What Makes Jewish Literature “Jewish”?
Ilan Stavans on Belonging, Bookishness, and Memory
Is there a fundamental difference between Jewish literature and other literary traditions? Is it religion? A national quest? Antisemitism? A shared sense of history? What brings together books as disparate as Luis de Carvajal’s Autobiography, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye’s Daughters, Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales, Arthur’s Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, Clarice Lispector’s Hour of the Star, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and David Grossman’s To the End of the Land? One explanation is that they come to us in translation. Another one is that what unites the authors is a shares sense of being outsiders—even when they are on the inside. The following excerpt, which comes from Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction, published this week by Oxford University Press, offers some context.
In a lecture titled “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” delivered in Buenos Aires in 1951, Jorge Luis Borges, the author of a number of stories on Jewish themes, including “Death and the Compass,” “Emma Zunz,” and “The Secret Miracle,” argues, insightfully, that Argentine writers do not need to restrict themselves to local themes: tango, gauchos, maté, and so on. Instead, he states, “I believe our tradition is the entire Western culture, and I also believe we have a right to that tradition, equal to that of any other citizen in any Western nation.”
In other words, nationalism is a narrow proposition; its counterpart, cosmopolitanism, is a far better option. Borges then adds, “I remember here an essay by Thorstein Veblen, a United States sociologist, about the preeminence of the Jews in Western culture. He asks if this preeminence is due to an innate superiority of the Jews and he answers no; he says they distinguish themselves in Western culture because they act in that culture and at the same time do not feel tied to it by any particular devotion; that’s why, he says, ‘a Jew vis-à-vis a non-Jew will always find it easier to innovate in Western culture.’”
The claim Borges takes from Veblen to emphasize is a feature of Jewish literature: its aterritoriality. Literary critic George Steiner, an assiduous Borges reader, preferred the term extraterritorial. The difference is nuanced: aterritorial means outside a territory; extraterritorial means beyond it. Either way, the terms points to the outsiderness of Jews during their diasporic journey. Unlike, say, Argentine, French, Egyptian, or any other national literature, the one produced by Jews has no fixed address. That is because it does not have a specific geographic center; it might pop up anywhere in the globe, as long as suitable circumstances make it possible for it to thrive. This is not to say that Jews are not grounded in history. Quite the contrary: Jewish life, like anyone else’s, inevitably responds at the local level to concrete elements. Yet Jews tend to have a view of history that supersedes whatever homegrown defines them, seeing themselves as travelers across time and space.
My focus is modern Jewish literature in the broadest sense. I am interested in the ways it mutates while remaining the same, how it depends in translation in order to create a global sense of diasporic community. Jewish literature is Jewish because it distills a sensibility—bookish, impatient—that transcends geography. It also offers a feeling of belonging around certain puzzling existential questions. Made of bursts of consent and dissent, this literature is not concerned with divine revelation, like the Torah and Talmud, but with the rowdy display of human frailties. It springs from feeling ambivalent in terms of belonging. It is also marked by ceaseless migration. All this could spell disaster.
Yet Jews have turned these elements into a recipe for success. They have produced a stunning number of masterpieces, constantly redefining what we mean by literature. Indeed, one barometer to measure not only its health but also its diversity is the sheer number of recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature since the award was established in Stockholm in 1895: more than a dozen, including Shmuel Yosef Agnon writing in Hebrew (1966), Saul Bellow in English (1976), Isaac Bashevis Singer in Yiddish (1978), Elias Canetti in German (1981), Joseph Brodsky in Russian (1987), Imre Kertész in Hungarian (2002), Patrick Modiano in French (2014), and Bob Dylan (2017) and Louise Glück (2020) in English.
With these many habitats, it is not surprising that Jewish literature might seem rowdy, amorphous, even unstable. It is thus important to ask, at the outset, two notoriously difficult questions: first, what is literature, and second, what makes this particular one Jewish? The answer to the first is nebulous. Jewish writers write stories, essays, novels, poems, memoirs, plays, letters, children’s books, and other similar artifacts. That is, they might be so-called professional writers. But they might also have other profiles. For instance, in awarding the Nobel Prize to Dylan, the Stockholm Committee celebrated his talent as a folk singer, that is, a musician and balladist. Equally, standup comedians such as Jackie Mason and Jerry Seinfeld are storytellers whose diatribes are infused with Jewish humor.
Graphic novelists like Art Spiegelman explore topics like the Holocaust in visual form, just like filmmakers such as Woody Allen deliver cinematic narratives bathed in Jewish pathos. Translation and the work of literary critics also fall inside the purview of Jewish literature. It could be said that such amorphous interpretation of literature undermines the entire transition; if the written word is what writers are about, evaluating everything else under the same criteria diminishes its value. Yet it must be recognized that, more than half a millennium after the invention of print, our definition of the word book as an object made of printed pages is obsolete. In the early 21st century, books appear in multiple forms.
I now turn to the second question: What makes a Jewish book Jewish? The answer depends on three elements: content, authorship, and readership. While none of these automatically makes a book Jewish, a combination of them surely does. Take, for example, Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice (1605). Shylock, its protagonist, might be said to be a sheer stereotype of a money lender, even though, in truth, he is an extraordinarily complex character who, in my view, ought to be seen as the playwright’s alter ego. Clearly, the play does not belong to the shelf of Jewish literature per se, despite its ingredients.
