The Role of Religion - Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Jewish American Literature

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

113 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Historical overview
1.2 Christianity as a “default” religion
1.3 Conversion to Judaism
1.4 Substitutes for religion
1.5 Antisemitism

2. Religious sources
2.1 Folklore and mysticism: Golem and reincarnation

3. Place
3.1 The Lower East Side
3.2. Israel
3.3. Europe
3.3.1 Ukraine
3.3.2 Germany

4. Language
4.1 Hebrew
4.2 Yiddish
4.3 English
4.4 Name and Identity

5. Jewish tradition and feminism in women's writing

6. Food and ritual

7. Conclusion

8. Works cited:

9. Abstract (Zusammenfassung)

1. Introduction

The search for the roots has become a major issue in contemporary American society. The tendency to seek one's origins finds its reflection in many aspects of popular culture including art and literature. It seems that American society is witnessing a revival of ethnic roots and has been lately passing from a “melting pot” to a “boiling cauldron” of multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual America, where people of different origins coexist.

The recently coined term “hyphenated Americans” reflects the tendency

of Americans looking for ethnic identity. It shows that one's identity can be multiple and one side of the hyphen does not necessarily have to exclude the other. Different cultures are influenced by American mainstream culture, and mainstream culture is in turn influenced by different traditions. In the final analysis, the mainstream culture becomes enriched through all the different influences. There are no restrictions about who writes about what. White authors can write about black characters, Chinese authors about Jewish characters, male authors about female characters etc. The centrality of Christian tradition remains rooted in American culture and literature, but with the new trend of ethnic multicultural writing, other traditions and rituals are represented to the general audience as well. These ethnic writers who are “insiders” in their culture often criticize traditional practices, which are largely unknown to the general public. This is also true for the Jewish American writing.

Hana Wirth-Nesher points out that although Jewish American writing shares many features with other ethnic literature in the United States, its singularity is that it also entails a religious dimension. The Jewish identity is redefined as a faith rather than as civilization and the separation of church and state in the United States has transformed Jews into adherents of Judaism (“Traces of the Past,” 119). It seems that by the end of the twentieth century, the approach to religion and to identity, which in case of Judaism overlap, has taken a new turn. Many novels are being written by writers knowledgeable in Jewish tradition and lore, using Jewish languages, figures of Jewish folklore and religious notions. Jewishness is not something to be ashamed of anymore.

It is not an easy task to define what Jewish American literature is, whether this definition depends on author's religious faith, ethnicity, range of themes, languages that the author uses, the use of liturgical texts, etc. Today, the Jewish American writers write in English, their native language, a language of Christian culture, which adapts to the Jewish view of the world, changing and absorbing ideas and words from Hebrew and Yiddish. They write for the mainstream American audience, the majority of which are non-Jewish readers, using notions and ideas which are rooted in the Jewish culture and religion, without explaining or translating them, assuming that their audience is able to understand them without translation.

Ezra Cappell claims that today's writing is the “new American Talmud.”

The Talmud consists of two distinct parts, the bigger one, which deals with legal issues, the smaller one, the aggadic part consisting of stories, homilies, interpretations of biblical passages and advice on ethics.

Cappell compares the aggadic section of the Babylonian Talmud in its storytelling aspects with the cultural work of American Jewish fiction.

“...through its literary passages the Talmud reinterprets the Torah anew for its own generation. This open-endedness, this celebration of multiple perspectives, is not only a characteristic of the Babylonian Talmud; it is also a hallmark of twentieth-century and contemporary American Jewish fiction“ (2).

According to Cappell, the literary production of Jews in America can be seen as a new layer or a stage of development of rabbinical commentary on the scriptural inheritance of the Jewish people. The center of rabbinic storytelling is scripture and the Jewish American writers also often refer to scripture, sometimes without full awareness of doing so. However they may stray from the Jewish tradition, they often return to the centering force of Judaism: the Scripture and the Holy Books. A book has a deep meaning in symbology in Jewish culture, the Jews are called “the People of the Book.” There is a deep respect for knowledge and a book is a storage of knowledge and values. A book that is written by Jewish-Americans metamorphoses into a kind of a metaphysical place for them to explore the impact of identity, be it religious or ethnic.

The defining feature of rabbinic literature is its ongoing interpretation of history. Literature becomes the faith for secular contemporary Jews, a tool to understand and interpret history for future generations. The Jewish American writers have become the theologians of the contemporary Jewish American culture (Cappell, 2-5). Another parallel between the Talmud and modern fiction is the concern for humanity, for moral design and purpose.

Nancy Haggard-Gilson writes that, at least since the 1950's among the second generation American Jews, Judaism has been replaced by “Jewishness,” a secular, ethnic culture. The drive for assimilation carried away the religious components replacing them with folk symbols, ethnic food and identification with the State of Israel. She argues that Jewish fiction mirrored the concern with ethnic identity and the flight from Judaism as a response to the pressure to assimilate. But the distinction between “Jewishness” and “Judaism” might be too simplistic. The level of Jewish religious observance is not a defining part of a Jewish identity anymore. Jewish identity can be both religious and cultural, in America it also has a strong ethnic component But the history of Jews does not imply that a lessening of religious practice severs identification with the ideas, ethics and the world views of Judaism. The pursuit of justice and morality, the observing of ethical rules and the identification with the historical experience of the Jewish people, are some of the things which are no less important to Judaism than belief in God, or literacy in Hebrew and Talmud.

Adam Meyer points out that the idea of a return to a religious sense of Judaism came to the forefront in many works of the third generation authors. Instead of “writers who are Jews” they have become “Jewish writers.” They have rediscovered their Judaism and retrieved Jewish forms and topics. Meyer quotes Nessa Rappoport's phrase: “Having won our place in American culture, we are beginning to be confident enough to reclaim Jewish culture” (111).

Returning to Jewish values seems to be a major trend and the main feature which makes them different from the previous generations.

