American Jewish Fiction
A JPS Guide
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: Jewish Publication Society
By exposing me to the vast and wonderful world of modern Jewish literature, my teachers—particularly Maxine Rodburg and Ruth Wisse at Harvard, and Anita Norich, Jonathan Freedman, and Julian Levinson at the University of Michigan—inspired this book. The financial support of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan allowed me to undertake this project while researching and writing a doctoral dissertation. ...
If you’ve picked up this guide then you must already have some sense for what American Jewish fiction is or at least for what you’d like it to be. And so, rather than bogging you down with definitional quibbles, let me begin with some of the historical context for American Jewish fiction. Then I’ll sketch a few of the fundamental themes you will encounter as you wander through the pages ...
1 Differences (1867)
By the second page of Nathan Mayer’s novel Differences, the reader has learned that Louis Welland hails from Germany and that he has, therefore, a poetic and slightly foolish temperament. A couple of pages later, the narrator enumerates Welland’s physical characteristics, which include “the chest of a Hercules” as well as “that elegance of appearance, which results from perfect symmetry of form”—in ...
2 As It Was Written: A Jewish Musician’s Story (1885)
Sidney Luska didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop him from becoming the first Jewish novelist to hit it big in America. The apparent author of stories of Jewish life, including Mrs. Peixada (1886) and The Yoke of the Thorah (1887), Luska was created in the 1880s by Henry Harland, a young non-Jewish writer with large ambitions. The pseudonym was basically a marketing tactic: if he put “a Jewish ...
3 Other Things Being Equal (1892)
The most durable of American Jewish concerns—the temptation of intermarriage to a non-Jew—is also, unsurprisingly, the most ubiquitous of American Jewish literary plots, and not only where the infamous shikse (non- Jewish woman) is concerned. With her successful first novel, published when she was just ...
4 Joseph Zalmonah (1893)
Like Hollywood or comic books, the union movement in America wasn’t an entirely Jewish phenomenon, but Jews played pivotal roles from early on. One typical mover and shaker was Joseph Barondess (1867–1928), an immigrant who organized a cloakmaker’s union as a young man and later went on to participate in the founding of both the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Hebrew Actors’ Union, among other accomplishments. The ...
5 Yekl (1896) and The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto (1898)
As editor of the Forverts, which he built up into the most widely circulated Yiddish-language periodical of all time, Abraham Cahan introduced his immigrant readers to the wonders of America, from slang to baseball to trade unionism. Before he took that fateful job, though, he had already made a name for himself doing the ...
6 Children of Men (1903)
At the beginning of the 20th century, magazines were booming. Monthlies such as McClure’s, Munsey’s, and Cosmopolitan (long before its 1960s remake) sold for a dime and offered reams of general-interest reporting, cultural features, and fiction in each advertising-packed issue. Historians credit this phenomenon as the first blossoming of a real mass culture in the United States and as a ...
7 Q.E.D. (1903)
If she’s ever neglected as a writer and doyenne of the American expatriates in Paris, Gertrude Stein will always be remembered for her epigrams. She is the person to whom Ernest Hemingway attributed the phrase, “You are all a lost generation,” in the epigraph to The Sun Also Rises (1926), thus naming one of America’s most famous literary cohorts (though apparently the actual coiner ...
8 Motl, the Cantor’s Son (1907-16)
Immigration to the United States is often dangerous and painful, and it usually means leaving behind friends, family, and familiar sights. But Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, who is featured in a series of short stories first published between 1907 and 1916, has a special talent for looking at the bright side; when his father, a respected cantor, passes away during the holiday of Shavuos, Motl ...
9 The Tether (1908)
In a brilliant essay from 1958, Leslie Fiedler observes that the Jewish American novel “must be a problem novel, and its essential problems must be identity and assimilation”—because the drama of being an American Jew so often centers on the question of how Jewish, and how American, one can or should be. “What is unexpected,” Fiedler continues, “is that these problems be posed in ...
10 The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)
Abraham Cahan’s epic masterpiece is the American novel of immigration par excellence, as it should be: no one knew the millions of Eastern European Jews who arrived in America between 1881 and 1924 better than Cahan did. As the longtime editor of the Forverts, the Yiddish daily newspaper that at its peak claimed more than 200,000 subscribers, Cahan communicated directly with his readers in an advice column (the famed “Bintel ...
11 The Chosen People (1917)
One of the problems with most descriptions of the American Jewish experience is that there is no single experience shared by all Jews in the United States. Even if we allow for a reasonable amount of simplification, the successive waves of immigration and geographical spread of the country led to the formation of various communities, each with its own unique features. A ...
12 Fanny Herself (1917)
Edna Ferber’s single novel about American Jews stakes out two contradictory positions about the nature of Jewish tradition and heritage. On the one hand, her plucky heroine, Fanny Brandeis, discovers that it is a serious mistake to deny the responsibilities and gifts conferred by her heritage; on the other, Ferber is broad-minded about how exactly Jews can do honor to their Jewish ...
13 Salome of the Tenements (1923)
Yezierska’s debut novel, first published in 1923, is ripped from the headlines, so to speak: Sonya, a poor Russian Jewish immigrant, falls for a millionaire philanthropist—just like the real-life sweatshop worker Rose Pastor, who rose to national celebrity in 1905. Despite poverty, Sonya is wild and passionate for beauty, and from the perspective of her paramour, John Manning, she embodies ...
14 Haunch, Paunch and Jowl (1923)
One of the literary debates that never seems to get resolved is whether a book that depicts a Jewish character as scheming, criminal, or downright evil is automatically anti-Semitic. We don’t hold literature about non-Jews to that same standard, of course; Shakespeare’s Macbeth tells the tale of a couple of repulsive social climbers, but rarely is it thought of, nowadays at least, as propaganda ...
