- New Directions in Jewish American and Holocaust Literatures: Reading and Teaching ed. by Victoria Aarons and Holli Levitsky
ALBANY: SUNY UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2019. 348 PP.
This ambitious collection aims to give a glimpse at how contemporary scholarship in Jewish American and Holocaust Studies is addressing the trauma of the twentieth century as survivors dwindle and we lose the immediacy of direct witness. Several of these essays lay out an anxiety over what it means for narratives of the Holocaust and—less urgently but still compellingly—narratives of the immigrant experience to pass from first-person accounts to second- and now third-generation chroniclers. Organized into a two-part structure, one half of the book addressing challenges of reading the literature and the other to teaching it, the whole demonstrates how an expanded understanding of midrashic reading can address that anxiety and point to revitalized ways of reading the literature.
Many of the individual essays offer approaches to literature at risk of being increasingly challenging without survivors to mediate it. Phyllis Lassner, as an extension of work she’s admirably pursued for years, considers the particular challenge in the narrative of hidden children survivors who represent a vanished culture that they themselves must learn aspects of secondhand. Aimee Pozorski focuses on how the “trope/figure” of Anne Frank has been made to serve particular ends at the price, perhaps, of the identity of the girl herself. And Jessica Lang offers strategies for teaching third-generation Holocaust writers, including David Bezmogis, Erika Dreifus, and Eduardo Halfon, as a way of reasserting the urgency of the events they depict for students today. [End Page 210]
Other essays explore strategies for reconstructing our approaches to literature that, through familiarity, risks losing elements of its initial witnessing power. In a striking essay, Naomi Sokoloff demonstrates how we might read the Shema as a literary text, one that, while part of the daily reflection of any practicing Jew, flashes poetic and contemporary insights. Zygmunt Mazar writes of his success in using the sometimes controversial William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice when he teaches in a Polish context, arguing that the potential for “de-Judaizing” the Holocaust is counter-balanced by the novel’s capacity to evoke empathy. And Eric Sundquist opens the collection with a harrowing exploration of the metaphor of “Black Milk,” of Jewish mothers who are denied the capacity to nurse their infants. Applying his typically astute lens, Sundquist restores a horror to the experience that makes for difficult reading but admirably demonstrates the work it takes to remember and bear witness.
But, most insistently, the collection addresses the implicit challenge of remembering the profound trauma that has shaped the American Jewish experience amid new waves of cultural violence. Many of these essays acknowledge the shadow of 9/11 and its aftermath as altering the experience of reading and teaching, and a few of the more recently written ones further acknowledge the specter of the verbal—and too-often physical—violence unleashed with the election of Donald Trump. In a period that philosopher Lee McIntyre and others refer to as a “post-truth” moment, the challenge of keeping alive the experience of the Holocaust is perhaps greater than it has been since the initial wave of recognizing that it took place at all.
In that light, Sandor Goodhart defines midrash as responding “to a gap or tear in the primary text in such a way that it constitutes a material extension of that text” (128). In so doing, he asserts that, as in tikkun ha’olam, there is a Jewish obligation to finish the unfinished story we experience. That implies an ethics of reading but also—as Monica Osborne in particular underscores in her contribution—a philosophy of textual limit. Put simply, the story is incomplete without its reader, and our challenge in every age is to keep our reading fresh.
Several of the essays, then, consider that precise question: how can we flesh out meaning from such “gaps” while still doing justice to the truth of the original work. Goodhart himself...