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The Blessing and the Curse:
The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century

by adam kirsch
w. w. norton, 304 pages, $30

The title of Adam Kirsch’s survey of twentieth-­century Jewish literature can be read in two ways. In historical terms, the Holocaust was the curse. The founding of Israel and the welcome Jews received in America were the blessings. But as a literary matter, the blessing and the curse were the same: the cultural emancipation that followed the legal ­emancipations of nineteenth-century Europe.

Until one hundred fifty years ago, Jews mostly wrote religious texts: biblical exegesis, legal commentaries and codes, and liturgical verse. As Jews exited the sacred canopy, however, they availed themselves of non-Jewish genres and forms. Kirsch notes that the last century’s best Jewish ­writers produced a “rich and intimate understanding of Jewish experience [in] ­novels, poems, plays.” But ­actual ­religion, so central to centuries of ­Jewish life, seemed to fall away. “Most modern Jews,” Kirsch writes, “no longer believed in Jewish doctrines or obeyed Jewish laws.” The question raised by Kirsch’s survey is whether the freedom from Jewish doctrines, laws, texts, and history that enabled the f­lourishing of a new form of ­Jewish literature also deprived that literature of Jewish ­significance.

A master of the Western canon and of Jewish texts, Kirsch is an ideal guide to this subject. His survey discusses Jewish works from America, Europe, and Israel, with a fourth section covering theology. I will focus on America, where a relative lack of prejudice and many new opportunities tempted Jews to discard their heritage. “Literature shows how the New World made it possible for Jews to shed most of what had long defined Jewishness,” Kirsch writes, “only to leave them wondering what, if anything, made Jewish identity still meaningful.”

Few would deny that Philip Roth and Saul Bellow are great writers—but are they great Jewish writers? Kirsch’s treatment of each shows how their lack of a religious sense limited their ability to write as and about Jews. And indeed, for most American Jewish writers, Jewishness “­exists only in a doubtful fashion—as a memory, an obligation, a sentiment.” The best literature by and about Jews in this country has overlooked what, above all, makes Jews distinctive: their covenant with God and the practices by which they uphold it.

Philip Roth exemplifies the problem. His “aggressively satirical” stories combine immense powers of observation with a curiously limited aperture. Kirsch notes that early Roth “zero[ed] in on the most uncomfortable places in the American Jewish psyche”: faith, loyalty, and especially sexuality. Roth’s debut collection of short stories, Goodbye, ­Columbus, featured Grossbart, who fakes ­religiosity to get special treatment from his (also Jewish) officer in the military. The latter refuses, proving, Kirsch writes, “that Jews can be as patriotic and self-sacrificing as any American.” In another story, a young boy mocks his rabbi’s ignorant parochialism: How can the Jews be chosen if the Declaration of Independence says all men are equal? And who’s to say God didn’t put a baby Jesus inside Mary? The youngster threatens to jump off the synagogue roof unless his rabbi and others profess faith in Jesus—which they do, violating a major halachic injunction. “Mere Jewishness,” Kirsch notes, is the subject of these stories—“it is the community itself . . . that is the most deeply felt obligation.” This is Jewish fiction as mere ethnic literature.

Kirsch proposes that Roth believed “that truth-telling is the writer’s highest duty.” But Roth’s vengeful narratives seem interested mainly in the Jews to the extent they are hypocrites or regular Americans. As Irving Howe put it, the history of Roth’s characters “is not allowed to emerge so as to make them understandable as human beings.” Roth never asks why it is that, after leaving bloody Europe for American paradise, Jews still might want to be Jews. What binds them together, besides the accident of birth, into a long-suffering tribe?

It is unsurprising that Roth found this purely sociological vision of Jewish life confined. In Portnoy’s Complaint, his “obscene satire on American ­Jewishness and its central bulwark, the family,” the eponymous hero seeks to “PUT THE ID BACK IN YID”—and to live a proper bourgeois life. As Kirsch notes, “Roth makes clear that in the perpetual contest between sexual desire and social order”—that is, between sexual desire and Jewish obligation—“he is on the side of the former.” But as far as I can tell, Roth wasn’t on the side of much else. Nor did he take very ­seriously the ideals that the social order of the Jews is meant to preserve. No wonder he felt stifled.

Saul Bellow was Roth’s superior in both literary talent and Jewish imagination. Bellow’s magnum opus, The Adventures of Augie March, is a Bildungsroman narrated in Melville-style meditations on American grit. Augie is a true New World democrat, introducing himself as “an American, Chicago-born,” hungry for all the knowledge his city’s racketeers, union thugs, and library books can confer. Kirsch comments that “in Bellow’s work Jewishness would be identified, for perhaps the first time in Western literature, with joy.” That identification would be ­stronger were Augie’s Jewishness not mere “local color” (in Kirsch’s apt phrase). Aside from some Jewish names and ­Yiddish ­phrases, there are few signs of ­Augie’s heritage. It neither enriches nor ­obstructs his frenzied rendezvous with America.

