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From My Archives: Defining “Jewish Writing”

StarSome of my (ever-evolving) ruminations on how to define what makes a book “Jewish” stem from my own writing, especially my short-story collection, Quiet Americans, which is inspired largely by the experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. But I’ve also considered the subject more broadly (for some examples, please see “further reading” links at the end of this post).

Helping me shape my thoughts along the way: a website I discovered thanks to one of the innumerable “Jewish newsletters” I subscribe to. At The 5 Legged Table, educator Avraham Infeld’s teachings frame a discussion of the question: What is being Jewish all about? The underlying principles impress me as applicable to a related question: What is a Jewish book all about?

Briefly, the 5 Legged Table comprises the following elements:

  • Memory: “While history is about what happened in the past, memory is about how that past drives our present and our future.”
  • Family
  • Covenant: Grounded in the idea that, at Sinai, Jews committed “to recognize one God; to make the world a better place for all people; and to use certain rituals to define and shape Jewish time and space. So, for Jews who observe any or all of the mitzvot, and those who are committed to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and those who serve the Jewish community, or move to Israel, the covenant established at Mount Sinai is still a tie that binds.”
  • Hebrew
  • Israel
  • My hypothesis: To the extent that the subjects are the “legs” on which a particular book stands, that book is “a Jewish book.” A book need not necessarily include all five legs. After all, tables normally stand on four. But I take pride in realizing that, to varying degrees, all five are woven into Quiet Americans.

    Memory: The book itself stems from the transmitted histories of my grandparents and their families, and how all of that accumulated history is remembered and continues to influence me. Which leads to Family: Family relationships are at the core of virtually every story in my book.

    What about Covenant? Here, I think especially of one story in my collection, Lebensraum,” and the role that Jewish ritual plays there. Moreover, in a small gesture of tikkun olam, I am donating portions of the proceeds from book sales to The Blue Card, a nonprofit organization that aids U.S.-based Holocaust survivors.

    Hebrew words—albeit transliterated—are sprinkled throughout Quiet Americans. And Israel is very much on the minds of many of my Jewish-American characters, whether they are watching Golda Meir speak on television after the massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, or anguishing over the Second Lebanon War (and international condemnation of Israel for it) nearly 35 years later.

    These days, when people ask me what I think defines a “Jewish book,” I am likely to respond with a reference to the 5-Legged Table.

    How about you?

    (This text has been updated and adapted from a post first published on Jessica Handler’s “Swimming in the Trees,” as part of a virtual book tour for Quiet Americans, in February 2011.)

    FURTHER READING

  • “On Jewish Writing” (May 2013)
  • “On ‘Jewish’ Writing: Reflections on Tablet Magazine’s New Fiction Series” (December 2012)
  • “As Promised: Handout for ‘Beyond Bagels & Lox: Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century'” February 2011
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    5 Responses »

    1. I think the five legged table is not inclusive enough and none are essential although I think memory/history is almost always there. The other four legs named are all optional, The covenant is not particularly important to most modern Jews. Something in Hebrew is invariably Jewish, but what about Yiddish or any other language. Same with Israel. What about assimilation into other cultures and countries? Of course Holocaust survivors are generally Jewish, but what about 2nd gen and the transmission of trauma to subsequent generations?
      No writer wants to be pigeonholed or have his or her themes and artistic vision limited?

      • Thanks for your comment, Arnie. I find most discussions of this question very difficult, and for me, Infeld’s paradigm helps add some structure.

    2. I think that the 5 Legged Stool works pretty well — although like Arnie, I’d change “Hebrew” to “any specifically Jewish language” — because it identifies several important indicators, and yet not all have to be present at once. For that reason, I don’t think that Arnie’s concern about “Covenant” is valid — it MAY be present, but it’s not essential.

      Also, also the second generation and third generation’s discourse about the Holocaust would most likely fall under “Memory,” and possibly “Family,” even if the subjects of the piece are very assimilated. However, there are LOTS of people who aren’t Jewish who were affected by the Holocaust: intellectuals, Gypsies, Russians, and even the non-Jewish descendants of Jewish survivors. Does a work about the Holocaust necessarily belong in the category of “Jewish literature?” That’s its own question.

      And another, slightly tangential question: do “no writers” want to being pigeon-holed as “Jewish writers,” as Arnie suggests? There are many writers who object to this, but many of us are proud to be Jewish writers of Jewish writing.

      Presumably, the “objectors” are afraid that they will lose audience share. But some of my readers aren’t Jewish, despite the fact that almost all my writing has appeared in Jewish publications of one kind or another. I’ve had some amazing responses to my very, very Jewish writing from people who are not Jewish at all.

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