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.
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.
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 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?
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 paper is available for download here:
(Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)