15 Bread Givers (1925)
Yezierska’s most frequently read book, Bread Givers—unlike Salome of the Tenements—renders the story of poor Jewish immigrants in an idiom based on Yiddish. Yezierska wasn’t the first to write in the linguistic amalgam that has come to be known as “Yinglish”: dialect stories were common in late- 19th-century America, and starting ...
16 Amerika (1927)
Franz Kafka never set foot in America, and, boy, does it show. The first factual error crops up even before the end of the introductory paragraph of his fictional travelogue, as his teenaged hero, Karl Rossman, arrives in New York harbor: “A sudden burst of sunshine seemed to illumine the Statue of Liberty, so that he ...
17 The Island Within (1928)
One could carp that Ludwig Lewisohn always wrote about his own peculiar situation, even when his ostensible subjects were social movements, ancient eras, or distant lands. Luckily, Lewisohn was a thoroughly intriguing personality and a brilliant thinker, so reading about his personal dilemmas never grows tiresome. He grew up in Berlin and South Carolina, received a master’s degree ...
18 Arnold Levenberg (1928)
Plenty of writers in English, Anzia Yezierska and Bernard Malamud among them, have represented Yiddish-language milieus without actually using much Yiddish. The opposite phenomenon—Yiddish fiction primarily about English-speaking Jews—is less common, which makes the playwright David Pinski’s debut novel, Arnold Levenberg, a rare gem. The book’s eponymous ...
19 Singermann (1929)
Myron Brinig’s first novel, Singermann, can be thought of as a little-known Jewish counterpart to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919). Anderson’s book earned its secure position in the American canon by informing the literary vanguard of the post–World War I years that the nation’s small towns were just as full of unexpressed longings, dark secrets, and flaring passions as the ...
20 Bottom Dogs (1929)
In selecting the subject matter of his first novel, Edward Dahlberg scraped the very bottom of the economic barrel, long before it was fashionable to do so— before novels of junkies and drifters, lunatics, and street children had become common literary fare. The panoramic view of American low life in orphanages and petty jobs and business scams that came to be called the proletarian novel ...
21 Jews without Money (1930)
In a preface to his autobiographical novel, Jews without Money, published five years after the book’s initial release, Mike Gold relates an anecdote about a German radical friend of his who was translating a chapter from Gold’s book when she was interrupted by a Nazi. The title amuses the soldier: “How could there be Jews without money, when as every good Nazi knew with ...
22 By the Waters of Manhattan (1930)
Charles Reznikoff’s first and most famous novel, By the Waters of Manhattan, tells a familiar tale of American Jewish life, starting with Eastern European origins and hardships and immigration, and climaxing with uneasy acculturation to the United States. What distinguishes the book is the oddness and singularity of its narration, which might be less startling to readers who know that Reznikoff ...
23 Thicker Than Water (1932)
Willa Cather once remarked that she wanted to write “novels without furniture”—efficient fictions stripped bare of all nonessential social and environmental detail. By contrast, Vera Caspary packs her second novel, Thicker Than Water, full of furniture, quite literally: every time one of the novel’s linked families redecorates, Caspary invariably tells us whether the new ...
24 Miss Lonelyhearts (!933) and The Day of the Locust (1939)
“Men have always fought their misery with dreams. Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst.” So muses Miss Lonelyhearts, and the sentiment could stand as the motto for ...
25 Call It Sleep (1934)
Henry Roth’s first novel is nothing short of miraculous. An extraordinary work of literary art, it unites the modernist narrative techniques of James Joyce with the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, and it layers all of this into a lavishly detailed story of a young boy’s childhood ...
26 Summer in Williamsburg, Homage to Blenholt, and Low Company
More even than for their extraordinary dialogue and level of detail, Daniel Fuchs’s three novels of life under the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn remain valuable for their robust admixture of despair and nostalgia. The Jewish past in Fuchs’s hands is less sentimental than the air-brushed Lower East Side we’ve become accustomed to and less crassly sensational than revisionist tales of ...
27 The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N (1937)
Leo Rosten is mostly remembered for The Joys of Yiddish (1968), a bestseller offering enlightenment to Jews and gentiles perplexed by the massive amounts of mameloshen that get tossed around in American speech. Rosten’s career as a humorist was long, though, and three decades before Joys he published, under the pseudonym Leonard Q. Ross, The Education of H*Y*M*A*N ...
28 I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1937)
Harry Bogen, the hard-boiled antihero of Jerome Weidman’s best-selling debut novel, knows that you can’t have it both ways: “You couldn’t reach for the big dough and listen to your mother’s lessons in morals. . . . You took one or the other.” Forced to choose, he doesn’t hesitate: he joyfully screws over his co-workers, dispatches an innocent partner ...
29 Tomorrow’s Bread (1938)
Like many American Jews in the first half of the 20th century, Beatrice Bisno grew up in labor movements: her father, Abraham Bisno, was the president of the Chicago Cloakmaker’s Union, and for decades she worked as a secretary and right-hand woman to Sidney Hillman, the president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. What distinguishes her portrait of a charismatic ...
30 As a Driven Leaf (1939)
For the most part, historical novels set somewhere other than America have been excluded from this guide (even if written by an American and relevant to contemporary Jewish life). There is no reason for this exclusion, other than the impossibility of doing justice to the vast number of such ...
31 What Makes Sammy Run? (1941)
Jews were making movies in Hollywood before Hollywood was Hollywood, so it should come as no surprise that they have also written several of the best novels about the American film industry. Budd Schulberg moved west as a kid after World War I, and as his father became a major player in the movie business, he found himself well-positioned to overhear all the behind-the-scenes gossip. ...
