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On “Jewish” Writing: Reflections on Tablet Magazine’s New Fiction Series

As someone who spends a lot of time reading, writing about, and promoting Jewish literature—including, and perhaps especially, Jewish fiction—I’m mystified by the direction that Tablet magazine appears to be taking with its new fiction series.

Tablet, as you may know, bears the trademarked tag line, “a new read on Jewish life,” and describes itself as a “daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.” It’s a magazine that I admire and enjoy; I was delighted when it added original fiction to its mix this fall. But that delight has turned to puzzlement–and a degree of dismay.

Some perplexity may stem from the fact that the fiction series a) is still quite new and b) has not published editorial guidelines. Other venues—whether they declare a focus on Jewish themes (JewishFiction.net, Lilith, Midstream, etc.) or not—provide detailed submission guidelines for their potential fiction contributors. In Tablet’s case, only two sources can guide my assessment: the three stories published to date, and a recent post by Tablet’s arts and culture editor, Matthew Fishbane, titled “On ‘Jewish’ Writing: Starting a conversation about Jewish fiction.”

Let’s begin with the stories. The series launched in September, and it started strong, with a story by Aimee Bender titled “The Doctor and the Rabbi.” A subtitle/teaser crystallized the story’s focus: “When a man of science loves a woman of God, what lies between them?” As comments revealed, readers were not disappointed.

But something changed in October, when the second story, Justin Taylor’s “Gregory’s Year,” arrived. It was introduced only as “the latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series, by the author of The Gospel of Anarchy.” Four days later, Fishbane’s explanatory post summarized “Gregory’s Year” as largely about the protagonist’s “breakup with his girlfriend, and how he and his brother seek solace in family and food.”

Fishbane continued: “[‘Gregory’s Year’ is] moving and beautifully written and we’re proud to publish it. But, as some have noted, there’s little in the story that’s overtly Jewish—certainly a far cry from the first piece in the series….” Since I can’t locate any comments on Taylor’s story on Tablet, I can only suspect that some of those remarks overlap with my concerns, especially since Fishbane concluded that first paragraph with this line: “So why exactly is Taylor’s story in Tablet, the daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture?”

My question, exactly! The rest of Fishbane’s post seems aimed toward answering that question, which I asked myself again just before Thanksgiving, when the third story in the series, Emily Firetog’s “How to Be a Man,” introduced only as “the latest installment in Tablet’s monthly original fiction series” and similarly lacking in any “overtly Jewish” content, appeared.

According to Fishbane, “The first answer is to point to the critical argument that in ‘Gregory’s Year’ Taylor in fact takes on proto-Jewish themes. The year-long cycle and seasonal rhythm of the story echo the flow of Jewish holidays, a near-Talmudic commentary on the passing of days. The protagonist may or may not be Jewish—nothing in the text explicitly says either way, one assumes with intent—but the story may still seem representative of a current youthful American Jewish aesthetic.”

For me, this explanation raised more questions than it resolved: What is a “proto-Jewish” theme? Do Jews have a monopoly on cycles and seasonal rhythms? What about schoolchildren and teachers? What about those responsible for fiscal-year benchmarks and deadlines? What about (as we approach a slew of winter holidays) other religions and cultures? (As for the comparison to a “near-Talmudic commentary,” that argument stretches so far as to render me wordless.) And what of the suggestion that Taylor’s story can be seen—and presumably, appreciated—as “representative of a current youthful American Jewish aesthetic”? Even if I could accept the premise that this aesthetic is worth privileging in a venue as prominent as Tablet’s new fiction series, Fishbane’s post exacerbated my concerns.

That’s largely because the post also argued that Taylor’s status as a “prominent young writer who is Jewish” should be, to put it bluntly, dayenu. According to this viewpoint, “what[ever] a Jewish writer produces is of interest to our audience, whether that writer chooses to immerse him or herself in subjects that are, willy-nilly, still seen as traditionally or even stereotypically Jewish.”

As a member of that audience, I disagree, especially since, as mentioned, the third story again left me searching for anything subtly (let alone overtly) Jewish in the work. Anything about Jewish history. Anything about Jewish ritual. Anything about the Hebrew language, or the state of Israel. (For background on the relevance and resonance of these topics—and Avraham Infeld’s influence on my thinking—please see my guest post on author Jessica Handler’s blog.)

Firetog’s story does include a character named Sarah, and one might label adultery as a “proto-Jewish” theme, if we go back to those canonical Ten Commandments. But with these  last two stories, Tablet seemed to dig in its heels, privileging an “aesthetic” that is alarmingly disconnected from Judaism and unable to do anything more than signal an accident of the author’s birth—“a biographical fact,” as Fishbane quoted Taylor as saying—to classify the work itself as “Jewish.”

Even here, I might have deferred to Fishbane’s editorial judgment and simply (if reluctantly) adjusted my expectations for the series, especially since I’m quite aware that Fishbane isn’t alone in his views. I’ve attended many panels and lectures—some of them sponsored by self-described Jewish organizations and publications—where I have heard similar sentiments expressed. Again, I disagree, but everyone is entitled to an opinion.

