- Connections and Collisions: Identities in Contemporary Jewish-American Women's Writing
There was a time, not long ago, when the American Jewish literary canon was a decidedly male corpus and histories of American Jewish literature, as sketched by mainly male literary scholars, included nary a woman. In those days, the field of Jewish American literary studies was unabashedly dominated by studies of Abraham Cahan, Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. Occasionally one might stumble upon a reference to Mary Antin, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, or Cynthia Ozick, but these were rare, exceptional sightings.1
Much has changed since those times. In the late 70s and 80s, under the influence of feminist literary and historical studies, scholars began to write about such forgotten Jewish women writers as Anzia Yezierska, Edna Ferber, Jo Sinclair, and Tess Slesinger. Story and poetry anthologies such as Julia Wolf Mazow's The Woman Who Lost Her Names: Selected Writings of American Jewish Women (1980), Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz's The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology (1989) and Joyce Antler's America and I: Short Stories by American Jewish Women Writers (1990) brought new attention to Jewish women's writing in America, while critical works such as Diane Lichtenstein's Writing Their Nations: The Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Women Writers (1992), Ann R. Shapiro's Jewish American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical and Critical Sourcebook (1994) and Harold Bloom's Jewish Women Fiction Writers (1998) began to sketch out an alternative female Jewish tradition. Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, published in 2001 and edited by a team of two men (Jules Chametzky and John Felstiner) and two women (Hilene Flanzbaum and [End Page 105] Kathryn Hellerstein), offered perhaps the most tangible evidence of this paradigm shift in that thirty-six of the featured writers are women.
Connections and Collisions: Identities in Contemporary Jewish-American Women's Writing, an anthology of essays on Jewish American women's writing, edited by Lois Rubin, is a recent addition to a now-blossoming field. In her introduction Rubin presents the volume as "the first to focus on what it is to be a woman and a Jew and how the two identities interact—at times supporting each other and at times acting in opposition" (9). To make this point, she contrasts her book with a previous anthology of essays about Jewish American women writers: Daughters of Valor: Contemporary Jewish American Women Writers (1997), edited by Jay Halio and Ben Siegel, which focused on the ways in which Jewishness has shaped the work of Jewish American women writers, but not on the "confluence of Jewish and female identity" (10).
Rubin's assertions regarding the firstness of her anthology are both well-founded and incorrect. In their introduction to Daughters of Valor, Halio and Siegel announce their strong feelings that "however vital gender may be in current criticism, it is not of the utmost importance"2 —a quizzical assertion, given their decision to edit an anthology of essays exclusively about woman writers. This editorial dismissal of the significance of gender notwithstanding, Daughters of Valor is filled with provocative essays that reckon with questions of Jewishness as well as femaleness, some by authors such as S. Lillian Kremer, Gloria Cronin, and Victoria Aarons, who contributed to Rubin's volume as well.
Indeed, there is a striking similarity to these two books, beginning with but not limited to the fact that they were both published by University of Delaware Press. Each begins with an essay about Cynthia Ozick and includes essays about Anne Roiphe and Allegra Goodman. Both volumes demonstrate openness to postmodern critical approaches, though few of the authors delve deeply into matters of feminist theory. Both volumes include essays that deal with the ambivalent relationship that many feminist Jewish American women writers have had with their Judaism.
One mark of a field's development is a certain measure of redundancy: we know that a writer's work or an issue...