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  • Shall Japheth Dwell in the Tents of Shem?:Hellenisms and Hebraisms in Selected American Jewish Literature
  • Lew Fried (bio)


There is an often emotionally charged movement in the American Jewish novel: an enduring recoil from the worship and making of literal and metaphorical idols—whether of gods, or ideologies, or cultures. Such a response illuminates either the protagonist's or writer's comportment with Judaism, certainly with its foundational texts and commentary, such as Torah and Talmud. Often, when these seminal works are mostly forgotten by Jews, an aversion to idols remains.

I propose that we look at rejections of idolatries and examine their presence in several seminal works that span some 125 years: Emma Lazarus's "Venus of the Louvre" (1884); Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf (1939); and Philip Roth's The Human Stain (2000). I shall focus specifically on their presentation of the conflicts between Jerusalem and Athens: the former, a metaphor for the keeping of the Law; the latter, a metonym for the often described idolizing and idolatrous free-spirited psyche of Greece and Rome. Foundational Judaic texts such as the Mishnah's Avodah Zarah (the worship of idols, approx. 200 CE), Matthew Arnold's "Hebraism and Hellenism" in his Culture and Anarchy (1869), and Heinrich Heine's understanding of the "matter of Greece" in his reflections as well as "The Gods of Greece" (1826) provide an indispensable background.

Each of the above mentioned works by Lazarus, Steinberg, and Roth offers readers a different perspective on Hellas and Hebraism as well as dissimilar paganisms and Judaisms, suggesting the flexibility of the terms and their strategic uses. Theologically, these "cities" of Jerusalem and Athens are as distant as Scripture from sculpture; historically, they frame, for example, the Talmudic dialogue of the imagined Jew with the scoffing Hellene; aesthetically, they convey the pull of Hellenism [End Page 40] on the Jewish protagonist (or narrator). Nevertheless, for all of the Hebraic proscriptions against the primacy and worship of other gods, and for all of the Enlightenment's fury against superstition, and for all the secularization wrought by the culture of industrialization, the spirit of Hellas and the God of Jerusalem are strikingly alive, still commanding us.

Hebraism and Hellas have always had a homeland and a habitation (both material and spiritual): witness the politics of return to a homeland on the part of Zionists and the attractiveness of a sweet Diaspora for those who have chosen to live "outside the land" of Israel in what Orthodox rabbis would see as a Hellenic culture. Although these opposing positions are large and simplified, they give American Jewish literature its paradoxically variable character and strength in exploring the nature of freedom and the Jewish self.

Nevertheless, writing between Athens and Jerusalem is not the same as writing against Jerusalem or accepting Athens. In fact, this "middle distance" characterizes the classic challenges to faith. One can enjoy both a willing suspension of disbelief and of belief. In fact, one often holds in mind multiple interpretations and perspectives, including Socratic irony as well as Talmudic disputation. For with the abandonment of Jewish foundational texts and what can be called their coherent, binding discourse that identified the Jewish community of faith as characteristically an historical people, the American Jewish writer has been immersed in literatures that seem to have erased the presence of Hebrew Scriptures and Talmud. However, the aversion to idolatry is an identifiable response; it is there; we often are averse; we have possibly forgotten our traditions.

As a result, in order to understand part of American Jewish literary history and culture, in other words, ourselves, it is worth looking at the above mentioned works by Lazarus, Steinberg, and Roth to see how American Jewish writers define and redefine the varying attitudes toward Athens and Jerusalem. For have we ever stopped asking who we and our communities are? As a textual community so variously creative, what is our foundational culture?


Tanach (Hebrew Scriptures) is stringent in its prohibition of idolatry, but we should also pay attention both to the debates in Avodah Zarah about one's comportment with forms of idolatry as well as Rabbi Akiva's pronouncement in the...


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pp. 40-48
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