- Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation
Emily Budick begins this important book by challenging the cultural myth that in their struggle against social injustice, American Jews and blacks enjoyed a special alliance that went awry in the 1960s. Instead, she argues, the tensions that emerged between the two groups during the 1960s—when Jews had clearly “made it,” to echo Norman Podhoretz—mark the beginning rather than the end of their fruitful relationship.
Budick charts a new cultural dialogue running through a number of essays and novels written since the 1960s. While one may fault her for being overly focused on the New York literary milieu, one would be hard pressed to dispute the significance of the texts and controversies she engages. Her subjects include texts by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Stanley Elkins, Norman Mailer, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. She superbly underlines the continuity between earlier debates and those that rage today over the nature of multiculturalism, and she aptly contextualizes controversial works (Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, for example) that are prone to greater misunderstanding when read in isolation. Her readings reveal a convoluted intertextuality dense in biblical allusion and Emersonian rhetoric. They are sometimes provocative and consistently rich, the performances of a remarkable critical intelligence. For Budick, the bitterest source of contention in these “conversations” remains inescapably “the trope of the Holocaust.” Have claims for the exceptional nature of the Holocaust and of the history of the Jews obstructed our acknowledgment of the exceptional nature of modern slavery and the history of African Americans, as Morrison’s dedication of Beloved to “Sixty Million [End Page 600] and more” might suggest? Budick, a practicing Israeli Jew, clearly greets the implicit historical revisionism here (as she does the black Christian supersessionist tendencies in Baldwin, Walker, and Morrison) with unease. Still, recognizing the possibility that contemporary Zionism in America was indirectly inspired by the Black Power movement, she identifies with the need of an historically oppressed people to forge a cultural memory that helps ensure their survival as a people and empowers them in the present. As a Zionist, Budick is finally more critical of the universalist aspirations of fully Americanized Jews (who have tended to displace their lost ethnicity onto American blacks) than she is of the emphasis on cultural specificity she finds in African American writing. The problem remains, though, of how the stories of two exceptional peoples, each of whom have tended to misread each other’s complex histories through the lenses of their own, are to peacefully coexist. Budick takes no refuge in sentimental dreams of an ideal multicultural synthesis but, rather, stakes her faith on the extent to which these two groups have depended on one another for their mutual self-constructions. Theirs has been a love-hate relationship that has unquestionably reinvigorated the contemporary American grain.