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What is Jewish Literature?

IN 1977, IRVING HOWE edited an anthology called Jewish-American Stories, which included short stories by Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and the more recognizably American writers Henry Roth, Philip Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Cynthia Ozick, Saul Bellow, and Grace Paley. In his introduction, Howe described American-Jewish fiction, somewhat whimsically, as “regional literature.” Like the literature of New England, the Midwest, and the South, American-Jewish fiction possessed a distinct thumbprint. The work of the American-Jewish writers, which according to Howe is not part of any “familiar Jewish literature” (that is, Hebrew or Yiddish literature), is “regional” in deriving from and dealing with one “locale”: the encounter between an immigrant group and the American host culture. Howe wrote admiringly about these American-Jewish writers and their achievements, but he also speculated that this literature has already “moved past its high point.” He deemed the possibility of a new generation of American-Jewish writers as “unlikely.”

Howe was wrong, both in his understanding of the nature of American-Jewish literature and in his prediction of its demise. In fact, the two elements are closely intertwined. Since Howe understood the essence of American-Jewish literature as dealing exclusively with the experience of immigration from Eastern Europe to America (including the second-generation’s experience), he could not foresee the renaissance of American-Jewish literature during the first decade of the twenty-first century. But Howe raised vital questions that require new answers. And this is essentially the premise of Dan Miron’s immense and important book.

Miron, the foremost Israeli critic and scholar of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, asks a much bigger question: what is Jewish literature, or to be more precise, what is modern Jewish literature? This question has been asked since the advent of Jewish modernity and many answers have been given to it, but it has persisted until the attempt to answer it seemed to reach an impasse. In an oft-cited volume called What Is Jewish Literature?, Hana Wirth-Nesher asserted that the endurance of the question is, in fact, a function of the ultimate indefinability of the subject. Miron seeks to break the impasse and gives his complex and rich answer. But before he arrives at the crux of his argument, Miron tries to convince us that the question is still relevant, and that the “old” answers given to it are worthy of elucidation and reconsideration.

Like a good novelist, Miron keeps his readers in suspense. He takes them on a grand tour de force of “Jewish literary thinking”: the meta-literary discourse that evolved from the advent of the Haskalah in the 1870s until the 1950s, after which, so Miron claims, this discourse has all but disappeared. This is a journey through the ways in which Hebrew and Yiddish writers, editors, critics, thinkers, and scholars in Europe, America, and the pre-state Yishuv understood the literature that they created and which was created around them. This lengthy part of the book reads like an intriguing novel of ideas, full of tensions and twists. One clearly senses not only Miron’s interest in the debates and questions, but also, perhaps mainly, in the life of figures such as the poets H. N. Bialik, Uri Zvi Greenberg, and Yonatan Ratosh; the prose writers Micha Yosef Berdichevsky and Y. H. Brenner; and the thinkers and scholars Ahad Ha’am, Ba’al Makhshoves (Isidor Elyashev), Shmuel Niger, Meir Viner, Shimon Halkin, Baruch Kurtzweil, and Dov Sadan. All these figures hotly debated the nature of modern Jewish writing during their lifetimes.

Against the prevalent view that these figures were engaged and passionate critics, but without theoretical acumen, Miron shows that they were in fact as sophisticated as any contemporary scholar or critic. They were born and raised in Europe within a multilingual environment, deeply immersed in the languages, literatures, and cultures of their time. The Galician-born Dov Sadan, for example, was steeped in Freud, and was a pioneer of the psychoanalytical analysis of Hebrew and Yiddish literary texts. Miron reminds us that side by side with their cosmopolitanism, multilingualism, and theoretical sophistication (and often their brilliant style as well), these figures were what we now call public intellectuals, fully committed to a Jewish cultural renaissance, even if they could not agree on its exact nature and the future directions it may take.

In spite of Miron’s admiration of these giants of Jewish literary thinking, he claims that they were wrong (like Irving Howe in 1977) in their understanding of the multifaceted nature of Jewish literature, as well as in their prediction of its future developments. When Ba’al Makhshoves wrote about Tsvey shprakhn—eyneyntsike literatur (“Two Languages—One Literature”), in 1918, he stressed the unity of Jewish literature in the two languages of Ashkenzi Jews: Yiddish and Hebrew. Dov Sadan’s more inclusive notion of a unified Sifrut Yisrael, or “literature of the Jewish people” posits a single comprehensive and continuous Jewish culture and literature. In Sadan’s holistic definition, Jewish literature is one written in Jewish languages, and also by Jewish writers writing in non-Jewish languages for a Jewish audience. Sadan wrote in the 1940s and ’50s within the context of the Yishuv and the young State of Israel. He was acutely aware of the radical fragmentation of Jewish literature, which he believed was a temporary situation, and he predicted that the future will bring a grand synthesis of all the various splinters.

