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.