ADAM WILSON’S RECENT NOVEL Sensation Machines takes place in a near-future America much like ours, only a little more so. Congress is debating whether or not to pass a universal basic income policy while a social media guru introduces a newly invasive platform with the disquieting hashtag #WorkWillSetYouFree. Meanwhile, someone gets murdered when a Great Gatsby-themed bankers’ party collides with an Occupy Wall Street “Funeral for Capitalism.” But the book is not only a searing satire of our dystopian economic present; it’s also an exploration of the famously fraught subject of Jews and money. The long history of economic antisemitism means that any discussion of the topic has a wildly overdetermined and uncomfortable quality, so it can be difficult to know what to say about it. Still, a remarkable number of works of fiction published in the past year have given it a shot. (more…)
Emma Wolf was a witty, warm and acclaimed novelist-of-manners who wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century. She was also almost lost to history. Even after feminist scholars began in the 1970s to recover the neglected work of women writers, Wolf wasn’t reprinted and reevaluated like Anzia Yezierska or Zora Neale Hurston. As late as 1992, Barbara Cantalupo, a literary scholar of 19th-century American literature who wrote about Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, had never even come across Wolf ’s name.
Cantalupo and her collaborator Lori Harrison-Kahan told Lilith that Wolf didn’t appeal to revisionist feminist and ethnic studies scholars in the 1970s and 1980s because her views on class and gender weren’t “radical,” “her work isn’t fervently feminist,” and because her characters aren’t Jewish in a way that fits neat Jewish Studies narratives. They’re not immigrants on the Lower East Side. Instead, they’re middle-class, highly cul- tured Californians, and they “sprinkle their speech with French phrases more often than Yiddish ones.”
While that disqualified Wolf from the earlier revision of the canon, it’s also what makes her so vital now. Wolf ’s novels contradict stereotypes about Jewish women at the dawn of the 20th century and offer insights into one of the most fascinating, progressive Jewish communities of that era.
THE BLESSING AND THE CURSE
The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century
By Adam Kirsch
“To be a Jew in the twentieth century / Is to be offered a gift,” Muriel Rukeyser observed in a poem that has made its way not just into anthologies, but also into prayer books. If that sounds odd, looking back at the 20th century, let me assure you Rukeyser wasn’t being naïve; she was writing in the early 1940s, and she went on to acknowledge that “to be a Jew” wasn’t the kind of gift that’s easy to accept — in fact, she wrote, “The gift is torment.”
The poet and critic Adam Kirsch seizes upon that conflicted quality of Jewish experience as the organizing principle for his new survey of “some of the most significant and compelling Jewish books of the 20th century.” He calls it “The Blessing and the Curse,” and aside from being a nod to Deuteronomy by a contemporary literary essayist who has spent recent years boning up on the Jewish classics, this is a sensible enough way to approach the century, as it accounts for its Jews’ very low lows (victims of genocide) and very high highs (long-awaited sovereignty and gobsmacking success).
In four sections, each offering short essays on slightly less than a minyan of books, Kirsch covers what we might call the Common Core version of 20th-century Jewish history: Europe, America, Israel and God — the last treated in a section titled “Making Judaism Modern.”
IT’S AWARD SEASON NOW in the world of contemporary Jewish literature. You probably didn’t know this, and not just because the ceremonies at which these awards are usually handed out have been canceled this year due to the global pandemic. Even in a more typical year, the prizes given out in the world of Jewish letters rarely make much of a ripple beyond the adjacent professional circles. Which is a shame, because they very often celebrate worthy books that have not gotten the attention they deserve from the nonsectarian—and even the Jewish—press. I know this intimately, because I serve as a judge for two such awards: the Sami Rohr Prize (which was given this year to Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial) and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award (given in April to Peter Orner’s story collection Maggie Brown & Others). (more…)
Discussed in this essay: Fleishman Is in Trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Random House, 2019. 384 pages.
MARRIAGE AND ITS DISCONTENTS have always been a central concern of modern Jewish literature. As scholar Naomi Seidman explores at length in a dazzling recent book, The Marriage Plot, the Hebrew and Yiddish literature of the 19th century and the American Jewish literature of the 20th returned again and again to courtship and romance. Writing about marriage helped Jews modernize, Seidman argues, and lent drama to fictions about Jewish identity and community.
Fleishman Is in Trouble, which is already being celebrated for “updat[ing] the miserable-matrimony novel,” contributes to that tradition by perspicaciously subverting it, reflecting the irrelevance of Jewishness to the most pressing concerns in many American Jews’ lives with refreshing honesty. (more…)
Why wouldn’t Jews support a law that combats anti-Semitism?
BEFORE PHILIP ROTH was celebrated, infamous, or dead, he was a very precocious kid writer. A story he wrote in college was chosen for The Best American Short Stories collection, and within a few years, his work was already being adapted for television by a world-famous director, Alfred Hitchcock.
He had talent, of course, but plenty of his earliest fiction was sentimental pap he’d never allow anyone to reprint. What’s most striking about that young Roth, and worth remembering as we mourn his death today, was just how clear-headed he was, already, on the issue of Jewish authority.
This tends to get a little confused in the way he’s remembered. (more…)
THE RUINED HOUSE
By Ruby Namdar
Translated by Hillel Halkin
514 pp. Harper. $29.99.
It’s been a season of reckoning for our high priests, as one after another, in the film industry, journalism, politics, academia and other fields, have been judged and sometimes punished for their sins. How eerie that Ruby Namdar’s strange and exhilarating novel, “The Ruined House,” should appear in English translation just now.
In 2017, the Public Radio News Directors Awards selected this radio commentary as first prize in Division B for Commentary.
WHAT THE F
What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves
By Benjamin K. Bergen
271 pp. Basic Books. $27.99.
IN PRAISE OF PROFANITY
By Michael Adams
253 pp. Oxford University Press. $17.95.
Every parent has been there, or will be there soon: the moment when your darling 5-year-old says one of the magic words that can transform a PG movie into an R, or earn an N.B.A. star a $25,000 fine.