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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 159-161



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Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation. By Emily Miller Budick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 252 pp

American Jewish writers, like Jews generally, have been preoccupied - transfixed would perhaps be more accurate-by African Americans. Leading critics Norman Podhoretz, Leslie Fiedler, Cynthia Ozick and Shlomo Katz as well as novelists Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Norman Mailer, for example, have devoted a significant part of their oeuvre to explaining the Black condition as well as to exploring the interaction of the two groups in society.

Black writers have paid less attention to Jews. In her important book, Blacks and Jews in Literary Conversation, Emily Miller Budick, a professor of American Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, provides an insightful explanation: Jews, having become highly assimilated, she suggests, looked to Blacks to remind them of their fading, Jewish identity. In a sense, she argues, Jews found in Blacks a stand-in for themselves.

Jewish critics and writers, such as Sidney Hook, Norman Podhoretz, and others, felt that through the elimination of prejudice and discrimination, Blacks would inexorably follow the same trajectory as Jews. The Black experience, however, differed significantly from that of Jews. Jews were, in the final analysis, Whites. By the second half of the 1960s, as [End Page 159] integration efforts failed to relieve social and economic disadvantages, Black writers and intellectuals became more interested in going it alone. Thus, writers, such as James Baldwin and especially Harold Cruse, often infuriated their Jewish counterparts by seeking to shake off Jewish as well as White influence and control. In Cruse's case, the harshness of his attack on Jews in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) seemed to position Jews as the enemy of Black advancement.

Still, the two groups were historically locked together. There was the common experience of slavery and how it played out in each community. Then, there was what some saw as the respective "Holocausts" each group experienced - for Black writers and intellectuals the Middle Passage, (which forms the context in Toni Morrison's novels Song of Solomon [1977] and Beloved [1987]) and, of course, for Jews, Hitler. In recent years, Black writers have been angered by what some saw as the Jewish appropriation of the term. They did not need to be told by Jews or Jewish writers that their suffering was as great as that of the American Black.

Even as the relations between Blacks and Jews grew more tense beginning in the late 1960s, what Fiedler called the "myth of racial harmony and intermingling," retained continued saliency. For some Jewish writers, too, the idea of African-American physicality was much admired, as in Mailer's famous essay "The White Negro" in Irving Howe's Dissent. But the "myth", if it indeed was a myth, has begun to wear thin more recently. Even though Podhoretz shared it, to some degree, his essay "My Negro Problem - and Ours" (1963) marked a sharp turn in Jewish writing about Blacks. Here Podhoretz candidly admitted his fear of Black physicality. Growing up in Brooklyn, he was sometimes beaten and robbed by Black toughs. Balancing fear and admiration, Podhoretz produced his famous solution -- miscegenation, a formula that satisfied neither Jews nor the rising class of Black militants and intellectuals.

Growing suspicion and distrust evidenced in Podhoretz's controversial essay coupled now with heightened anxieties following the Six Day War reached a high point in Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970). Sammler, a refugee from Hitler's Holocaust, is brutalized by a burglar and the experience exacerbates Bellow's feelings of the broader breakdown of order and civility in society. Despite what some might see as racist overtones, the novel, so Budick suggests, offers an impassioned plea for rationality and human balance. Much subsequent Jewish writing, including Malamud's The Tenants (1971), echoes the disenchantment of Podhoretz and Bellow. Too late for inclusion here is historian Seth Forman's Blacks In The Jewish Mind: A Crisis of [End Page 160] Liberalism (1998) which suggests that in crucial...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 159-161
Launched on MUSE
2000-03-01
Open Access
No
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