In December, Paul Elie caused a small stir by claiming that “the novel of belief” has disappeared. I don’t want to wade into that debate—for those who missed it, Andrew Sullivan has a good series of round-up posts—but instead to look at one of the exceptions to Elie’s argument. This disappearance, he wrote, is
a strange development. [. . .] Strange because novelists are depicting the changing lives of American Jews and Muslims with great success.
Elie’s claim applies only to Christian belief. The critic D. G. Myers similarly pointed to Jewish-American fiction as an important exception in his response, referring back to his observation in Commentary last January that,
Just recently, though, the Jewish religion has returned to Jewish fiction, and thank God for that: Jewish identity has its source in a Jew’s religious calling—it’s an app, as the saying now goes, not a feature—which can be reactivated at any moment.
The most compelling characters in Zoe Heller’s The Believers (2009) and Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You (2012) are daughters Rosa and Noelle, each a ba’ala teshuva who “converts” from the secular Judaism of her youth to Orthodoxy. The Believers, as its title indicates, is about belief of all kinds—of what, if not the religious, we will put our faith in. Henkin’s first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, takes up a related theme as its protagonist grapples with the aftermath of his departure from the modern Orthodox faith in which he was raised.
Even novels that aren’t explicitly about belief have taken to depicting—sometimes in great detail—the lives of traditional believers. The imagined Alaskan Jewish community in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is defined by the small but visible “Verbover” Hasidic sect. Chabon’s corrupt, conspiring Verbovers are less sympathetic than Heller’s sometimes abrasive but genuinely caring Monsey Orthodox, but in painting his Jewish world Chabon still needs to include the Orthodox.
Fiction isn’t anything so simple or dull as cleverly-written sociology, but demography is one possible cause for this resurgent concern for belief and believers among Jewish-American novelists. Last year’s UJA-Federation New York Jewish Population Survey showed sharp increases among the Orthodox and unaffiliated/secular groups, while Conservative and Reform Judaism continued their long decline. The increase in New York’s overall Jewish population was driven entirely by the growth among the Orthodox, now making up a full 40 percent of New York’s Jewish population—and providing over 60 percent of Jewish children. A more recent survey has confirmed that while New York’s Orthodox neighborhoods are growing, other Jewish neighborhoods are shrinking.
Jewish novelists are, I would wager, no more likely to be traditional believers now than they were a generation ago. Of the three mentioned above, Henkin and Chabon describe themselves as practicing Judaism—but not the Orthodoxy which defines their believers. Yet Jewish life in New York City—which remains (somewhat to the chagrin of this lifelong resident of flyover country) the capital of both American Jewish and American literary life—is increasingly lived in relation to Orthodoxy. Everyone has a frum (religious) cousin and if you think you don’t—the joke goes—then he’s you. Knowing or being related to someone who has turned to traditional Jewish belief and practice is increasingly common. Even, one suspects, among secular literary figures.
And maybe this can shed some light on Elie’s bracketing of Marilynne Robinson and her Iowa pastors. Robinson turns to men who were elderly in the 1950s to address questions of belief; Heller and Henkin turn to contemporary, thirty-year-old women. The contrast is stark, and while I’m no expert on Christian demography, I wonder whether it doesn’t, to some degree, represent the futures of questions of Christian and Jewish belief as viewed from the center of literary New York.