High Concept

The New Jewish Novel

The complaints are very different from Portnoy’s.

If you believe demography, American Jewish life is disappearing: Fifty-two percent of American Jews marry non-Jews. If you believe your own eyes, you’ll conclude the opposite. Stroll down the Upper West Side of Manhattan on a Saturday morning. The former world headquarters of secular Judaism, Jewish humanism, even flat-out radicalism, will be filled with Orthodox families wandering to and from shul, the women in wigs and long dresses, the children otherworldly in clothes bare of sports insignia.

Or go to a good bookstore and check out the work of a group of young novelists busily turning the conventional Jewish identity crisis on its head. For these writers–let’s call them the philo-traditionalists–the modern world that lured the Philip Roths and Saul Bellows and Norman Mailers away from their childhood enclaves doesn’t glisten with its old come-hither. In the three decades since the heyday of the Jewish-American novel, secularity has grown tarnished. It is now seen as leading to self-absorbed self-destruction rather than to individual fulfillment. What the new generation embraces is the past, a godly past hedged in by community and ritual that will one day perhaps–or so they dream–be restored.

Take a lapsed Hasid such as Pearl Abraham. In her autobiographical first novel The Romance Reader, she told the familiar (to Roth or Chaim Potok readers) tale of being forced out of her sect by her own intellectual and sexual curiosity. But in her second novel, Giving Up America, which comes out this month, she all but rejects that rejection. The narrator is an unhappy ad copy writer whose callow husband has fallen for a would-be Miss America contestant. She must return to her family to reimmerse herself in the eternal Hasidic truths before she can make something like peace with her life.

America, the country Europe’s rabbis condemned as the trayfe medina–the unholy land, the faithless land–is now producing a literature of faith. But hasn’t there always been a literature of Jewish faith? What about Bernard Malamud, with his discombobulated folk Jews, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, with his tortured Polish intellectuals and Lithuanian rabbinical courts? The difference has everything to do with the passage of time. The philo-traditionalists (the best of them, anyway) are bringing life and imagination to a kind of writing all but given up for moribund, and besides, they’re producing a literature of American faith. No longer is religious practice or a sense of Jewish continuity the prerogative of displaced Europeans gazing with horror upon the vacuousness of their assimilated children. Cynthia Ozick, the American-born doyenne of contemporary observant Jewish writers, used to make her heroes and heroines refugees from the Nazis, struggling to fortify their shredded piety against the American profanity. But even she has gone native. In a brilliant novel published last year, The Puttermesser Papers, her eponymous heroine, Ruth Puttermesser, becomes mayor of New York City and embraces a Whitmanesque vision of urban harmony–Jews and Christians and everyone together–before being undone by a rapacious golem.

Then there are the children themselves, who are much less vacuous than predicted and insist that they, too, can have a connection to the past. The brutally funny Steve Stern (Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven, Harry Kaplan’s Adventures Underground, A Plague of Dreamers) does this by inventing a shtetl that out-Singers Singer in its weirdness and filth and then putting it in pre-World War II Memphis, Tenn. Thane Rosenbaum, in Elijah Visible, grants his characters, who are the children of Holocaust survivors, the right to suffer their own highly American litany of post-Holocaust disorders.

Oddly enough, it was Singer who wrote the prototext of American post-assimilationism, Shadows on the Hudson, which was only published, posthumously, earlier this year (though it was written in the ‘50s and set even earlier). It is a stunning, heartbreaking novel, the darkest and most modern of his works, largely because it is the most bitter about modernity. Its anti-hero, Hertz Grein, an erudite European refugee and serial deserter of women, turns his back on a secular life gone hideously awry and migrates to Israel, joining the most extreme sect of ultra-Orthodox he can find. This is a New World sort of move, even if made by a refugee, and in Israel, not America. European Jewish émigrés, whether cultured cosmopolitans or members of the pious bourgeoisie, don’t suddenly convert to fundamentalism; that’s a specialty of godless Americans.