32 Jewish Cowboy [Der Yidisher Kauboy] (1942)
From Edward Meeker’s turn-of-the-century vaudeville routines to Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles (1974), the notion of a Jewish cowboy has long been a source of hilarity. But to the Yiddish novelist Isaac Raboy, being both a Jew and a ranch hand was no joke: Raboy spent a couple of years laboring on a North Dakota farm, and the autobiographical protagonist of his novel ...
33 The Family Carnovsky (1943)
Israel Joshua Singer was born in Poland, but he had already been living in the United States for 10 years, and had been an American citizen for 4, when he first published Di Mishpokhe Karnovsky in book form in 1943. So naturally, when his characters, three generations of the Carnovsky family, are forced to flee the ...
34 Focus (1945)
Though best known as a major American playwright—and, secondarily, for having been married to Marilyn Monroe—Arthur Miller wrote a novel that deserves attention in its own right. This searing book, Focus, appeared a couple of months after the end of World War II, and it captures the creeping anxieties of the war years, especially as regards the frightening persistence of American ...
35 Passage from Home (1946)
The teenage protagonist of Isaac Rosenfeld’s Passage from Home attempts to do something that conventional wisdom says you just can’t do. As a playground saying puts it, you can pick your nose, and you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. Bernard Miller, a protagonist as precocious as the author who created him—at 14, he reads Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Herbert ...
36 Wasteland (1946)
Good therapists are perhaps even harder to find in fiction than they are in life: psychiatrists in novels and movies tend, more often than not, to be comic figures, ridiculous men or women with silly Freudian accents, jargon, and ideas. Jo Sinclair’s first novel, Wasteland, is an exception to this and many other rules. Sinclair’s doctor is subtle and kind; he doesn’t press his ...
37 East River (1946)
Dozens of American Jewish novels handle the issue of intermarriage, and among the most thoughtful of these is Sholem Asch’s East River. Set in the diverse, impoverished neighborhood of 48th Street and the East River in Manhattan, during the years before World War I, Asch’s novel points up one of the inevitable and wrenching consequences of peaceful coexistence between ...
38 The Amboy Dukes (1947)
The Amboy Dukes comes as a sensational shock: was there really a time, not so many years ago, when Jewish teenagers lurked on the streets of Brooklyn, armed with knives, brass knuckles, and homemade pistols, terrorizing each other and the law-abiding citizens around them? Picture Boyz ’n the Hood, except everyone’s named Goldfarb, Bronstein, or Sachs, and they’re still young enough ...
39 My Glorious Brothers (1948)
Lighting candles to commemorate Hanukkah is one of the most widely practiced Jewish traditions in America these days: a whopping 72 percent of respondents to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey said they did so. Reading the Book of Maccabees is much less common, especially since it isn’t even included in the Torah (only Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches ...
40 The Naked and the Dead (1948)
While the vast majority of novels written about Jews and World War II focus, sensibly enough, on the European front, the early bestsellers about the war are a reminder that for many Americans, the Pacific theater of operations was of primary interest, and Hitler remained an afterthought. Such ...
41 The Break-Up of Our Camp and Other Stories (1949)
Paul Goodman is usually remembered as a philosopher embraced by the radical student movements of the 1960s. With Growing Up Absurd (1960) and other works of cultural criticism, with his participation in rallies protesting the Vietnam War, and with his revolutionary and occasionally disquieting sexual perspectives (Norman Mailer called him a “sexologue—that is, an ideologue ...
42 A Stone for Danny Fisher (1952)
The rise of the mass-market paperback in the middle of the 20th century opened up a new audience of American book buyers: millions of readers without much concern for the finer points of literary style, but with enough spare change to shell out for a potboiler at the newsstand or grocery store, provided it was violent, sexy, or sentimental enough. The masters of this field, ...
43 The Adventures of Augie March (1953)
In 1948, Saul Bellow found himself in Paris and deeply depressed; after World War II, what thinking person wouldn’t be? A Guggenheim grant paid for his trip based on the strength of his first couple of novels, but while there he had a revelation about that early work: “The restraint of the first two books had driven me mad,” he recalled half a century later. “I hadn’t become a writer to tread the ...
44 Blessed Is the Land (1954)
Long before the first American Jewish writer—more than a century, in fact, before anyone had ever dreamed of a United States of America—the first Jews set foot on the island known today as Manhattan. Not much is known about the party of 23 Jews who arrived from Recife, Brazil, but enough details survived to furnish Louis Zara, a historical novelist and publishing ...
45 Marjorie Morningstar (1955)
Along and detailed novel of American life, Herman Wouk’s best-selling Marjorie Morningstar can be summed up in three words: Mother knows best. Or, more precisely, everybody knows best. Wouk’s young protagonist, Marjorie Morgenstern, receives sage advice from her parents, her friends, and, in several cases, people she has barely met. They tell her that her ...
46 Compulsion (1956)
There’s no dearth of murder in American literature; Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy (1925) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) follow a simple pattern, recounting at great length a vicious crime, the police’s efforts to catch the criminal, and finally the trial, culminating with an impassioned oration by a defense attorney that condemns our corrupt society for fostering disobedience and then ...
47 Remember Me to God (1957)
Adedicated reader of American Jewish literature, no matter how enthusiastic, will inevitably feel, at one point or another, that he or she would rather browse the tax code than read yet another book about intermarriage. Perhaps that explains why Myron S. Kaufmann’s outstanding novel, Remember Me to God, is so rarely mentioned anymore; it is, ...