But Fishbane’s post went further: “Some of us think that any attempt to ghettoize Jewish fiction writers by demanding that their subjects be of a certain nature would take us back to essentially the Jewish equivalent of the debates of the Harlem Renaissance.” I claim no expertise on those debates, but insofar as Tablet’s series of original fiction is concerned, I think it is essential to pause and separate two fundamental activities: writing and reading.

As a writer, I applaud the idea that I’m free to write about any subject. Indeed, I’ve published stories that feature characters and environments that go beyond “not-identifiably Jewish”—they are identifiably not-Jewish. (Not that I ever even considered submitting these stories to magazines that espoused a mission of delivering “Jewish news, ideas, and culture.” It would have seemed inappropriate, perhaps even disrespectful, as if I hadn’t bothered to read the publication and understand its focus before sending my work for possible inclusion.)

But as a reader, I’m drawn to publications (like Tablet) that claim to focus on “Jewish” ideas and subjects. They appeal to me precisely because I expect to find in their offerings content that I won’t necessarily find everywhere else. I suspect a similar proclivity prompts readers to subscribe to cooking magazines, say, or fly-fishing publications. In contrast, the stories by Taylor and Firetog not only read like stories typical of what one finds in writing workshops, drafted by writers of every possible background (breakups! adultery!), but they basically mirror stories that can be found nearly any time in at least a dozen (if not a hundred) non-specialized publications on my radar.

Now, Aimee Bender’s story might well have been chosen to appear in one of those non-specialized publications, too. Indeed, those of us who write fiction featuring “overtly” Jewish material have placed our work in many of the country’s most esteemed literary venues, whether through submissions to the “slush pile” or via solicited or commissioned work. Among the examples I’ve encountered just within the past few weeks: Helen Maryles Shankman’s “The Golem of Zukow,” in Kenyon Review Online“What Animal Are You?” or “Healthy Start,” two Israel-set stories by Etgar Keret (both translated by Miriam Shlesinger) that appeared in Harper’s and Tin House, respectively—I looked them up after hearing Keret read them both during a recent appearance; and Lara Vapnyar’s “Fischer vs. Spassky,” in The New Yorker (complemented, incidentally, by an instructive Q&A with the author online).

In other words, Jewish fiction is in no danger of being, as Fishbane phrased it, “ghettoized.” But a magazine that describes itself as presenting Jewish content does, alas, fall within a “niche,” no matter how distasteful some may find that word. (Taylor, again quoted by Fishbane, commented: “‘Jewish writer’ sounds like ‘sci-fi writer’ or ‘Y.A. novelist’—like it’s a niche commercial genre.”)

When a magazine with a specific mission begins a new column or series, is it so wrong for readers to expect that this content, too, will deliver what the rest of the magazine provides? Does Tablet intend henceforth to feature essays, book reviews, or podcasts that bear no visible connection to matters Judaic, simply because the authors, critics, or speakers possess Jewish ancestry?

In sum, I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed by the second and third stories to date. I’m disappointed by the arguments in Fishbane’s justificatory post. Most of all, I’m disappointed for all of my fellow readers and writers of “overtly” Jewish fiction (not all of whom are Jewish, by the way; Fishbane alluded to John Updike and the fictional Bech in his post, but we can also cite Peter Manseau’s Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter—winner of the National Jewish Book Award, the Sophie Brody Medal, and the Ribalow Prize, for starters).

Like me, these readers and writers may have greeted the announcement of this series with eagerness and happy anticipation. Like me, they may be wondering if the “aesthetic” epitomized by the second and third stories, and defended so vehemently in Fishbane’s post, suggests a pattern in the fiction that this magazine of “Jewish news, ideas, and culture” will promulgate. Like me, they may find this pattern troubling.

Of course, it’s still early. Perhaps, in the fourth and future installments of the series, the richness, vibrancy, and diversity of contemporary Jewish fiction will indeed be shared.

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10 Responses »

  1. Hi, Erika -

    Ah, the perennial question! To be perfectly honest, I haven’t looked at Tablet in a long while and didn’t even know they were publishing original fiction. But I was interested to read Matthew Fishbane’s comments above.

    The question is complicated, as you say. I wrestled a lot with it myself when I was putting together my own anthology of contemporary Jewish fiction. I’m with you in the sense that the whole idea of “ghettoized” Jewish fiction is absurd. There’s hardly any danger of Jewish fiction being pushed to the margins. (Actually, there are ghettos, but this is a whole other discussion and has little to do with the threat of a new Harlem Renaissance and everything to do with the ghettoization of taste by the industrial-marketing-publishing complex. Again, for another time).

    I myself believe that in a healthy environment for Jewish fiction that there’s a place for writing where the Jewish element is there by a “sidelong” glance. The whole wonder of fiction is, to paraphrase Philip Roth, it’s ability to allow us to expand our sense of moral play, our reach, not available to us in daily life. Steve Almond’s story in LOST TRIBE (“A Dream Of Sleep”, about an Eastern European refugee working in a cemetery, is not explicitly Jewish. I’m not sure you would be able to draw many conclusions about Jewish fiction from it. Still, in the context of an anthology where just about every other story was very explicitly Jewish, it felt right to include this terrific story.