According to Miron, the problem with all these theories is that they failed to accept the overwhelming diversity and the “abnormal” centrifugal forces of modern Jewish literature. They could not see the importance of American and European Jewish writers who do not write necessarily for a Jewish audience. Faced with the ongoing crisis of modern Judaism, they were fixated on the question of continuity and discontinuity within the Jewish tradition. Miron suggests that we must stop looking for unity and dialectical continuity in the face of the obvious diversity and diffusiveness of reality. In his view, it is futile to search for a single “Jewish literature” or a “modern Jewish canon.” Instead he sees a “modern Jewish literary complex,” which is:

Vast, disorderly, and somewhat diffuse … characterized by dualities, parallelisms, occasional intersections, marginal overlapping, hybrids, similarities within dissimilarities, mobility, changeability, occasional emergence of patterns and their eventual disappearance, randomness, and, when approximating a semblance of significant order, by contiguities.

The challenge of anyone who faces such a bewildering and contradictory subject is to resist the temptation to find false harmony and unity, and at the same time to avoid abandoning altogether the very category of “Jewish literature,” which Miron still refuses to renounce. Miron makes it powerfully clear that the modern Jewish literary complex lacks the basic markers of what is commonly understood as a “national literature”: a shared geography and a shared language. As much as Zionist ideology stipulated that such a unity of common geography, language, and people will be achieved, the current circumstances of Jewish culture and literature proved this ideology wrong. Moreover, Miron correctly asserts that even Israeli literature cannot be seen as a “normal” national literature because it has been created in a host of languages—not only Hebrew, but also Yiddish, Arabic, Russian, and others, by both Jews and non-Jews. Instead of bemoaning this state of affairs as “abnormal” and in need of repair, Miron accepts and even celebrates it. Aligning himself with contemporary critics of the concept of “national literature,” he claims that the Jewish literary complex can provide a different model of thinking about literature.

Whether we accept this critique or not, Miron’s discussion clearly moves us from the impasse of various ontological definitions of Jewish literature (based on race, language, territory, specific “Jewish” content or form, and so on) to an empirical definition, captured by the German term Judesein—the sense of “being a Jew in the world.” This is a radical move because its consequences are that the new literary thinking must be open-ended, never tie itself to any specific canon, and be ever ready to apply itself to whatever literary corpus experienced as “Jewish” in the most inclusive sense of the term, even and particularly when such corpus seems totally alien, in language, form and content to anything beforehand identified as Jewish.     

But how could this task be accomplished? What concepts and tools should replace the old terms of “continuity” and “unity”? Miron proposes “contiguity” as the principle that must inform a new Jewish literary theory. Thinking about relations between different phenomena in terms of contiguity might be traced to the philosophical theories of Hume and Wittgenstein, whose concept of “family-resemblance” may serve as an alternative to essentialist definitions. Miron’s new theory of Jewish literary thinking based on contiguity would focus on proximities, unregulated contacts, and moments of close adjacency, but not on the containment of one entity by another. Such a notion of contiguity might appear at first sight to be highly abstract, and too theoretical to become really useful; but it does open new possibilities. As an example of contiguity in the Jewish literary complex, Miron chooses to read side by side two modern Jewish writers, Franz Kafka and Sholem Aleichem.

What might be the common denominator between Sholem Aleichem, the “classic” Yiddish writer known for his juicy humor and uncanny ability to capture Jewish speech, and Kafka, who wrote in German and hardly ever mentioned the word “Jew” in his fiction? By stating the contiguity of Kafka and Aleichem, Miron does not mean to suggest that these two writers were influenced by each other (Sholem Aleichem did not know about the existence of Kafka; Kafka read Sholem Aleichem in German translation, but it hardly left an impression). He also does not imply that there are intertextual links between their writings. Instead he claims that both were reacting in their writings to a “similar Jewish situation of persecution and weakness.”

It is hard to imagine that anything new can be said about Kafka’s Jewishness; but Kafka is essential to modern Jewish literature and to Miron’s concept of contiguity. Miron’s new reading of Kafka’s letters, diaries, and fiction reveals how intensely, and how falsely, he responded to the modern Hebrew and Yiddish culture of his time. It turns out that Kafka, who made some effort to study Hebrew and was supposedly interested in Zionism and its cultural manifestations, never wrote much about Hebrew literature. Even when he tried to read it—he read the beginning of Y.H. Brenner’s Hebrew novel Breakdown and Bereavement, and heard the Yiddish version of Bialik’s famous poem “In the City of Slaughter”—he reacted negatively, equating Hebrew culture with an “abuse of Jewish suffering.” This attitude sharply contrasts with the warmth that Kafka felt towards Yiddish, whose inflections he associated with the “Jewish temperament.”

