Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 408-410
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Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American Literature: Lazarus, Syrkin, Reznikoff, and Roth. Ranen Omer-Sherman. Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2002. Pp. xxxiii + 341. $55.00 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).
Diaspora studies today is a growth industry. In an age where migrancy, exile, and hybridity define the habitats of millions, the idea of national identity or homeland can seem more like a [End Page 408] ghost in the realm of nostalgia than a state of realpolitik. As cultural theory reads the vital signs and complications of displacement, as it redraws the maps of cultural identity, the idea of nationalism and the reality of national homeland are being rendered obsolete by pressures to adapt to multiculturalism, economic globalization, and the clash of cultures. And yet praxis can only keep itself honest if theory embraces both the indeterminacy of Diaspora and the cultural production inspired by the memory and yearning for a nation of one's own (1). Ranen Omer-Sherman's important study interrogates this dual sense of tension in four Jewish American writers.
Omer-Sherman studies ideological debates about Diaspora and Zionism through the development of an American Jewish modernism from the 1880s to the present in the writing of Emma Lazarus, Marie Syrkin, Charles Reznikoff, and Philip Roth. The ideological ferment that found aesthetic form in modernist writing includes Zionism as the creative ingredient coexisting with Diaspora and producing the "personal and collective myth that proved so rewarding for the development of Jewish American literature" (3). Unlike Diaspora, however, which as theory and human condition has won academic approval, Zionism as an ideology and as translated into the realities of the State of Israel, has become the "Z" word: it seems to make so many "disappointed that they decided to become a nation" (Grace Paley quoted in Omer-Sherman, 1). The coverage of Zionism in this book attests both to the staying power of nationalist yearning and to the necessity of considering its relationship to Diaspora as a complex order of intersecting cultural identities and histories that is fluid and in flux, not fixed.
Omer-Sherman carefully demonstrates that even in its European formation and as it evolved in American Jewish myth and ideology, Zionism is no more static than Diaspora. While invoking iconic Jewish references to ancient exiles and modern mass murder, his writers represent individual interpretations of Zionism that cohere in their distinctive responses to American culture and identity, to the possibilities and problematics of assimilation and separateness. Following current arguments that Diaspora has been a multifaceted condition "of Jewish existence for 'more than' two thousand years," he argues that it provided the conditions for a multicultural existence and fostered debates about the binds of universalism and particularism (7). And so Diaspora has shaped the multivalent riches of a modern American Jewish literary culture. Beginning chronologically with Emma Lazarus, Omer-Sherman traces her Zionist yearnings to an American Christian discourse inspired by Emerson, where a Hebraic past represents an ideal of claiming a land that awaits the return of those seeking to fulfill a millennial promise of nationhood. In Lazarus's poetry, Zionism evolves into a historical imperative—she imagines the promised land as a safe harbor for those Eastern European Jews who suffered continuous oppression. As his incisive analysis shows, however, Lazarus remained conflicted, seeing the Jews both as an immutable nation/race and as a vibrant people whose talents for adaptation and innovation made them a model minority.
A provocatively paired analysis of Zionist activist, Marie Syrkin, and her husband, the poet of Diaspora, Charles Reznikoff, offers a complex reading of the relationship between modernism and modernity as inflected by the Jewish experience, especially in their different responses to Jewish history and trauma, particularly the Holocaust. Where Syrkin finds Zionism, the recovery of a national homeland, an urgent and necessary alternative to the omnipresent dangers of Jewish exile, Reznikoff locates Jewish subjectivity and agency in "a radical freedom of movement in the American city" (10). The project of recovering these neglected writers speaks to Omer-Sherman...