“The term ‘Jewish writer,’” argues Cynthia Ozick, “ought to be an oxymoron.” Yet 82 years earlier, in 1924, the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva proclaimed that “in this most Christian of worlds, all poets are Jews.” Ozick is Jewish; Tsvetaeva wasn’t. What do these opposing statements reveal about claims to Jewishness, Jewish authors, and Jewishness as a metaphor? What, in fact, makes a Jewish writer?
In Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer? Adam Kirsch addresses these questions while probing the intersection of literature and Jewish identity. For this new collection of essays, Kirsch specifically wrote the two pieces that bookend the volume, starting with “Who Wants to Be a Jewish Writer?” and closing with “Is There Such a Thing as Jewish Literature?” The other pieces appeared in a variety of media and range from his assessment of the Viennese novelist Stefan Zweig’s life and death and a study of two “non-Jewish Jews” (Rosa Luxemburg and Isaac Deutscher, the Marxist writer and Trotsky biographer) to a vivid analysis of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Aside from the Jewish-themed essays, Kirsch’s writings organically gravitate toward poetry, with close-ups on the works of Seamus Heaney, Christian Wiman, and Kay Ryan. He also reflects on poetry and politics, and on poetic creation in the modern period and, in Heideggerian terms, “as a turn from the poetry of world to the poetry of earth,” whereby the poet as legislator has been replaced by the poet as witness.
This broad vantage point gives Kirsch the necessary perspective to address the questions that open and conclude his work: “Who wants to be a Jewish writer?” and “Is there such a thing as Jewish literature?” He shows that these questions are in fact inextricably linked. In the most vibrant pages of this volume, he evokes Kafka and Benjamin:
The case of Kafka suggests that what makes literature Jewish is its decision to engage with Jewish texts and vocabularies, even in a negative way. Doing this does not require an extensive knowledge of Jewish tradition, which neither Benjamin nor Kafka possessed, but it does require an instinct for finding the elements in that tradition which can be used, or even misused, in order to communicate a modern truth. Jewish literature is what happens every time a writer tries to make a place for himself or herself in that ancient lineage.
Kirsch aptly notes that the legacy of Jewish writers like Kafka and Benjamin resonates with—and even legitimates—contemporary perceptions of Jewishness as a matter of culture and feeling, and not of religious observance. So it is choosing to engage with Jews, Judaism, and Jewishness, Kirsch maintains, that makes a Jewish writer.
The relationship between Jews and words was also central to Kirsch’s previous work, The People and the Books. There, he masterfully achieved clarity without simplification in excerpting and introducing 18 texts—from Deuteronomy to Scholem Aleichem—as a window into Jewish history. He concluded his survey before the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. By skirting these two historical watersheds, Kirsch managed to avoid a teleology of catastrophe and rebirth.
His are not well-trodden paths. A sharp critic, Kirsch is also prolific, writing for numerous outlets. His weekly column in Tablet describes his explorations of the Talmud. Kirsch is also a poet, who likes to use classical forms to capture the chaos of an Eliot-inspired anachronistic modernity. He writes—for example, in his 2008 book of poetry, Invasions—in meters and rhymes, about everything from New York City to the actress Jane Birkin’s summer of ’69.
As a poet-critic, Kirsch is keenly aware that neither poetry nor criticism plays the role it once did. Yet against Jonathan Franzen’s clamorous pronouncement that literature no longer matters to culture, Kirsch never fails to reaffirm literature’s necessity.
In championing literature in this fashion, Kirsch reveals his affinities with Lionel Trilling, author of The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (1950). (In addition to his concise, compelling study, Why Trilling Matters, published in 2011, Kirsch edited the writer’s correspondence.) Kirsch shares Trilling’s conviction that culture and politics cannot be understood without a literary imagination, and also that identity is generated by books. This double conviction reappears in Kirsch’s new book, where he argues for the irreducibly political dimension of both Jewishness and literature.
Do those who have broken with the tradition still consider themselves Jewish? Or are they designated as Jewish regardless of their own inclinations or self-definitions?
Adam Kirsch’s first essay in the book details how the question “Who wants to be a Jewish writer?” has evoked various flawed answers. He examines the response of the towering figures of American letters who were deemed “Jewish writers” but fiercely resisted the label. From Saul Bellow to Philip Roth, all lamented the label’s parochialism and never ceased to assert themselves first and foremost as Americans.
Although the first American Jewish novel, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, dates back to 1917, the golden age of Jewish American literature came in the 1950s to ’70s, a postwar flowering that coincided with that generation’s estrangement from tradition. “The intellectual ambitions that their ancestors had directed toward mastery of Jewish texts,” Kirsch explains about the postwar generation, “were now redirected to English and American literature.”