Now think of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), in which the protagonist, a middle-class man called Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning, after uneasy dreams, to discover himself transformed into a giant Nowhere in the novella does the word Jew appear. Yet it is arguable, without struggle, that a Jewish sensibility permeates Samsa’s entire odyssey, from his feeling of psychological ostracism, within his family and in the larger society, to the perception that he inhabits a deformed, even monstrous body.
To unlock the Jewish content of a book, the reader, first, must be willing to do so. But readers are never neutral; they have a background and an agenda. It is surely possible to ignore Kafka’s Jewish sensibility, yet the moment one acknowledges it, his oeuvre magically opens up an array of unforeseen interpretations connecting it to Jewish tradition. Paul Celan, the German poet of “Todesfuge,” in an interview in the house of Yehuda Amichai, once said that “themes alone do not suffice to define what’s Jewish. Jewishness is, so to speak, a spiritual concern as well.” Hence, one approach might be what Austrian American novelist Walter Abish is looking for when asking “Wie Deutsch ist es?”: How German is this Prague-based writer?Jewish literature is a way for Jewish memory to engage with history.
Another approach is to move in the reverse direction, questioning how Jewish it is, without an address. Simple and straightforward, the plot line might be summarized in a couple of lines: the path of Jews as they embrace modernity, seen from their multifarious literature, is full of twists and turns, marked by episodes of intense euphoria and unspeakable grief; at times that path becomes a dead end, while at others it finds a resourcefulness capable of reinventing just about everything.
To the two questions just asked, a third needs to be added: What makes modern Jewish literature modern? The entrance of Jews into modernity signified a break with religion. According to some, this started to happen in 1517, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses and initiated the Protestant Revolution, which eliminated priests as the necessary intermediaries to God. Or perhaps it happened when, in the Renaissance, at roughly 1650—the date is a marker more than anything else—Europe as a civilization broke away from the long-held view that the ecclesiastical hierarchy justified everything.
In my view, the date ought to be 1492. That is when Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and the same year Jews were expelled from Spain. Large numbers of them and their descendants, persecuted as they were by the Spanish Inquisition, sought refuge in other lands, including the Americas, fostering a new age of discovery and free enterprise.
In any case, by 1789 the ideas of the French Revolution—liberté, egalité, fraternité—were seen as an invitation to all members of civil society, including Jews, to join ideals of tolerance in which an emerging bourgeoisie, the driving force against feudalism, promoted capitalism. New technologies brought innovation, including the movable letter type pioneered by Johannes Gutenberg, which made knowledge easier to disseminate. The outcome was a process of civic emancipation and the slow entrance of Jews to secular European culture—indeed, Jews were granted full civil rights within a few years of the French Revolution.
A well-known example of this journey, from the strictly defined religious milieu to the main stage of national culture, is Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th-century German philosopher, who, along with his numerous descendants, underwent a series of important transformations quantifiable as concrete wins and losses. A Haskalah champion, Mendelssohn, in his book Jerusalem (1783), argued for tolerance and against state interference in the affairs of its citizens, thus opening a debate in Europe about the parameters of tolerance. He translated the Bible into German: his version was called Bi’ur (Commentary) (1783).
Mendelssohn’s invitation for Jews to abandon a restricted life and become full-fledged members of European culture was a decisive event. It triumphantly opened the gates, so to speak, to an age of mutually respectful dialogue between a nation’s vast majority and its vulnerable minorities, the Jews among them. A couple of generations later, one of Mendelssohn’s grandchildren, German composer Felix Mendelssohn, known for an array of masterpieces like the opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho (1827), was at first raised outside the confines of the Jewish religion but eventually baptized as a Christian at the age of seven.
Such a transgenerational odyssey is emblematic of other European Jews: from devout belief to a secular, emancipated existence, from belonging to a small minority to active civil life as a minority within a majority. It is therefore crucial not to conflate modernity with Enlightenment: whereas the former is a historical development that fostered the quest for new markets through imperial endeavors that established, depending on the source, a satellite of colonies, the latter was the ideology behind it.
A forerunner of this crop of scholars is Hayim Yosef Yerushalmi, whose short book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982), I thoroughly admire. One of the conclusions drawn from his central arguments is that Jews remember not in chronological ways, but through myth. That is, memory is not lineal; it leaps back and forth with little cohesiveness. The art of telling history depends on sequential narratives: A leads to B, which in turn becomes C. Myth takes the opposite route: it is nonsequential and has little interest in cause and effect. Jewish literature is a way for Jewish memory to engage with history.
Emerging from a specific time and place, writers—poets, playwrights, novelists, memoirists—are in dialogue, overtly or unconsciously, not only with their precursors but also, magically, with their successors. Not arbitrarily, Jews are called Am Ha-Sefer, Hebrew for “Peopleof the Book.” The term was first applied to them in the Qur’an—in Arabic, Ahl al-Kitāb. Taken together, the books Jews have written in modernity constitute an uber-volume that features them as authors, characters, and reader and that conveys the experience of aterritoriality (even counting those books produced in Israel) as a transcendent endeavor.
Adapted from Jewish Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ilan Stavans. Used with the permission of Oxford University Press.