Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century

Vibrancy and diversity mark the new crop of novelists and story writers.

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Moreover, there is a feel about the new Russian Jews that differs substantially from early 20th-century immigrants. Shteyngart's thick, wonderfully edgy novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook (2003) goes almost everywhere (or at least from Manhattan to Eastern Europe) stirring up a heady brew of vivid characters and thickly textured language. Here, I would argue, is Augie's long-lost cousin.

Lara Vapnyar's There are Jews in My House (2003) is a collection of quietly intense coming-of-age stories that strip both language and emotion to the bone. David Bezmozgis' Natasha and Other Stories (2004) often puts his newly arrived Russian immigrants in Canada where disappointments wear many faces.

Tradition Reborn

One cannot help noticing that observant Jewish characters are no longer stuck into novels only to be roundly dismissed or to provide moments of cheap comic relief. The sociological saw about children seeking to recover what their parents once cast off has turned out to be true for many young Jewish-American writers and for the fictions they write.

Dara Horn made her literary debut with In the Image (2003) a novel that used photographs and artfully constructed doll houses to explore the ways "images" both fix and formulate the past, including the Holocaust. Horn's new novel The World to Come (2006) combines her deep interest in mystical Yiddish texts (particularly those of the author Der Nister), with the story about a stolen Chagall painting. Tova Mirvis's The Outside World (2004) continues the sociological explorations of Orthodox Jewry she began with The Ladies Auxiliary (1999) this time in a tale set largely in Brooklyn rather than in the Memphis of her childhood and first novel.

If Horn and Mirvis, like slightly older writers such as Rebecca Goldstein and Allegra Goodman, focus on characters who struggle within the restrictions of traditional Judaism, there are a group of writers who may have been raised in Orthodox homes but whose characters  eventually leave the fold, whether this is reflected in the tightly constructed short stories of Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999), one of which brings a man to implore his rebbe to permit him to visit a prostitute; the semi-autobiographical conflicts outlined in Pearl Abraham's The Romance Reader (1995), in which the novel's young female protagonist leaves her father's Hasidic house; the darkly bitter satire of Shalom Auslander's Beware of God (2005)--one story deals with a religious boy's guilty experience with masturbation; or in the exquisitely layered paragraphs of Aryeh Lev Stollman's The Illuminated Soul (2003), itself a novel told in stories-within-stories.

There was a time when Englander was the hot new writer in town but this feeling has somewhat cooled as readers await his long-delayed second book. By contrast, Abraham continues to explore her Hasidic upbringing in ever more ambitious ways (see especially The Seventh Beggar, 2005) while Stollman remains a mannered, somewhat special taste. The jury is still out about Auslander, but I suspect his fiction will have limited appeal if his future stories continue, in the words of Eileen H. Watts, to start off like Bernard Malamud and end like Art Spiegelman.

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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.