There are many thematic fields which are connected to the Jewish identity, whether it is cultural or religious, such as settings in Israel or Jewish Diaspora, issues relevant for Jewish people, use of religious symbols, Hebrew and Yiddish languages. The Jewish identity is inseparable from the Jewish culture, which is in turn inseparable from religion. Judaism is a religion connected to time and memory. In order to consider themselves one religious entity, Jews “must rely upon the recognition of a shared past and tradition to retain continuity and cohesiveness” (Haggard-Gilson, 24). When writing about Jewish themes which are at a first glance, secular, authors connect to religion through different channels.

L. Stahlberg notes that history or remembrance of history serves God in Judaism. Forgetting history is equated with sinfulness. She suggests that contemporary Jewish literature should be read in light of the past which it reflects. The need to remember is essential in Judaism. Remembering the covenant is as important as keeping it. “Remembering becomes bound up in narrative, in writing and retelling history; keeping is accomplished through ritual observance... Religiously, the focus of memory in Judaism has been on remembering and keeping the commandments, on ritually reenacting the past“ (Stahlberg, 74 -75).

The future of Judaism is bound up in remembrance of the past, since the tradition for Jews is a chain that connects past and future generations.

Many of the Jewish rituals, words in Jewish languages, rabbinical commentaries, Torah sources, liturgy fragments etc. are mentioned in contemporary texts without their meanings being explained.

Hana Wirth-Nesher points out that the Jewish American literature has always aimed at a double audience, at the general and the Jewish reader (“Accented Imagination,” 290). Although the general American non-Jewish reader might be familiar with some practices of Judaism through popular culture, movies, etc. nevertheless most of the American readers do not have a profound knowledge of the Jewish tradition. Thus, the texts can be understood on different levels. The readers are divided into groups – a smaller group of those who have the knowledge of Judaism, the “in-group readers,” and those who have no “insider” knowledge: the “outside” readers.

Early immigrant writers were trying to enter the mainstream literary culture – which they apparently succeeded to do. They had to explain many terms of their culture, which were unknown to the general American audience. Although their native language was in the most cases Yiddish, they nevertheless chose to write in English, their adopted language. English was the means to reach their intended “outsider” audience. For example, they made appendixes of words unfamiliar to their intended non-Jewish American audience, or tried to give intercultural translations. For example, Mary Antin has a glossary which has a key to pronunciation and bracket transcriptions of Hebrew and Yiddish words. Religious rituals and holidays are explained on a basic level. The in-group Jewish reader

does not need these explanations. Werner Sollors mentions in his introduction to Mary Antin's novel that Antin imagines a more hostile Gentile outside reader. She adjusts herself, trying to make her text more understandable: “ ...strategy of sometimes addressing, but almost always implying a reader from the outside world have to have certain effects on the writing of such a text: the in-group reader would feel more excluded, and the role of the author as mediator would be strengthened” (Sollors, Introduction, XXI).

Sometimes these explanations were apologetic, building on how the “barbaric” rituals were connected to harsh life conditions in their countries of origin. The immigrant Jewish American novels by Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin and Anzia Yezierska treated the Jewish tradition as a vestige of the Old World, something a Jewish immigrant had to get rid of in order to be accepted in the new society.

Today there are hardly any translations or explanations to be found, making higher demands of the reader.

Judith Oster mentions the observations of a sociologist Marcus Lee Hansen who noted the phenomenon of third-generation Americans who are discovering the traditions of their grandparents. What the second-generation wanted to forget, these grandchildren now want to remember. She thinks that there is a literary pattern operating, when the grandchildren are discovering the stories of the grandparents, which were forgotten and discharged. In order to find them again, they go through such hardships as learning their grandparents' languages, be it Yiddish or Chinese. Oster quotes Lan Samantha Chang who coins the term “unforgetting.” “Different from merely remembering, unforgetting is the unraveling of the deliberate effort of forgetting” (Oster, 153-154).

In this thesis, I concentrate on Jewish American literature and explore how the search for roots – in this case the roots which are connected to Judaism – is reflected in many novels which are written by American Jewish authors of different generations. I illustrate by examples from contemporary American Jewish writing, comparing the attitudes to Judaism in contemporary and first-generation immigrant writing. I argue that one cannot separate the Jewish ethnic identity, which is a focus of Jewish American literature, from the Jewish religion. Judaism encompasses all aspects of culture and even the most secular of writers relate to Judaism the moment they write about Jewish themes. Even when they choose to assimilate and remove themselves from religion, they would be writing about the religion they have distanced themselves from. In the Jewish context and history, it is impossible to separate the religion from tradition and culture. I explore how different aspects of identity interconnect through religion and how the legacy of the Jewish tradition is reclaimed and reaffirmed by modern authors writing in English. The thematic fields I explore encompass different spheres of life, which are connected to Judaism. The way writers deal with these themes shows the importance (or unimportance) that the religious tradition has for them. Even when they criticize religious ideas, these are Jewish ideas they deal with.

Judaism is something they either reject or embrace, but it is there in their works and it is what makes their writing Jewish American writing.

I would also like to compare the attitude towards religion in the works of first-generation immigrant authors, whose native language was not English, and how this attitude changed with the new generation of writers at the end of the twentieth century.

In order to understand the complexity of the Jewish identity, one needs to know how Jews came to become Americans and to perceive the “golden land” of America (as the common Yiddish phrase went) as the new promised land. America was the final destination for many immigrants and they embraced its values and culture sometimes sacrificing their own cultural values.

1.1 Historical overview

The first Jews ever to set foot on American soil were twenty three refugees from the Dutch colony of Recife in northeastern Brazil in year 1654. Their families had to flee Spain and Portugal when Isabella of Spain ordered all Jews to leave in 1492.

The Jewish immigrants came from Germany and central Europe in 1880's in thousands, but the biggest wave of immigrants came from Eastern Europe and Russia, fleeing the pogroms between 1880 and 1924. These Jews were strictly religious and their primary language was Yiddish.

