How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel
By Leah Garrett
Northwestern University Press, 275 pages, $34.95
Which works of Jewish literature do we remember, and which do we forget?
The story we like to tell about American Jewish literature in the mid-20th century is that in the 1950s, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth leapt to prominence with books that pulled off the trick of making Jews’ experiences relevant to everybody. Those writers remained prominent for half a century, and Roth, the only one still alive today (though allegedly retired), can still make the Internet take notice by griping about Wikipedia orhaving a birthday party. Over many productive decades, these three writers picked up every major prize open to Americans, from the Pulitzer to the Nobel.
Even before this “breakthrough,” though, Jewish writers were already doing just fine, thank you. (more…)
A summer camp I attended as a teenager has lately been burning up my Facebook feed. (more…)
One thing we know for sure is that 2014 will be a big year for young post-Soviet Jews who write in English.
Gary Shteyngart’s forthcoming memoir, which he did not title “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Jewness,” has already called attention to itself with a four-minute video that almost but not quite redeems the genre of the “book trailer” from its utter insipidity. (more…)
The Little Bride
Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $15
In her classic 1912 memoir of immigration to the United States, “The Promised Land,” Mary Antin notes: “A long girlhood, a free choice in marriage, and a brimful of womanhood are the precious rights of an American woman.” Tell that to Minna Losk. (more…)
Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land
Edited by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle
Abrams ComicArts, 240 pages, $29.95
People don’t admire paintings they haven’t seen, or dance to music they haven’t heard, but they do all sorts of crazy things with languages they don’t speak. This is what Rutgers University scholar Jeffrey Shandler described in his 2005 book, “Adventures in Yiddishland” (University of California Press), as “postvernacular culture”: Just because people don’t know a language doesn’t mean they won’t hold intense beliefs about it, long for it or revile it, and, in ways both brilliant and bizarre, put it to use.
“Yiddishkeit,” an anthology co-edited by comics great Harvey Pekar, who passed away last year, and leftist scholar and non-Jewish Yiddish-speaker Paul Buhle, does not attempt to teach its reader a selection of Yiddish words, unlike Michael Wex’s and Leo Rosten’s best-sellers. And it is not a history or an analysis of Yiddish culture, nor a collection of Yiddish literature translated into English. It’s weirder, more puzzling and more difficult to describe: We might call it a postvernacular tour de force. (more…)
Galit and Gilad Seliktar
Fanfare/Ponent Mon, 136 pages, $25
Why is it that graphic novels are so much more interesting these days than their prose siblings? (more…)
From Continuity to Contiguity: Toward a New Jewish Literary Thinking
By Dan Miron
Stanford University Press, 560 pages, $65
Dan Miron’s “From Continuity to Contiguity” is a work of Jewish literary theory — an exceedingly erudite one, and in some ways the most important to appear in recent decades — that reads a little like a mystery novel. The book begins with the idea that “continuity” is dead as a model for studying Jewish literature, and Miron, the Leonard Kaye Chair of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, even tells us who killed it: “the so-called Tel Aviv structuralist school of poetics.” (more…)
Material Culture and Jewish Thought in America
By Ken Koltun-Fromm
Indiana University Press, 358 pages, $70
Being an Americanist in a Jewish studies department can be, from time to time, a humbling experience: When your colleague down the hall is educating her students about the Akkadian and Sumerian sources of the Torah or helping them piece together Judeo-Arabic fragments from the Cairo Genizah, it can seem a little silly that your own students are busy writing analyses, per your assignment, of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (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…)