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.”