Thursday, January 20, 2005

What makes Jewish literature so Jewish, anyway?

In response to Shawn Landres' recent post, I'm making available a paper I wrote a while back which addresses the question of what makes Jewish literature Jewish.

I spent a semester of grad school exploring a cross-section of Jewish literature, with the intent of trying to define (or at least more clearly understand) what makes a Jewish book. I read classics (some Torah, natch, plus Sholom Aleichem, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Delmore Schwartz, Malka Heifetz Tussman) alongside writers of today (Francine Prose, Hal Sirowitz, and Rodger Kamenetz, among others).

Aware that my own roots give me a tendency towards Ashkenazi-centrism, and wanting to combat that, I dipped into Ilan Stavans' Jewish Latin America series. (The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas has one of the coolest titles ever.) I read secondary sources about Jewish literature (among them an excellent issue of the Pakn-Treger that happened to focus on this very question). I had a ridiculous amount of fun.


The...question I began with... [is] what makes a piece of writing Jewish. Must it be written by a Jew? If so, is the Jewishness of its author enough to make the writing itself Jewish? Conversely, what if a piece of writing (a story, a poem, a novel, a body of work) deals with Jewish characters and settings, but is not written by a Jew? What does it mean to deal with "Jewish characters and settings" in 1998, when a "Jewish character" (or a Jewish author) could as easily be a black lesbian feminist Jew-by-choice living in California as a white man of Eastern European descent living in New York city? What is a Jewish character, a Jewish author, a Jewish subject? Does language matter -- which is to say, is a piece of Yiddish fiction automatically Jewish? How about Hebrew poetry? Is there such a thing as a Jewish "essence," a Jewish neshamah, in a piece of writing -- and if so, what creates it? When I turned my eye towards this project six months ago, I dimly sensed these questions on my horizon.

The question I did not sense on my horizon, although perhaps I should have, is this: is Jewishness about looking in or looking out? Must Jewish writing be directed inwards within the Jewish community, or can it be universal?
I wound up writing roughly 7000 words on the subject. I can't claim to definitively answer the question (the more Jewish lit I read, and the more I think about what I've read, the less possible I think it is to concretely define the genre), but there's some interesting food for thought there.

The paper is available for download here:

A Question of Reading: Nu, What Makes Jewish Literature So Jewish, Anyway?

Hopefully you'll enjoy reading it a fraction as much as I enjoyed writing it!

(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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