Two other books better establish Bellow as a Jewish writer. Kirsch discusses The Victim, Bellow’s noirish tale of a lonely paranoiac’s bizarre encounter with anti-Semitism. Freed from Europe’s glaring bigotry, the American Jew suffers subtler torments. Asa Leventhal, Bellow’s Kafkaesque hero, might have gotten Allbee (a Gentile) fired because of an oblique remark Allbee once made at a party. The deranged, unemployed Allbee seems to be stalking Leventhal. Besides his and his friends’ names, there isn’t much that is Jewish about Leventhal. But he knows in his kishkes that he’s targeted because of his tribe and refuses to compromise either heritage or moral principle in order to escape Allbee. In his own way, Leventhal embodies Leo Strauss’s belief that in a world without faith, honorable men remain Jews because they have no choice.

Kirsch does not discuss Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the hero of which is a Holocaust survivor trying to guide a family through an America going nowhere good and far too fast. The novel’s central theme is duty and ends with Sammler eulogizing a relative who endeavored to “meet the terms of his contract. The terms which . . . each man knows . . . for that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.” This is the Jewish ethic of obligation in a diminished form—a contract is not quite a covenant. It suggests an outlook that, while not quite properly Jewish, gestures toward a lost sense of the sacred.

Bellow and Roth lead a canon of literature that, whatever its merits, counts as Jewish mainly because it is about Jewish people. ­Cynthia Ozick showed what a more robustly Jewish literature looks like. Already in 1970, she described the leading works of Jewish-­American literature as “sociology more or less gross.” (She exempted ­Bellow as “­ideational.”) Ozick ­proposed a “liturgical” Jewish literature to resist the self-referential art she regarded as idolatrous. “A Jewish book,” Ozick wrote elsewhere, “speaks of the attempt to create a world in the image of God while never presuming to image God.”

The Ozick chapter is Kirsch’s finest. Because Ozick both writes fiction and writes about it, Kirsch is able not only to study her art but to spar with her account of it. (One of Kirsch’s finest essays is his vivisection of David Foster Wallace, another author-critic.) Ozick’s stories embody, Kirsch writes, an opposition between “universalist aesthetics and her Jewish ethics.” In The Pagan Rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi hangs himself after his nymph-lover shows him an image of his decrepit, scholarly soul. He seeks transcendence in creation rather than in the creator. “By seeking the divine directly in nature,” Kirsch writes, “Isaac has not just betrayed Judaism” but “mistaken his own nature.” In Usurpation, the Jewish narrator decides that her people have no magic (that is, art) and so seeks the silver crown of “creature,” “god,” and “Apollo.” She abjures her Jewishness to dally with the Muses. But when she finally gets to literary heaven, Ozick writes, “the taciturn little Canaanite idols” call the Jewish writer a kike.

Kirsch thinks he’s caught Ozick in a contradiction:

If a Jew ceases to be Jewish when he or she cultivates beauty and the senses, then there is no place for Ozick’s notion of a “liturgical” art, one that could reconcile Jewish demands with aesthetic longings. The Jewish artist is condemned to be like the pagan rabbi, a contradiction in terms.

I’m less sure. Ozick is not warning against the cultivation of beauty but rather against trying to divorce ­beauty from that God who is its source. Pantheism—the pagan rabbi’s undifferentiated lust for higher and lower things—disorders the Jewish artist’s vocation, which is to see the unique and overwhelming glory of God’s intervention in human history. “Monism,” Ozick once wrote, “is the negation of monotheism.” Ozick knows better than perhaps any fiction writer in American history that the Jewish contribution to forwarding the divine cause on earth is Yiddishkeit, the thick whole of law, faith, and tribe orienting all life toward the Lord. Her fiction prefigures a literature of Yiddishkeit still to be written.

And what is Kirsch’s judgment of the canon he studies? Kirsch says this survey’s goal is to introduce readers to the “richness” of “significant and compelling” twentieth-­century Jewish literature. Well, rich how? Significant and compelling in what way and to whom? There is something of a division, of which Kirsch is quite aware, between the strictly literary strength of the writers he surveys, which is first-order, and their Jewish consciousness, which he himself notes is largely sociological.

In a recent essay, Kirsch sums up what this survey makes clear: “In its mid-20th-century golden age, American Jewish fiction had basically no knowledge of or interest in Judaism.” Yet Kirsch sees a “possible future for American Jewish fiction that would be Jewishly sophisticated in unprecedented ways.” The phenomenology and practice of Jewish law, the world of yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs, the text and rabbinic reception of the Bible, and the interaction of all these with the United States of America . . . these are subjects that truly Jewish literature ought to pursue.

If Jews do produce such a literature, the guidance of menschlich, learned critics like Adam Kirsch will deserve credit for much of its ­character.

Cole S. Aronson studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Judean hills.