48 The Assistant
Though it isn’t much to see—there’s no headstone, just a nondescript grassy stretch—Bernard Malamud’s grave, in Mount Auburn Cemetery, explains quite a bit about his writing and particularly his most famous novel, The Assistant. The cemetery, a few miles up the road from Harvard University in Watertown, Massachusetts, serves as the final home of several prominent 19th-century American poets and artists, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell ...
49 Shadows on the Hudson (1957-58)
Isaac Bashevis Singer will likely be remembered primarily for his nostalgic, magical, demon-filled tales of Eastern European shtetls and for his memoirs of his boyhood in Warsaw, but the Nobel Prize–winning author also devoted significant energy to narratives of Jewish life in America. The first major novel ...
50 Exodus (1958)
Consider Leon Uris’s Exodus an American writer’s present for the State of Israel on its 10th birthday. Published a little more than a decade after the country’s founding, it is perhaps the most passionate (and probably the longest) love letter to Zionism ever written in English. Uris’s descriptions of the land say ...
51 Goodbye, Columbus and Five Stories (1959)
Philip Roth pulls no punches. Think of him as the lifelong, official “Dennis the Menace” of the American Jewish community, only with a sparkling wit and flawless prose instead of a slingshot. Roth’s debut collection peers behind the scenes of rampant Jewish success in the years following World War II, devoting equal time to what is desirable and what is repulsive about suburban life. ...
52 The Pawnbroker (1961)
For most of us, remembering the Holocaust takes effort; we listen to the stories, watch the films, read the histories, and tell ourselves to “never forget.” The people who have come to be called “survivors” in contrast, didn’t get to choose whether to remember or not—as much as they might have liked to leave brutal memories behind in Europe, they couldn’t. Sol Nazerman, the ...
53 Tell Me a Riddle (1961)
Reading is a luxury. A luxury of immense value, yes—and one that some of us feel to be necessary to get through the day—but nonetheless there are times when carving out a free hour from our other responsibilities to enjoy a book is impossible. One of Tillie Olsen’s characters remembers herself as a “young wife, who in the deep night hours while she nursed the current baby, and perhaps held another in her lap, would try to stay awake for the only time there ...
Moving to the suburbs: in the 1950s, everybody was doing it, and for the bulk of American Jews who had grown accustomed to city life, this meant a whole slew of new challenges. Stern, the protagonist of Bruce Jay Friedman’s first darkly comic novel, confronts just about all of them. A lousy negotiator, he winds up in a house with a caterpillar problem, an hour-and-a-half commute, ...
55 Herzog (1964)
In literature, nothing succeeds like failure—what could be more boring than a novel in which everything goes exactly as planned?—and it would be hard to find a more perfect literary failure than Saul Bellow’s Moses E. Herzog. Herzog’s scholarly work has dead-ended, his marriage has imploded, and on his day out with his daughter he ends up in a police station. More important than his impotence as a practical man, though, Herzog is a failure in theory: well-versed in ...
56 To an Early Grave (1964)
In the years after World War II, New York City was the place to be if you happened to be Jewish, middle-aged, and brilliant. A group of brainy, hyper-literate critics who fit that description—including Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, and Alfred Kazin—have come to be known as the New York Intellectuals, and many of their essays and books are insightful and provocative ...
57 Friday, the Rabbi Slept Late (1964)
Agirl turns up, murdered, in the parking lot of a synagogue in the New England hamlet of Barnard’s Crossing. In another place and time—say, Shiraz, Iran, in 1910; Kiev in 1911; or Atlanta in 1913—this would be the setup for a charge of ritual murder and maybe a pogrom. In Harry Kemelman’s debut mystery, Friday, the Rabbi Slept Late, which won an Edgar Award, it is the occasion for an unusual whodunit in which Jewish brilliance saves the day. “I know very little ...
58 Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers (1966)
According to some observers, laughing and whining are the two things Jews do best; whether or not that is true, it has doubtlessly been a goal for many Jewish writers to produce stories that are at once sad and also hilariously funny. The title of Stanley Elkin’s first collection of short fiction, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, derives from a character’s assessment of the Jewish ...
59 The Last Jew in America (1966)
It is a strange pleasure to read the imaginative literature written by an author best known as a critic; the question is always whether the critic’s insights into the genre can inform but not overwhelm his fiction—and the answer, almost universally, is no. This is certainly the case of Leslie Fiedler, the author of spectacular works of criticism such as Love and Death in the American Novel (1960). ...
60 Green: A Novella and Eight Stories (1967)
Literature is full of gently confused women; Jane Austen’s heroines wouldn’t be so charming if they weren’t so frequently befuddled. Norma Rosen’s first collection of stories, Green, explores the confusions of Jewish women in the very confusing 1960s, as family dynamics, class concerns, and interethnic relations were all changing. Rosen’s title refers not to a person’s name, or to the color, but ...
61 Tsemakh Atlas/The Yeshiva (1967-68)
Like most Yiddish writers who have lived in America, Chaim Grade was born and raised in Eastern Europe, and specifically in Vilna (now called Vilnius, Lithuania), the sparkling center of Yiddish culture during the interwar period. Having made a name for himself as a promising poet in the 1930s, and having survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, Grade immigrated to the United States in 1948, but—unlike his predecessors, such as the Singer brothers, ...
62 Waiting for the News (1969)
Detroit’s Jews have experienced a few highs and a lot of lows: while the city was the home of one of baseball’s Jewish greats, Hank Greenberg, and now boasts a sizable, prosperous Jewish population, the region has also been distinguished as a center of race riots, Jewish organized crime, and influential anti-Semitism from Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent to Father Coughlin’s ...
