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Seeing Double: Israel and the Jewish-American Novel

Dan Grossman
November 28, 2017

by Dan Grossman

THE JEWISH-AMERICAN novel has left the States and flown El Al to Israel. Or so claims Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman in “Distant Cousins,” an essay that appeared last month in Jewish Review of Books. Friedman points out that Israel appears as a setting, plot-driver, and central character in four recent Jewish-American novels. His argument about literary geography both updates and tweaks Vivian Gornick’s proclamation in a 2009 interview that, “There is no hyphenated Jewish experience [for Americans] anymore…There’s really nothing to write about.” Well, there’s Israel.

Freidman has it partly right and partly wrong. All four novels that he reviews — Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen, Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander, and Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer — feature at least one American Jew who desperately seeks meaning in Israel. The fictional characters use the Holy Land to shore up frail Jewish identities. The authors, per Friedman, do the same. American Jews are no longer immigrants with funny accents and distinctive backgrounds, so the authors fill the gap with a place “that feels so different from the American Jewish world not just because it’s Middle Eastern, and not just because it’s endangered, but because it’s alive.”

From Friedman’s perspective, it’s unlikely that American authors will get more than a second-hand buzz from their packaged tours. After all, the four writers in question live over 5,000 miles away from Israel and “none is fully at home” there. In this, Friedman sounds a bit like those Israelis who delight in lecturing Americans that the only Jewish future is in the Middle East, but now it’s literary survival that’s at stake. As arrogant as it may sound, this challenge is worth facing head-on. Is there a vital future for Jewish literature outside Israel?

WHERE FRIEDMAN goes wrong is in overemphasizing subject matter as opposed to posture and predicament. “It seems the center has moved,” he writes of the presence of Israel in those four novels. But Jewish-American literature has always been de-centered, energized less by a unified voice than by doublings, conflicting impulses, and the comic madness of trying to be two people at once. Yes, Saul Bellow had Chicago and Philip Roth had Newark, but their novelistic itinerary also stretched to Jerusalem, London, Prague, France, Romania, Africa, Montreal, and Mexico. The immigrant past that Friedman and Gornick identify as the nucleus of Jewish-American literature gave writers not “a center” but a destabilizing tension, a push-and-pull between family heritage and the seductions of a brave new world that has arguably been the crux of Diaspora fiction from Roth to Isaac Babel to Shalom Aleichem to that plucky assimilated Jew, Queen Esther. Tightrope walkers bring out the crowds. Certainty is a dead end.

So for contemporary Jewish-American writers, Israel is not a borrowed homeland but the newest front in the tensions that make you crazy, with the interchange between the two countries offering a way to explore issues of identity and tribalism that are no less explosive in America. Philip Roth’s great novel The Counterlife (1986) portrays Israel not as the diaspora’s savior but as its doppelganger, its counterlife. It’s a place of wild transformation where Nathan Zuckerman’s brother, Henry, goes to remake himself as a radical rightwing settler. When Nathan visits the settlement, Henry and his comrades rage about how “What Hitler couldn’t achieve with Auschwitz, American Jews are doing to themselves in the bedroom.” Their violent, anti-assimilation rhetoric leaves Nathan disgusted. And yet the novel ends with Nathan in London, breaking up his engagement to a British shiksa by demanding that their unborn-son get circumcised. Echoes, illusions, lives-not-lived, madness-inducing dilemmas — these are the power sources of The Counterlife. Leave the homeland to Amichai.

All four of the recent novels are descendents of The Counterlife. The predicament of Israel, the transgression of Israel from a universalist standpoint, is what matters. For an open-minded Jew in a multiethnic society, Israel is both morally dubious (because of its tribalism) and personally irresistible (because we need a tribe). That’s the case of Z, the protagonist of Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth, who begins the story trapped in Paris, trying to escape the Mossad agents who were once his bosses. He asks himself, “How could a little, religious, Jewish-American boy from Long Island have become an Israeli operative, living undercover in Paris, and now a traitor to his adopted state?” Englander’s answer is that Z was in a sense always a spy. As a kid in Long Island, Z used to swipe off his yarmulke whenever he passed a group of bullies: now a Jew, now a gentile; now an Israeli spy, now a traitor. Likewise, Jacob Bloch, the sarcastic TV writer in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am, debates whether to abandon his cozy bourgeois lifestyle and fight for the Jewish state after a massive earthquake hits the region.

Both scenarios are interesting, and yet each novel fails. You could take them as evidence of the lifelessness of Jewish-American fiction, but it’s important to recognize that what’s lifeless isn’t the experience, it’s the expression. This has been true for over a decade. In fact, everything wrong with Jewish-American art is captured by one scene in Zach Braff’s 2004 movie Garden State. When a quirky young woman shows Braff’s Jewish character a worn piece of her childhood blanket named Tickle, he compares it to the Wailing Wall. When she asks if he’s Jewish, he replies, “I don’t really believe in God,” and then she announces that she also doesn’t believe in God but does “believe in Tickle.” This pathetic dialogue enacts the moment when the shiksas won, when not just the Jewish body but Jewish wit, heat and mishegos — the tradition itself — dissolved into tickles and treacle. For a while now, Jewish-American fiction has turned everything from the Shoah to Yiddish humor to Jewish custom into Tickle. It’s a vapid sentimentality that has wormed into the heart of Jewish fiction and hollowed it out.

