The three books under discussion treat different subjects but have a common denominator: they all deal with writers who draw upon non-American, non-English cultures and events in their writing designed for English and American readership.
Alan Berger examines Jewish-American fiction in terms of the covenant. "Jewish existence," he says, "is fundamentally rooted in the notion of the covenant," which, he believes, is "based on two assumptions: the people's witness and divine protection." In a word, "covenant meant a sanctification of history." God's covenant with Noah was significant because after Noah the Jews could hold God to the promise never again to destroy the planet despite the evil of its inhabitants. The covenant generated an ongoing dialectic between history and theology. The Holocaust became an enormously important event as modern Jewish American fiction tried to articulate and demonstrate the dialectic concerning factual historical happenings and interpretations or reconciliations of those happenings for Jews.
Early on Berger surveys "covenantal assumptions" in "biblical, rabbinic (rational), mystic (nonrational), modern, and contemporary" writings. Each period produces covenant crises, but Berger is primarily concerned with modern literary responses to the crises. He sees the Holocaust (Shoah) as a watershed in Jewish [End Page 279] history and sums up responses to it in the realms of theology and literature. In some fiction, he asserts, theology becomes literature. Modern writers reiterate many questions bearing on the Holocaust: how does the Holocaust undermine the covenant? Was the Holocaust unique? What should one's answer be to the attempt to exterminate the Jewish people? How can one live after Auschwitz? Did God permit the Holocaust? Is God in fact dead?
When Berger posits Judaism as "a religious value system," he illustrates from the fiction of Arthur A. Cohen, Cynthia Ozick, Hugh Nissenson, Elie Wiesel, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. They view the Holocaust in a variety of ways, he agrees, but they also conceive of a similarity: it is "an orienting event which forces Jews consciously to decide to be Jews."
As a counterpoint to the "religious value system," Berger introduces a "secular value system." Some of the writers he cites bring in the Holocaust indirectly, some directly. To demonstrate the secular, he focuses on short stories by Bernard Malamud, on Saul Bellow (extensively in Mr. Sammler's Planet), on Susan F. Schaeffer's Anya, and on Cynthia Ozick's The Cannibal Galaxy. Berger concludes that common ground for these writers is theme: there is "an intervening deity" and/or there are "moral obligations imposed by Jewish life."
"Symbolic Judaism" for Berger is the "covenant-history dialectic," which has been "completely disrupted." In this view God is simply absent from history and thus becomes "irrelevant." Here, novelists such as Edward Lewis Wallant, Philip Roth, Norma Rosen, Richard Elman, and Bernard Malamud universalize the Holocaust, thus eliminating its Jewish uniqueness. Berger labels this approach both "genuine" and "spurious." None of these writers, he feels, take Judaism seriously.
Much of the discussion on symbolic Judaism is judicious, thoughtful. But it is also one of the most unsatisfying sections. He is correct in pointing out that Roth, Malamud, and others have homogenized and universalized Jewish experience. But he misses or glosses too much. For example, he says that Elman in his trilogy of a Hungarian Jewish family concludes a "cycle" in which Jews are held responsible for their destruction. He insists this thrust is "unequalled in American Jewish fiction." Not so. It is a common approach. One need only look at Singer's The Family Moskat, the last in an exhaustive trilogy of prewar Polish Jews. Here Singer used hundreds of pages to develop his disconcerting thesis: before the Holocaust the Jews of Poland and been destroying...