Jewish literature might have an intimate relation with estrangement: Kirsch finds such instances in other times as well. He highlights, for example, the thought of the 18th-century philosopher Solomon Maimon, a figure of the Berlin Enlightenment who had left behind his own traditional milieu. Although Kirsch does not linger on this idea, writers as heretics might be the fiercest representatives of the tradition they have rejected. For example, the work of the brothers Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua Singer is infused with transgressive figures of fallen observants.
But do those who have broken with the tradition still consider themselves Jewish? Or are they designated as Jewish regardless of their own inclinations or self-definitions? Who gets to bestow this label of “Jewish writer”?
In weighing the possible answers, Kirsch seems to tacitly adopt Sartre’s analysis in Anti-Semite and Jew, which posits that a Jew exists when considered Jewish by people around him. But beyond that definition, Kirsch wonders whether there is “some quality or essence that unites different forms of literary expression by Jews across barriers of time and language? To put it more concretely: do a story in German by Franz Kafka, an essay in English by Susan Sontag, and a novel in Hebrew by Amos Oz all belong in the same category?”
Because of its ontological claims, the proposition of a “Jewish writer” may indeed foster some uneasiness. The determinism of this label can only be unpalatable to any writer who is not working in a confessional genre, since the term annuls the distance between the author and his or her work, and the creative freedom found in this interstice.
Nevertheless, and in order to answer his own question, Kirsch assesses a range of potential criteria for defining Jewish literature. In this pursuit, he follows some of the efforts of his predecessors, most famously Cynthia Ozick and Irving Howe.
Kirsch does not address Howe’s criteria for determining Jewish literature (as described by Ozick) “exclusively by its subject matter.” But Howe’s proposition is worth considering, as it further obfuscates the very notions of Jewish literature and Jewish writer.
Indeed, what does the critic say about Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, about a WASP millionaire taking his midlife crisis to Africa, or Philip Roth’s When She Was Good, his little-known early novel set in the Midwest without a single Jewish character or allusion? Can some books be “not Jewish” while belonging to an otherwise Jewish-themed oeuvre of a Jewish writer? And what to make of non-Jews who write Jewish-themed masterpieces, such as George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a book so sympathetic to its Jewish characters—and their political aspirations—that it shaped a proto-Zionist movement in Victorian England?
In arguing that it is subject matter that makes fiction eligible for the status of “Jewish,” Howe claimed that the defining feature of Jewish American literature was an account of migration from the old continent to the United States, and with it the confrontation between fathers and sons and the drama of assimilation. Lacking this distinct narrative of the Jewish experience, such literature would cease to exist. And Howe lamented, in World of Our Fathers, that Philip Roth’s use of Jewish satire in his early books turned into a critique of the vulgarity of a Jewish middle class that, in fact, had nothing Jewish about it.
According to the Howe-inspired criteria, it is the wave of writers who emigrated from the Soviet Union, such as Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar, that has kept Jewish literature alive. But regardless of the influx of new voices, Howe’s proposition, in Cynthia Ozick’s estimation, was “self-imploding.” The drama of assimilation, Ozick argues, has never been specific to Jewish families.
And indeed, Howe’s prediction of a natural extinction of Jewish fiction has fallen short. Although he did raise broader, interesting questions about literature as a locus of intergenerational conflict, Jewish literature has survived beyond the first generation of immigrants and their children. Whatever their true literary merit, a new crop of Jewish writers, including the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, now seem eager to embrace the formerly vexing Jewish American identity. They talk about their works as inhabited by “Jewish characters and the echoes of 2,000 years of Jewish history,” in the words of Nicole Krauss in her novel Forest Dark. In addition, this flowering of Jewish American literature coincided with the emergence of the concept of hyphenated identities in a self-affirming way.
Beyond these instances, the very gesture of resisting or claiming the notion of Jewish literature points to broader questions in Jewish thought. These questions have reverberated across centuries—notably, in the modern period—especially the question of whether the Jewish experience is universal or particular.
Because of its very nature—a collection of separately published articles—Kirsch’s volume can prove frustrating. The book leaves it to the reader to create connections that could have been more richly explored had he woven some threads across the essays.
One such thread might have begun in the essay on Rosa Luxemburg, who, for Kirsch, is the “symbol of the path not taken”: that is, the last chance for a humane socialism in Germany, which might have prevented the country’s fall into the Nazi abyss. Kirsch discusses Luxemburg in parallel with Isaac Deutscher, both being socialist “non-Jewish Jews.” Yet this essay could have been stitched to the previous one in the volume, dedicated to Stefan Zweig, an apolitical writer who has become the symbol of a literary cosmopolitanism that made him ignore the ominous reality of the Vienna of his day.
Kirsch does not make it explicit, but there seems to be a kinship between Zweig and Luxemburg. It would have been interesting to note how Luxemburg’s own blindness to the reality of her time was akin to Zweig’s. For example, Luxemburg mistakenly concluded that “even explicit anti-Semitism … cannot really be directed against the Jews, only against the proletariat. Class, not nation or religion, is the only genuine reality.” As for Zweig, his only genuine reality was his dream of human brotherhood and of a republic of letters.
