- Dappled Things:Reading and Analyzing the New Jewish Writing Review Essay
Contemporary American Jewish writing has taken striking new directions in the past twenty-five years, and recent excellent analytical works help us pinpoint what distinguishes these new works. Reading these lively observations along with the writing itself helps us as readers to enter into the dialogue. Collections of essays edited by Jay Halio, Ben Siegel, and Lois Rubin, a single-authored but wide-ranging volume by Janet Handler Burstein, and an anthology of recent short fiction edited by Paul Zakrzewski, evoke poet Gerald Manley Hopkins' moving, "Praise be to God for dappled things." What makes the new writing different is that it is emphatically not all of a piece. [End Page 148]
American Jewish writing over the past two decades is characterized by an unprecedented diversity of tone, voice, and background. Graphic novels, becoming increasingly popular, are by their very nature episodic, with visible cellular boundaries, but even in prose fiction today pastiche prevails, quilting together dissonant experiences, revealing the seams and fault lines, and sometimes shining a spotlight on them.
Much of the celebrated Jewish writing of the mid-twentieth century was obsessed with the alternately painful and hilarious process of assimilation. The "big three"—Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and especially the young Philip Roth—were the best sociologists one could ask for. In Roth's early writing, the characteristics of "us" (the Jews) and "them" (the Christians who owned America) were clearly conflicting but could be easily contrasted since each seemed firmly in place. "Goodbye, Columbus" and "Elie the Fanatic" (1959), for example, painted the assimilatory hunger of American Jews in broad but dazzlingly accurate strokes, and Portnoy's Complaint (1968) farcically captured a moment in time when Jews were both inside and outside American culture but were still acutely aware of what values and behaviors lay on either side of that binary dividing line.
Today, that excruciating awareness of "us and them," and the hunger for assimilation that goes with it, are all but gone—except for first and second generation Jews from the former Soviet Union, like Gary Shteyngart, who bemoans that he must "rehash the old immigrant narrative" and admits, "We may very well be the last immigrant Jews in this country who have a foot in both worlds." And yet, despite ribald overt echoes of early Roth, the fiction of Shteyngart and his cohort differs from American Jewish fiction of half a century ago because today's immigrants seem less motivated by American blandness. They want desperately to succeed, but they do not measure success by their ability to disappear into the smooth, sweet world that Roth would later subversively call the "American pastoral." Instead, their visions of success are themselves jaggedly dissonant, as Shteyngart details:
. . . I left for my parents' Long Island estate. The Abramov manse was a nice, goofy, immigrant's house—mock Tudor wedded to Dutch colonial with some Moorish influences thrown in as if to announce that the owners were real Americans, unencumbered by modesty or shame, who could damn well do as they pleased with their private property.(Lost Tribe, pp. 49–55)
The estate he describes is light-years away from the Patimkin mansion in Short Hills, New Jersey, or from Portnoy's description of the lace curtains of football-playing "real Americans," with their nicely combed hair, deep voices, perfect grammar, and blond, tulip-like daughters. Thus, although both immigrants like Shteyngart and Englander (to Israel) and non-immigrants like [End Page 149] Jonathan Safran Foer mine the Old World experience and interlace it with...