By 1925, there were 4.5 million Jews in the United States, constituting one of the world's largest communities (Diner, New Promised Land,1-45).

The first Jewish writers who entered the American mainstream belonged to this wave of immigration. Their native language was Yiddish. For example, Abraham Cahan wrote both in Yiddish and in English. Their works became a kind of a bridge between two cultures. Their novels were intended for a Gentile American Christian reader who did not know much about the Jewish culture. Mary Antin is trying to describe her becoming an American in terms understandable for non-Jewish American readers, thus making her immigrant experience universal. “The making of American” and getting rid of the “old” identity is a common theme in early immigrant novels.

1.2 Christianity as a “default” religion

Even today the United States of America is a religious country, its society is deeply rooted in Christian Protestant tradition. When the immigrants came to America, for them the “default” American religion was Christianity. It was introduced as “Americanness.”

Becoming American was one of the things that the immigrants craved for most and there was only one American identity, which did not include multiethnic and multicultural characteristics of immigrants. The school was the first step on the road to Americanness, and there were compromises to be made.

Mary Antin describes how at school the class said “the Lord's prayer.”

“In the middle of the prayer a Jewish boy across the aisle trod on my foot to get my attention. “You must not say that”...”it's Christian”... I did not know but what he was right, but the name of Christ was not in the prayer, and I was bound to do everything that the class did. If I had any Jewish scruples, they were lagging away behind my interest in school affairs“ (165). Michael Gold, Rose Cohen and Alfred Kazin give accounts of encounters with Christian missionaries who launched a mighty campaign to convert the Jews. “They set up schools and orphanages designed in particular to attract Jewish children. They roamed hospitals and sought deathbed conversions.” In schools Christian prayers and mandatory readings of the King James version of the Bible made immigrant children a captive audience of the missionaries (Diner, The Jews, 118-119). Rose Cohen’s younger siblings attended school that was connected with a church. When the family had nothing to eat, they are told that “any child in class who would say a prayer received a slice of bread and honey” (Cohen, 160).

Many literary works and memoirs look at Christmas as a symbol of assimilation. In the Jewish consciousness, Christmas and Easter are connected with persecution and pogroms, whereas for Christian America they are the biggest holidays. For Anne Roiphe, “Christmas is a kind of checking point where one can stop and view oneself on the assimilation route” (206). Her mother considered Christmas an American holiday and made sure her children got the best of America. It was a “strange Christmas without a Christ.”

Grace Paley deals with this topic in a humorous way when she describes in her short story “The Loudest Voice,” how Jewish children are taught the Christian tradition in American schools. Shirley is chosen to participate in a Christmas play because she has a “particularly loud, clear voice with lots of expression” (35). Jewish children are given roles in a Christmas play and the story is retold from a child's point of view. Her parents discuss what is happening at the school: “You're in America! Clara, you wanted to come here. In Palestine the Arabs would be eating you alive. Europe you had pogroms. Argentina is full of Indians. Here you got Christmas...Some joke, ha?” (36).

Christmas is inseparable from America, it comes in one and the same “package” and cannot be disposed of. It is a “creeping pogrom,” a thing which brings the assimilation in a “nice” holiday package. The “kind city administration” places a Christmas tree on a street corner. “In order to miss its chilly shadow,” the neighbors walk three blocks in the cold to buy the bread, because the tree offends their feelings. It is “a stranger in Egypt” in the predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, and it is a part of “genuine” America. It never would occur to the city administration that their efforts to integrate the new citizens might be offending to their religious feelings, and to the citizens it would never occur to complain -- for them it is inevitable to be a minority whose interests are not taken into account.

In Nathan Englander's short story “Reb Kringle,” an Orthodox Jew has a temporary job as a Santa in a chain supermarket store, entertaining children. He is the only one among all Santas who has a genuine beard. He thinks this job is a sin, but his wife makes him do it. He is famous as a star and even the elevator man recognizes him as “that Rabbi Santa.” He is sure that “...his very spirit was being challenged, as if God had become sadistic in his test of the human soul.” (146) One of the children goes with safety scissors after his beard, he thinks of him as “a little Nazi.” He starts talking with the child who expresses a wish for a menorah. Stunned, Izik the Santa finds out from the boy that he is Jewish, not Christian. His response is: “You ask Santa for Chanukah, you get it” (148).

He promises to bring the candles himself. When the child tells him that they are going to Vermont to go to his new father's parents' church, Izik's patience ends. “Church and no Chanukah” is too much. “He grabbed the pompom hanging down form his head and yanked off his hat, revealing a large black yarmulke” (149). A woman faints upon seeing this. The store was just glad to fire him but was afraid because it just had to pay a fine for firing an “HIV Santa”, so it would not have the courage to fire a “Reb Santa or Punjabi Santa.”

This is the situation in today's America, where minorities are still perceived as minorities, but nobody wants to get into trouble for discriminating them.

1.3 Conversion to Judaism

It seems that the topic of conversion to Judaism is becoming quite common in works of American Jewish literature, though it is not a common phenomenon in Jewish religious life. Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, it does go out to recruit newcomers and does not encourage conversion. Many people would agree with Tova Mirvis's character who is wondering about a convert: ”She couldn't understand why anyone would voluntarily take on so many commandments. She had enough trouble remembering all of them and she had been born into it” (Ladies Auxiliary, 90).

Diversity and freedom of choice are highly valued in American culture and Judaism has become one of the choices. Popularity of the conversion theme signifies the new openness of American Christian society. Being American can mean anything, like in Jish Gen's novel Mona in the Promised Land. It is a novel by Chinese-American writer, which deals with Jewish-American issues as one of the central themes. For Jish Gen's heroine, a Chinese-American, being American means being anything she wants. She chooses being Jewish partly because most of her friends are Jewish and she lives in a Jewish neighborhood. Her parents are not happy about her choice. They made a point of telling her that they came to the United States to become American and not Jewish. “Jewish is American... American means being whatever you want, and I happened to pick being Jewish” (Jen, 49).