63 Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Portnoy’s Complaint is the most notorious, talked-about novel in the American Jewish tradition; it also happens to be one of the finest. Though Roth has spent more energy developing the character of Nathan Zuckerman, and in recent years has written exceptional novels starring none other than Philip Roth, it seems clear that 100 or 200 years from now, the author will be remembered as ...
64 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970)
At first glance, there seems to be no link between the two primary themes of Judy Blume’s classic novel for young adults, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret: after all, what does having your first menstrual period have to do with picking a religion? Margaret Ann Simon, the book’s protagonist, hopes to do both before the end of sixth grade, and when she runs ...
65 Bech, a Book (1970)
By the late 1960s, Jewish writers so dominated the field of American literature that non-Jews began to get jealous. In 1968 a Protestant novelist, Edward Hoagland, published a piece in Commentary called “On Not Being a Jew,” which explicated the disadvantage that his non-Jewish heritage had conferred in the literary marketplace. Just one month earlier, and much more aggressively, ...
66 The Book of Daniel (1971)
It has been reported that E. L. Doctorow tells his students, when it comes to writing historical fiction, “Do the least amount of research you can get away with, and no less.” At its best, the historical novel provides more insight than history and more pleasure than a novel; hewing close to the facts but disregarding them regularly for the sake of aesthetic and narrative pleasure, such ...
67 Double or Nothing: A Real Fictitious Discourse (1971)
How can we tell the stories of the Holocaust? This question lies behind the brilliant, inventive writing of Raymond Federman. When he was a teenager, living in Paris, Federman’s family was deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. He survived because his mother stuffed him, her favorite, into a closet—he crawled out a day later and found his way to a farm ...
68 Jacob’s Son (1971)
In the 1930s, a young Jew in Brooklyn—or anyplace else in America—could choose any number of ideologies. He could join up with communists, perhaps travel to Spain to fight Franco in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade; he could affiliate with the Zionists, yearning to make aliyah to that other Promised Land; he could invest shrewdly, work hard, and build up a ...
69 The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories
Cynthia Ozick’s first collection of stories, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, exemplifies her ability to articulate and explore juicy paradoxes in the fields of art and religion. For example, Ozick views fiction in its essence as contradicting Jewish tradition—because, of course, all art is a form of idolatry. But writing fiction is still her bread and butter. This contradiction ...
70 Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972)
Steven Millhauser’s brilliant self-reflexive fictions contain riddles, mysteries, and sly allusions to the interplay between literature and life. Within these labyrinthine, prize-winning works, Jewishness too is buried—so effectively buried that critics have tended to miss it. When a film version of Millhauser’s story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” appeared with almost all traces of Jewishness ...
71 My Name Is Asher Lev (1972)
Though less of a blockbuster than his famous debut, The Chosen (1967), Chaim Potok’s third novel made the bestseller lists for a solid six months and was the first fiction situated so resolutely in the world of Hasidism to make such a splash in the United States. While The Chosen dramatizes the ...
72 In the Days of Simon Stern (1973)
A back-cover blurb on the original edition of Arthur A. Cohen’s best-known novel remarks that “In the Days of Simon Stern is very probably a masterpiece.” This odd statement—couldn’t the publisher find someone to praise the book who was certain it was a masterpiece?—reveals quite a bit about this extraordinarily challenging novel. To make a definitive statement ...
73 Fear of Flying (1973)
In the 1960s, thanks to a series of court battles—often tried by Jewish lawyers—it became possible for reputable U.S. publishers to sell, without expurgation or bowdlerization, “dirty” books such as D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and a moldy old pornographic ...
74 A Star in the Family (1975)
Key players in comedy for over a century, Jews have often made their most influential and cutting statements to the American public in the guise of the joke teller. From the Hebrew comedians of the early vaudeville stage to the Borsht Belt tummlers, from the Golden Age radio MCs to the pioneering television impresarios, and from Lenny Bruce to Jerry Seinfeld in the modern art of ...
75 My Own Ground (1976)
In his first two collections of stories, A Pile of Stones (1965) and In the Reign of Peace (1972), Hugh Nissenson demonstrated a facility for crafting terse, moving fictions as well as a fundamental interest in the intensities of Jewish life outside the United States. Raised in Brooklyn on the stories of his immigrant father, and having spent some years in Israel, Nissenson set the ...
76 Refiner’s Fire: The Life and Adventures of Marshall Pearl, a Foundling (1977)
Mark Helprin’s first novel, Refiner’s Fire, can be understood as the skillfully articulated fantasy life of a political conservative. Not exactly autobiographical (“if not consistently in fact, then always in spirit,” the author observed), the fiction appropriates details of the author’s life (an upbringing in New York and the Caribbean, studies at Harvard, service in the Israeli military), ...
77 In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories (1978)
Delmore Schwartz was a poet first and foremost, and an important one, but his short stories—a valuable selection of which are collected in In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories—aren’t too shabby themselves. Concerned for the most part with sensitive young men at odds with their families, these pieces often hark back to the 1930s, to the Great Depression as it was ...
78 A Weave of Women (1978)
In recent decades, Jewish ritual has been undergoing a quiet revolution in certain corners of America, led by feminists for whom the traditional ceremonies and prayers are hopelessly marred by anachronistic ideas about women. Whatever one’s religious position, it doesn’t take a doctor to establish that the rabbis who conceived the laws of niddah, or female ritual purity, seem in ...
79 A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories (1978)
Despite what he said and what he might have thought, Will Eisner didn’t invent the term “graphic novel,” and he didn’t invent the form, either. Other comic book artists had produced book-length works that looked like comics, and they called them graphic novels, but what Eisner wanted, pure and simple, was respect. Like the underground comix artists of the late 1960s, he ...
