Hasidic cool? Shtetl chic? Whatever you may call it there is a renaissance under way in American Jewish fiction. A spate of writing from new authors in recent years indicates a trend toward redefining the Jewish voice. Allegra Goodman's National Book Award nominated novel Kaaterskill Falls, Nathan Englander's much-hyped collection of short stories For The Relief of Unbearable Urges and Jonathan Safran Foer's acclaimed debut Everything is Illuminated all express the kind of unabashed desire to explore Jewish identity we have not seen in years in US literature.
A uniquely American Jewish fiction developed through the middle of the twentieth century in the work of such authors as Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, among others. As children of Jewish immigrants to the goldene medinah (country of gold) these authors were primarily interested in how to become fully-fledged Americans in spite of their European Jewish backgrounds. Being Jewish was taken for granted, and in novels like Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, and short-stories like Paley's "The Loudest Voice" and Malamud's "The Jew Bird", they discussed the problem of anti-Semitism and the immigrant rush to shed traces of old-world Jewishness in an effort to gain social acceptance in the new-world cultural melting pot.
With the notable exception of Chaim Potok and a few others, American Jewish writers generally didn't concern themselves with religion. Not so any longer. Perhaps it's a measure of their confidence as Americans that Goodman, Englander and Foer feel free to explore what it means to be authentically Jewish by reaching backward to traditional Jewish settings, themes and characters. Elements more familiar to the Eastern European Yiddish fiction of the late 19th century like the shtetl, traditional folkways, mysticism and religious practice pop up in their stories. And the writers are comfortable enough, or maybe uncomfortable enough, with their Americanness, to be critical of it.
In Everything is Illuminated the twenty-five-year-old Foer recreates the history of Trachimbrod, the vanished Ukranian shtetl of his ancestry. It's a folklorish tale replete with bizarre characters, mystical elements and unlikely events reminiscent of I.B. Singer's Satan in Goray or Gimpel The Fool. While Polish-born Singer could approach the shtetl with the proximity and assurance of a native son, Foer's handling must be purely speculative and the result is as far-flung as dystopian science-fiction. Nevertheless, unearthing his shtetl past is as necessary for Foer as for Singer. It is synonymous with finding the source of his own heart.
The author travels to Trachimbrod to look for Augustine, the woman who reportedly saved his grandfather from the Nazis. His guide is Alex, a Ukrainian youth with American affectations, along with his grandfather and their flatulent dog Sammy Davis Junior Junior.
Alex is Foer's alter-ego, his means of looking at American culture and values from an outsider's point of view. It's a complete reversal from the earlier Jewish struggle for inclusion. Foer wants to step outside of his American self and Alex provides the perfect vehicle. Alex introduces himself to the reader in comedic broken English, "I dig American movies. I dig Negroes, particularly Michael Jackson. I dig to disseminate very much currency at famous nightclubs in Odessa. Lamborghini Countaches are excellent, and so are cappucinos. Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangementsÓ"
Alex and Foer exchange stories by airmail. Alex narrates "the hero's" (what he calls Foer) search for his grandfather's saviour, and the author tells the fabulous fable of his lost shtetl. The product is two worlds woven together, Alex's and Foer's, the real and fictional, present and past, America and Europe, flesh and memory.
In the end, Augustine is never found and all that remains of liquidated Trachimbrod is a stone monument dedicated by the Prime Minister of Israel to the inhabitants who perished in the Holocaust. Foer is left standing in the dark, holding a clump of souvenir dirt in a plastic baggy, and faced with the task of somehow addressing his personal barrenness with a monumental act of the imagination.
Foer travels physically and metaphorically a great distance to find his shtetl. Goodman and Englander find theirs closer to home. Kaaterskill Falls is a small rural community in upstate New York. Every summer it is invaded by a tightly-knit group of ultra-orthodox Jews, followers of the frail Rabbi Elijah Kirshner. The novel is comprised of three complex narrative threads. First, there is the conflict between the Rav's two children, the bland, stalwart Isaiah who expects to succeed his father as the community's leader, and the more gifted, charismatic Jeremy who is better suited for the job but has strayed. The second and third stories are more personal, following the family dilemmas of Elizabeth Shulman and Andras Melish, respectively.
The Kirshners are at a cross-roads and the future of the community is in doubt. The story is set in 1970s America when the rife individualism of the so-called "Me" generation is beginning to permeate society. Goodman juxtaposes the challenge of religious commitment and adherence to community with the growing temptations of secular influences represented by their Yankee hosts. It's a modified replay of the tensions faced by 19th century European shtetls, with a decidedly American twist.