This ironic exaggeration shows how different today's American culture is from what it used to be, when all immigrants strived to become the “default” white Christian Americans. Now, there is a split in Mona's family – she chooses to become Jewish, her sister is searching for her ancient roots by learning Chinese: all this to dissatisfaction and disapproval of their mother, who wants her children to be American but demands the obedience of a “good Chinese daughter.” It is the only thing she does not get from her daughters who are already American, because they make their choices themselves.

Her decision to become Jewish is formed when Mona is tagged along to the Temple Youth activities. She is helping build the Sukka for Sukkot and helps guide tours for some parents “who have never seen a Sukka before, and want to know what it means” (Jen, 32). One of the parents shows concern that their kids are turning too orthodox, returning to the Middle Ages, but she reassures them, “How orthodox can they be...After all, here I am” (33).

But when someone asks her what she is doing here, Mona starts thinking. Then she approaches the Rabbi who gives her the books to read and she starts to learn. She explains that the Chinese are also a minority, “... and if you want to know how to be a minority, there's nobody better at it than the Jews..

You've got to know all the ritual, so you know who you are and don't spend your time trying to be Wasp and acting like you don't have anything to complain about. You've got to realize you're a minority” (Jen, 53, 137). It is not worth trying to be a “mainstream” Wasp so one might as well learn how to be a minority and act accordingly. “Jen's novel might be seen as an end-of-the century status report on the Jewish immigrant experience... more broadly, the novel illustrates the sea change between the immigrant dreams of the past and the immigrant dreams of the present“ (Furman, “Immigrant Dreams,” 212).

In Tova Mirvis's The Ladies Auxiliary the main character is a convert, who comes to a small Southern community of Memphis, Tennessee after her husband's tragic death. Her name is Batsheva and we never learn her name before the conversion. She wants her daughter to grow up in a close-knit religious community and find an extended family. But everything is not so simple because she is different. She tries to find new spirituality in rituals which became routine for other members of the Orthodox community. She brings a new creative interpretation and tries to find meaning in rituals which are still new to her. She explains: “When I pray or when I eat kosher food, I try to remember that the purpose of my actions is to seek this closeness with God and spirituality” (Mirvis, 49). She wakes curiosity of the community members and is asked questions about her conversion. The Rabbi's wife apologizes for it, thinking to herself that “the Torah says once someone converts, you aren't allowed to single her out and make her feel like a stranger, because we too were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (93). This reflects the traditional Jewish view of conversion, which is not encouraged, but once it is done, a convert is a part of the Jewish people.

Jocelyn, a member of the community who returned to Orthodox Judaism, realizes that she and Batsheva have much in common: ”In more ways than Jocelyn liked to admit, this reminded her of her own background. She had grown up with nothing Jewish. Her parents were immigrants anxious to become Americans... With all the teasing she had endured in public school about her parents' accents and old-fashioned clothing, she thought she should at least know what Judaism was about” (Mirvis, 61). Maybe the interest in conversion is connected to interest in return to Judaism, since many people like Jocelyn, who are born Jewish but did not grow up in traditional way, are in many ways similar to converts.

Another modern Jewish-American writer, Tova Reich introduces converts to her novels set in Israel. One of them is Sora Katz in The Master of Return.

Her name might be Sora Katz now, but there had been a time when she was known to one and all as Pam Buck, and this was a historical fact that Bruria Lurie could never totally assimilate. If the leap from Barbara Horowitz from Brooklyn, New York to Rebbetzin Bruria Lurie of Uman House was of such breathless magnitude, how much more difficult, perhaps even impossible, was the leap from Pam Buck of Macon, Georgia, to Sora Katz of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem? (Reich, 107)

Sora is the Yiddish pronunciation of Sarah, the foremother of the Jewish people, and also the name which Nazis put after every Jewish name in 1930's Germany.

The only way Bruria, who is herself an American immigrant, can explain this metamorphosis is that it is very American to turn into something else.

“Why would anyone in his right mind want to become a Jew? You'd have to be crazy, or a masochist, or something...You don't understand Americans. It's deep down there, in her Southern heritage. She's being born again – born-again Christian, born-again Moslem, born-again Jew – what difference does it make to her?“ ( Reich, 107).

In the Jewish War, the convert is also a former American Christian who, as the rumors go, used to be a stripper in her Gentile life. Incidentally or not, her name is Pam Buck, too. It turns out to be the same person, who moves from one novel to another. The story of her conversion is that “...due to youthful overexposure to an array of psychiatrists by her... well-meaning mother... the young Pam had developed an early attraction to Jewish types” (Reich, Jewish War, 66). Now she is rebbetzin Sora Freud, who belongs to the Anti-Israel sect The Messiah-Waiters, ”who hold that the establishment of the Jewish State is a sin, an iniquitous interference in God's promise to bring the Messiah in his own time” (Reich, Jewish War, 153).

This is a bitter satire of the ultra-Orthodox groups who are rabidly anti-Israel and who claim that the Zionist State has nothing to do with the religion – it is a plot of secular socialists. According to them only after the Messiah comes is it allowed to settle in the Holy Land. Rebbetzin's brother is a preacher named Chuck Buck, who organizes a conference for repenting Antisemites in Jerusalem.

Another convert is Professor Doctor Abraham Ger in Master of the Return. Ger means “convert” in Hebrew.

