning things on their head, in playing an articulate Israeli journalist (most probably modeled on Amos Oz) against a version of himself; but there are more than a few grains of truth in his vision of an Israel than turned into galut, and an America that became Zion.

Nonetheless, those who read Sacher’s history—or for that matter, pay attention to the anti-Semitic thunder on both ends of the political spectrum—are not likely to be lulled into complacency. If there are reasons for congratulation, there are also good reasons to remain vigilant. As the Israeli expression would have it, “If everything is so good, why is it so bad?” In America, black-Jewish tensions have never been so exacerbated, nor has there ever been a time when Jewish-Americans were more anxious about American-Israeli relations. In this regard, Sacher’s generous sections on the tangled history of American Zionism—complete with its internecine squabbles and eventual resolution—are worth the price of admission. If Sacher is dutiful, and generally accurate, when he surveys the “culture beat” (providing thumbnail sketches of the most prominent musicians, playwrights, and novelists), he is downright authoritative when discussing such pivotal matters as the “Brandeis synthesis” (which resolved the nagging questions about dual-loyalty that had so bothered the Reform rabbis who had hammered out the Pittsburgh Platform) or the Biltmore Conference of May 9—11, 1942.

I. B. Singer liked to insist that Jews suffer from many maladies, but one of them is not amnesia. Perhaps, although one could also argue that amnesia—which usually travels under the banner of “ahistoricity”—is a distinctly American trait, and that some Jewish Americans have not been shy about adopting this aspect of their host country’s character. At the same time, however, I suspect that Sacher’s book (a Book-of-the-Month Club selection) will grace the coffee tables of an extraordinary number of Jewish-American homes. Given the current situation—when anti-Semites of the first, and second, water can pass themselves off as candidates for the presidency—Jewish-Americans could do worse than “remember” (or learn, for the first time) the General Ulysses S.

Grant who issued his infamous Order No. 11: “The Jews as a class, violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department, and also [military department orders, are hereby expelled from the [military] department [of Tennessee] within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” As Sacher relates the tale, Cesar Kaskel, spokesman for the Paducah Jews, secured an appointment with Lincoln himself, and the Great Emancipator canceled the order in a single, presidential stroke. That much, of course, is fact. What Sacher adds is the commentary that turns events into “history”:

The aftermath of the episode was ironic. As president, Grant emerged as a model of solicitude in behalf of Jews living both in the United States and abroad. The man had not been transformed into an instant humanitarian. Rather, belatedly, he had managed to grasp the political usefulness of accommodating Jewish sensibilities. In their turn, finally Jews had been mobilized by the trauma of wartime prejudice and humiliation. The time was past due for a little minority people to seek functional unity in America, for the sake of common defense.

Finally, a word or two about Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia-not as an advertisement for myself, but rather as a way of bringing an extraordinarily wide range of opinion to the question of whether or not assimilation first eroded, then erased, the “Jewishness” of the Jewish-American experience. Because Jack Fischel and I assembled an Advisory Board that included scholars such as Robert Gordis, Arthur Hertzberg, Moses Rischin, Jacob Neussner, and Jacob Petuchowski, and then set about to find the best possible people to write individual essays (e. g., Gerald Stern, the distinguished American poet, on Jewish-American poetry; Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s military affairs correspondent, on United States-Israel Relations; Murray Friedman, vice chairman of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, on civil rights), the volume represents a representative sampling of the best currently being thought and said about Jewish-American life. Moreover, because we gave our contributors a largely free hand to explore their topics, the result is writing of the sort one does not usually associate with an encyclopedia: lively, fiercely individual, willing to risk a certain amount of “overlap,” even disagreement. How well we, they, succeeded I leave to the judgment of others.

Nonetheless, what the encyclopedia suggests is a movement beyond the tired clichés of acculturation and assimilation. For example, contemporary Jewish-American life bristles with the energy of Jewish women (feminists and non-feminists alike), an ongoing havurah (fellowship) movement, Jewish day schools, and Jewish Studies Programs. Israel continues to claim an enormous share of communal concern, and rightly so; but, as my own crowded appointment calendar testifies, Jewish-American organizations are still as “crazy for culture” as ever. True, the chairs are more comfortable than they were during the days when Yiddish-speaking workers crowded into the Educational Alliance building on New York’s Lower East Side to listen to lectures they half-understood, the buildings fancier, and the refreshments more up-scale, but the essential spirit remains much as it always was.

Leslie Fiedler would argue otherwise, insisting that the “there” that once was no longer is. As Fiedler on the Roof, his latest collection of essays, makes clear, the excitements of Jewish-American literature have fallen rather flat: “For nearly twenty years I have been writing less and less about Jewish-American novelists like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. Indeed, I no longer read their newest fiction with the sense of discovery and delight that led me to tout so extravagantly their earlier work, eventually helping to make it a part of the canon and to win for it an ever-growing audience both Jewish and goyish, not just in America but throughout the world.”

