Jewish American Literature. A Critical Introduction

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2019

18 Pages, Grade: 2,3



Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Hana Wirth-Nesher

3 Origins of Jewish American Literature

4 Elements of Jewish American Literature

5 Contemporary Jewish American Literature
5.1 Philip Roth
5.1.1 Goodbye, Columbus
5.1.2 Indignation

6 Reflection


1 Introduction

Jewish American literature holds an important place within the overall literary history of the United States. For thousands of years Jews lived under the rule of other peoples, both in Isreal and in exile. There were times of tolerance and prosperity but those were often followed by times of opression, violence, and poverty. Jewish people were always considered to be different, but when they immigrated to America, they experienced a land of freedom and of opportunies. This does not mean that Jewish people needed America as a place to set their creative energies free, but in America the energies flourished in an extraordinary way. The United States provided the posibility for Jewish people to surround themselves with a cultural and intelectual life, without having to renounce or repress their Jewish heritage. The United States also have their own intelectual and cultural traditions deeply related with Hebraism, because of the strong bound between the protestant Puritans and the Israelits which can be traced back to colonial times. (Wolosky)

Traditionally, the writings are mainly published in English, but also in several other languages, such as Hebrew, Russian, Polish and – most importantly – Yiddish. Shmuel Niger said in 1941:“One language has never been enough for the Jewish people!” (Wirth-Nesher) Being capable of speaking more than Yiddish as the mame-loshen, which means mother tongue in English, is an important characteristic of Jewish culture and life style. Often even people from small shtetlekh1 with limited access to education were able to speak Yiddish and at least Hebrew, the loshn-koydesh, which means holy language in English. (Wirth-Nesher) Taking a closer look at other Roman languages, such as our everyday English and also German, it is notable that Yiddish expressions are common elements of both. There are countless examples of „Yinglish”2 in our language use. Here are just a couple of them: a brave person might have “chutzpah”, something odd and dubious sounds not very “kosher” to us, and a person of constant bad luck may be called a “shlimazel”. The influence of Yiddish is omnipresent – also in pop culture and literature. Jewish theater plays, musicals and movies are an essential part of the worlds‘ pop culture. Famous artists such as Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond and Leonard Cohen shaped not only America’s taste in Music, but the music taste of the whole world. Comedians such as Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks and Jerry Seinfeld make people laugh since decades and famous authors such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth entertain their readers and make people reflect on historical and contemporary issues.

By reading Jewish American literature new interpretations of the world arise. These can be shared and discussed to further expand one‘s academic and personal horizon. Also, awareness of different languages, various eras and cultures is enhanced. The studying improves the ability to understand and reflect different levels of human interaction and the relation to history and culture.

This paper is completed within the scope of the seminar “Readings of the 21st Century American Literature“ which is lead by Dr. XY who is associate professor at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. The seminar is organized at the Faculty for Translation, Linguistics and Cultural Studies in Germersheim and deals with three highly acclaimed novelists of the 21st century – Philip Roth, Louise Erdrich and Colson Whitehead – and their literary works dealing with historical issues of race and identity.

The motivation for chosing the topic of Jewish American literature derives from the inspiration I received by reading Philip Roth’s The Plot against America and from my general interest in Jewish culture and especially in the Yiddish language.

In this paper with the title “Jewish American Literature – a Critical Introduction” the focus will be on the origins and elements of Jewish American literature as well as on contemporary writings of the 20th and 21st century. The reasearch for this paper is based predominantly on writings of the American-Israeli professor, Hana Wirth-Nesher, who wrote and edited several books on Jewish American literature. She will be introduced in the beginning of this paper. After that the origins and characteristic elements of Jewish American literature will be described. Contemporary Jewish American literature will be discussed afterwards, followed by an introduction of Philip Roth and two of his novels – Goodbye, Columbus and Indignation. These were chosen in order to give concrete examples of literary works which were both – celebrated and criticized by their audience. The last chapter will consist of a personal reflection concerning Jewish American literature.

