Charting the landscape of American Jewish literature--125 books at a time.
A list of the best or greatest books seems, on the surface, very silly. Whether voted on by the reading public or selected by committee, such lists are always subjective and rather arbitrary. Hold another vote, gather other experts, and the list turns out quite differently.
A Gargantuan Task
This bothered me, quite a bit, as I researched and wrote American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide, which offers brief introductions to 125 selected novels and short story collections. What was I producing, I wondered, if not a list of personal favorites?
Seeing my consternation, a well-read friend lent me a copy of Gerald Prince's Guide du Roman de Langue Française (Guide to the French Novel). Offering thumbnail reviews of hundreds of French novels, Prince models his book explicitly on the Michelin travel guides, down to their infamous star ratings. I couldn't imagine labeling books with one, two, or three stars, but otherwise I appreciated this approach.
No travel guidebook lists only the finest hotels or world-famous attractions; rather, such books present enough suggestions in enough categories to allow travelers to navigate their destinations independently. Some people may walk around Sydney or Buenos Aires with their noses in a Frommer's; but those are the same types who read a dictionary from A to Z. Most of us skim the guidebook on the plane and dive into our travels, letting our instincts lead us and referring back to the book only when we're turned around.
What is American Jewish Fiction?
My first step, then, involved drawing a border around the territory I would cover: what counts as American Jewish fiction, I had to ask, and what doesn't? Scholars of modern Jewish literature seem always to be debating this question.
My approach was to cast a very wide net. Like a guidebook author, I wanted to offer readers all the information they need to make their own decisions about what to include or leave out of their journeys, so I mapped the very outer limits of American Jewish fiction: books written by non-Jews about American Jews, like Sidney Luska's As It Was Written (1885) and John Updike's Bech: A Book (1970), as well as books by Jews that barely mention Jews, like Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts (1933); novels by Americans that don't mention America, like Chaim Grade's The Yeshiva (1967) and Howard Fast's My Glorious Brothers (1948); plus a book about America--or, rather, Amerika (1927)--by a Jewish writer, Franz Kafka, who never set foot in the country.
To broaden my purview further, I spoke to experts not only in American Jewish literature, but also in adjacent fields. Alan Wald, a leading scholar of writers on the American Left brought obscure and wonderful novels to my attention, including Vera Caspary's epic of a Sephardic family in Chicago, Thicker than Water (1932). Scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literature directed me to the critical books about America written in those languages.
Some of the best suggestions came from Eileen Pollack, an extraordinary novelist and short story writer. She pointed me to, among other things, Steven Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), which has not generally been appreciated, as it should be, for the very subtle and powerful story it tells about what it means to be a Jewish writer in America. If Roth, Bellow, Bashevis, and Ozick can be considered the Taillevent and La Tour d'Argent of American Jewish fiction--that is, the deservedly famous Parisian gastronomic temples--books like Millhauser's and Caspary's are the hidden gems, the unsung fromageries of the Rue Mouffetard or the tiny café on the Ile St.-Louis that serves incomparable hot chocolate.