- Recent Works on Jewish American Modernism
The last few years have seen a renewal of interest in Jewish American modernism, a field that offers new ways to explore the Jewish experience in the United States. Though often lacking the presumed authenticity and connection to tradition characteristic of the first wave of immigrants, Jewish American modernists provide a window onto the Jewish community's mature and informed engagement with American culture. The majority of Jewish American writing in English was influenced by modernism for chronological reasons: by the time the vast immigrant waves of the 1880s had produced a generation of American-educated, financially secure, native speakers of English in the 1920s, modernism was on the rise in the United States. Even while influencing [End Page 116] Jewish American writers, however, the movement also opened itself to their influence. Proclaiming the obsolescence of traditional aesthetic modes and calling for a rethinking of the methods and aims of literature, modernism allowed American Jews to take an active role in shaping American literature.
Modernism and Jewish culture share a number of proclivities: the experience of exile; a focus on scholarship; an international awareness, particularly reflected in the knowledge of foreign languages; an interest in linguistic play; and a concern with the proper role of the aesthetic in social life. Jewish American modernists, like other minority groups, often had a double consciousness with reference to these terms, and one can observe slippages between the modernist and Jewish understandings of these in their work. Louis Zukofsky, for example, the protégé of Ezra Pound, includes excerpts of Yiddish lullabies, images from Abraham Goldfaden's play Shulamis, and Yehoash's poetry in his first Imagist work, "Poem Beginning 'The'" (1927). Zukofsky thus engages in the modernist technique of employing multilingualism to bring a taste of the strange and incomprehensible to poetry, with the twist that far from being a foreign language, that which he includes is actually his own first language, in snatches remembered from his childhood. In this way, Zukofsky uses the modernist attraction to the foreign to integrate the Jewish experience into mainstream American literature.
Recent critical works often draw on a theme such as language or exile, shared between American Jews and modernist thought, to structure a deeper exploration of Jewish American modernism. Two of the most notable of these works focus on the development of a particularly Jewish American language. Stephen Fredman seeks to recast our understanding of the Objectivists as Jewish poets whose Jewish consciousness made a material difference to their modernist aesthetic. Hana Wirth-Nesher establishes that the Jewish aspect of an English-language work can often be traced to an echo of a Jewish language in the text, based on her innovative reading of the paradigmatic Jewish American modernist Henry Roth, among others. Two other writers focus on the question of exile, and on how Jewish American writers conceptualized homeland and Diaspora. Maeera Shreiber investigates the role of exile in giving rise to poetry and prayer, and demonstrates how Jewish American poetry sustains a sense of estrangement in the face of pressure to subsume alienation in allegiance to a homeland. Ranen [End Page 117] Omer-Sherman looks at Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American poetry, and argues that this tension sheds important light on the development of a Jewish American aesthetic. Although the latter two writers do not concentrate specifically on modernism, their analyses of exile and poetry as particularly liberating forces owes much to modernist thought. Integrating their focus on communal and individual identity into the discussion of Jewish American modernism has the potential of yielding very fruitful results.
Stephen Fredman's A Menorah for Athena (2001) argues compellingly for the importance of seeing Charles Reznikoff's work...