80 Good as Gold (1979)
Joseph Heller will always be remembered, first and foremost, for Catch-22 (1961): it isn’t every novel, after all, whose title becomes an enduring American idiom. (It is worth noting that in an early excerpt, Heller’s famous satire of World War II was called “Catch-18,” but when it came time for book publication his editor thought that title sounded too much like Leon Uris’s ...
81 O My America! (1980)
The New York intellectuals were nothing if not prolific: gazing at bibliographies of works by Paul Goodman or Irving Howe or Susan Sontag, one has to wonder whether these people could type in their sleep. In her character Ezra Slavin—“ICONOCLASTIC SOCIAL CRITIC,” as his obituary’s headline phrases it—Johanna Kaplan conjures up a man of letters who produces ...
82 The Mind-Body Problem (1983)
One of the paradoxes of modern fiction is that it trades both on the loftiest of philosophical and aesthetic ideas, and, at the same time, on the most debased sensational and voyeuristic impulses: a great novel aspires to speak to the weighty ideas of life and meaning, and, equally, to the pettiest of our cravings, lusts, and anxieties (whodunit? will they kiss? what’s going to happen?). ...
83 Hungry Hearts (1983)
Francine Prose’s playful sixth novel, published in the 1980s, shares its title with Anzia Yezierska’s debut collection of short stories, which appeared and was adapted into a movie some 60 years earlier. Though there is nothing to indicate that Prose’s title alludes deliberately to Yezierska’s work, the two books called Hungry Hearts also happen to have coincident settings, at least at first: as ...
84 Disturbances in the Field (1983)
Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s fiction might be described as psychological realism: without high modernist stream of consciousness or the stylization of typical realism, Schwartz presents a protagonist whose relationships, emotions, likes and dislikes, and patterns of thought and behavior are ...
85 Heartburn (1983)
Not the world’s first novel to include recipes (the Brazilian author Jorge Amado, for one, did it in his novel of 1966, Dora Flor and Her Two Husbands), Nora Ephron’s Heartburn nonetheless predated the mainstreaming of the practice in bestsellers such as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café ...
86 Mainland (1985)
For a 40-year-old Jewish Brooklynite, the heroine of Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s Mainland has typical problems: her mother and grandmother give her constant grief, her eyes bother her (“You brought this on yourself . . . all that reading in the dark,” her mother tells her), and she is alienated from ...
87 Her First American (1985)
At the end of Lore Segal’s first, autobiographical novel, Other People’s Houses (1964), the heroine, who goes by the name Lore Segal and who has finally made it to the United States after being rescued from her hometown of Vienna during World War II, encounters a dazzling, middle-aged African American named Carter Bayoux in a creative writing class. In Segal’s third ...
88 Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven (1986)
The term “magic realism” came into vogue during the Latin American boom of the 1950s and 1960s, as writers such as Gabriel García Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges rocketed to international fame. But magic realism is nothing new in Jewish narratives. What is the biblical book of Bereshit [Genesis], after ...
89 The Ritual Bath (1986)
Faye Kellerman’s first novel, The Ritual Bath, trades on a fascination with extremes of human behavior, from the piety and rigidity of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the brutality of rapists and drugged-out anti-Semitic gangbangers. Set primarily at a cloistered yeshivah in the gritty hills outside of Los Angeles, ...
90 The Shawl (1989)
Separately, “The Shawl” and “Rosa” were judged the best stories published in America in the years 1980 and 1983. Brought together in a slim volume titled The Shawl, they are even more powerful. Many writers have spun out thick novels and massive histories, such as André Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just (1959) and William Shirer’s ...
91 The Great Letter E (1990)
If being Jewish were simply a matter of practicing Judaism, there would be a lot less to say about it. Modern Jewish literature had tended to focus on the outsiders, the rebels, and the eccentrics. Perhaps this explains why so many literary works have been inspired, like Sandra Schor’s The Great Letter E, by the apostate philosopher Baruch Spinoza. ...
92 He, She, and It (1991)
Jewish communities have endured for millennia despite extraordinary challenges. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, to find them persisting in the futures imagined by science fiction authors (especially considering that some of the giants in the field of sci-fi, like Isaac Asimov, were themselves Jewish). In Marge Piercy’s dystopic He, She, and It—also published under the title Body of Glass outside the United States—Israel and the rest ...
93 Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)
Philip Roth’s rebellious spirit, extraordinary self-consciousness, and prodigious talents as a novelist position him perfectly to produce books that turn the concept of fiction on its ear. In The Ghostwriter (1979), The Counterlife (1986), The Facts (1988), and The Plot against America (2004), Roth does exactly that, calling into question the conventions of his own writing and joyfully subverting his readers’ unexamined expectations. Critics like to label such books ...
94 The Prince of West End Avenue (1994)
Those born at the end of the 19th century didn’t have it easy. To make it to their old age, they had to persist through two global wars and any number of revolutions; they saw their world transformed again and again by automobiles, radio, television, and computers. Any of them who have survived into their 80s with half as much aplomb and humor as Otto Korner, the hero of Alan Isler’s ...
95 The Collected Stories (1994)
Calling this volume the “collected” stories of Grace Paley is a little silly: it couldn’t have been too hard to collect them. These 45 stories previously appeared, in the same order, in just three books—published in 1959, 1974, and 1985—and are the author’s only works of fiction. Perhaps a more apt title would have been The Celebrated Stories of Grace Paley, as that was the point of bringing them together in this format: to celebrate them as masterworks ...