Reb Lev presents him to the members of his congregation during the Purim celebration:

And we have here today Professor Dr. Avraham Ger, formerly of Germany, may its name be erased, a convert from the seed of Amalec, from the descendants of Haman, from the most vile anti-Semites in history. No words can express. And now he has become one of us, he has been detoxified and defanged, he has been turned into a hamantasch, and can no longer do us any harm. To the stranger and the convert we must show no malice, our Torah reaches us. (Reich,162-63)

The convert is “defanged” as if he were a vampire and then turned into a traditional Purim cookie, but still Reb Lev is suspicious:

Reb Lev had a problem accepting Avraham Ger as an authentic convert, for although Ger had shown the sincerity of his desire to become a Jew by undergoing a circumcision at such a mature age – an experience he had rather enjoyed, according to his own account – his training and preparation for joining the faith had been transacted through the mails, in a

correspondence course. (175-176)

Reich ridicules the absurdity of hatred between religions and nations, stemming from prejudice and ignorance.

1.4 Substitutes for religion

When the Jewish immigrants came to the United States many of them stopped observing religious rituals. But there were things like education, Holocaust, Anti-Semitism and Israel which gained importance and served as substitutes for the religion.

Judaism is a religion which treasures learning and education. The best match in an Eastern European stetl for a rich girl was to marry a Torah scholar who would spend his days learning, while the father of the bride paid for his room and board. Spirituality in Judaism can be achieved by studying the Jewish religious texts, the Talmud. For immigrant Jews education was the most important asset. Their access to secular learning was limited in tsarist Russia, where it was almost impossible for a Jew to secure a place at a university if he or she did not want to convert.

For early immigrant writers like Abraham Cahan, Anzja Yezierska and Mary Antin the new religion is education. Their temples are libraries and universities. Education is their god. For David Levinsky a college is a symbol of spirituality. “My old religion had gradually fallen to pieces structure...was the synagogue of my new life. Nor is this merely a figure of speech: the building really appealed to me as a temple, as a House of Sanctity, as we call the ancient Temple of Jerusalem” (Cahan, 169).

His Temple is destroyed when the dream of higher education fades away.

“The college building was a source of consolation. Indeed, what was money beside the halo of higher education?” (Cahan, 80).

Mary Antin describes the public library as a place “even better than school in some ways“ (201). “It was my habit to go very slowly up the low, broad steps to the palace entrance, pleasing my eyes with the majestic lines of the building, and lingering to read again the carved inscriptions Public library - Built by the People- Free to All” ( 266).

After the World War II, the only connection of many modern Jews to Judaism was the Holocaust. In a way it became a substitute for a religious experience. It is especially relevant in America, where many descendants of immigrants did not have a thorough Jewish upbringing, and their only notion of Judaism was persecution, suffering and the Final Solution.

It is reflected in many works of fiction by Jewish writers who did not have the firsthand experience but who identified themselves with the victims.

Ezra Cappell mentions Arthur Cohen's remark that American Jews are the Holocaust witnesses who “bear the scar without the wound” (108).

The principle of equality which is the essence of American democracy is inverted and passed onto the Jews who were murdered without exception.

Erica Jong wrote the following definition of being Jewish: “ A Jew is a person who can convert to Christianity from now to Doomsday, and still be killed by Hitler if his mother was Jewish” (Who We Are, 101).

Tova Reich expresses the thought that all Jews no matter what their convictions and social class are all connected through the Shoah. After ridiculing almost every Jewish and non-Jewish group and movement in her book, she becomes very serious.

...every single type of Jew without exception was hunted Jew was Jew could any longer reasonably claim to be superior to another...we must love and identify with all Jews because, in the end, all Jews are created equal, as they say in America, at any moment we Jews might find ourselves herded together without discrimination in the same cattle car, or packed naked together without distinction in the same gas chamber, our nameless ashes mixed up randomly together in the same great ash heap. (Reich, Jewish War, 257)

The Jewish State became another “substitute” for religion as more and more young Jewish Americans identified themselves with Israel's fight for survival, and felt proud for their Jewish identity after the glorious victory following the Six Day War, when they realized that being Jewish does not only mean being a victim but also a heroic pioneer warrior, rebuilding the land of the forefathers.

For many Jews today the State of Israel plays the central role in their identity as Jews, inevitably entering Jewish literary works. Jewish citizens living outside of Israel have a problem of double allegiance to Israel and their respective country.

In America, the Bible rhetoric of a “promised land” is used by Protestant majority. For many Jews, America became a “promised land” as well, a shelter and a safe haven after centuries of religious persecution. There is a “competition” between the historical and biblical “promised land” of Israel and the American “promised land” of individual pursuit of private happiness and individual goals. Sometimes there is a serious dilemma, when an American Jew has to decide which one of the promised lands has a priority. Although both countries are close allies, it is not always an easy decision.

1.5 Antisemitism

Antisemitism is a part of Jewish experience, something that is inevitable and ubiquitous, one has to put up with it. It has its roots in the religious dispute between world's monotheistic religions, every one of them claiming the exclusive rights on the true godly revelation. The Christian Church, which claimed to be “the New Israel” and to have overtaken the “birthright” of the Chosen People, claimed that the Jews killed Jesus and as a punishment were sent to suffer in exile.

Immigrant writers tend to describe the Old World Anti-Semitism that they escaped from. Mary Antin describes the situation in her native town, where the Jewish and Gentile populations were segregated and had no contact with each other. The Jews lived in the Pale, they could not move freely in the country and could not live in big cities with very few exceptions. “The world was divided into Jews and Gentiles... It was the priests...who taught people to hate the Jews” (Antin, 8). She graphically describes the horrible pogroms: “They [the peasants] attacked them [the Jews] with knives and clubs and scythes and axes, killed them or tortured them, and burned their houses. This was called a “pogrom”...Only to hear these things made one sob and sob and choke with pain” (10). For Antin, Antisemitism with its horrors stayed in the old World. In America, she knows no segregation between Jews and Gentiles. The Jews are not discriminated against if they agree to assimilate. Her speech at the Protestant church, on one of her tours in Vermont, symbolizes the victory of universalism, the goal and outcome of which is full assimilation. “Centuries of Jewish history are atoned for in this moment...The dark abyss of separation between Jew and Gentile is closed by my presence in this pulpit” (Sollors, Introduction, XLIX).