Now there’s Allegra Goodman, whose enthusiastically reviewed first novel, Kaaterskill Falls, appears poised to become the crossover Jewish novel of the year. The book takes place over three summers in the late 1970s in and around a mitnaged (rationalist, anti-mystical, non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox sect, the Kirschners, who followed their rabbi from Frankfurt to Washington Heights just before World War II and have taken to summering in a hamlet in the Eastern Catskills. Don’t mistake this for the Western Catskills–the Borscht Belt. The Eastern Catskills is a not particularly Jewish and now largely forgotten resort region that was once the height of chic, the Hamptons of the 19th century, as well as home to the Hudson River School of painters. The novel’s title alludes to a famous painting by Thomas Cole that hangs in a nearby museum.

In short, the grandeur of the past–Jewish, American–is the theme here. The older generation, including the rabbi, possesses the old European graces. They’re erudite and sophisticated and carry their rituals off with comparable ease. Ease, that is, compared with the next generation, which is Goodman’s real focus. The American-born Kirschners are more rigid, less worldly than their parents. Even the rabbi frets about them: “They are good people,” he tells his son. “But they are very simple. … They are afraid of the Mind, and to read. They don’t read Schiller and the Shakespeare. How can I say it to you? They keep the one thing, the religious, alive. It is the most important, but they have lost the other. They have forgotten the poetry. There is not one of them who is what we used to call an Educated Man.”

Goodman has two advantages over her characters. With an advanced degree in literature, she has read Schiller and Shakespeare, and she is writing 20 years later, when American Judaism has grown less awkward about itself. In fact, the success of her novel lies in its casualness, the way it makes the extremes of religious practice seem cozily normal. Neither Potok nor Abraham can immerse the reader in the minutiae of Hasidic life the way Goodman does in the particulars of separatist German ultra-Orthodoxy.

Another refreshing feature of Goodman’s storytelling is that, unlike other members of fundamentalist sects one might find in novels, her characters don’t chafe at their restrictions, or not too much. At the beginning of the novel the heroine, Elizabeth Shulman, feels so at home in her Jewish skin that “God and the scriptures, worship and ritual, are all simple, practical things for her.” Indeed, she’s one of the few deeply observant characters you’re likely to encounter who “does not romanticize religion. … The sacred is not mysterious to her.” Rather, she “romanticizes the secular. Poetry, universities, and paintings fill her with awe.” It’s typical of Goodman’s blend of the sublime and the haimish (homey) that when Elizabeth experiences an epiphany while looking at Cole’s picture, it is the revelation of a most unambitious ambition: She wants to open a kosher grocery store. In an ultra-Orthodox setting, of course, that’s not a simple step. It requires, for example, permission from the rabbi and renting from an anti-Semitic landlord. By the end of the book, Shulman has bumped up against the edges of her life, but she doesn’t yearn to escape it, exactly. She has merely learned that her leaders are capable of stupid mistakes in their dealings with her. She has no intention of leaving, first because her doubt is not enough to sever her from her husband and children and second because that’s not the kind of story it is.

The novel has its flaws. Goodman’s explanations of Jewish ritual sometimes veer from the helpful to the condescendingly overexplicit, as if she were writing for young adults. Shulman aside, you could find one-line descriptions of Goodman’s main characters in any half-dozen American-Jewish novels: the rabbi with two sons, one brilliant and prodigal, one duller but more loyal; the Holocaust survivor numbed by his past; the daughters tempted by the twin heresies of feminism and Zionism (Israel is viewed as a nation of faithless sinners by these ultra-Orthodox Jews); the assimilationist Jew who comes to a bad end. But Goodman makes them believable, at least, despite bits of soggy sentimentality; she makes you care. (The exception is the cast of non-Jewish locals, who are almost all soap operaish white trash.) And whatever one’s quibbles, Goodman should be credited with doing what Singer and Malamud and even Ozick were never really able to do: making the most rigorous form of Judaism seem plausible as an American life.