Here is a case where Fiedler was more prophetic than he probably realized, for while other American academics apparently share his sense that the heyday of Jewish-American literature is over (in the decade between 1982 and 1992, booklength studies of Jewish-American writing declined steadily, as did articles in scholarly journals), Jewish-American literature is alive-and-well in the unlikeliest of places: India, Germany, France, Belgium, the Scandanavian countries. Among the examples one can count Shiv Kumar’s A Symposium on the Jewish Heritage published in India and Guido Fink’s Il recupero del testo: Aspetti della letterature ebraicoamericana published in Italy, Hajime Sasaki’s Muraoka Isamu Sensei Kiju Kener Ronbunshu: Eibungaku Shiron published in Japan, and Filar Alonso Rodrfguez’ Malamud, Bellow y Roth: ires aspectos de las fronbtera interior published in Spain. Moreover, I suspect that I am not the only Jewish-American academic who has been asked to be the “outside referee” for a dissertation on Bellow completed at the University of New Delhi or the only one who has discovered that it takes thousands of rupees to equal a single American dollar. I have read manuscripts for an anthology on the work of Cynthia Ozick published in South Africa and agreed to do what I could on behalf of a very curious organization known as the “Chinese Society for the Studies of Jewish literature.” I have even tried to answer the queries of foreign students who begin in flattery (“Your work is very known to my professor”) and end by posing what can only be called brain-breakers. Here, from my ever-growing collection, are a few of my favorites:

(1) Do you think there is a Jewish genre? If so, then what is it? How would you define it?

(2) Could you establish a list of 10 Jewish-American authors according to the kind of criticisms they had to face? Start it with the one who received the worse criticisms and end it with the one who had the best ones. Give the reason why you think it is so.

(3) Forgive me for asking but what are your true feelings towards religion?

By contrast, Fiedler found the possibilities of postmodernist experimentation not only more exciting, but also truer to the Age of Aquarius. And, as is his habit, he began to beat the critical drums on behalf of such writers as John Hawkes and John Earth—only to admit, as their respective stars faded, that he had been mistaken: “In the years since. . .they have not fulfilled my too euphoric expectations but at least I keep thumbing through their latest books hopefully, as I have not done with the more recent novels of Malamud and Bellow and Roth.” Fiedler, at 70, may take some justifiable pride in his continuing track record as American literature’s most interesting enfant terrible. Only a pop culture maven of his eminence could get away with the sheer chutzpah, and tastelessness, of a title like Fiedler on the Roof. But if Fiedler wears “being with-it” as a badge of honor, it is also true that he tends to see history—at least literary history—as pretty much ending when he does. For him, the chronicle of Jewish-American literature is over, in the same way that the Jewish-American experience itself is “over.” In Fiedler’s self-styled mythology, he is the “last Jew”—as Indian, as shaman, as maverick, as archetypal bad boy.

Even those who have been wagging their heads about Fiedler since he threw his lot with the counter-culture find themselves nodding in agreement. Take, for example, this comment from Irving Howe, a critic never confused with the flamboyant likes of Leslie Fiedler: “My own view [Howe insisted in 1977] is that American Jewish fiction has probably moved past its high point. Insofar as this body of writing draws heavily from the immigrant experience, it must suffer a depletion of resources, a thinning out of materials and memories.” Or this assessment by Theodore Solotaroff that appeared more recently in the pages of The New York Times Sunday Book Review (Dec. 18, 1988):

The progress of assimilation has continued to erode the traces of Jewish mores and ethics. The special angle of vision has blurred, and Jewish identity as a subject with a moral edge has tended to decline. This development is particularly marked, as one would expect, in the writers of the present generation—the David Levitts and Deborah Eisenbergs.

In short, those who make it their business to know where the literary winds are blowing tell me that a hurricane-force writer like Saul Bellow is not likely to appear any time soon and that what I continue to chase are, at best, sporadic summer breezes; others are happy enough to consign the Jewish-American renaissance to its proper place in literary history—as an important, though lavishly overpraised, phenomenon that produced a handful of good books during the 1950’s and 60’s.

I cannot agree with such gloomy assessments, partly because, as one of the judges for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, I find myself reading the likes of Steve Stern (Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven) or Allegra Goodman (Total Immersion), Jerome Badanes (The Final Opus of Leon Solomon) or Sheila Schwartz (Imagine a Great White Light); and partly because I feel that the story of Jewish-American life is more, much more, than a steady march toward assimilation. Granted, nobody is eager to read yet another satiric attack on Jewish mothers by whining, disaffected Jewish sons (one Portnoy’s Complaint is quite enough, thank you), just as no one would argue that American Jewry, with the notable exception of the Hasidim, bears much resemblance to the life Jews lived in mittel-Europe.

Fiedler ends his latest book by admitting that throwing off the mantle of his Jewishness has been more difficult than he had once imagined, despite his non-Jewish wife and a virtual “rainbow coalition” of grandchildren:

Last Jew that I am, I cannot resist confessing in conclusion, that each autumn, though I do not, of course, go to shul, I dutifully observe the fast of Yom Kippur. So, too, each winter, I light the lights of Chanukah, more often than not beside an already lighted Christmas tree. And each spring, after dyeing Easter eggs, I gather my family together for a Passover seder—crying out to the God in whom I do not think I believe, “Pour out your wrath upon the goyim. . .” My children somehow do not ever ask me why, perhaps because they are sure they already know. If they did ask, however, I would say to them, as my grandfather said to me, sneaking me off to some storefront synagogue on the High Holy Days, “Not because I believe, but so you should remember.” I remember.

Jewish-Americans who also “remember”—and often in ways nearly as idiosyncratic as Fiedler’s—figure prominently in Sachar’s history and in the essays contained in Jewish-American History and Culture: An Encyclopedia; but so, too, do those, in ever-increasing numbers, who prefer their Jewishness “straight” and who think of it in terms of forming their future in addition to defining their past. Is the Jewish-American experience over? As I see it, there can only be one answer—namely, not by a long shot!


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