Jewish American Literature: 1970-2000
For this crop of American writers, being Jewish is as natural as breathing, sleeping, and sex.
Jewish authors--authors who are Jewish, which is not quite the same thing--have made a huge splash in this century. Of course there are Bellow, Roth, and Malamud. These are our most celebrated Jewish writers. They have been observers of the growing distance between first- and second-generation Jews, between flight and return, and the grating of the new world against the old. Their works--of which we, as American Jews, are very proud--frequently bash the mores, the limitations, the restrictions of Jewish life.
We have grown used to these criticisms and mostly let them roll off our backs. But you have only to pick one theme--the Jewish male and the shiksa, for example--to see in all their work a Jewish guilt, a deliberate rejection of things Jewish, a glamorization of the stranger and a ridiculing of the familiar, repeated and played out again and again. These three writers show us the fierce, striving, ambitious, nonreligious, nontraditional, and for the most part, nonknowledgeable but smartass Jew who knows his Kierkegaard but not his Rambam (Maimonides). In these writers, who emerged in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, we have the voice of the American Jew moving into the mainstream, Yiddish jokes, sad stories, pressuring mothers, self-sacrificing mothers, beautiful blondes, pain of the soul, Jewish references everywhere, smart Jewish boys who always know the answers, and anti-Semitism.
It's not just Malamud, Bellow, and Roth; it's also Herbert Gold and Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller and Woody Allen. Take Malamud's "The Magic Barrel." This story is many things and can be read many ways, but to me it is the emblematic story of assimilation. Leo Finkle is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He needs a wife. His Old World parents want to arrange a marriage for him, but he wants to fall in love, American style. Alas, he's too shy to find a wife on his own, and eventually he resorts to calling the matchmaker.
The matchmaker suggests several suitable women, but Leo rejects them. At last he catches sight of a picture of a woman who draws him. She turns out to be the matchmaker's own fallen, miserable daughter. He cannot help himself. This marriage will lead to pain, to love. In this little story Malamud marks a shift from communal life into the difficult, often painful life that is a simultaneous celebration and damnation of the individual soul, America's gift and its curse.