January 8, 2009
Serious Jewish-American literature begins with Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), the bittersweet tale of a turn-of-the-last-century Jewish immigrant whose success in the garment industry is tempered by his nostalgia for the days in the Old Country, where he would often be found swaying over a volume of Talmud. Caught between a New World where he can afford an expensive meal but cannot feel comfortable in a fancy restaurant, and a mittel — the European past he can never entirely shake — Lewinsky is a study in anxiety and ambivalence.
A generation later, the sons of Jewish immigrants often found themselves caught between the Brooklyn neighborhoods of their youth and the giddy appeals of Manhattan. Memoirs like Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City (1951) and Norman Podhoretz’s Making It (1967) vividly recount the tensions that pitted assimilation against ethnic solidarity and that characterized the flinty posture of what came to be known as the New York Jewish intellectuals.
The late Irving Howe felt that adjusting to America was the sole subject that serious Jewish-American fiction could engage, and that once the battle for acceptance had been won, there would be nothing left to write about. He was wrong — even though many efforts to find new material ended in, at best, only limited success.
Only a few years ago, novels such as Ruth Miller’s Welcome to Heavenly Heights (2003), Ruhama King’s Seven Blessings (2003), and Naama Goldstein’s The Place Will Comfort You (2004) joined with other novels that, taken together, depicted the journey back to ultra-Orthodoxy. But in the case of Miller, King, and Goldstein, their protagonist became religiously observant only after spending time in Israel. Whatever narrative tensions they may have experienced before their respective “returns” simply disappeared in the ritual and prayer that eventually surround them.
Two 2008 novels about Jewish Americans and Israel radically change this dynamic and in the process reveal a new configuration for the old formula of Jewish protagonists caught between two worlds and uncomfortable with each. In both Margot Singer’s The Pale of Settlement and Danit Brown’s Ask for a Convertible, the “two worlds” are now America and Israel.
Ask for a Convertible is Brown’s series of inter-connected stories that follow the lives of Israelis who have moved to America and of Americans who have moved to Israel. What the Israeli-born discover is that America has “stuff” — big-screen TVs, enormous SUVs, and oversized fast food — but little soul; what the American-born discover is that Israel is noisy and not at all the bucolic paradise they had imagined.
There are times when Brown settles too quickly for the cliche — not all Israelis sell electronics on Manhattan’s 42nd Street and not all Americans immigrate to Israel to find their souls. But for the most part, Brown eschews the sentimentality that spoils novels too dependent on lushly describing Jerusalem sunsets; she is equally clear-eyed about the assets and liabilities of America.
At 13, Osnat Greenberg finds her family’s move from Tel Aviv to Michigan disorienting. Her middle-school classmates makes fun of her “phlegmy” first name, and she is all too aware that her American-born father, Marvin, and her Israeli-born mother, Efi, are constantly fighting. Neither can fit into the other’s country. As one character puts it, “It’s always the same with Americans who come to Israel: one foot here, one foot there, always sitting on the fence and wondering why it’s so uncomfortable. So I’m telling you again, fences aren’t made for sitting.” The same thing could be said of Israelis who come to America.
In Singer’s lyrical first novel, The Pale of Settlement, we follow the adventures of Susan Stern, a photojournalist who may live in America but who travels back and forth to Israel. She has family roots that go back to prewar days, and she has a predilection (as does Singer) toward history. The results are interconnected stories that add up to the most impressive literary depiction (thus far) of the complex relationship between contemporary Jewish Americans and the State of Israel. As clear-eyed as Brown, Singer adds preoccupations with archaeology and ruminations on the past and present (as suggested by her title) as well as ambivalences about both America and Israel.
There are dozens of ways these works could have become preachy, but to their credit, both Brown and Singer know how to dramatize the human heart in conflict with itself.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida, where he writes about Jewish literature and culture on cloudy days.