But Miron shows that Kafka’s sympathy for Yiddish, and his infatuation with an amateur Yiddish theater troupe, was the result of an erroneous understanding of Yiddish culture. The modernist Yiddish literature that was being created in places such as Kiev, Vilna, Warsaw, Czernowitz, Berlin, and New York—at the same time as Kafka watched the Yiddish operettas and melodramas in the Café Savoy in Prague—did not interest him at all. For Kafka, Yitzhak Levy and his actors were the embodiment of an imaginary essence of Yiddish, the “representative Ostjude, an authentic exponent of an old religious civilization replete with old-world intimacy and emotionalism, weak and deformed, and yet also strong and alluring.”

Miron’s clarification of the exact nature of Kafka’s attitude towards Yiddish and Hebrew is an essential correction to the frequently uninformed discussion of Kafka’s Jewishness. But he does not stop at pointing out Kafka’s oversights. What matters, Miron tells us, is “not the false notes, but rather the music that breathes through them,” a music which “emanated from the very core of Kafka’s self consciousness as a Jew and as a person.” Kafka’s flawed identification with Yiddish was so strong because he saw in it his own tormented and contradictory experience of Judesein, and he expressed it in such enigmatic ways in his stories and his novels.

In order to elucidate the contiguity between Kafka’s and Sholem Aleichem’s writing, Miron offers another original reading, this time of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman. In the century that has elapsed since the publication of Tevye, this cycle of brilliant monologues has been interpreted by some of the best critics and scholars of Jewish literature, but Miron claims that none of them put their finger on the core of this text. In his view, this core is not to be found in the social, historical, and cultural insights about the tumultuous last decades of the Russian Empire in which the cycle was written, nor in the presentation of the character of Tevye as an archetypal hero of Jewish endurance. Miron’s Tevye is not only a deeply conventional, limited and flawed person, an average man of his time, place, and class—he is also passive and devoid of self-confidence to the point of paralysis. The only extraordinary talent which Sholem Aleichem endowed his fictional protagonist and narrator is the power of storytelling.

Tevye manipulates the truth by means of storytelling because he knows that something is wrong with him. What was perceived as the playful learned wit of Tevye is part of the narrator’s defense mechanism against a deep sense of guilt and shame. Through his act of storytelling, collective national tragedies such as pogroms and failed revolutions signal a release from personal responsibility. Tevye tells his story to the persona of “Sholem Aleichem” (the fictional interlocutor in the text who is a literary projection of the writer Sholem Rabinovitz) because they resemble each other. The result of this rather complex “literary contract” is that the author embraced rather than criticized and satirized the “unheroic” and deeply flawed (but human and Jewish) Tevye. By doing so, Sholem Aleichem produced a bold critique of the humanist and national “heroic” ethos. This is the subtle point of contiguity between Sholem Aleichem and Kafka: both of them embraced “passivity, weakness, wordiness, inertia and minority,” which most modern Jewish ideologies rejected.  

One could easily take this point of contiguity between two writers and turn it into a new unifying definition of Jewish literature. But such a move will go against the radically inclusive notion of the “Jewish literary complex.” Of course, side by side with these two writers—so different from each other anyway—there are many Jewish writers whose work represents the opposite of what Miron understands as the core of Kafka’s and Sholem Aleichem’s writing.

Such an ambitious book opens many questions and topics that are in need of further investigation. Miron’s survey of Jewish literary thinking is focused solely on Eastern European writers and critics in Hebrew and Yiddish. The significant literary traditions in German and English are missing. In fact the first person who posed in 1818 the very question of “What is Jewish Literature?” was Leopold Zunz, the scholar who founded Wissenschaft des Judentums. Following Zunz, scholars and critics such as Gustav Karpeles, W. Bacher, A. Wolf, and S. Levy, as well as more recent writers such as Irving Howe and Saul Bellow, were engaged in disputes about Jewish literature written in German and English. It would be fascinating to compare their literary thinking to the Eastern European branch. Also missing from Miron’s survey is a consideration of the modern intellectual and literary history of Jews in the Arab countries. Miron hardly mentions modern Jewish cultural production in the East, in Hebrew as well as in other Jewish and non-Jewish languages (Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic, classical Arabic, Turkish, Persian).

Miron’s book is essential for all scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literatures who will continue to ponder complicated questions of diglossia and bilingualism, the national and transnational aspects of these literatures, as well as the elusive meaning of “Yiddishism” and “Hebraism.” But its most important contribution might be the new paths it opens for what Miron calls the “outer reaches of the Jewish literary complex.” Although Miron has very little to say here about American-Jewish, Latino-Jewish, and European-Jewish writers (besides Kafka), his book sets up a new agenda for the discussion of these literatures side by side with the more recognizably Jewish literatures such as Hebrew and Yiddish. For all these reasons, there is a good chance that From Continuity to Contiguity will indeed usher in a new era of Jewish literary thinking.

Shachar Pinsker is an Associate Professor of Hebrew Literature and Culture at the University of Michigan. His new book is Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe (Stanford University Press, 2011).