Jewish-American Fiction in the 21st Century

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

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Joan Leegant (An Hour in Paradise, 2003) is yet another twist that a return to traditional Judaism can take. She, along with others such as Naama Goldstein (The Place Will Comfort You, 2004), Risa Miller (Welcome to Heavenly Heights, 2003), and Ruhama King (Seven Blessings, 2003), tackle the experience of being transformed by Israel. A significant number of Leegant's stories explore mysticism, whether set in Israel's Safed or among Brooklyn's Lubavitcher Hasidim; King's female protagonist, who badly wants to find her soul mate, lives in an ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem; Goldstein's stories demonstrate just how difficult it is for young protagonists, new to Israel, to "fit into" Israeli culture; while Miller explores the difficulties that a newly translated Jewish-American family faces in a West Bank settlement.

I end this section with Jonathan Rosen. Rosen's easy familiarity with Jewish ideas is everywhere on display in his memoir-essay, The Talmud and the Internet (2001) and that spirit marks his rounded portrait of a vulnerable female rabbi in his most recent novel, Joy Comes in the Morning (2004). Deborah Green is unmarried and not at all sure about her role as a pasturing rabbi, but it is precisely these conflicts that make for a satisfying piece of fiction. This is Jewish-American writing that should not have been possible--that is, if Irving Howe were right--but that gloriously is.

The Secular Jewish-American Past is Never Completely Past

With so much talk about Jewish-American writers and their characters reconnecting with Judaism, I suspect that some are wondering if social realism of the sort Philip Roth did so brilliantly in Goodbye, Columbus (1959) still has a place. It does, although perhaps well off to the sidelines. Joseph Epstein, widely known as a former editor of American Scholar and a frequent contributor to Commentary magazine, continues to publish collections of his short stories (Fabulous Small Jews, 2004), and Gerald Shapiro (Bad Jews, 2004), considerably younger than Epstein, writes old-fashioned, fall-down funny stories that prove it's still possible to take the comic measure of Jewish foodstuffs and squabbling Jewish families.

The New (Married) Kids on the Literary Block

No survey of Jewish-American fiction in the 21st century would be complete without mentioning a young couple so talented and certainly so well-connected that attention, often seeped in controversy, doesn't wait until the ink dries from their pages. I am speaking of course about Jonathan Safron Foer (Everything is Illuminated, 2003; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, 2005) and Nicole Krauss (Man Walks Into a Room, 2003; The History of Love, 2005).

Foer came to wide attention for his first novel, which features a protagonist named Jonathan Safran Foer. Trying to track down a story about his grandfather and how he managed to survive the Holocaust, Foer, the character, make his way to the Ukraine where he teams up with a colorful Ukrainian guide and where he mines the layers of Jewish history as if it were a tall tale from the Old Southwest. Neither Foer the character nor Foer the author ever find the "facts" but find, instead, what may be even more valuable: the Truth that first-rate fiction always tells.

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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.