Kirsch quotes the late, fiercely anti-Marxist Israeli historian Jacob Talmon’s observation, “Luxemburg’s all-pervasive revolutionary internationalism appears to me as an expression of the Jewish malaise of an outsider.” Similarly, Zweig’s dedication to the Habsburg Empire could appear as the unconscious malaise of an outsider who believed in acculturation through the arts and in a culture of coexistence through an apolitical liberalism. And German Jews harbored the same delusion, which Hannah Arendt observed in a scathing article about Zweig’s suicide in Brazil in 1942.
Therefore, both Luxemburg’s Marxist internationalism and Zweig’s cultural cosmopolitanism characterized “non-Jewish Jews” for whom salvation would come not through god but through men, whether in the arts or in a socialist republic. Kirsch could have made this connection between their divergent, yet intimately connected forms of Jewish universalism more explicit.
Kirsch maintains that liberalism is the only avenue through which Jews have been able to thrive.
If Jewishness can be godless, it cannot be textless. Discussing Amos Oz’s book-length essay Jews and Words, coauthored with his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, Kirsch ponders what the late Israeli writer envisioned as a specifically Jewish relationship with texts and their transmission: an unremitting commerce with the written word and with centuries of exegesis. Oz’s position echoes those of Kafka and Benjamin noted above: that engaging with Jewish texts, in whatever form, is the key to creating Jewish literature.
For a long time, however, making a place for oneself in the textual lineage was not an option available to everyone. The study of the Talmud shaped Jewish identity in the diaspora, but women were excluded from it, and their access to other traditions was restricted. Who wanted to be a female Jewish writer, then? And who could?
Except for a few references to Cynthia Ozick (and an essay on Kay Ryan, who is not Jewish), female voices are rare in Kirsch’s book. It is time to expand the perennially male-dominated canon of the golden age of postwar Jewish literature, perhaps to include such Jewish women writers as Grace Paley or Tillie Olsen. This absence raises another, unexamined question: Did male Jewish authors ostensibly act as destroyers of the patriarchy when they were in fact its guardians?
More broadly, a reflection on gender is absent from this book. What masculinities did these authors choose to depict in America and in Europe? The works of Jonathan and Daniel Boyarin, as well as of Sander Gilman, show how Jews were long cast as meek and feminine, as not conforming to Western codes of masculinity.
This brings us back to the quote by Tsvetaeva: “In this Christian world, all poets are Jews.” Tsvetaeva’s verses turn the Jew into a metaphor of the absolute other. But even if this was true in the first part of the twentieth century, in the present day, can Jews still inhabit the role of the other?
Kirsch suggests otherwise in “Angels of Liberalism,” his review of the 2018 Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Here, Kirsch analyzes Jewishness in the play, as well as the race question.
The dialogue between Louis Ironson—the main Jewish character and Kushner’s double—and Belize, the African American nurse, is of particular interest. When expressing his faith in American values, Louis is met with Belize’s rebuke that African Americans could never be part of the American Dream. In seeming agreement, Kirsch opines: “In America, in the twenty-first century, Jews can no longer plausibly claim to be part of the coalition of the oppressed. … That is to say their politics are based on ideas about rights and fairness, not on the experience of powerlessness and the consequent desire to redistribute power.”
Kirsch sympathizes with Kushner when he laments a certain assimilation, through which Jews have “come to identify with the powerful and the secure … the original sin in Kushner’s eyes. Thus he found the perfect villain in Roy Cohn”—who is discussed by both Kushner and Kirsch—the Jewish man behind McCarthyism and, as Kirsch reminds the reader, the mentor of Donald Trump.
In a coda to Trilling, Kirsch maintains that liberalism is the only avenue through which Jews have been able to thrive. “It is only when rights mean more than identities—only, that is, in a liberal society—that minorities such as Jews have a chance to flourish.” And therefore, Kirsch makes clear, it behooves American Jews to be attentive to the perils of false security and respectability, all of which already came under the scathing scrutiny of Philip Roth, decades ago.
An engagement with Why Write?, Roth’s final collection of essays on fiction published in the fall of 2017, a few months before his death, would have added interesting perspectives to Kirsch’s work. In this volume, Roth included a few texts about his perceived contentious relationship to Jewishness. Often accused of fueling anti-Semitism by a sardonic display of Jewish pettiness and lust, Roth disagreed.
In his view, Portnoy’s Complaint “might be described as an effort to imagine Jews being imagined” by themselves and by others. And from that question of self-perception, Roth drew a compelling proposition: “As I see it, the task for the Jewish novelist has not been to go forth to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, but to find inspiration in a conscience that has been created and undone a hundred times over.”
Maybe this undoing of one’s self—and the art of subversion—captures the experience of the Jewish writer. And thus a Jewish writer is, indeed, an oxymoron. So said a Jewish writer.
This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke.