- The Task of Memory:American Jewish Writers and the Complexities of Transmission
The origin of a story is always an absence," remarks the narrator of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated.1 At the heart of the quest for stories resides a perceived emptiness, a haunting sense of incompletion that needs to be filled. It's a motivating absence, so much so that one finds in the literature by American Jewish writers an urgency to recapture the very essence of those experiences transformed by time and perceptual as well as spatial distance. And while it may be, as Nadine Fresco suggests in "Remembering the Unknown," that finally "One remembers only that one remembers nothing," the desire to return to the origins of the story is undefeated by time or distance, or even by the memory's treacherous imagination.2
Such an impulse to transmit memory characterizes American Jewish literature, from its immigrant roots, to those post–World War II Jewish writers who made claims not only to a land but to an [End Page 300] evolving literary culture, and eventually to a contemporary generation of Jewish writers staking claims on the threshold of a new millennium. The stories they tell—narratives of loss and continuity, suffering and survival—link the disparate assemblage of American Jewish writers, writers that span more than a century, to a shared history, a history of stories and storytelling that depends upon the persistent entreaties of memory, real or imagined, a collective stronghold held in sharp embrace against the ruptures of the past and the time-spent erosions of memory. These are stories that, to one extent or another, circle back on themselves. Not unlike artist Robert Smithson's earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970), they spiral back to the center, suggesting a counterclockwise return to the point of origin, and thus bear the defining traumatic imprint of diasporic rupture but attempts at suture as well, through a retelling and reconceptualizing of defining stories of a collective Jewish past. American Jewish literature, since its immigrant beginnings, arguably can be seen as a collective expression, an ongoing narrative of Jewish history, despite its deviations, its turnings, and its absences. For sometimes it takes a while—a generation, even—to return to and articulate the past, especially a past that contains within it some of the most monstrous and most transcendent moments of history. As one of Grace Paley's narrators admits, "There is a long time in me between knowing and telling," in other words, between imagining the past into being and acknowledging one's consanguinity with and indebtedness to those whose lives directly bear the marks of such shared history.3
In clarifying the generational reach of memory, Marianne Hirsch, in Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory, makes a useful distinction:
[P]ostmemory is distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection. Postmemory is a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation. This is not to say that memory itself is unmediated, but that it is more directly connected to the past. [End Page 301] Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic events that can be neither understood nor recreated.4
Perhaps the evolution of American Jewish literature might be thought of as a move from memory to "postmemory," a transfer of memory from one generation to the next, as another of Grace Paley's narrators maintains, imagining subsequent generations with "their ears to the ground, listening for signals from long ago."5
Two recent scholarly books speak to the consequences of generational attempts to negotiate and reposition memory: Janet Handler Burstein's Telling the...