Novelists in the Nineties

In the 1970s, literary critics predicted the demise of the Jewish American novel. A talented group of novelists proved them wrong.

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Reprinted with permission from the Spring 1997 issue of Reform Judaism.

Jewish American novelists are like Jews themselves--easy to recognize, but difficult to define.

Small wonder then, that many readers associate Jewish American fiction with characters who sport Jewish names and live in largely Jewish neighborhoods, eat lox and bagels at elaborate Sunday brunches, pepper up their conversation by waving their hands and tossing in vivid Yiddish phrases, and suffer from world-class guilt. No longer, for a new group of Jewish American fictionists has emerged, and they don't have the slightest interest in writing another Portnoy's Complaint, much less another Exodus or Marjorie Morningstar.

Contemporary Jewish writers such as Steve Stern, Melvin Jules Bukiet, Allegra Goodman, and Rebecca Goldstein bring to the table intelligence, moral passion, magical realism, and perhaps most of all, a Jewish writing no longer skittish about grounding itself in Jewish memory and Jewish ideas. They differ from earlier generations of Jewish novelists who had essentially one story to tell--namely, how they made their way from blue-collar Brooklyn to the glittering, usually assimilated life in Manhattan. Irving Howe once speculated that as the emotional and aesthetic distance from the Jewish immigrant experience widened, we could only look forward to ever-thinner slices of Jewish American social realism; and, as such, that it was probably time to close the book on what he regarded as a rich chapter in the larger history of regional American writing.

Steve Stern

By such reckoning, the stories of Steve Stern ought not to exist. Set in Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when its Jewish ghetto ("the Pinch") had a distinctive shape and feel, Stern brings to his highly imaginative reconstruction a magical realism that, by crafty increments, transforms the ordinary into the miraculous. The result are stories in which virtually anything can happen--and usually does. Why so? Because "the Pinch" is packed to overflowing with shopkeepers, gossips, no-goodnicks, and inveterate dreamers--all tucked away, as it were, within the folds of a larger Southern culture.

Stern cut his imaginative teeth as a folklorist (in 1983 he served as director of the Center for Southern Folklore's Ethnic Heritage Program). The oral histories he transcribed as part of his work began to reassemble themselves in his mind. And thus it was that "the Pinch," in Stern's words, "rose up like the Lost Continent of Atlantis for me and began to look like a home for my stories." The result is at once a haunting memory and an intimation of the entirely new--for Stern so blends the surface detail of what was with infusions of the fantastic that it is often difficult to know where accuracy ends and magical realism begins. As one character puts it, "It's like…being awake in your dreams."

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.