Who Speaks in the Jewish Novel?

In 2019, American Jewish fiction took a renewed interest in the question of who gets to write about whom.

Josh Lambert
May 25, 2020

IT’S AWARD SEASON NOW in the world of contemporary Jewish literature. You probably didn’t know this, and not just because the ceremonies at which these awards are usually handed out have been canceled this year due to the global pandemic. Even in a more typical year, the prizes given out in the world of Jewish letters rarely make much of a ripple beyond the adjacent professional circles. Which is a shame, because they very often celebrate worthy books that have not gotten the attention they deserve from the nonsectarian—and even the Jewish—press. I know this intimately, because I serve as a judge for two such awards: the Sami Rohr Prize (which was given this year to Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial) and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award (given in April to Peter Orner’s story collection Maggie Brown & Others). 

I take this judging seriously, and so I try (and fail) to read every novel and short story collection that comes out each year that could conceivably be included in the category of “Jewish fiction,” whatever that means. Despite the proliferation of literary blogs and websites—and despite the herculean efforts of the Jewish Book Council (which publishes short reviews of dozens of books each year)—many of the most interesting new books I read receive few mentions, and sometimes, no one seems to have heard of them at all. 

Given that dearth of coverage and my unusually exhaustive (and exhausting) reading, my aim in this column—which will be an annual feature in Jewish Currents—will be to discuss a handful of worthwhile works of fiction published in the past year in which Jewishness somehow mattered, and to remark on patterns that become visible from reading so many of these books. 

IN 2019, the most striking pattern I found in new fiction by and about Jews in the US was a renewed—and sometimes awkward—focus on the question of who gets to write about whom. For the last several years, this has been a subject of consternation and fascination in nearly every sphere of American culture writ large, and especially in Hollywood and in young adult and children’s literature. Last October, for instance, Zadie Smith—arguably the leading critic of her generation—published an essay in The New York Review of Books reaffirming her commitment to the freedom of writers to represent anyone and anything they want, while also refusing to deny how “natural” it is “that we” (people of color and women, like Smith) “should fear and be suspicious of representations of us by those who are not like us.” A few months later, a contretemps broke out over Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt and the broader question of whether a book about a Mexican migrant family by a writer who identifies as white by definition should be judged guilty of being appropriation, brownface, and/or trauma porn.

For writers who think of themselves as Jewish, the stakes of this debate have seemed at times almost as high as they are for the culturally unmarked white writers who tend to feature most prominently in cultural appropriation controversies. When cultural appropriation came to the forefront of literary conversations half a decade ago or more, Jews were, by most indices, a highly privileged group in the US. Most American Ashkenazi Jews had long ago been assimilated into whiteness, and were not yet newly imperiled as targets of white supremacist violence. As a result, the standard take seemed to be that anyone could write about Jews, but that Jews could not necessarily—and certainly not haphazardly—write about people from more marginalized groups. By the same token, though, fiction focused on contemporary American Jews and their Jewish dilemmas seemed, to many younger writers, parochial, small-minded, and unlikely to interest readers. Few MFA students aspired to become another Cynthia Ozick. Under these circumstances, meaningful, exigent, and marketable Jewish subject matter for novels often felt elusive. 

For years, the most popular response to this problem was to write about Jews in faraway times and places, when Jewishness had higher and clearer stakes. This began even before cultural appropriation discourse became widespread, as William Deresiewicz noted in The Nation upon the release of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Nathan Englander’s weird novel about Argentina, The Ministry of Special Cases, in 2007. Many popular and prize-winning works of Jewish fiction since then have followed suit, including Molly Antopol’s The Unamericans (2014), Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge (2010) and The Flight Profile (2019), Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink (2017), Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watchman of Cairo (2018), and Mark Sarvas’s Memento Park (2018). All of these books sought out historical moments—medieval Egypt, wartime Europe, 17th-century London, Cold War America—in which being Jewish, and how one handled it, could be a matter of life and death. 

But last year, a noticeable number of writers took a different approach to the problem of how to write as Jews at a time when doing so limits your subject matter: centering questions about perspective, and who has the authority to speak, in the work itself. 

BEN LERNER’S THE TOPEKA SCHOOL and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble are two high-profile examples, over which plenty of pixels have already been spilled (some by me, for this publication): Lerner’s with its interest in “ventriloquizing” voices, and Brodesser-Akner’s with an abrupt perspective shift and a journalist character who believes that “the only way to get someone to listen to a woman [is] to tell her story through a man.” 

As that quotation suggests, in both novels, questions about gender and perspective are more central than questions about Jewishness. Similarly, in Susan Choi’s National Book Award-winning Trust Exercise, one central character seems to be Jewish, like Choi (at the very least, he’s a member of a Jewish Community Center). But the novel de-emphasizes ethnicity and race, concerning itself instead with the myths that creative teenagers fashion about themselves and their teachers, how those enable abuse and are transformed into art, and how gender and class inequalities play out through all of that. 

