Kitsch and the American Jewish Novel


Last spring after a reading I had the opportunity to ask an important American Jewish writer about kitsch and the American Jewish writer, to which I received an inadequate response complemented later by an icy look-through-you as we passed each other in an empty’ish hallway. What is kitsch if not, as the author suggested, repetition, but also, as theorized by the great Clement Greenberg “vicarious  experience.” Having published not one but two separate reviews of two recently published novels by two important Jewish American novelists, this week’s Sunday New York Times Book Review offered another occasion to reflect on this theme. No, I’m not going to name names.

Inscribed in the primary material, it comes out in the reviews, clever little statements about “the Jews” and/or “Israel.” Here’s an example, In the words of one reviewer, “The closest the Jews have to limbo is Sheol, a place existing  in a purgatorial realm between the poles of paradise and hell –might likes, as one might say, the state of Israel itself.” And then to close it off , “Stories about the Promised Land, as this bold, compassionate, genre-hopping novel reminds us, have always traded in impossibility.”

In the second review, we read about one of the protagonists who shares a first name with the author that s/he is also a writer, an American Jewish writer who is, in the reviewer’s words, “especially popular in Israel.” As if there is such a thing, an American Jewish novelist popular in Israel. No, the very concept boggles the mind. All the characters are, of course, “burdened,” each “in different ways…trying to shed the weight of expectations to breathe again.”  The plot, of course, moves to Israel, the reviewer opining, “If ever there was a place that eludes answers, even as it elicits glib ones, the place is Israel,” chaos being, now in the words of the author, “the one truth that narrative must always betray.”

“And yet, and yet,” the reviewer continues. Once again reflecting nothing less than the weight of ontological impossibility, “Israel, impossible [always “impossible” –zjb] and messy as it is becomes a conduit for new possibilities, “from Tel Aviv to the desert,” like in some tourist brochure from the 1960s, “but this time in search of what?” “Thankfully,” according to the reviewer, “they don’t have much of a clue,” which if you think about it only twice, is not much of a compliment, assuming that a writer should have a clue if not a partial truth, at least within the frame of their creation.

No, these aren’t even exchanges my grandparents use to have, although the reviewer claims them for his own. If you know a famous American Jewish novelist under a certain age and over a certain age, please consider having a frank conversation with him or her. Or reviewers of Jewish novels for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, as did Katie Roiphe in this epic take-down here from a long time ago in 2009 about sex in this new American Jewish literature.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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