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In American Talmud, Ezra Cappell brings together the interpretive tradition of Jewish thought and the history of Jewish fiction written in America. Cappell demonstrates that the two are not mutually exclusive and that the legacy of Jewish American fiction exemplifies the ways in which classic Talmudic structures continue to inform the literary impulses of contemporary writers from Henry Roth to Allegra Goodman. Drawing from his own familiarity with and insight into the Talmud, Cappell argues that literature written by Jews in America today performs a similar kind of cultural work to that of the Talmud: “This open-endedness, this celebration of multiple perspectives, is not only a characteristic of the Babylonian Talmud; it is also a hallmark of . . . contemporary Jewish American fiction” (2).
At the heart of Judaism is the insistence that commentary and interpretation must be ongoing, and while the fiction explored by Cappell is secular, he argues for a new reading of this genre. Cappell cites Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s insistence in Zakhor that the rabbis of the Talmud examined ceaselessly the meaning of their collective history and suggests that contemporary Jewish American [End Page 423] writers are simply carrying forward this legacy. But Cappell also notes that while such writers typically write about the experience of being a Jew in America, they often return to the “centering force of Judaism”—the sacred texts (3). In the wake of twentieth-century disasters, Cappell recalls Yerushalmi’s assertion that history became the faith of “fallen Jews” in the nineteenth century and argues that Jewish American fiction functions as the “faith for fallen contemporary Jews searching for an artistic validation by which to understand and account for” such catastrophes (4).
Although Cappell is responding to Yerushalmi, to suggest that contemporary American Jews are “fallen” resonates more with Christian theology (where fallen humans must be saved by grace) than with Judaism. Many have noted the falling away of Jews from Judaism since the Holocaust, but if Jews have fallen away they have not done it in opposition to the long legacy of scholarly and religious inquiry that characterizes the Jewish experience. While the Holocaust engendered for many a crisis of faith and an inability to believe in a silent God, it also generated a sense of collective responsibility to respond to these crises. And how better to do so than through literature?
For Jewish American writers whose career spans both pre- and post-Holocaust eras, this need to address twentieth-century crises seems somewhat more complicated than those who write in a post-Holocaust world. For Cappell, Malamud and Bellow demonstrate these complications in interesting ways. Following Ozick’s insistence on the significance of history and continuity to the Jewish experience, Cappell illuminates the importance of a particular Jewish identity—one characterized by the Jew’s position both in and to history. The work of Bellow, like the work of the rabbis who created the Talmud, engages in “an ongoing exploration of the meaning of the history” bequeathed to him, and according to Cappell, it is the most powerful example of the cultural work that great fiction performs (95).
Noting the references to the book of Genesis in Bellow’s “A Silver Dish,” Cappell argues that it is a “modern midrash on the textual inheritance of the Jewish people” (95). While Cappell’s argument here is daring and intriguing, one wonders whether the story is truly a “modern midrash” rather than a story that simply incorporates biblical tropes and language. Nevertheless, Cappell correctly identifes the midrashic way in which the story is told—the way it accesses the history and literary tradition of the past in order to make sense of the present era. Moreover, Cappell sees in Bellow’s direct literary response to the Holocaust, The Bellarosa Connection, the naming of the “malady which not only afflicts [End Page 424] Jewish Americans, but which has become a universal American epidemic: an amnesic memory.” It shows us that only through an “engagement with Jewish memory” will diasporic Jews become “more fully human in...