Since when did multilingual archival research become a required skill for young Jewish novelists? (more…)
Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon
Essays on Literature and Culture in Honor of Ruth R. Wisse
Edited by Justin Daniel Cammy, Dara Horn, Alyssa Quint and Rachel Rubinstein
Harvard University Press, 750 pages, $75.
In September 1976, Commentary printed the letters of three novelists who had taken umbrage at appraisals of their work, in a previous issue, by a relatively unknown Yiddish professor named Ruth Wisse. Cynthia Ozick, the most fervent of the respondents, judged Wisse guilty of a “fundamental (and, for a good reader, unforgivable) critical error”: confusing literature with sociology.
This old contretemps bears recalling less for its substance — authors and critics have bickered about the relationship between fiction and life for centuries — than for what it reveals about Wisse’s personality. (more…)
On June 1, 1955, Sam Astrachan graduated from Columbia. On June 2, he moved into a room at Yaddo, the famed artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs. He was 21, one of the youngest writers ever to be so honored, and he had been invited thanks to his professor, Lionel Trilling, at that time the country’s foremost literary scholar. (more…)
Breadowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %&*!
By Art Spiegelman
Pantheon. 72 pages. $27.50.
Publishing a literary masterpiece can be a little like creating a golem, it seems: first you’re just proud you were able to create it, then you’re astonished to see how powerful it becomes, and then, suddenly, you’re scared you can’t control it. That’s been Art Spiegelman’s experience, at least, with Maus, one of the finest comic books ever printed and among the great literary achievements of the past quarter century. One panel of Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! – a recent series of Spiegelman’s brief autobiographical comics – makes this clear: “It’s no use…,” Spiegelman’s avatar says, glancing back at a monolithic mousy representation of his father: “No matter how much I run I can’t seem to get out of that mouse’s shadow.” (more…)
In the fall of 1924, Ludwig Lewisohn had all sorts of worries: He’d left his wife in New York and run off to Europe with a younger woman, and, on a recent jaunt to Poland, all the “filthy, starved, oppressed” Jews in Warsaw’s ghetto had depressed him. Clearly, he needed a therapist. Since he happened to be in central Europe, and since he never did anything by half measures, he had a friend lend him a room on Wahringerstrasse in Vienna, and went straight to Sigmund Freud. Though Freud, who lived a couple of blocks away, was happy to psychoanalyze him, Lewisohn ended his treatment after a few sessions. According to his biographer, Ralph Melnick, he feared “the loss of his anxieties” would be “the destruction of what had driven him as a writer.” (more…)
Filmmakers had been adapting Philip Roth’s work long before Isabel Coixet transformed The Dying Animal into Elegy. When Roth was just twenty-two, his story “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” published first in the Fall 1955 issue of Epoch and then in that year’s Best American Short Stories, was presented on television by Alfred Hitchcock. Roth has disallowed the story’s republication in the half-century since, and the filmed version can be viewed only at UCLA’s archives (or, for the less scrupulous, in a bootleg version), so very few of even Roth’s most committed fans have read or seen it. Roth’s only other short story to be filmed, “Expect the Vandals,” is equally obscure; but at least its bizarre movie version can be added to your Netflix queue. (more…)
Of the many insults and epithets launched at the Jews through the ages, none has quite the cultural pedigree of “dirty Jew.” Writers in many languages have seized on it again and again, mostly because it is not only harsh and hateful, but also vague. Dirtiness can refer to anything from a lack of proper hygiene to an ideological failing to a moral taint; being called “dirty” often has something to do with sex, though not always. A history of the term’s appearances in literature and film suggests not just changing perceptions of Jewishness over the years, but also a transformation in the way we talk about “dirtiness.” (more…)
In 1967, a failed playwright named Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, his provocative dissection of black culture. A fierce opponent of integration, Cruse turned a caustic eye on Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson, and nearly every other prominent black thinker of his era (and those that came before it; the Harlem Renaissance, in his view, produced no work of real merit). He reserved special loathing, however, for a novelist by the name of John Oliver Killens. “Neither the originator of a single new concept, style, or exposition whether in literature or politics,” Cruse carped, “Killens has been the neutralizing temporizer, the non-controversial, moderating lid-sitter par excellence.” (more…)
“I keep kosher. Sort of.” I’ve always felt the need to add a disclaimer to the end of that sentence, because I don’t keep kosher the way that some people do. This comes up whenever I’m trying to explain what I do and don’t eat to someone, Jewish or not, who isn’t intimate with the Jewish dietary laws. Conversations like these can be particularly confusing for the non-Jewish partners or family members of Jews who practice some form of kashrut, because the varieties of what “kosher” can mean are perplexing at best, and sometimes downright maddening.
Personally, I don’t eat chicken and beef that haven’t come from a kosher butcher, nor have I ever tasted pork (no big loss, from what I hear) or shellfish (which, I’m told, is more of a sacrifice). Still, I happily order fish and dairy dishes in non-kosher restaurants, and, what’s more, I don’t even ask the waiters whether my mushroom risotto’s been softened with beef stock, even though, as the author of a cookbook, I know that it almost certainly has been. When it comes to the animal-based oils used in frying, to the presence of rennet in cheeses, and to unknown species of fish when I’m dining out abroad (what North American really knows, offhand, what lotte or rochen correspond to?), my policy is simply Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. If there are no cubes of ham staring up at me from the split pea soup, I tuck in and hope for the best. And I turn a blind eye even though I know my maguro may have snuggled up next to some uni in a sushi chef’s display case. (more…)
This month, Myron S. Kaufmann’s debut novel, Remember Me to God, turns 50, and so far there have been no signs of celebration. Though it was hailed on publication as one of the finest novels ever written about American Jews and remained on The New York Times bestseller list for an entire year, almost no one remembers it today. It goes unmentioned in bibliographies of American Jewish fiction, and so obscure is Kaufmann in this Internet age that searching for his name turns up nary a stub on Wikipedia. (more…)