As a logical consequence there is no need to stay Jewish, if there is no Antisemitism. The Judaism is forced upon a person by the hostile outside world like a mark of Cain. The associations with Judaism are purely negative.

When the hostility stops, one can interact, eat and intermarry with the Gentiles. To keep one's Judaism is not necessary anymore, it becomes redundant.

Antin is sorry about it in a way: “And yet if the golden truth of Judaism had not been handed me in the motley rags of formalism, I might not have been so ready to put away my religion” (Antin, 190). She foresees almost with a prophetic vision that things will change:

My grandchildren, for all I know, may have a graver task than I have set them. Perhaps they may have to testify that the faith of Israel is a heritage that no heir in the direct line has the power to alienate form his successors. Even I, with my limited perspective, think it doubtful if the conversion of the Jew to any alien belief or disbelief is ever thoroughly accomplished. What positive affirmation of the persistence of Judaism in the blood my descendants may have to make, I may not be present to hear. (195)

Sometimes a completely assimilated Jew finds his or her way back to Judaism because of Antisemitism. A typical example is Philip Roth's character in Counterlife, who feels Jewish because of his wife's family's Antisemitism.

When he accompanies his wife to Church on Christmas he feels his Jewishness, which is otherwise not a meaningful part of his identity.

It never fails. I am never more of a Jew than I am in a church when the organ begins. I may be estranged at the Wailing Wall but without being a stranger – I stand outside but not shut out, and even the most ludicrous or hopeless encounter serves to gauge, rather than sever, my affiliation with people I couldn't be less like. But between me and church devotion there is an unbridgeable world of feeling, a natural and thouroughgoing incompatibility - I have the emotions of a spy in the adversary's camp and feel I'm overseeing the very rites that embody the ideology that's been responsible for the persecution and mistreatment of Jews.” (Roth, Counterlife, 256)

The knowledge of history of persecution of the Jewish people makes the protagonist identify himself with the persecuted and feel his difference.

Marge Piercy's character Shira in He She and It feels she is “too loud, too female, too Jewish, too dark, too exuberant, too emotional” in the corporate world of her multi. She feels herself as“other” because she sees herself through the eyes of the “other”, it is Anti-Semitism internalized. Similar thing happens to David Levinsky when he is worried that his excessive gesticulation might make his Gentile companions despise him. The desire to get rid of identity markers, to assimilate, to fit in, to be Americanized as soon as possible is a response to Anti-Semitism which exists in American society albeit on a different level.

J.S. Foyer, who is a third-generation writer, describes his encounters with Anti-Semitism while visiting Ukraine. Though it is presented in an absurdly funny way, one realizes it is felt on everyday level. He describes an encounter with a waitress. She is interested in the American tourist and when told by his translator that he is a Jew, she says :”I have never seen a Jew before. Can I see his horns?” (Foyer, 107). This would be hilarious if it weren't so sad at the same time.

The narrator, Alexandr Perchov is a Ukrainian who works as a translator in an agency called “Heritage Touring” which works for “...the Jews, who try to unearth places where their families once existed“ (3).

He is deeply surprised when he sees his American friend for the first time. “When we found each other I was very flabbergasted by his appearance. This is an American? I thought. This is a Jew? He was severely short... He did not appear like either the Americans I had witnessed in magazines, with yellow hairs and muscles, or the Jews from history books, with no hairs and prominent bones. He was wearing nor blue jeans nor the uniform” (Foyer, 32).

The stereotypes that Alexandr has of the Jews stem from the Nazi propaganda books, and the stereotypes of Americans from the Soviet propaganda books. When he for the first time sees a living person who represents both stereotypes, he is very confused.

But America is also not immune to Anti-Semitism. Marge Piercy describes in her autobiography Sleeping with Cats the Anti-Semitism of her family in America, she and her mother are Jewish and her father is Christian.

My father's family was casually and relentlessly anti-Semitic, so neither my mother nor I was ever easy with them...We were always being observed to see if we would do something Jewish like crucify somebody in the backyard. If my mother or I ever laughed, or raised our voices, or used our hands in talking, there was a look that would pass between them that would silence us...They never missed an opportunity to serve ham to us.” (Piercy, Sleeping with Cats, 20)

They are put under scrutiny, insulted and excluded, ritually forbidden food is served to them as an additional insult.

Tova Reich targets American Anti-Semitism in her merciless satire of the Christian groups who support Israel. She depicts a confession at a Christian conference in Israel. It is organized by an American Christian named Chuck Buck, who meets the main character Yehudi Ha-Goel and calls him “brother Jew-dee, alluding to the common Jewish name “Yehuda” which has several meanings: one is simply “a Jew,” “Judea” in Hebrew, one of the twelve brothers – the tribes of Israel, and for a Christian ear it also reminds of Judas – the traitor of Jesus according to the New Testament.

The faithful are scheduled to gather and rise confess in merciless and unsparing detail, their sins of anti-semitism, their anti-semitic thoughts and deeds of the past...they will beg forgiveness on bended knees of the Jewish people, whom they have slandered, maligned, injured, and plain murdered, and they will consecrate the remainder of their days on earth to the well-being of the Jewish State upon which heir own salvation and redemption are eternally dependent. (Reich, Jewish War, 149)

Reich is bitter in her grotesque and surreal account of a woman, who “was confessing, how...she used to be allergic to Jews...she had a certified medical allergy to Jews, it was a physical thing with her that could not be helped, just the thought of a Jew, not to mention a Jew's physical presence would cause her to break out in rashes all over her body” (162). The Anti-Semitism as a disease inverts the notion of a “Jewish disease,” the state of “incurable Jewishness.”