96 Mr. Vertigo (1994)
However you choose to define postmodern American fiction, it ends up having something to do with the Jews, wrapped up as it is with pop culture, slapstick, irreverence toward history, irony, and heavy doses of authorial selfconsciousness. It is not surprising that, Jewish characters feature prominently in the best-known examples of the genre, such as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Don DeLillo’s ...
97 A Disturbance in One Place (1994)
“Vestigial” is not a bad description for a particular strain of Jewishness found in late 20th-century America: like an ostrich’s wings, this sense of Jewish identity persists long after its original purposefulness has passed. Such vestigial Judaism is not entirely unique to any time and place—crypto- Jews lighting candles on Fridays without knowing why have a powerful claim to ...
98 The Romance Reader (1995)
A type of Judaism that developed in the 18th century in Eastern and Central Europe, Hasidism involves extreme piety and ecstatic prayer; while one Hasidic sect, Lubavitch, seeks out non-Hasidic Jews (they’re the ones who will find you on a street corner, ask you if you’re Jewish, and sweetly request that you ...
99 While the Messiah Tarries (1995)
Asarcastic, sharp-tongued Holocaust survivor in one of Melvin Jules Bukiet’s stories asserts, somewhat cryptically, that “there are two separate, inviolate realms”: memory and theology. Whether these are indeed separate and inviolate, they are certainly the two primary wellsprings of Bukiet’s fiction. In books such as Stories of an Imaginary Childhood (1992) and After (1996), the author imagines ...
100 Tales Out of School (1995)
Despite the central position Ellis Island occupies in the memories of American Jews—as the physical spot on the continent in which the vast majority of their European ancestors first set foot, and in many cases acquired the names their families still carry—some immigrants arrived elsewhere. Galveston, Texas, for example. During the peak years of immigration around the beginning of the 20th century, in the hopes of not piling more Jews into the ghettos of New York, ...
101 Mona in the Promised Land (1996)
Gish Jen isn’t Jewish, and neither is Mona, the hero of her second novel— at first. Mona, like her creator, is the Chinese American daughter of immigrants who grows up in an overwhelmingly Jewish suburb of New York City. The town of Scarshill (a fictionalized version of Jen’s hometown, Scarsdale) is chock full of Jews—“the New Jews . . . a model minority and Great ...
102 The Complete Stories (1997)
Praising Bernard Malamud as a short story writer is like praising the sun for giving light. He was the greatest, and that’s all there is to it. Malamud’s novels are nothing to sneeze at, but the stories—absolutely all of which you can find in a single convenient paperback—are masterpieces. One of the pleasures of this collection, ...
103 The Puttermesser Papers (1997)
Ruth Puttermesser runs the gamut. In five stories, written over three decades and knitted together into a disjointed but coherent novel, Ruth creates a female golem, unwittingly reenacts an episode from the life of George Eliot, and finally arrives in Paradise, where she encounters a handful of celebrities as well as her own lost love. Since Ruth aged more or less alongside her creator, these ...
104 American Pastoral (1997)
The 1960s changed America with—literally—explosive force, and Philip Roth’s extraordinary American Pastoral hinges on the destructive power of one little bomb. The explosion in question, in a post office in a small town in New Jersey, kills a local doctor, but Roth’s main concern is with another, indirect, victim: the bomber’s father. ...
105 Like Never Before (1998)
Ehud Havazelet’s second book, Like Never Before, consists of 10 distinct short stories about a single family that bears a strong, if not total, resemblance to that of the book’s author. Like Havazelet himself, the collection’s central character rejects his position as the heir to an Orthodox rabbinic dynasty in Brooklyn and Queens; marries out of the faith, twice; and winds up in Oregon, far from his father’s sphere of influence. Several of the details diverge, of course: ...
106 Paradise, New York (1998)
The heyday of the Jewish resort hotels is long past, but the Borsht Belt lives on as a site of nostalgia for a thickly Jewish leisure culture unique to the United States. Sure, Jewish resorts existed in various locales in Europe and Canada, as well as Las Vegas and Miami Beach, but nothing compares to the Catskills in their prime, probably because they were always just a short drive or train ride away for the millions of Jews of New York City. Starting with ...
107 The Jew of New York (1998)
For about their first 100 years of existence in the United States, comic books were regarded as simplistic, dumbed-down literature for the semiliterate— and the well-intentioned Classics Illustrated series, founded by a Jewish entrepreneur named Albert Kantor, did not help to dispel that misperception. The truth is that even a passing glance at a decent comic, or graphic novel ...
108 For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999)
Several of the stories in Nathan Englander’s debut collection take place on the fringes of the world of ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews, and each has a compelling hook: a Jerusalemite denied sexual intimacy by his wife obtains his rabbi’s permission to visit a prostitute; a matchmaker tries to force a husband to grant a divorce to the wife he has abandoned; a rabbi moonlights as a ...
109 The Ladies Auxiliary (1999)
No one should be surprised that there are plenty of Jews in the American South—after all, more Jews lived in Charleston than in New York in the years before the Civil War—but it may be a revelation to some that a city like Memphis, Tennessee, contains a small but thriving Modern Orthodox community, complete with a religious high school and even a kosher restaurant ...
110 Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith (1999)
Call it what you will—golus, exile, dispersion—the Diaspora is a many-splendored thing: rather than a single leave-taking from one homeland, Jews have endured displacement after displacement throughout the centuries, meaning that there have been plenty of diasporas within the Diaspora. A century ago there were substantial communities of only ...
111 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
Jews invented the American comic book, and the superhero in particular. So, are Superman, Batman, and Spiderman all somehow Jewish, then? Well, not exactly. Fans, critics, and scholars might postulate about some essential Jewishness in each of these characters, but the truth is that their creators were unwilling to identify the heroes religiously, and, at the same ...