    At the same time, it’s important to consider where we are today. There’s so much excellent Jewish fiction getting published that explicitly wrestles with questions about orthodoxy, Israel, the Russian emigre experience, and so on, that it does seem silly not to call attention to it with the sort of platform Tablet provides.

    -Paul

    • Paul, thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond (so thoughtfully) to this essay. I think you end your comment on exactly the note I want to stress. Thanks again.

  2. I’m SO glad you posted about Tablet’s fiction. I posted about it myself after the Taylor story, and was disappointed last week by the third story, as well.

    Aside from issues about what Jewish writing is (a fuzzy field to define, which is what I discussed on my own blog), I think that Tablet is making a big mistake regarding its audience. Like you mentioned in your post, people are turning to Tablet specifically because they want Jewish news, Jewish perspectives. Moreover, people like Tablet because it is very inclusive. You’ll find pieces by those who are secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Humanistic–in short, just about every kind of Jew is represented on Tablet somewhere.

    As an Orthodox writer and reader, I don’t mind reading the perspective of people who differ from me, even when I disagree with them. (For example, the first story in the fiction department featured a woman rabbi. Despite my personal opinions against women serving in this role, it worked in the context of the story, and the story’s message about faith was compelling.) But I do refuse to read material that I consider R-rated. I couldn’t even finish this week’s piece because not only the f-bomb, but then the later adultery scene, which was related in detail that was a bit graphic.

    Tablet has an enormous opportunity to publish Jewish fiction that reflects our shared Jewish identity and is intellectually edgy yet approachable to thinking, creative Jews of many stripes. So far, they’ve dropped the ball. Like you I was disappointed by the Fishbane editorial, which really didn’t resolve the issue.

    • Hi, Rebecca: I’m so very glad that you commented! I saw your comment on the editorial, and (unsurprisingly), I agreed with it. (As an aside: Since Tablet updated its commenting system–in a fashion I’m not especially fond of, between linking to third-party apps and Disqus–I’ve refrained from commenting on the site.)

      In a longer version of this post–which I worked hard to edit down–I detailed more of what I truly enjoy and admire about Tablet. For instance, I, too, appreciate its inclusivity (in perspectives religious/denominational, political, and other). So I’m glad you’ve given me the chance to echo your observation about that, too.

      Again, Rebecca, thank you for stepping forward here.

  3. I was dumbfounded after I read “How to be a Man” in The Tablet. Until I read your post I really thought was missing something. What’s funny is that the title “How to be a man” could be such a Jewish title given what it means to be a Jewish man and that a boy “becomes” a man at age 13.

    Anyway, I agree that I turn to the Tablet for “Jewish” stories — both news and fiction and these stories left me scratching my head.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful response and for making me feel less clueless!

    • Thanks for the comment, Gigi. I wonder now how many other people may have thought that they missed something, when apparently, Tablet was fairly purposeful. Thank you again for stopping by.

  4. As the author of what has to be quintessential Jewish historical novels ["Rashi's Daughters" trilogy and "Rav Hisda's Daughter"] I may not be able to define “Jewish” fiction, but I know it when I read it. I agree with you completely that I expect Tablet Magazine’s fiction to pass the “Jewish” test. After all, that’s how Table identifies itself.

    I also agree with Gigi that I would expect some sort of Bar Mitzvah angle from a story in a Jewish magazine called “How to be a Man.” There are plenty of venues for short fiction, and some excellent Jewish fiction can occasionally be found there, but when a site calls itself “a new read on Jewish life,” I expect subject matter that is explicitly Jewish, not ‘proto-Jewish’ or ‘near-Talmudic.’

    • You are definitely an author of “quintessentially Jewish historical novels,” Maggie. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here.

  5. I haven’t looked at Tablet much. I will slide over there, but avoid the fiction section. I’ve taught – and written – Jewish fiction, and I, like the other responders, agree with your comments and observations. The phrases that gave you pause – “proto-Jewish,” “near-Talmudic commentary,” “a current youthful American Jewish aesthetic” – are the kind of pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook Orwell warned against more than 60 years ago.

    There is a place for the question, what is Jewish fiction? (Isaac Asimov has a thought-provoking introduction to Jack Dann’s Wandering Stars anthology.) Perhaps the question should be, as you note, what are Jewish themes, and how do they differ from other themes? Immigration and Assimilation have been Jewish themes, but they are not uniquely Jewish. Superman is a Jewish character, but not all Superman stories (very few) are Jewish stories. Must a story have Jewish characters (or even one) to be Jewish? (Are the Kemelman and Kellerman novels Jewish Mysteries or Mysteries with a Jewish character – in which case does the ethnicity matter? Jewish American or American Jew – that was the question.)

    I suspect “what is Jewish fiction” is a sub-set of the larger “what is Jewish identity” question. For a while it was chicken soup (or lox and bagels), the Holocaust and Israel. Those still apply, but Jewish-anything is more, much more, than that. Or a Bar Mitzvah and Yiddish jokes.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful post, and thanks for all the insightful comments it elicited.

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