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  • A Response from MORRIS DICKSTEIN
  • Morris Dickstein

Is there a specifically Jewish literature? If so, what are the qualities that make it Jewish? Michael P. Kramer's essay is a brilliantly incisive survey of two centuries of debate. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he himself acknowledges—that the whole question is now largely beside the point because the answers are self-evident. Yes, there is a Jewish literature, though it varies, as Jews themselves do, from country to country, from language to language, even from writer to writer. Categorizing literature into types is no longer thought to be a major function of criticism. But there is hardly anything more important than the difficult task of tracing the mainsprings of the individual writer's imagination.

The appearance and widespread acclaim of many Jewish writers during the twentieth century did not settle the question of the Jewishness of their work, [End Page 324] especially when their main interests lay elsewhere. Kramer suggests that at bottom we think of their work as Jewish because they were born Jews, and this incites us to be ingenious at finding something Jewish in the content, the language, the humor, or the psychological cast of such writers, however faintly this ethnic signature is imprinted or distorted. We run the risk of claiming them for parochial reasons, out of a skewed sense of communal pride. This is understandable, since the Christian world so long abused and mistreated us and denied us a real culture, while brusquely appropriating and reinterpreting much of the culture we had. Our search for Jewish markers could become a form of compensatory therapy, not a fruitful program for literary scholarship.

The very existence of the Jews was long seen as anomalous because of their dispersion and tenacious survival, which owed nothing to "literature" but very much to religious texts as they shaped practice and cemented communal bonds. Yet those texts and practices also dramatized a common mythology that was eloquently grounded in literary forms, including storytelling, verse, proverb, prophecy, philosophical dialogue, and liturgical writing. One way or another, the People of the Book lived by the book, though this was not yet called literature. It was left to the Enlightenment and the waning of religious authority for many Jewish texts to be reconfigured as literature, an intrinsically secular category. As Jews were grudgingly accepted into the pluralist mainstream, giving up much of their religious baggage in the process, such texts (and many secular ones that were added to them) helped Jews preserve and renew their identity in an era of emancipation. The persistence of antisemitism and persecution enforced this separation.

The universalism of the Enlightenment, with its vision of liberating us into a common humanity, challenged all forms of tribalism, nationalism, and religious particularism. During the nineteenth century, however, such local loyalties were prized as never before. National traditions were resurrected, or more often invented, and individual artists were expected to nurture and pay tribute to them. A similar conflict was played out among writers in the twentieth century, between an aesthetic conception of literature as a vehicle for what is universally human and a particularist sense of literature as a way of reaffirming group identity. In both politics and literature, Jews were widely committed to the Enlightenment project that had offered them an unprecedented freedom, and antisemites in turn caricatured them [End Page 325] as rootless cosmopolitans. To T. S. Eliot it was the presence of a large number of freethinking Jews, not ghetto Jews, that would threaten the idea of a Christian society.

The emergence of Jews as major literary figures paralleled their emergence in society. The first important Jewish literary figures of the century—Bergson, Freud, Proust, and Kafka—parked their Jewish identities at the door and eventually gained vast cultural influence in a wider sphere. The parochial taint of the ghetto did not cling to them, though they were conscious of never being fully accepted. For the writers of the 1930s, Marxism created another universalism that left specific Jewish loyalties behind, though the actual practice of some writers, including Henry Roth and Michael Gold, trumped their political views. After World War II, the universalism of disinterested...


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