Englander and Foer are Tickle’s purveyors and its victims. Even though they set up high stakes missions about Israel, neither reaches beyond kitsch. Englander’s novel ends in a burst of cheesy magical realism, by reuniting two lovers inside the tunnels between Gaza and southern Israel. And while Foer searches for new horizons — the funeral of a Holocaust survivor is meant to signify the end of an era — he does so amid 570 pages of endless banter, cutesy kids, caricatures, and spray-fire allusions to “Jewish fists,” the “Jewish brain,” “Jewish blood” and “every Jew’s heart,” not to mention “Jewish certainty,” a “Jewish river,” a “Jewish haiku” and a “Jewish loophole.” It’s as if he’s shouting, Look at me, I’m writing a Jewish novel! The climax of the book comes when the protagonist’s thoughts begin appearing in inspirational italics: Life is precious; We live in the world. Foer tries to bury Tickle but Tickle buries him.

THE OTHER PAIR of novels, Moving Kings by Joshua Cohen and Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, are refreshingly free of Tickle. Moving Kings reverses the script: Instead of Americans fleeing to Israel, Cohen’s novel finds two young Mizrahi Israelis working at a moving company in the States. The company is run by David King, a middle-aged American who decides, after having a heart attack and a revelation, to offer his Israeli cousin, Yoav, a job. “Throughout it all,” Cohen writes, “what’d bolstered [David] was Israel: the ideal of it, the abstraction.” David King’s connection to Israel is a response to despair and emptiness, and sends us to where “in that bloody chamber beneath the skin, it was a reckoning with death.” Meanwhile, Yoav and Uri flee their trauma in the IDF and join the over 200,000 Israelis who live in the States, plenty of whom feel alienated from the Jewish state. Counterlives abound.

There’s no easy escape for Yoav and Uri, and the problems of selfhood and tribe follow them to New York. Even away from home, they feel powerless to form an identity outside the immense forces — army, class, nationality — that operate on them. As Yoav rants to Uri, “It was always just following orders. To be an Israeli is to follow Israeli orders. To be Jewish is to follow Jewish orders. Work follows work orders. Friends follow friend orders. Yoav follows Yoav orders. Uri follows Uri orders.”

Questions of service, duty and identity are also crucial to Krauss’ Forest Dark. In alternating chapters, an aging Manhattan lawyer named Epstein gives away his possessions and moves to Tel Aviv, while a famous, soon-to-be divorced novelist heads there to recover from an identity crisis brought on by her failing marriage. In Tel Aviv, the novelist runs into an eccentric, retired professor who wants her help filming a long-lost script supposedly written by Franz Kafka. When she demurs, he says: “You think your writing belongs to you?”

“Who else?”

“To the Jews.”

By “the Jews,” it’s implied that he also means, “the Jewish state.” Earlier, in a riff on the Binding of Isaac, the narrator depicts Abraham, “a terrible father but a good Jew,” as the embodiment of Jewish continuity at its most aggressive, “a chain of ropes and knots that goes back three thousand years.” The question for Krauss is not just “What side are you on?” but “How are you bound?”

Forest Dark rejects a simple equation between Jewish writing and Zionism, because “Zionism is predicated on an end — of the Diaspora, of the past, of the Jewish problem — whereas literature resides in the sphere of the endless.” Yet the theme of “being bound” returns at two key moments. In the first, the old Manhattan lawyer is at a kabbalistic guesthouse in Tzfat when he sees a young man step outside with “the black band of his phylacteries around his bicep the way an addict ties a tourniquet. But it was Epstein who felt the longing: the hunger for the vein that goes straight to the heart.” This image of tfiln straps that go “straight to the heart” recalls “the bloody chamber beneath the skin” where David King’s connection to Israel mingles with his fear of death. Both suggest that the American hunger for meaning is not a mere disguise but a hugely powerful urge, a desire to be bound and cut and transformed in a way that our society cannot fill and that instead we channel into technology, status and cheap distraction. God or Israel might not be the answer, but whatever emerges must face the hunger of all that’s absent.

Forest Dark offers no answers or even plot resolutions, but the novelist does have an epiphany about her lifeless marriage. Recalling her ex-boyfriend in Greece, who in one erotic memory binds her willingly to a bed with four black ropes, the novelist writes, “I don’t believe I have ever known real love that does not come with violence, and…I knew that I would never again trust any love that doesn’t.”

Painful metamorphosis. Poetic disorientation. Violent love. Vein-tapping spirituality. A new era of Jewish-American fiction could do worse than start here. Staying Jewish in a democracy is no less a challenge than staying a Jewish democracy. The future of our literature depends less on the country where it’s set than on the sum force of its tensions and rebellions.

Dan Grossman lives and writes in New York. He recently appeared here with an essay on Nathan Englander.

Dan Grossman lives and writes in New York.