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Reviewed by:
  • Ideology and Jewish Identity in Israeli and American Literature
  • Tamar S. Hess
Emily Miller Budick , ed., Ideology and Jewish Identity in Israeli and American Literature. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001. 284 pp.

Keeping away from the quicksand of definitions and ongoing debates over what exactly constitutes Jewish literature and Jewish culture, the title of this book seems to restrict itself to geographical divisions. But in her introduction to the volume Emily Miller Budick attempts to draw parallels between these seemingly distant bodies of literature: "one powerful stand of continuity among Jewish literary texts of at least the last century is the desire for nationhood and the grappling with its implications" (3). However, Budick, like many of the other contributors to this volume, notes that "nationhood" carries different meanings in different places. Thus, for example, "for Jewish Americans, America was not merely the place in which the Jew might fully experience both her religious and secular self, but, in a remarkably literal sense, America was Israel; it was the promised land," no less a "Jewish Israel than the new nation in Palestine" (17); whereas the Zionist "move towards a national literature, in a national homeland, written in the language of the Jews, was meant to concretize Jewish identity and to establish its separate but equal status among those of other peoples and nations" (11).

Budick's own contribution to the volume, "The African American and Israeli 'Other' in the Construction of Jewish American Identity," points to some of the complexities that characterize the apparent dichotomy between the Zionist and the American-Jewish options. Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement, and especially the prevalent analogy in Jewish intellectuals' writings between the Jewish Holocaust and American slavery, is presented in this paper as serving internal Jewish needs. Focusing on Stanley Elkins's 1959 study of African American slavery, Budick describes the Holocaust-slavery analogy as a move towards universalizing Jewish victimization and casting the Jew as the ultimate victim of racism; this move deprived African Americans of the distinctiveness of their experience and proved devastating to African-American and Jewish-American relations. In addition, the role of the African American as an "other" in the construction of Jewish American identity has had "direct implications for the relationship between some groups of American Jews and the State of Israel" (198). For after 1967, American Jews viewed Israelis as [End Page 208] representing not powerlessness but power and their own Jewishness as "radical self-otherness," with "the essential 'Jew,' the authentic Jew" defined "by the position of victimhood" (210).

Jewish American resentment of Israeli Jews for that very reason is studied in H. M. Daleski's insightful "Philip Roth's To Jerusalem and Back," which traces the shifts in Roth's attitudes towards Israel throughout his literary career. Roth's presence is dominant in the chapters devoted to American Jewish fiction; Jewish-American literature is thus mainly associated with heterosexual, Ashkenazi, male, elderly, middle-class authors. Other Jewish American voices, such as American Sephardi Jews, Jews of Arab origin, and women hardly filter through.

Hana Wirth-Nesher's essay "Magnified and Sanctified: Liturgy in Contemporary Jewish American Literature," the only one to focus on American Jewish authors that came of age after the 1960s, such as Alegra Goodman, Art Spiegelman, Johanna Kaplan, and Tony Kushner, discusses the function of the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in American-Jewish fiction, as "a sign of collective memory and Jewish identity, a religious text turned marker of ethnic origin" (123). It suggests that "Jewish American fiction has tended to treat the Kaddish as a signifier of the 'essence' of Judaism or Jewishness, as a ritual untouched by the process of assimilation or accommodation" and as a largely secularized "affirmation of the continuity of Israel based on immanence, within history" (122). The paradoxical role of this particular prayer as a symbol of Jewish continuity is, in Wirth-Nesher's words, "endemic to the prayer itself," since it is performed in the context of mourning but does not, in its content, relate to this fact (128). Wirth-Nesher's impressive readings of the Kaddish in Spiegelman's Maus and Kushner's Angels...


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