112 Bee Season (2000)
When reading Jewish fiction, it is surprisingly easy to forget about God. Fiction has traditionally been the domain of secularists, and, with a few salient exceptions, even novels dealing with Orthodox and Hasidic communities tend to focus on the behaviors of these groups as an anthropologist or sociologist might, devoting considerably less attention to theology and ...
113 Days of Awe (2001)
Traditional Passover seders always include the wish “Next year in Jerusalem,” which expresses the Jewish desire to arrive not in the terrestrial, beleaguered, and too often deadly city we know, but in a sublime and peaceful, unearthly place that has been redeemed by the coming of the Messiah—which is why the formula is recited even at seders in Jerusalem itself. Achy Obejas’s characters, Marranos and crypto-Jews, harbor similar messianic hopes, but ...
114 Paradise Park (2001)
Allegra Goodman and the heroine of her delightful second novel, Paradise Park, are two sides of a coin. Goodman grew up in Honolulu and has lived much of her adult life in and around Boston, while the character, Sharon Spiegelman, raised in Boston, spends her 20s and 30s in Hawaii and returns to Boston only as she nears middle age. Running in similar ...
115 Everything Is Illuminated (2002)
By the turn of the millennium, despite assertions of “Never Forget,” it could not be denied that even the most searing memories of the mid-20th century had begun to fade. Though the Holocaust remained a prominent force in American political and cultural life—including Hollywood movies and New York publishing—a so-called third generation, the ...
116 The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002)
Already by the final years of the Cold War, and thanks in part to the lobbying efforts of Americans, Soviet Jews were flowing out of the Soviet Union and into America in large numbers. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, this steady stream swelled to a flood that was bound to remind observers of the immigration boom of the late 1880s. Some of the new arrivals were children who, ...
117 Old School (2003)
In Old School, Tobias Wolff’s protagonist, a scholarship student at an elite boarding school, has been raised Catholic and only recently discovered his father’s Jewishness. “It was a fact,” the boy remarks of his Jewish background, “but not a defining fact.” He denies his heritage even when he could benefit from revealing it, despite claiming there is no anti-Semitism in the enlightened 1960s at the school. Admitting that “the Jewish boys, even the popular ones, even ...
118 San Remo Drive
Leslie Epstein’s family has always been as interesting as his fiction, if not more so. Epstein is not shy about the fact that his father and uncle, two legendary Hollywood screenwriters, wrote Casablanca; these days, he is even more widely recognized as the father of Theo Epstein, who was, at 28, the youngest ever general manager of a Major League Baseball team, and who led the Red Sox to World Series victories in 2004 and 2007. While sensitive to issues of inheritance ...
119 The First Desire (2004)
The city of Buffalo, New York, inspires thoughts of escape. This isn’t just a reaction to the bitter winter storms, or to Niagara Falls, which reminds everyone who sees it of the fragility of human life. Buffalo happens also to be the only large American city that is less exciting than its Canadian neighbor; a current website describing itself as “Jewish Buffalo on the Web” answers the frequently asked question, “Where can I find single Jews in Buffalo?” definitively: ...
120 Joy Comes in the Morning (2004)
There have always been Jewish women with strong personal connections to God and with vast knowledge of Rabbinic texts—from the matriarch Sarah, said to be a greater prophet than her husband, Abraham, to the talmudic sage Bruriah to the Maiden of Ludmir, a Hasidic leader in 19thcentury Ukraine. Until quite recently, however, there had never been a ...
121 Collected Stories (2004)
The great critic Irving Howe once noted that fate “only allows one Yiddish writer at a time to be popular with American readers.” As arbitrary as this sounds, it isn’t far from the truth, and Isaac Bashevis Singer proves it. For the second half of the 20th century, and especially after he won the Nobel Prize in 1978, he rose to extraordinary fame as America’s foremost Yiddish storyteller. Alongside his many novels and memoirs, over the course of a long career he ...
122 The World to Come (2006)
Unlike most of her peers in the ranks of young, celebrated Jewish writers, who fret primarily about their ignorance and ambivalence about the textual and social traditions of their ancestors, Dara Horn knows her stuff cold. A Ph.D. in modern Jewish literature, Horn reads everything from the Torah to I. B. Singer in the original, and she brings her commitment to Jewish texts to bear in her novels. In fact, she admits to being less conscious of how English ...
123 The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
In the late 1990s, Michael Chabon published an essay about the book Say It in Yiddish, which seemed to him a handy guide to a fantasy land that has never existed, where one needs to know how to say “What is the flight number?” and “I will call a policeman” in mameloshen. The piece occasioned much chatter and protest among Yiddishists who thought that it disrespected their ...
124 The Collected Stories (2007)
Among the most respected of American short story writers, Leonard Michaels didn’t produce an enormous body of work. His oeuvre consists of a handful of collections of fiction, often fleshed out with reprints; a novel, The Men’s Club (1981), which was turned into a movie; some memoirs, journals, and an autobiographical novella; and a smattering of academic ...
125 Petropolis (2007)
The future of American Jewish literature looks a lot like the past, with a couple of major modifications. Like Mary Antin, David Levinsky, and Sholem Aleichem’s Motl, Sasha Goldberg, the plucky heroine of Anya Ulinich’s debut novel, wends her way from Eastern Europe to the United States, hoping to find the Promised Land there. While Sasha’s predecessors ...
A. Jewish Characters in Modern American Fiction
B. Untranslated Yiddish and Hebrew Novels about America
C. Bibliographic Resources
E. American Jewish Literary Awards
Index by Author
Index by Title
Index by Subject
Publication Year: 2009
OCLC Number: 794700951
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Jewish Fiction