- Warring Desires: The Future of Jewish-American Literature
Albert Einstein once ventured an answer to the vexing question of what makes a person a Jew:
The superficial character of this answer is easily recognized by means of a simple parallel. Let us ask the question: What is a snail? An answer similar in kind to the one given above might be: A snail is an animal inhabiting a snail shell. This answer is not altogether incorrect; nor, to be sure, is it exhaustive; for the snail shell happens to be but one of the material products of the snail. Similarly, the Jewish faith is but one of the characteristic products of the Jewish community. It is, furthermore, known that a snail can shed its shell without thereby ceasing to be a snail. The Jew who abandons his faith (in the formal sense of the word) is in a similar position. He remains a Jew.(249)
Einstein’s parallel does not solve the problem, for what does it mean to stay Jewish? Is Jewishness a religion? A nation? A people? A culture? A race? A more accurate way to ask what constitutes Jewish identity is to reformulate the query, “What are Jewish identity?” (Lang 279). Or as Philip Roth might phrase it, “The burden isn’t either/or, consciously choosing from possibilities equally difficult and regrettable—it’s and/and/and/and/and as well” (306).
Among those “paradoxical principles,” what Berel Lang calls the “Antimonies of Jewish Identity” (280), are the drive toward universalism and the demand for particularism, the argument over the Holocaust as either a “root experience” or a historical catastrophe, and the role of Israel as an anchor for Jewish-American identity or [End Page 877] else its detractor (Fackenheim 8). Jews both long for “identification and integration with the majority” and “desire to preserve their identity as a minority” (Biale 5). It is precisely that conflict that prompts David Biale, Michael Galchinsky, and Susannah Heschel to declare, “to be a Jew, especially at this historical juncture, means to lack a single essence, to live with multiple identities” (9), the “multiplying realities, entangled, overlapping, colliding, conjoined —plus the multiplying illusions” Philip Roth links to existence at the end of The Counterlife (306). Itself a contested term, cultural identity, however complicated and destabilized, continues to be critical to Jewish identity as well as to its preservation.1
The strife over identity notwithstanding, the clash between particularity and universalism abides. Some deem the dichotomy a productive dialectic which enables Jews to synthesize their two loyalties. Commenting on the future of Judaism in America, Jonathan Sarna, for example, concludes: “For all these dangers, however, Jewish unity is far from dead. In fact, as America moves back to the center politically, signs within American Judaism suggest a parallel return to the ‘vital center’ and a shift away from the divisive struggles of earlier decades” (American 372). The 1960s “highlighted Jews’ brutalization, suffering, and victimization” until the Israeli victory in 1967, which transformed persecution into a “salvation myth” and enabled some Jews to apprehend the Holocaust as a “moral paradigm for Jewish history and inspiration for Jewish survival and social justice” (Rapaport 197). Envisioning Israel as a place to revive their Jewish identity and locating the Holocaust in the mainstream of American life, many Jews were confident they could sustain their Jewish authenticity.
Matters are never that simple. Since the 1980s, Jewish distinctiveness has become an even more complex issue, reviving the controversial terms “tribalism” and “race” in an attempt to revitalize Jewish identity.2 Arguing against self-enclosed identity, Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin privilege “diasporic existence” by which they mean to “suggest that Diaspora, and not monotheism, may be the most important contribution that Judaism has to make to the world” (723). Others are not so sanguine.3 Eric Goldstein, for one, explores what it has meant for...