The woman finds a doctor in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the name of the birth place of Jesus, which is duplicated on American continent. It refers to the Christian notion of taking on the role of the chosen people from the Jews who rejected the Christian Messiah. The doctor helps the woman by taking “a bit of extract-of-Jew that he had in a vial in his cabinet... every two weeks or so she got her shots of two cubic centimeters of Jew venom-- a mixture of lechery, niggardliness, opportunism, haughtiness, finagling, haggling, sycophancy, ugliness, treachery, pushiness, casuistry, etc. etc...her allergy to Jews became her career, her life's work...” (163-164). Finally her allergies stopped and she came all the way to Jerusalem to beg forgiveness of the Jewish people.

The theme of Anti-Semitism is no less relevant today than it was in Mary Antin's generation, and Jewish American authors deal with it in their works of fiction on different levels. If immigrant writers thought that assimilating would redeem them from the plague of “otherness,” blaming themselves for being different, modern authors often take satirical approach and put the blame on those who are prejudiced and not on those who are suffering from these prejudices.

2. Religious sources

The use of Jewish sources ranging from the Bible, classical rabbinical hagaddic and halachic material and liturgy is finding its way to the pages of modern novels. An example of such a source is the Midrash. Midrash means “interpretation” or “exegesis” in Hebrew. It is a classical rabbinical story providing a commentary on the Bible or a legend, a fantastic elaboration on a Bible story. According to David Zucker, modern authors turned to these texts, integrating them into their works and offering them new levels of meaning. “The act of echoing, interacting, and interpenetrating with past texts has a venerable history in Judaism” (7). In the Talmud, the page is built around a certain passage where a commentary upon commentary is written. Modern writers write their own “commentary” on biblical or rabbinic stories. Zucker notes that authors place characters in a modern-day setting but sometimes use material from the rabbinic past. Intertextuality is a typical feature of the Jewish traditional and also of secular writing.

Tova Reich uses many different religious sources in her novels. For instance in Master of the Return, Midrash Rabbah on Exodus (26. II --10), is a story of how Moses became a stutterer that is told by Abba Nisim to Akiva, the main character's child (196). It evokes a classical situation in Jewish tradition, when learning is passed from a father to a son. Another Midrash used in the novel is the story of accepting the Torah by the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Direct biblical sources are also often used or alluded to. Dara Horn paraphrases the Book of Job in one the chapters titled “The Book of Hurricane Job” in her novel In the Image. She uses poetic language which is associated with the Bible. Her characters are called “Leora the New Jerseyite” and “Yehuda the Brooklynite,” places in America which became parts of the Jewish history and tradition.

In Reich's Master of the Return, Ivriya Himmelhoch begs God to give her back her lost child by means of a note tucked into the Wailing Wall. It alludes to the Psalm 118: “She wrote: Into this cranny Ivriya bat Frieda inserts herself. From the straits she cried out to You. She begs You to answer her, in the breadth of Your generosity. Ivriya bat Frieda is asking for pity: pity her, pity her. Oh, pity me!” (233). The beginning of the note is written in a third person, but she ends it with a first person appealing to God. She finds her direct path to God in time of need, without intermediaries. The response letter received by regular mail has a word order which sounds like a “direct translation” from Hebrew: “To the Widow, Ivriya bat Frieda, Greetings! ...Regarding your appeal from the “straits” have failed to keep in mind the noble words of the holy Rav Nahman, that the entire world is an exceedingly narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to be afraid” (Reich, 233). She uses here a line out of a famous folk song ascribed to Rav Nachman of Bratslav, who is one of the most important characters in the novel. This song is very popular, its English translation is:

The whole world
is a very narrow bridge
a very narrow bridge
a very narrow bridge

And the main thing to recall -
is not to be afraid.

The letter compares the destruction of Rabbi Nachman's grave in Uman, Ukraine, to the story of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.

The holy Temple was turned into a dump and the holy grave was turned into a public toilet. Akiva the boy laughed just like his namesake, the great scholar Rabbi Akiva. The letter uses the story from Talmud, Masechet Makot 24 a,b.

... Rabbi Akiva, when he walked among the ruins of the Temple Mount and viewed foxes emerging from the Holy of Holies. His companions, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah, and Rabbi Joshua, wept at the sight, just as I wept at Uman, but Rabbi Akiva was merry, for in the destruction he was witnessing he recognized the fulfillment of the first stage of the prophesy, and this, in turn, signified the imminent realization of the second phase, the rebuilding of the holy city of Jerusalem. (Reich, Master of the Return, 234)

Ivriya is compared to the foremother Rachel who, in the Jewish tradition, is weeping for her children, alluding to Jeremiah: "A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more" (New American Standard Bible, Jer. 31.15). “Mother Rachel, let your tears flow no more. Your hope will be fulfilled. Your children will return” (Reich, 235).

It refers also a famous folk song sung on the 9th of Av, the fast day to commemorate the destruction of the First and the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The demands on the reader are very high, the writer assumes that the reader would understand the intertextual references.

Sanford Pinsker notes that Reich's novels:” make heavy demands on their readers. One needs to know a good deal about Hasidism...” (qtd in Meyer, 117).

Tova Mirvis also quotes religious sources extensively in her novel The Outside World. In a paragraph where Baruch – Brian puts on his phylacteries there is a quote from Exodus 13:9, which refers to this commandment: “And it shall be as a sign to you on your hand and a memorial between you eyes” (Mirvis, 29).

This parallel helps understand the idea of a connection between the character's development to become more strictly orthodox and the religious sources which inspire him for that. It makes an ironic impression because it makes the reader realize how literally Brian takes everything and that he follows the religious injunctions without thinking twice. Other quotes in this scene are from Leviticus, Joshua and Shulchan Aruch (a book of religious laws for everyday life).

