- The Challenge of the Jewish American Novel
Novelists are always outside academia in some way—even if, like me, they work within it. They are on the outside because they are artists. Their work is not factual. This doesn’t mean that their work is not based on scholarship. But, in the end, novels, like paintings or symphonies, are works of art. Novels rely on character and setting and evocation and plot. If those elements are not in play, the history that the novel addresses—be it the far past or the near past, political or social,—will all be lost to the reader.
When I started my first book, Golden Country, which takes place on the East Coast from the 1920s to the 1960s—I asked myself a scholarly question about Irving Howe’s declaration that there would be no Jewish fiction when Jews moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and ’60s. He stated that what was once Jewish fiction would be transformed into merely American fiction, and it would lose all the special qualities that constitute Jewishness. I asked myself, and continue to ask myself, if this is true. This has been a fundamental question in my work: What makes fiction Jewish? Similarly, I ask myself about the difference between a Jewish experience and an immigrant experience. These two experiences overlap significantly.
As a writer, fiction is the filter through which I view the world. I am interested in history—in how history has affected Jews and Jewish families, and in how Jews and Jewish families have affected history. But there is always a personal aspect to my work. For my first book, I accessed the diaries that my grandmother left to me when she died. They helped me to tell the stories of some people I once knew, and some I had never met. My view of this history, though, has always been driven by my characters.
I do a lot of research in my work, but research and scholarship are not the same thing. My first book examines the immigrant novel and, I hope, delivers that traditional book in a new way, with a contemporary feel. But it is not merely what historical novels sometimes can be, which is nothing more than costumery. I was not interested in the costumery of the 1920s in Brooklyn, but in getting to know the characters who happened to live there in that time. True intimacy with characters is a modern conceit. Crossing genres, if this is in fact what that is, is something that non-academic audiences have considerable interest in. [End Page 61]
Both Golden Country and my second book, Something Red, take on several generations and I’m conscious of having my books portray differing perspectives—the voices of men and women of various ages over several periods of time linking the generations. For my second book, Something Red, though, I asked myself different historical questions: what being a Jewish American means in a religious context, in a cultural one, and, most important to this novel, what does it mean politically? This book takes place in the late 1970s—and it deals with the decline of radicalism in an assimilated Jewish family, from the Lower East Side communists down to the Grateful Dead-following grandchildren. The novel explores the ways in which food is used in a family as part of its identity, and also the ways in which food plays a role politically in the world. (This was the time of the grain embargo, the first moment in American history when food was used as a weapon by a nation.) I also asked myself a personal question, which was how did what was happening in my house match up with what was happening outside it?
The Jewish aspect of my books has caused me to be perceived as a certain kind of writer. I’m celebrated in some circles, such as the Jewish Book Council, a wide-reaching network that has brought me to speak to Jewish audiences all over the country, and that has nominated me for several awards. Most of these audiences have embraced me, but some have dismissed me...