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  • A Response from GERSHON SHAKED
  • Gershon Shaked

I would like to remind Dr. Kramer of a classic essay by Dov Sadan, one of the greatest students of Jewish literature in the twentieth century, in which Sadan proposed an answer to the question of what Jewish literature is. It is an approach I have adapted for myself and shall present here. In contrast to the standard literary histories of Klausner, Lachover, and Waxman, Sadan argued that Jewish literature embraced the writings of Hasidism and mitnaggedic culture as well as the secular belletristic writing that we customarily think of as "literature." Jewish languages, especially Hebrew and Yiddish, are key, and each performs a different function and [End Page 332] should be understood differently. Writing in Hebrew signifies that a writer is ineluctably part of a long-standing linguistic, literary, and semiotic tradition and that the texts he produces are enmeshed in Hebrew intertextuality. Even if a writer's aims are programmatically secularized, the Hebrew medium in which he creates the text prevents escape from deeply embedded traditional connotations.

Yiddish—with its German, Slavic, and Hebrew components—is different in its function. In addition to connotations derived from ancient Hebrew and old Yiddish texts, Yiddish evokes the semiotic circumstance of Eastern European Jewry and the shtetl. So even when modern Yiddish literary texts are set in the urban culture of North and South America, far away from the shtetl, the process of reading in Yiddish inevitably involves the nostalgia and nightmare of things past.

Issues of definition arise only when it comes to texts written in non-Jewish languages by Jews who maintain that they are Jewish writers or who are regarded as so by others. Here a standard of common sense is often all that is needed. Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed and Judah Halevi's Kuzari, although written in Arabic, are obviously works of Jewish literature, as is Franz Rosenzweig's The Star of Redemption. On the other side of the spectrum, it is artificial and ridiculous to claim as Jewish writing the works of Norman Mailer, Alfred Doblin (author of Berlin Alexanderplatz), and Marcel Proust, even though the three were born as Jews. Here the criterion of race simply does not pass the test of common sense.

The problem of definition arises in the case of writers who fall in between: Jewish writers writing in non-Jewish languages whose works deal with overtly Jewish thematics, semiotics, symbols, archetypes, and myths. (It is often more an issue of reception than of the "text itself." Groups of readers, for diverse reasons, will appropriate a text as Jewish; sometimes, this Judaization is the result of some deep necessity to misread the text.) It is not difficult for readers to call a text Jewish when it has obvious themes that deal with the shtetl, the ghetto, antisemitism, events in Jewish history, and aspects of the Holocaust. Among others, I think of Heinrich Heine's Rabbi von Bacharach, Arthur Schnitzler's Professor Benhardi, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, Bernard Malamud's The Fixer, Philip Roth's Operation Shylock, and Jurek Becker's Jacob the Liar. One doesn't have to invoke a fundamentalist definition of Jewish race to see that these works are viewed by their readers as making a contribution to the consciousness of the Jews as [End Page 333] an ethnic group, although all these works also have a strong universal axis of meaning.

More complicated is the case of texts that lack overt Jewish thematics but nevertheless seem to have a major Jewish subtext. The obvious example is Kafka. He refers to Jews and Judaism continually in his letters and journals, but in his canonical short stories and novels they are nowhere to be seen. While many Jewish critics read him as a Jewish writer, non-Jewish readers approach him as an existential, absurd, religious, and even postmodern writer. He is the example of how the definition of Jewishness is determined by the reading process. He is not a "Jewish" writer because of his ancestry or his cultural tradition—despite artificial attempts to establish intertextual connections between Kafka and kabbalah—but rather because Jewish...


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