Jet lag and laziness had conspired against him, and he had slept late, through minyan at shul, which he was commanded by God to attend (“He should not separate himself from the congregation when they pray” - Shulhan Aruch 90). Before he left yeshiva, his rabbi had warned him against being lulled into the complacency of his parents' so-called Modern Orthodox world (“You shall not walk in the ways of the other nations” - Leviticus 18:4). Five days in America and this was what had happened... After davening, Baruch had sat in the beis midrash, the yeshiva's book-lined study hall, and learned Talmud...At night, he returned to the beis midrash to review the pages that had been covered during the day (“And you shall be occupied with it day and night”- Joshua 1:8). (Mirvis, 29-30)

The words which Mirvis does not explain – like davening, minyan, and shul – a prayer, a religious quorum necessary for prayer of ten men, and synagogue – are accessible only to readers who possess Jewish religious knowledge.

All the quotes are in English, connecting them to the Puritan Christian tradition.

Another source of traditional material is liturgy. Often authors use traditional prayers which would be known to a Jewish reader sometimes in transliteration, sometimes in translation. For instance Tova Reich uses a prayer from the traditional prayer book in Master of the Return. It is quoted in English translation :”It is our duty to praise the Master of All, to exalt the Creator of Universe...” (205). Dara Horn has her main character in In the Image open a box of phylacteries which contains a scroll with the most important Jewish prayer, “Hear O Israel”, which is quoted in the text.

One of the most common prayers used in many works of American Jewish fiction is Kaddish. Hana Wirth-Nesher notes that Kaddish – an Aramaic prayer for the dead is used as a marker of Jewish identity. “Kaddish” means “sanctification” in Aramaic and it is a prayer expressing faith in Israel's messianic redemption. Originally, the Kaddish had nothing to do with bereavement, it was a formula with which all synagogue services concluded.

Kaddish is believed to have originated in Babylon when the vernacular of the Jews used to be Aramaic. Today a son is obligated to say Kaddish for eleven months of mourning (this time period believed to be the maximum period when the soul of the deceased is undergoing a cleansing process). Daughters are prohibited from reciting it and the traditional gender restrictions call attention to the prayer as a symbol of exclusion of women from religious practice. (Wirth-Nesher, Liturgy, 116). Wirth-Nesher defines Kaddish as “antithesis” of Passover Seder. It is also an act of remembering but not of a whole nation; it remembers the soul of one single person (121).

Kaddish is invoked in Jewish American literature for a number of reasons, like its rhythm and cadence, content which can be interpreted as praise for individual human beings rather than God, and its performative aspect as prayer for the dead, which is connected to the Holocaust and serves a sign of mourning for extinguished Jewish life of prewar Europe. Kaddish almost always appears in transliteration, because even the most of religious Jewish readers would not be able to read it in Hebrew alphabet but are familiar with the sound of the transliterated prayer which evokes certain associations and reminds of their religious experience (Wirth-Nesher, Liturgy,124).

I think it corresponds with the idea of the Holocaust, as sometimes the only remaining connection to Judaism, and the Kaddish is the only vestige of one's Jewish observance.

...Jewish American fiction has tended to treat the Kaddish as a signifier of the “essence” of Judaism or Jewishness, as a ritual untouched by the processes of assimilation or accommodation. The eruption of the Kaddish into so many Jewish American works of literature is usually not a sign of the theological, of the transcendent or the divine, but rather an affirmation of the continuity of Israel based on immanence, within history. (Wirth-Nesher, 122)

The paradox of the use Kaddish is that it is a marker of Jewish self-identification and religious identity, affirming continuity because one needs a Jewish son to recite Kaddish for (in Yiddish culture, a son was humorously called “my Kaddish”) through a ritual connected with death. “...the proliferation of the Kaddish in Jewish American literature after the Second World War may be a response both to the Holocaust and to assimilation, as the act of mourning becomes an essential aspect of Jewish American identity” (Liturgy, 128).

It seems that the stories of the post- war period portray acts of mourning, as if the act of mourning itself were the ultimate Jewish marker. Books which have appeared in the past two decades blend the mourning and the praise, thus looking back and also looking forward to the future (128).

I agree with Hana Wirth-Nesher, and think that the finding of new hope and simultaneous return to the roots through religious revival can be seen as a general development in the latest literary works. It is a revival which does not exclude women anymore, who are also present at reciting the Kaddish as equals.

The aspirations of the new generation of writers are maybe best expressed by Dara Horn who is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard University studying Hebrew and Yiddish. In an interview about her book, In the Image, she said she was inspired by modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, particularly early modern writers, who constantly refer to the Hebrew Bible and commentaries, even while challenging the religious tradition. She wonders if it is possible to create this sort of literature in English, using biblically anchored language within a secular text. She realized that English readers are familiar with biblical literature only in archaic translations. “This made it possible to create a work in English that could be read on several levels... I wanted to create a different style for American Jewish literature, one more connected to the Jewish literary tradition of constant reference to ancient text.” (Horn, Interview).

2.1 Folklore and mysticism: Golem and reincarnation

One of the most popular tropes used in modern American Jewish fiction is Golem. It is a figure from Jewish folklore, an artificial being - usually, although not always, male, made mostly of clay by a man using the magic of the Kabbalah. The Hebrew word “Golem” literally means “a shapeless or lifeless matter” (Morris, 1).

According to Ruth Bienstock Anolik, a golem is created for practical purposes, often to be a saviour of innocent people. Usually the golem ultimately evades the control of its creator. The Golem stories are found in ancient rabbinic and cabbalistic texts and also in 17th, 18th, and 19th century texts which are based on the earlier tradition. These stories originated in supernatural tales of rabbinic literature and became part of the folk tale tradition (“Reviving the Golem”, 37). The Golem figure has entered today's popular American culture in a number of ways ranging from literary works to the comics.

According to Anolick, the female Jewish writers' feminism is transforming the golem tradition in contemporary writing. Jewish women have become a part of a tradition in which the highest aspiration of a religious person is to be a scholar. At the same time, it is a tradition that had usually limited women's access to learning.


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The Role of Religion - Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Jewish American Literature
University of Frankfurt (Main)
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Role, Religion, Tradition, Modernity, Contemporary, Jewish, American, Literature
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Alina Polyak (Author), 2009, The Role of Religion - Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Jewish American Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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