Jew-in-the-Library, Jew-in-the-Streets

by Mark Chmiel

Jill Krementz, The Jewish Writer, Henry Holt and Company, 1998

Portraits, bios, occasionally quotations form this coffee table book collection of Jewish writers, poets, novelists, scholars. Wiesel is here, as is his nemesis Hannah Arendt, as is Norman Finkelstein’s nemesis, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

Chava Rosenfarb touched me most.

The book’s a testimony to Jewish empowerment, making it (Podhoretz is included), with some occasional sentimentality. The Holocaust survivors are here, a few Yiddish writers, a few Israelis (no women), the young and the ancient, many New Yorkers.

I don’t think the word “Palestinians” is in the whole book, and why should it be? This is a feel-good tribute to the tribe’s success stories. Why muck it up with notice of Israel’s ethnic cleansing program? (But then, if Krementz had done a similar book on “American Writers” in 1982, you wouldn’t be surprised if no one mentioned the recent Indochina cataclysms, compliments of the United States.) Thus, I.B. Singer’s line doesn’t appear to apply to many of these writers: “Life itself is a permanent crisis.” In the Promised Land of American Success, Academy of Arts and Letters, Holocaust and Lower East Side Memorials, how could it be?

What follows is a list of those writers I’d be happy to read (or in some cases, get reacquainted with):

Saul Bellow—pick 3 books
Cynthia Ozick—pick 3
Francine Prose—pick 2
Pearl Abraham 1
Chaim Potok 2
IB Singer— 5 more
Rebecca Goldstein—2 or more
Norman Mailer — 1 more
The Trillings—no interest whatsoever
Philip Roth — 4 more
Alfred Kazin—2
Louis Begley—1 or 2 or 3
Alan Lelchuk—maybe 2
Bernard Malamud—1 or 2 more
Bruce Jay Friedman—1
Amos Oz—maybe 3
Wendy Wasserstein—The Sisters
Phillip Lopate—1 or 2, essays
Aharon Appelfeld—4
Tony Kushner—3 more
Irving Howe—the several Yiddish retrospectives and anthologies
Norman Podhoretz—Making It
Hannah Arendt —7 more
Anne Roiphe—maybe 1
E. L. Doctorow—1
Chava Rosenfarb—her trilogy
Isaiah Berlin—2
Melvin Jules Bukiet—1
Max Apple—1 or 2
Johanna Kaplan—1 or 2
A.B. Yehoshua—3
Ruth Wisse—2
Yehuda Amichai—2
Allegra Goodman—2
Irwin Shaw—RMPM?

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Chava Rosenfarb, author of The Tree of Life: What affects me the most is the continual sense of isolation that I feel as a survivor—an isolation enhanced by my being a Yiddish writer. I feel myself to be an anachronism wandering across a page of history on which I do not belong. If writing is a lonely profession, the Yiddish writer’s loneliness has an additional dimension. Her readership has perished. Her language has gone up with the smoke of the crematoria. She creates in a vacuum, almost without a readership, out of fidelity to a vanished language—as if to prove that Nazism did not succeed in extinguishing the language’s last breath, and that it is still alive.

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Jill Krementz: [Tony Kushner] is torn between two yearnings: to become a Jew-in-the-Library, one of those smart buchers who’ve read everything, or a Jew-in-the-Streets, eternally outraged that the world is void of righteousness, determined to fix it! 76

Tony Kushner: Hebrew- and Yiddish-illiterate, I barely know how to pray; riddled with ambivalence, child of Marx, Freud, Mahler, Benjamin, Kafka, Goldman, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Ansky, Schoenberg, mongrel product of Judaism’s (and of Jewish) exteriority, of its ghetto-hungry curiosity, of its assimilationist genius, I now approach Judaism, as Jews once approached the splendid strangeness of the Goyische Welt: deeply confused, not complacent. And this I think of course is profoundly Jewish.

Isaac Bashevis Singer