Elsewhere, though, authors explored questions of perspective and Jewishness per se more directly. Goldie Goldbloom’s novel On Division, which won the Association of Jewish Libraries’s Book of the Year Prize, is mostly narrated close to the perspective of its protagonist, Surie Eckstein, who is Hasidic and, as the novel puts it, “grandmother to thirty-two grandchildren.” (Goldbloom, her back-flap bio tells us—a little unconventionally—“is Chassidic and the mother of eight children.”) The novel centers on Surie’s extraordinary pregnancy (with twins) at the age of 57, and the strain it places on her relationships. It carefully conveys to the reader precise details of Goldie’s life in Williamsburg, including Yiddish spoken “with the pronunciation used by Hungarian and Romanian Jews” (think “shil” rather than “shul”) and lists of Jewish foods not yet available at Zabar’s (“delkelach or dobos torte or aranygaluska, krumplileves or cheesy papanaşi or walnut-apple-poppy-seed flódni”).

But as much as the novel’s raison d’etre is to offer a perspective on the life of Brooklyn Hasidim written by an insider, Goldbloom also demonstrates her interest in how her characters are perceived by outsiders. She devotes considerable time to a non-Jewish midwife, Val, who visits Surie’s Williamsburg home to celebrate Purim, and one odd chapter recounts an impromptu conference about Surie “between the midwives, the doctor, the physician’s assistant, and the dietitian,” giving a brief sense of how these people view Surie and her pregnancy. A mental health counselor from Bed-Stuy who “really didn’t know much about Jews,” for example, feels that the Hasidic women “in their silk scarves were secretly laughing at her.” On another occasion, Surie—missing one of her sons, who died young after leaving the community because it would not accept his homosexuality—reflects directly on the question of what can ever be known about another. “She had known even then that she would never hear the whole story of his life. Of anyone’s life, really,” Goldbloom writes. “So much of a person’s life is hidden from even her husband, her best friends, her children. A whole world of thoughts and images that no one ever knows about.” This is, of course, one compelling justification for fiction—it lets us peek into others’ stories, and minds, in a way that no other medium can.

A MORE SUSTAINED AND RISKIER perspectival gambit motivates Jennifer Acker’s excellent debut novel, The Limits of the World. A character modeled on Acker—Amy, a young American Jewish woman who marries an Indian American philosophy student—is present at the center of the story, but she’s far from its focal point. Instead, Acker writes most of the novel from the perspective of four other characters: Amy’s husband, Sunil Chandaria; his immigrant parents; and his grandfather in Kenya. While following Sunil most consistently, it’s a novel of three generations of a Gujarati family, exploring the sacrifices they’ve made, and the gains, as step by step they’ve migrated from Saurashtra to Nairobi to Columbus to Cambridge.  

Acker has acknowledged un-self-consciously in interviews that she drew her inspiration from her husband’s family, adding that, while she’s sensitive to questions of cultural appropriation, “imagining a world in which we can all only write about our own experiences seems quite bleak and impoverished.” Though she is white and has written a novel about people of color, her novel does not seem to have riled any tempers, possibly because it doesn’t feel exploitative. On the contrary, it’s quiet, thoughtful, and incisive; Sunil, teaching philosophy, helps students to see that “personal identity was not a simple matter of a singular brain yoked to a singular body,” and he discovers over the course of the novel how little he knows about his own family. Meanwhile, since American Jewish writers have been returning obsessively to stories about the marriages between Jews and non-Jews for at least a century and a half, The Limits of the World contributes something valuable to the tradition: a look at intermarriage concerned almost entirely with the non-Jewish partner’s perspective. 

ONE MORE COMPELLING SOLUTION to the problem of how to write fiction about American Jews and others while avoiding both parochialism and exploitation can be found in the winner of this year’s Edward Lewis Wallant Award: Peter Orner’s lovely Maggie Brown & Others. In 73 short and very short stories—many of them so compressed and free-standing that they read as prose poems, with one group of 30 interlinked to create a complex, moving novella in parts—Orner zooms in on his characters so closely, observing brief, intense moments of their lives, that any questions about who has permission to tell what story seem entirely beside the point. 

Many of Orner’s characters are explicitly Jewish, like Walt and Sarah Kaplan of Fall River, Massachusetts—the subjects of the novella, who together constitute as affecting a portrait of old, small-town New England Jews as we have in fiction. But in many cases, there’s just no reason for Orner’s shorts to devote any space to ethnicity or religion; the stories are too busy dealing with a character’s immediate situation and the details that make sense of it, and on situating the characters in place and time, whether it’s a beach north of San Francisco or a Miami Beach hotel bar or Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut. The variety of settings and situations helps the book to feel expansive, rather than cramped, but with a quiet humility. One narrator quotes from a “Talmudic poem” on a cemetery gate—“The world is like / A vestibule before / The world to come”—and muses on this image of the world as a mere vestibule, “a place to take off your boots: a mudroom.” That feels about right for Orner’s fiction, which, despite its reach, ends up having very little in common with the overexcited contemporary social novel that greedily puts its paws on everybody and everything. 

Goldbloom’s, Acker’s, and Orner’s books have not broken out in the way that Lerner’s, Choi’s, and Brodesser-Ackner’s have. All three deserve more attention than they’ve gotten, not least because they suggest how thoughtful contemporary Jewish writers have been in finding ways to write fiction about Jews and others that’s guilty of neither parochialism nor exploitation. The tightrope between those two kinds of literary failure isn’t especially easy to walk right now, and one imagines it won’t get any easier in the years to come. But that’s a good thing: it raises the bar for fiction writers—challenging them not only to tell compelling stories, but also to consider, politically and ethically, whose stories they should be telling.

Josh Lambert is the Sophia Moses Robison Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English, and Director of the Jewish Studies Program, at Wellesley College.