What is the difference between Jewish literature and literature written by Jewish authors? Is there even such a thing as the former? What is it to have a Jewish voice? These are questions that must be asked now that there is a push to highlight previously unheard minority voices, when university courses laboriously strive for a cultural panorama of ethnic voices to reflect the “melting pot” of cultures that is the United Kingdom. This is easier said than done – especially when it comes to Judaism.
Jews are no stranger to writing. No less than fifteen Nobel Prize for literature winners have been Jewish. Among them are poets, playwrights, philosophers and even a songwriter. But does this necessitate the existence of a prominent Jewish voice in literature?
Upon further inspection of the recipients, an interesting dichotomy presents itself when comparing British and American Jewish writers. The majority of Jewish American writers explore Jewish themes whilst their British and European counterparts do not. Take the winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature, Saul Bellow: Herzog, his magnum opus, follows an aging Jewish intellectual as he navigates 1960s New York. It is one of multiple novels of his that follows a Jew’s struggle to synthesise their religious identity with that of contemporary society. Some would argue the theme is the backbone to his oeuvre, some even say that if you have read one Bellow you have read them all. On the other end of the spectrum, the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Harold Pinter, produced 31 plays over a fifty-year career as Britain’s foremost playwright of the 20th century, none of which address Jewish themes or feature ostensibly Jewish characters. Goldberg from The Birthday Party would be an exception to this, but his Jewishness is covert with fleeting references to “gefilte fish” acting as a subtle signpost of his ethnicity which is sure to glide over the heads of many of the audience members whose insight into Ashkenazi cuisine is limited.
We could posit many reasons why it appears to be the case that American Jewish writers focus on the Jewish experience more than British Jewish writers do, but the most significant would likely be the unique lack of an American literary hegemony which allowed Jewish writers, as well as writers from all ethnicities, to freely express their identity in literature without having to worry about tradition, taste, or expectation. In countries with a strong literary tradition such as the UK, the comparative lack of diverse voices in celebrated works precluded the audience’s ability to explore authentic minority experiences in literature. This is not to say that Jews do not feature in pre-20th century literature. But when they do, there is a lingering otherness to their portrayal which usually marks them as aliens to be antagonised. Whilst George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda contains sympathetic discussions of Judaism and early Zionism and Shylock can arguably be seen as a tragic hero (if you cut him, does he not bleed?) there was still a lack of authentic portrayal, seemingly inevitable when Jewish themes are handled by non-Jewish writers.
It is only with the growth of American literature that Jewish writers could turn their attention to Jewish themes. European Jewish writers, by contrast, rarely expressed Jewish sentiments in their writing until sometime into the 20th century. Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, both of whom were operating in nations with strong literal ideologies and traditions, fall into this category. This suggests that the authentic Jewish voice in literature would be found among the Jewish American canon. The previously mentioned Saul Bellow stands alongside writers like Philip Roth, poets like Allen Ginsburg and Joseph Brodsky, playwrights like Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner amongst many others who address Jewishness in their work.
It’s worth noting before concluding that this article is a severely generalised overview of a topic that could be the subject of endless textbooks. I have excluded discussion of Sholom Aleichem and Yiddish literature, the recurring image of “the Wandering Jew” in literature, and the tendency for Jewish writers to explore anti-religious themes in the context of assimilation. I would delve deeper, but as a noted Jewish-American writer once said: “life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”
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