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15 Evolving Paradigms of Jewish Women in Twentieth-Century American Jewish Fiction: Through a Male Lens/ Through a Female Lens S. LILLIAN KREMER Part One The radically divergent portraits of Jewish women in mid and late twentiethcentury Jewish American fiction are, more often than not, a reflection of the gender of the author. Jewish women are rarely adequately contextualized either historically or culturally, but are frequently the subject of satire and calumny in texts written by men. Assertive, highly verbal, clever Jewish women are frequently caricatured in mid and late twentieth-century male-authored American fiction as "pushy" and unfavorably compared with restrained, docile, "real" American women, that is, gentile women. Often, as in Philip Roth's fiction, Jewish women are either manipulative mothers or lovers, or spoiled daughters. The Jewish mother is routinely transformed from Yiddish literature's self-sacrificial enabler to American literature's selfish, pathologically domineering , guilt-inducing castrator of husbands and sons. Sophie Portnoy,1 the apotheosis of the typical "smothering mother," is obsessed with controlling every aspect of her son's life, as is the overprotective, overbearing, quicktongued mother in Bruce Jay Friedman's A Mother's Kisses.2 Similarly subject to the barb of male invective in high and popular culture is the daughter of the Jewish mother, the denigrated "Jewish American Princess." Brenda Patimkin of Goodbye, Columbus and the daughter of Newark's zipper-king in My Life as a Man are satirized as self-centered, materialistic, and sexually manipulative, all stereotypes of the Jew in love with money, revisioned from a misogynistic perspective. 201 202 S. LILLIAN KREMER I do not assert that all Jewish male writers are guilty of misogynistic stereotyping. There are complex, even admirable, female characters in the fiction of Jewish men. Henry Roth's 1937 masterpiece, Call It Sleep, celebrates the Jewish mother, an immigrant with enormous reserves of strength, who provides love and security for her sensitive, intelligent, terrified son and her psychotic husband.3 Bellow's female portraits are not merely satiric. They are culturally and historically contextualized. For instance, Herzog's adoring mother and the sustaining wife of "The Old System" garner honor as traditional Jewish women.4 Although Sorella Fonstein shares the physical grotesquery Bellow often attributes to women, she is nevertheless the fiction's moral registrar.5 Malamud's beautiful lady of the lake, Isabella della Seta, takes the moral high ground over her American would-be lover, who hides his Jewish identity to win her love.6 Potok's women are consistently portrayed respectfully for their intellectual achievements and communal service. More often, however, Jewish women are represented in mid and late twentiethcentury male authored texts as materialistic and self-centered, manipulative, overprotective mothers and emasculating lovers, sexually frigid or alluring as the exotic Other. Prior to the proliferation of fiction by Jewish American women, rarely was a Jewish female protagonist presented as a significant social or political activist, Judaically literate, a religious or spiritual thinker, a moral mentor, or even shaped by the vagaries of Jewish history. Female Jewish writers create protagonists borne of the life they know and against the literature on which they, and their readers, have been nurtured . They write against the grain of Jewish and gentile misogynist representations , creating fiction that focuses not on the Jewish woman's surgically bobbed nose and ample breasts, or on her capacity for colorful invective, but on the fullness of her being, her intellect, her concern for social and political justice, and her ethical stance. The results, then, are female protagonists manifestly shaped by a distinctive history and culture. In contrast to malecreated Jewish women who seem oblivious to Jewish culture and history, women's fictional portraits are of fully developed, complex protagonists who, as Joyce Antler observes, are concerned with "the pull between assimilation and tradition; loss of identity; the exploration of unfamiliar cultures; the search for the moral meaning of Judaism and Jewish life; anti-Semitism; feelings of marginality (as Jews and/or as women); generational conflict; the importance of social commitment, and of writing itself."7 The women writers who are the subject of this study introduce identifiable Jewish subjects and themes in their fiction, which is marked by diversity and inclusivity of Jewish experience. They introduce female protagonists who are influenced by the particularity of Jewish languages, history, religious philosophy, and traditions. Their fiction reflects increased visibility of Jewish women who are deeply involved in Jewish life at every level of experience, ranging from the histori- Evolving...


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