When Isaiah finally takes over from his father his leadership style is even more strident and rigid than his father's. We are told of Isaiah, "Again and yet again he underlines his point. There is no room for compromise, there is no sustenance outside the community." For Isaiah, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Individual Jewish life is at least untenable, if not completely impossible, outside community. But the demands of the community can be both sustaining and stifling. We see this in the life of Elizabeth Shulman.
Born in England, Elizabeth has read Milton and "spent her pregnancies with Austen and Tolstoy." Her five daughters have both Jewish names and English ones, Chani, Malki, Ruchel, Sorah and Brocha are also Annette, Margot, Rowena, Sabrina and Bernice. The climax of the novel comes when Elizabeth Shulman stands before the new Rav to hear his decision on whether she will be allowed to continue her successful business selling kosher food to the Kirshners. Here Elizabeth's personal dreams and desires come into direct conflict with her faith and communal allegiance. When she is disappointed by the community her faith becomes shaken.
RenTe Melish, the teen-age daughter of Andras and Nina, has begun to resist her mother's control by refusing to practice piano (for which she has no natural gift), and experimenting with personal independence. She hangs out with a sassy outspoken non-Jewish girl named Stephanie who is an avowed feminist and has her own dog-walking business. With Stephanie's encouragement RenTe takes a job at the local library.
RenTe's defiance reflects a divergence in the relationship between her parents. Her father is a non-observant Jew who humours his beautiful South American wife, letting her have her kosher food and synagogue services, but to his skeptical mind they don't mean much. As Andras retreats from his wife, Nina's attempts to assert control over RenTe become more vigorous. Of course, this is a recipe for disaster. Nina's neediness for RenTe only serves to push her daughter away from family, and likely, community and religion as well.
Rav Elijah is taken from the synagogue in an ambulance on Tisha b'Av, the day commemorating the destruction of The Jerusalem Temple. He muses regretfully about his own leadership style and hermetic emphasis on strict Torah study, declaring about the next generation, "They are born now with severity within them, although they do not know it."
Foer's shtetl is a distant, mythical place, which provides him a spiritual source. Goodman brings the shtetl forward in time as a way of examining the subtle interpersonal currents and contemporary forces which threaten to undermine the foundations of traditional Jewish life and spirituality. In For the Relief of Unbearable Urges Englander takes a rejectionist position, wanting to do away with shtetl insularity and rigid religious observance altogether.
A lapsed hasidic Jew himself, Englander's portrayal of orthodoxy verges on scathing. The author has said of his upbringing, with more than a hint of bitterness: "I grew up in an Orthodox home in New York where I had a right-wing, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, fire and brimstone, free-thought free, shtetl-mentality, substandard education."
The tenuousness of identity interests Englander. In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue" the Protestant protagonist Charles Luger is seated in the back of a Manhatten taxi-cab when he experiences an epiphany that he is really a Jew. It arrives "Like a knife hitting glass." The revelation is as unlikely as the Californian Rabbi who serves as Luger's spirit guide, a Rabbi notably without credentials, not even Jewish in fact. Charles remarks to the Rabbi: "Where'd you get the shtick from? You look Jewish, you talk Jewish¨the authentic article. I turn Jewish and get nothing. You come from Bolinas and sound like you've never been out of Brooklyn."
These identity shifts are as odd as the notion that Luger is a gilgul, a reincarnation. And yet the scenario Englander depicts is strangely believable in this multi-ethnic, pluralistic culture, in which eastern religion mixes freely with western values, Jews are commonly attracted to Zen-Buddhism and people grab for soulfulness in the guise of narcissistic mystical New-Ageism.
Englander wants us to recognize that in America everything is for sale, including meaning and authenticity. In the story "Reb Santa" a white-bearded orthodox Jew is forced take advantage of his uncanny resemblance to jolly St. Nick by working as a department store Santa to save his synagogue. But for the author the situation is hardly surprising in a culture where you're as likely to find a Reb Santa as a Punjabi Santa, a Ms. Santa or an HIV Santa. Or where a Jewish boy sits on Jewish Santa's knee and asks for a Chanukah menorah.
Englander's protagonists always struggle with a sense of forlornness and dissatisfaction. Religious observance does not seem to offer them any solace. In "The Wig" two orthodox women who craft the accoutrement of the title essential for exhibiting religious modesty, yearn for the perfect hair they see in the shampoo advertisements of fashion magazines. Ruhama comments "My own life is depressing enough, Tzippy. Why must you make it like we're scalping orphans."
The trouble is Englander's reluctance to offer an alternative to his characters. He discredits religious and secular pursuits equally. In the absence of any "true" choice, the human predicament becomes solely absurd. It's difficult to know how Englander will ultimately reconcile meaning and nobility with a sense of personal and communal identity. ˛