2 Hana Wirth-Nesher

Hana Wirth-Nesher was born on March 2, 1948. She is an American-Israeli professor for English and American Studies at the Tel Aviv University and literary scholar. She is also the Samuel L. and Perry Haber Chair on the Study of the Jewish Experience in the United States, and director of the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture. Yiddish language within overall American literary history as well as the expression of individual identity in Jewish American literature is her specialization. The Yiddish summer program at Tel Aviv University is a matter close to the heart for her. Also, she is the editor of The Cambridge History of Jewish American Literature and the co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature together with Michael P. Kramer. (Wirth-Nesher)

Born in Germany to a Polish father and a German mother, she grew up in Munich predominantly speaking German. Her father suffered from mental issues caused by the atrocities during the National Socialist regime. The family immigrated to the United States in 1949 and settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where they were confronted with racism as swastikas were daubed on their house. To escape these severe attacks the family moved to a mainly Jewish neighborhood where they were ostracized for being Holocaust survivors. Because of these incidents Wirth-Nesher never felt as a part of America. The family later emigrated to Israel. (ibid.)

Growing up multilingual, languages always had a high priority in Wirth-Nesher‘s life. Because of her experiences with the Yiddish, German, Polish and English languages she decided to teach English and American literature at university. She also is the author of several articles on important English, American and Jewish American writers, including, for example, Saul Bellow, Sholem Aleichum, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Philip Roth. (ibid.)

Wirth-Nesher is also the co-creator of the Yiddish summer program at Tel Aviv University in cooperation with the Beth Shalom Aleichem cultural center, where intensive Yiddish instructions and workshops are offered along with cultural events such as Yiddish theater, music and poetry activities. There are up to 130 participants every year coming from Israel and other parts of the world. (ibid.)

The following chapter deals with the historical origins of Jewish American literature which is important in order to understand the motifs of Jewish American writings as these are closely connected to the historical background of immigration.

3 Origins of Jewish American Literature

The origins of Jewish culture in North America can be traced back to colonial times, after Sephardic Jews sought refuge in Nieuw Amsterdam and Newport in 1654. (Wolosky) These foundations were expanded by the immigration of other ethnic communities, such as Mezrahi Jews, converts to Judaism, and Central European Jews during the 19th century. From 1880 to 1914 Eastern Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to North America and brought their orthodox and conservative world view to today’s New York. World War II forced Jews living in the Jewish diaspora3 to seek refuge in the United States. The Brezhnev era4 in former Soviet Union caused another immigration movement of Jews to the US. (Kramer)

The multicultural background and the timeline of immigration shows that Jewish American literature is not restricted to a short and defined period of time. It rather extends over several centuries, is continuously developing and open-ended. (ibid.)

However, a considerable amount of distinctly Jewish literature in the USA emerged soon after the first immigration wave of mainly Sephardic Jews, who wrote autobiographical reports and petitions. Other literary text forms were developed during the following decades. The genre of poetry, for example, was influenced by Emma Lazarus, who is the first significant Jewish American poet to react to the constant oppression of Jews. Her poetry volume Songs of Semite contains her famous sonnet The New Colossus which was written in 1883 and two years later engraved in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York. The New Colossus is meant to be a reflection of Jewish immigrants from all over the world. Today the poem is exhibited in the museum within the pedestal. (Shreiber) During the time of immigration, there was a negative connotation of the Old World and a glorification of the New World. This cultural development was critically questioned by the following generations of Jewish immigrant writers. The so-called “Sweatshop Poets”, for example, denounced the inhumane working conditions in manufactures which Jewish immigrants had to endure within the period between 1880 and 1905. (Epstein)

The generation after the “Sweatshop Peot” movement was rather focused on the beauty of literature than on social and political issues. To reach a wider audience Eastern European Jews often gave up on writing in Yiddish. These authors became absorbed by the American society by neglecting their cultural heritage. This was changed after the incidents of WWII. Authors precessed their experiences of the Holocaust through their literary works and recollected the tradition of writing in Yiddish and Hebrew. The difference between individual and collective experience and the concerns of assimilation and immigration became one of the most important motifs in Jewish American literature, to be read in American classics such as in works of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. (Garrett; Miller Budick)

The following chapter will be dealing with certain recurring elements of Jewish American literature which have changed and developed over the years. These elements will be named and further explained in order to be able to analyse contemporary works on the basis of these emelents.


1 Plural form of shtetl which means small town in English. (Shandler)

2 Contraction of „Yiddish“ and „English“. (Bluestein)

3 Dispersion of Jews out of their ancestral homeland, which is Israel. Settlement in other parts of the world. (Mayer)

4 Leonid Brezhnev’s rule of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Often considered the „Era of Stagnation“ due to political, social, and economical problems. (Daniels)

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Jewish American Literature. A Critical Introduction
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich Translations-, Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft)
Readings in 21st-Century American Literature
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ISBN (Book)
Jewish American Literature, culture, literature
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Anonymous, 2019, Jewish American Literature. A Critical Introduction, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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