Jewish Books

Charting the landscape of American Jewish literature--125 books at a time.

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Narrowing it Down

Having consulted experts and a dozen or so bibliographies and histories, I generated a master list of about 300 books that I considered including. And then, of course, I began to read.

And read.

Soon, I found myself eliminating a few books that tread the same ground: Myron Kaufmann's Remember Me to God (1957) struck me as more compelling than Harvey Swados's similar Out Went the Candle (1955), for example. My personal tastes began to come into play; if I couldn't imagine recommending a book to a friend or colleague under any circumstance, I would cut it. But that doesn't mean that I love every book I covered. The sloppiness and cartoonishness of Leon Uris's Exodus (1958) is not my personal cup of literary tea, but there's no gainsaying the influence of that novel on American Jewish readers--so in it went.

In a few cases, I made frankly eccentric choices: why Chaim Potok's My Name Is Asher Lev (1972) instead of The Chosen (1967)? Why Allegra Goodman's Paradise Park (2001) instead of Katterskill Falls (1998)? My own preferences underlie these decisions, I'll admit, but I was also driven by a desire to make readers reconsider their understandings of a particular author: why is it that everyone seems to read The Chosen first, and not Asher Lev? Is there something about that novel that earns it priority, or is it just the fact that The Chosen was published earlier and made a bigger splash?

Raising these sorts of questions is precisely the goal of my book. Every entry includes a "Further Reading" section that mentions the author's other works, as well as biographical and critical sources, and books on similar themes, in the hopes that readers will want to ask their own questions, thereby blazing idiosyncratic trails and making personal discoveries.

The 125 books I decided to discuss in American Jewish Fiction cannot be called the "best" or the "greatest," then. These books are points on a map, landmarks to orient the independent traveler in a literature that spans more than a continent and more than a century, from 1867 to 2007. If I have succeeded, my book will be an aid to those readers planning new journeys or return visits to one of the richest and most complex of literary traditions. I just hope it won't stop any readers from getting lost in their reading.
 

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Josh Lambert

Josh Lambert is Dorot Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and the author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009).